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Is God an Abusive Stepfather?

Is God an Abusive Stepfather?”

Yaniv Golan

Jason Jones and John Zmirak - published on 09/24/13

The Church could certainly do a better job of teaching about the love and mercy of God, but the Protestant Reformation - and the ensuing intellectual and doctrinal anarchism - hasn't helped.

Over the past few weeks, we have been examining the assertions made by modern, “heroic” humanists who reject the Christian claim because they see it as stunting and shrinking human achievement and encouraging earthly injustice. This week, we will raise the last of these claims, and next week offer a comprehensive answer.  Perhaps the objection to Christianity that resonates most with us today in our therapeutic society is this one: The West allowed human life to be stunted, cramped, and ridden with guilt and fear of an invisible, all-powerful, punitive father-figure.

This critique of patriarchy itself has many fathers and seems to recur with some regularity, suggesting an enduring power based on real abuses. We see its first outlines in the writing of French Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire, who let his legitimate outrage at the rigidly authoritarian French monarchical system extend to the theology that the regime leaned on for legitimacy. The top-down, patriarchal theory of royal authority, wielded without any constitutional limits or court of appeal, gave moral force to a regime that had indeed become tyrannical. As we have already noted, the “modern” theory of absolute monarchy which the Church rejected in principle was thriving in practice in a number of Catholic countries. The Church’s power to push back against the state had collapsed with the Reformation, and monarchs were using pagan Roman theory to revoke and override the Christian common law principles that had provided restraints on royal power through the Middle Ages. Except in England, whose extreme religious division had aided supporters of Parliament, assemblies that once had given voice to the nobles and commons were losing their power to legislate or restrict taxation. In Spain, the Habsburgs revoked the venerable fueros, or local constitutional restrictions on royal fiat, and begun to impose a rigidly centralized monarchy throughout the vast Spanish Empire. The Estates General in France were left unsummoned for hundreds of years – until the French Revolution – in the wake of the bloody Fronde, the civil war in which King Louis XIII broke the back of the aristocracy. While the monarchy nominally backed the Church in France and Spain – and proved its loyalty by persecuting helpless Jews and Protestants – the reality is that such Catholic kings gained almost complete control over the clergy in their countries. While the king of France might not (as he had through the Avignon period) have the power to pick the pope, he could and did prevent the pope from choosing the bishops in France, from collecting all the revenues due the Church from her own lands, and sometimes from publishing documents that the king found uncongenial. Monarchs could even promote or stymie the development of doctrine; much as we might be grateful for the Church’s firm condemnation of the ugly Jansenist heresy, it gives us pause to learn that Pope Innocent X only issued his bull denouncing the heresy under pressure from the king of France, or that subsequent persecutions of Calvinist Frenchmen would be provoked when a pious mistress of King Louis XIV had a fit of conscience over the persistence of heresy in her lover’s kingdom. It was over the fierce objections of Pope Innocent XI that Louis XIV revoked the religious freedom of French Protestants and drove hundreds of thousands of them into exile – in some cases, seizing the children of Protestant parents so they could be raised as obedient, Catholic subjects. There is even a heresy known as Gallicanism, which asserts that local authorities (namely, the king) ought to reign supreme over Church affairs without Rome’s interference. This heresy was sponsored and promoted by the kings of France.

In England, the Anglican bishop Robert Filmer developed a comprehensive theory of royal, patriarchal authority over Church and state, tracing the absolute rights of the monarch back to Adam’s paternal dictatorship over his sons. Thomas Hobbes would radically secularize this argument in his Leviathan, arguing that the ceaseless war of “all against all” would rage throughout society if any authority existed which could push back against the king.

Even as the Church and the scriptures were being corralled into support for modern regimes marked by unchecked centralized power, the philosophical supports for faith were being radically undermined by new philosophical systems. While we can’t do a fair summary in just a few lines of centuries of intellectual history, put briefly the movements were these:

Nominalism, which began with William of Ockam and profoundly influenced such figures as Luther, denied that human reason could speak with any authority over matters that eluded human experience. God, whatever he is, and all matters supernatural, are beyond even our power to speak by analogy. So that when we say that God is “just,” it need not mean anything like our human idea of justice; it could even be the opposite. Such a notion was very well-suited to theologians like Calvin, who wished to assert that it was perfectly just for God to punish for all eternity unbaptized infants, and millions of souls whom he had predestined for hell. The only knowledge we have about God comes from revelation – from the bible itself, and the guidance God gives believers in reading it. Of course, in absence of any higher authority to interpret that complex and sometimes puzzling document, the result of this is theological anarchy; hence the hundreds of divisions into which the Church was shattered after Luther. Over time, the violent clashes between these sects and the remnants of Roman authority would bring religion itself into disrepute, and make it necessary for states that wanted civil peace to treat religious faith as an arbitrary, private set of beliefs that ought to have no influence in society. There is no accounting for taste or faith, and the only way to keep people from fighting over it is to agree that it isn’t really that important.

Rationalism asserted that man can only be sure of what he knows by logical and mathematical deduction. This movement was launched and is still best represented by Descartes, who admitted that he sought to make himself the progenitor of all future philosophy and science. He attempted this by crafting a brilliant rhetorical weapon – his systematic doubt of every assertion that could not be proved through the mind reflecting upon itself. No sense data, no history, no tradition or authority could have any probative value; the only thing the mind really knows is itself, and from that self-regarding foundation Descartes built a philosophical system that rendered religious truths irrelevant, that ruled out of court any opinion or doctrine that was passed along by tradition, and encouraged each solitary intellectual to view the opinions of his fathers or his community through a jaundiced hermeneutic of suspicion. Like a modernist architect, each thinker arrives with a bulldozer to knock down the ancient temples and dusty museums, and clear a vacant lot where he will build from scratch something utterly new that he has conceived from scratch. While few today still agree with the actual system Descartes built, he radically redefined the role of a philosopher (and hence of an intellectual); instead of being a link in a chain of transmitted wisdom that reached back through history and reflected on difficult questions, each ambitious young man was challenged to create philosophy ex nihilo. In other words, each philosopher felt the pressure to act as God.

Subsequent rationalists included Spinoza, who developed a pantheism that reduced God to simply an empty title for everything, and Kant, who followed the conclusions of nominalism even further, to assert that we can have no rational knowledge even of earthly things in themselves, but only of those fragments which our limited minds perceive. How much less can we presume to know anything of God or divine precepts; instead we must build a purely human world upon what moral system best accords with the moral rules we derive from reflecting upon the nature of human reason.   

While the best minds of Europe were casting corrosive doubts on the rational basis for accepting Christianity, in Protestant countries the results of nominalism were becoming all too clear. Religious thought split into two opposing but complementary tendencies, each of them based on the premise that our rational minds can know nothing certain about the supernatural:

Fideism asserts that we must accept the contents of divine revelation, even when it appears to outrage the tenets of logic and the voice of our moral sentiments. This impulse is first associated with the Church father Tertullian, who countered the objections of pagan philosophers with the (in)famous quip: “I believe because it is absurd!” The more predominant strain in Christian thinking, however, belonged to Augustine, who urged his readers to “believe in order that you may understand.” The tension between these two responses to rational challenges continued for a thousand years, as Etienne Gilson documents in Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages. With the rise of nominalism and the rejection of St. Thomas Aquinas’s attempted synthesis of reason and faith, Tertullian’s answer began to prevail among those who chose to believe as an act of will – in the teeth of what they thought was the verdict of their reason.  

This became especially true during the Reformation. Apart from a willful, fideistic rejection of reason’s authority, there is no other way for the human mind to choke down the implications of Luther and Calvin’s core doctrine – namely, that man has no free will; that God chooses whom to save or damn with absolute, arbitrary freedom; and that he then overpowers such souls with his grace, which they cannot reject or resist. Other souls whom he chooses not to save will follow their sins into hell. All this is just, and even merciful, because… the Bible tells me so. If reason rebels against assertions like these, then reason is, in Luther’s words, a “whore.” The fideistic approach to faith and reason has the advantage of bolstering a creed against the shifting winds of philosophical opinion – at the price of making it brittle. Returning to the humanist objection we’re examining here, it is certainly fair to characterize such a God as an “invisible, all-powerful, punitive father-figure.” In fact, to most of us, that kind of God would be a wicked and cruel father whom we would be relieved to discover did not exist.

Pietism, which also developed in Protestant lands, was equally uninterested in what reason had to say about matters of faith, but instead of focusing efforts on disciplining the mind to humbly accept the inscrutable dictates of God, Pietists chose to fight for the human heart. Theological orthodoxy was a starting point for internal exercises aimed at training one’s emotions along Christian lines – developing a lived, felt friendship with Christ through humble reading of the bible and fellowship with other Christians. The current Evangelical Protestant emphasis on a personal relationship with Christ can be traced to the Pietist movement; so can the “mainline,” liberal Christian tendency to pare Christianity down to a mild ethical creed emphasizing kindness and solicitude on behalf of the poor and the marginalized (which can come to include those whose marginal status derives from their moral choices, i.e., active homosexuals). Pietists did not intend it, but their powerful emphasis on the affective, instead of the rational faculty, helped prepare the ground for “romantic” Christianity, as crystallized in the writing of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who held that the essence of true Christian faith was to be found in the human heart, which felt profoundly its dependence on Christ’s redemption. Faith consisted of this feeling, and the Church was the collection of those who shared it. This assertion nicely shunted aside all questions of dogma, or assertions about divine reality that could not be sustained by modern men who’d abandoned the effort to use human reason to know about God. Christianity became a thing like poetry or music – a non-essential means for moral and “spiritual” uplift rather than a fighting creed that made implacable claims about the nature of the universe. On this view, the Christian God was, far from being a cruel and vindictive father, something much more like what C. S. Lewis called a “senile grandfather in heaven,” who nods at all his progeny’s fumbling efforts, and pins them to the divine refrigerator.

Jason Jones is a producer in Hollywood.  His films include Bella, Eyes to See, and Crescendo. Learn more about his human rights initiatives at

John Zmirak is the author of The Bad Catholics Guide to the Catechism. His columns are archived at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall. This column is from Jones’ and Zmirak’s upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroad, 2014).

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