The Problem of a Designer God

Some years ago on a certain Sunday the Gospel of the Narrow Road came up wherein Jesus warns that many are on a wide and easy road that leads to damnation and only a few are on the narrow road that leads to salvation. I went on to preach of this warning of Jesus and of the real possibility of hell taught by him in  this and other passages. After Mass a woman came to me and said, “I didn’t hear the Jesus I know in your words today.” I said to her, “But ma’am I was quoting him!”  Unfazed she simply waved her hands dismissively and said, “We know he never said that. The Jesus I know would never have spoken like that.”

It is one of the more arrogant trends of our modern culture to refashion revealed religious truth and God himself  according to our modern preferences. Many moderns want all the consolations of faith but none of its demands. God himself must be rendered harmless so many simply refashion him and what he has said. At times I’ll run into someone at the store who has not been attending Mass faithfully and I will call it to their attention. It is not uncommon that they will respond, “God doesn’t care if I go to Church or not.”  “Oh really?” says I, “Then why do you suppose he put it in the Ten Commandments that we should keep holy the Sabbath?'” No answer usually, sometimes a shrug. I usually add: “And why did Jesus warn that if we do not eat his flesh and drink his blood we have no life in us?” (Jn 6:53).

Many people have a designer God. A “God who doesn’t care if _____ (fill in the blank).” A God who consoles but never commands. The real God who reveals himself in the Scriptures and doctrine of the Church has been set aside by many. In his place is an idol. A god that many people construct to suit themselves. There is an old saying, “God made man in his own image. Ever since we seem intent on returning the favor.”

I want to ask you to ponder that the refusal to submit ourselves to God as he actually reveals himself is a form arrogance. But as with most things modern we try to recast it as something else. We like to think that we are being  “open-minded,” “broad and inclusive.” But in the end it is we who are the measure of truth in this scenario. Truth is not something to be discovered and submitted to, it is whatever I say it is.

I once saw a bumper sticker: “Don’t believe everything you think.” Not a bad invitation to some humility. Too often we think today that something is so just because I think so. It is not always so. Faith, on the other hand,   invites us to trust in God who reveals the truth to us,  a  God who is truth and can neither be deceived nor deceive. Faith is surely a gift, but it is a gift that requires great humility. Someone outside of me, to whom I must answer defines what is true and I am invited to yield and trust. Only faith and humility can be real antidotes to the arrogance of our times.

I suppose the real end game in the “designer god” phenomenon is to render God harmless. In the video below Fr. Robert Barron examines the movie Avatar and the theological premises of the movie. The basic religion on display in the movie is a “Hollywood approved” religion where God is depersonalized and becomes a kind of benign “force.” Someone (something?) we can tap into at will, but always on our terms. This Hollywood approved god does not speak or demand but rather just an animistic, pantheistic, impersonal force who is available to us when we so wish. Hardly the real God of which Scripture says: It is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of a living God (Heb 10:31) or again, No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account. (Heb 4:13). The designer god can be manipulated and controlled and invoked as we wish. The designer god is quite harmless really, never asks questions, never requires obedience. The designer god is always on our side. The real and Biblical God is a person who addresses us intelligently and takes initiative that requires a response on our part. We cannot control or manipulate him and he speaks a truth that may often challenge us. Not someone the modern age seems very willing to accept. In the end let’s be clear, the designer God is an idol.

In case you don’t want to see the whole video due to limited time, Fr. Barron’s critique of the “approved religion” of Hollywood begins at 4:40 minutes. The whole video is good however!

33 Replies to “The Problem of a Designer God”

  1. It is not uncommon that they will respond, “God doesn’t care if I go to Church or not.”

    How realistic is this? —

    Mom: I don’t care if my kids don’t call me. I don’t care if they don’t remember my birthday. I don’t care if I don’t get a card on Mother’s Day. I don’t care if my kids never want to see me. I don’t care if my kids never tell me they love me.

    The truth? She cares. She cares alot. If her children want little to do with her, obviously they do not have a good relationship. And in many such cases, it results in the kids being left out of her will — not because she doesn’t care for them, but because they showed that they don’t care for her.

  2. addendum —

    And if folks don’t want to spend a few measly minutes with God once a week, why in the world would they want to spend eternity with Him??

    And why would they get all bent out of shape if someone were to suggest that, if they think that spending a few measly minutes with Him once a week is so awful, then nobody is going to force them to do so later — they will instead spend all eternity with their precious little selves rather than have to spend it with Him.

  3. Monsignor, I have been turning this same issue over in my mind quite a bit these past few months. I think you have framed it wonderfully here, “a designer God.” You’ve hit all the right notes – well said.

  4. Of course this is the natural outcome of the self-esteem movement run amok.

    Everyone thinks I’m wonderful as I am – why shouldn’t God? I’m a good person, I think about the poor a lot, sometimes I even give them something, (but nothing I really need myself), I protest at rallies, (but then I go home and forget about it until the next cause comes around), and I vote for the liberal bleeding hearts. I even go to church at Christmas and Easter! God knows that I am good and that’s all he expects of me – the bare minimum, like everyone else!

    I don’t see why I should have to sit in the pew every Sunday and have to risk hearing about how I might be a sinner and maybe I need to shape up and put God first in my life. I don’t even know why I have to go to confession – I can just talk to God and He will forgive me; everyone else does 😉 !!!

    And by golly, if this priest is going to tell me that I’m on a wide and easy road, well, I’ll just go find another parish where the priest won’t be such a hard-a_ _.

    Monsignor, I wish you could be duplicated and distributed to every parish in the country – maybe things would change for the better.

    1. Absolutely, the self-esteem movement has so much to do with this. Surely God must think the way I think! I’m mindful of an old joke: A dog says, Gee, you fee me and care for me. You must be God! A Cat says, Gee, you feed me and care for me, I must be GOd!

  5. The “designer God” ideology is very prominent in this present culture. I myself often feel as if I am living a double life – the one where I am free spirited and open minded and the whole ER lifestyle, and the one where I attend Mass, and talks and Bible Study and people think I am such a great Catholic. When I am in the Church, I hear and I know how I have done wrong in my life, but in my job I feel as if I have made the right decisions for my life. If that makes any sense at all. My point is that I sort of understand the “designer God. ideology and yet see where I am wrong in it. Wow, I guess these are the conclusions I come to at 4 am wide awake and sleep deprived. If it doesn’t make sense tell me and I will make it make sense. Great post, and it got me thinking!

  6. Enlightenment philosophers opined that God is merely man writ large–what we would be if we could only reach our potential. The designer God that you so well identify is a part of the next step in the philosophical devolution: man is merely God writ small. We can define God, we can be (like) God, we can speak for God, we can become gods unto ourselves and the rest of creation.

    This is what happens when Ratio is separated from Fide; thus we beget auto-idolatry, New Age, Scientology, and LDS.

    The new language of the dumbed down catholic, so prevalent today. You will find it at the inter-faith group meetings, the prayer groups.In the name of unity they mingle, not as a becon of “Christian Catholic Dogma,” for those present, but return as a new spiritual guide with a new tablet of commands,creed,sacraments.We can tell from the new litany of there response,”I don,t care what you say,” “It dosn,t matter,” “Not so.” As in the words of Samual in 1 samuel 12:12-13,23. These get togethers are nothing more than pagan retreats, unless those Catholics attending remain united to the church an become becons to those present.
    We Pray for the reunion of all christians,not denominations. I BELIVE.

  8. I grew up in a family who went to Church and did things on their terms.
    I remember Mom being angry when I gave my ‘toothfairy money’ to the missions,
    she was angry when she had to buy a Bible for part of my religion class(we never had one in the
    house. In fact I don’t recall my grandparents owning one either (they said that was for the rich), I
    have my grandpa’s prayer book it was tiny and very basic, there were ember days and stricter
    fasting rules. I have one daughter that loves God the Father and another that loves Jesus like they
    were separated!(a product of RE cathecism though I tried to instill a good Catholic education).
    Sometimes I think I am in the eye of huge hurricane.
    All a Mom can do is pray for her family to be enligtened by the Holy Spirit and plant the seeds of faith.
    Only God gives that gift and it is He that will open their hearts and minds to His words.

  9. Msgr, I think it very important for the Church (and us all) to highlight more the demands of faith. Just like those who demand rights without the unavoidable responsibilities, I think many Catholics and Christians have placed undue emphasis on the benefits of faith and dispensed with the demands. Few today want to be restricted (as they see it) by demands. “Who are you”, they say, “to tell me what to do?” As you note, it the Lord telling them. I see this attitude quite a bit with some Catholic friends, who view Church teachings as optional guidelines; I see it much, much more amongst my non-Catholic friends and colleagues, who seem to think that having a “personal relationship” with the Lord is all you need. Perhaps some more posts by yourself, and some more sermons from our priests, on the demands of our faith would not be amiss. WIth thanks for all you do, Terence

    1. Yes, there is a whole section of the lectionary each year where we examine the “cost of discipleship” THis is a good time for priests to expound on them. In the mid 20s of Ordinary time Jesus speaks of taking up a cross, of loving no one more than him, of forsaking all ones possessions and so forth.

  10. I’m not sure which Church Father (philosopher Thomas Aquinas I think) thought of the Proof of God’s Existence, as argument from Design. The meaning here was that only a Personal God, within omniscience could explain the mystery of the order of the universe. This is a surface explanation!. But here again, like with New Age, things are turned around and We are designing the universe: designer cars, designer fashions, and now a designer god. (lower case is intentional here). The element of paganism, from the philosophy perspective at least I think, is that it is a man to god (lower case is intentional here), rather than a God to man relationship. Thus, we even design our own proofs! (Is our irony with respect to our conception of ourselves, or god. The early nature worshipers, which seem to be partially represented in this Avatar movie were perhaps less arrogant, in that they were at lest in awe of the power(s) that was revealed in nature. But my acquaintance with the divination techniques I have seen among some New Age proponents, in complete accord with the techniques of science and technology, often seem to be gods even of these divinations. This arrogance is now being seen on news web-site blogs for instance, in irony that is certainly ‘meaner’ than mine. In fact it’s not irony, because it doesn’t relate itself to the object under scrutiny. What a final descent this makes for the Hollywood god! But Father on the video has the right idea. We must never ‘hate’ our enemies. I must conquer the meanness in my irony towards those who think not as I understand God would want me to think, speak and act. Christ must be my example.

    1. The argument from design is one of my favorite arguments fro the existence of God. As you point out it shows an intelligent and personal designer. Many resists the clear evidence for design but it doesn’t take much to see that the whole universe bespeaks order and design.

  11. I’m often confused by people who speak of being spiritual but not religious. I know people who talk about belief in a Higher Power but not God. What does spiritual mean with no God? They talk of saying their prayers, and I wonder, “To whom are you praying?”

    1. I can answer this! I asked my most excellent mentor almost the same question not long ago, and here’s what he said:

      spirituality is….one of those mushy, feel-good, new age kind of words for people who are drawn to something (we all are – “our hearts are restless until they rest in You”), but who do not want to commit, intellectually or emotionally, to something that might be the real thing. Actually believing in God is dangerous — you might have to give up all the worldly stuff you enjoy so much — actually believing in the Church as she really is is dangerous — you might have to give up all your preconceptions and prejudices — so people are instead “spiritual.” They are probably well-intentioned, so one can’t condemn them too much. But if they really were spiritual — filled with the Spirit — they would not be lukewarm, but on fire.

    2. Yes, I hear that a lot today. Be spiritual is a start, at least everything is not mechanistic to them. there is SOME spiritual reality that permeates the universe. Now the question is to close the deal and help them see that intelligence is at work in the universe beyond force or spiritual principle

  12. with respect to your blog: More Irony. An attempt to slowly evangalize my son! The cartoon didn’t take!
    I remember you telling me that you loved paradox. Good place to find them in the contradictions in philosophy/theology. Predestination is a term usually used for whether or not you go to heaven. (Only God ‘knows’!) In Christianity, (not the Greek Orthodox Church because they hold that everyone will finally be saved) a Catholic with free will should ‘technically’ even be able to make the choice to ‘be damned’, but friends and relatives would want to save you from such a negative choice. (The Greek Orthodox church is thus, ironically, the Creed with the ‘problem’ of ‘free will’). But there’s a catch. Wait till end of argument.

    Free will also involves whether things are necessary, actual, or possible. (Modal logic) Discussion today is tending to go away from an emphasis on the ‘necessary’ (Aristotle) to Existential philosophies of ‘the possible’. They are ‘forgetting’ all about God, the omniscient Being, whose knowledge and Being is by definition absolute, and therefore Necessary, although if He does not exist, then maybe not ‘Actual’. Wouldn’t it be nice to be an omniscient Buddha, alternatively, if according to the atheists it is not possible to be or know God. (Jean Paul Sartre, an atheist, says we can’t help but desire to be God- i.e. we want self-fulfillment) but the emphasis in existentialism is on finding freedom in possibilities. To my mind, I think this is possibility or freedom without responsibility. It’s pretty difficult to avoid the logical idea of necessity at work within our lives (eg. even if only as some kind of destiny or fate, which however could deny free will) especially when we look at our lives retrospectively. “Could things have (possibly) been otherwise?” (I just read that Leibniz showed that possibility made into actuality (or which need be) is what we call or is known as necessity. To be consistent with an emphasis on ‘human existence” though, I would think of the future as possibility, the past as what was ‘necessary’, and the present as the actual.

    To sum up this grand philosophical discussion, I ‘actually’ think the actual is necessarily the most difficult possibility. That could be ‘eternity’ or the mystical ‘now’, which could involve a Stoic/Christian-Buddhist detachment from the ‘world’ of human affairs, in favor of the ‘personal’, or alternatively actuality could be, not merely what was said, but that ‘representation’ of possibility or necessity, manifested, with continuance and constancy: in other words, some kind of non-temporal or dynamic eternity conceived as a state of being in which the personal (singularity) whether a human being or a personal God is considered fundamental and all enduring in some way. It’s not going to be the human being as we know it! ‘We have to ‘learn’ to ‘be free’ this would imply, or in Christian terms learn how to ‘follow God’s will’,(know the necessity in making, or that will make the possibility actual) in order to attain perfection in ourselves through extension to the Other. (Freedom is the ‘re-cognition’ of necessity. said -Hegel -or’When we choose to be responsible we choose to be free or….

    I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on them unless they act. The Buddha. Looks like the Buddha also believes in self-actualization in the secular sense.

    So whereas the Eastern Orthodox church holds that because God loves everyone they will all get to heaven in the ‘end’, the catholic church, by implication, recognizes that a person can only follow God’s will, through his/her own choice, if the actuality/possibility of free will is preserved. By implication, the Eastern church is ahead of itself temporally, assuming that people will do that in the long run. They will follow God’s call, willingly. In the Western church, however, to help us choose rightly, fear of damnation, etc. is instilled, and yet an elite group (Protestants really) assumed they were the Chosen Elite. Just a bit on the politics of religion. (I guess the Buddha would be a Catholic, rather than Eastern Orthodox!)
    P.S. On the cartoon: Assuming nobody stacks the deck, (fate or destiny?) if Batman dies, (God is dead!) a Joker could easily become any one of the four ‘Knaves’ (The ‘joker’ turns into the proverbial ‘devil’!) We have a free will to choose which deck to play with. A game of cards as a metaphor for life! This is Too Deep? Let’s play football!

  13. I evangelize a lot, and I have been called narrow minded many times when I quote Scripture or remind other (Catholics) of our faith/ demands of our faith. Recently when I was once again being told that I was narrow minded, the Holy Spirit later brought these words of Christ to mind and now I am ready for all who call me narrow minded. At least I am on the Way to Life which is the Truth. Although, there is nothing more broad and universal than the Truth.

  14. Below is an excerpt from a discussion from a professional BB on which I participate (from an “off-topic” section in which anything goes). How would you respond to “J?”


    I had a brief interesting conversation this morning with one of our department managers. We were just small talking and he asked me how my daughter is doing (she’s 20 and taking a leave of absence from college this semester for medical reasons). He acknowledged that moving back home is a challenge for both the kid and the parents. I made the mistake of telling him that I set a few ground rules, one being I expect her to go to church with us on Sundays while she is home.

    This co-worker is Catholic. I was raised Catholic and converted to Lutheranism when I married my husband. The co-worker stated that one of the major differences between Catholics and ‘other religions’ is that Catholics ‘demand’ that you attend church every week … there are no excuses … ‘other religions’ are more lax and just suggest it. Huh? He said he could count on one hand how many times he has missed Mass in his lifetime (he’s in his 50’s). Well, good for him.

    The conversation continued and at one point I commented that if Christians believe in the same God and in Christ, it shouldn’t doesn’t matter which church you go to, or which religion you practice. I know a few people who never attend a church service but are more spiritual than anyone else I know. He harrumphed at that and said the Catholic Church is the only true religion and that they believe in a lot of things other people don’t believe in. And that the Catholic Church is black and white, where others blur the rules. He definitely gave the impression that he believes Catholics are superior to all others. He so much as said it.

    At that point, my phone rang, and I had to end the discussion.

    So what do you think? I wish I could think quicker and could have had some really clever responses to his statements. But quite frankly, I was surprised and baffled. This comes from a man who is never happy about anything, the world is out to get him, his employer has ripped him off over the years, and he is always crying the blues about something.


    As a former Catholic myself, yes we thought we were the only ones going to Heaven. I was raised Catholic, did all the sacraments, Mass every Sunday, etc, and thought everyone else was going to hell!

    As a kid I always felt sorry for my friends who were Baptists, Pentecostals, etc. I thought we were the only ones doing it right! Boy is that wrong! I hope your friend “sees the light” one day.

    “Anon 8:59:30”

    I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school.
    I remember being told how fortunate we were to be born Catholic since only Catholics went to heaven. We were told all our Protestant friends were going to hell and encouraged not to associate with non-Catholics.

    Catholics have such a rigidity about going to Church. i.e. you will go to hell if you die having missed Mass on Sunday.

    I can remember walking a couple of miles to church on Sunday because the roads were too bad to drive so we could get to Mass. I remember going to Mass with fevers, flu and measles so as not to miss Mass.

    I know the Catholic Church has loosened up a little but it is far too rigid for me. Somehow I have trouble with a God who would rather you die on an icy road going to church rather than miss church.

    Having been baptized as a Baptist later in life, I find that protestants are a lot more comfortable with the idea that its ok to worship in any Church whereas the Catholics are more of the feeling that worship anywhere but a Catholic church doesn’t count. (and once again, were told as Children that it was sin to go to another church since it was worshiping false gods).

    That being said, I’ve been to two funerals in the past weeks. The Catholic one was more ceremonial and celebration of life and prayers for the deceased. The protestant one was about the deceased going to heaven and you’d better get on board if you don’t want to go to hell which I found inappropriate for a funeral.

    Oh well.

    “Anon 9:05:36”

    I think it simply comes down to the fact that the Roman Catholic (and the Eastern Orthodox Church) trace their formative history to the time of the Apostles. In other words, they were the first Christian Church, and they established practices and traditions that remain, in large part, to this day (probably a little more so in the Eastern Church; the Western Church underwent a couple of Vatican Councils that made some changes, some of which are still not all that popular with some Roman Catholics). Therefore, if one accepts this logic, those churches were the original Church, founded directly by the immediate followers of Christ, and therefore are, in their view, THE Christian Church. Everything else is an offshoot, at least once removed from the original.

  15. If one is Christian, one should try to study what Jesus said about things. Among other things, “He did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”
    The New Testament is a record from the time of the apostles as to what Jesus said (in Aramiac, but translated into Greek, then on into English, etc.) and what the apostles understood Jesus to mean — Paul was not an eyewitness to these things, but the early church thought his interpretation was pretty sound. Most of the requirements of the Catholic & Greek Orthodox churches can be tracked back to teachings from the New Testament (Clergy being celebate is a separate matter with its own justification.)

    Even those who seriously study the N.T. without “converting” tend to accept that the Catholic church’s position on these issues of sin & morality can be justified by what is found in the N.T. Variations among some protestant denominations are not so easily defended from that perspective.

  16. Msgr Pope, another very well written and insightful article. Thank you. In the post-modern society where everything seems to be always changing and so many new things keep happening, too many people do not believe that there is absolute Truth, and that God is the absolute Truth. Many people can only consider relative truths – truths that can be modified subject to the circumstances.

    When we firmly believe in the one God our Creator and receive his holy words through the bible, we will know that there is right and wrong, and God asks us to do what is right.

    The key is to discern what is the will of God, which involves active “listening” to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. We can only hear that when we quiet down the outside distractions of our surroundings, and spend some quality time with God, in prayer, in meditation, in reflection, and in the Eucharistic celebration. T

    hen, we must follow what we recite all the time in the Lord’s prayer: “Thy will be done.” And we must faithfully do what God wills us to do, by doing the right things as an obedient worker in God’s kingdom. Not my will, not others will, but God’s will. Knowing and trusting that God is divine.

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