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The God of the Clerics Does Not Exist: Karl Rahner on True/False Images of God



Think of the false images of God that are found everywhere and therefore also in us. It is all very odd. We human beings recognize the faults of others, their stupidity, their obtuseness, their cowardliness, their narrow-mindedness, their sentimentality, their traumata, their twisted feelings, their inferiority complexes. But how difficult it is to admit the same things in ourselves, to say: "What I see in others is presumably in me too; presumably I am as little inclined as these others are—with their irritability, their complexes, their finiteness, which I know—to recognize myself as I really am and face the cracks in my own nature."


This observation holds too in regard to the narrow, constricted, un­true and ready-made images of God which human beings always set up to a certain extent as idols and thus shut out the nameless God who simply cannot be pinned down in shape and form, in an image. God transfixed in a concept, the God of the clerics, is a God who doesn’t exist. But don't we too often have an idol and don’t we worship it when we turn religion, faith, the church, the message ofJesus Christ, from what it ought to be into a profession? This amounts to identifying with God our­selves and the world which we ourselves want to uphold and defend. Then “God” is really never more than a high-sounding word behind which we ourselves are masquerading—God transfixed in a concept, as com­pared with the God who is constantly and increasingly experienced as a living, infinite, incomprehensible, ineffable reality and person. This God is one of those idols which presumably we may also constantly discover in ourselves.


The child’s sweet, kind God is another idol. The narrow-minded God of the pharisee obedient only to the law is yet another. The God we think we know by contrast with the God of incomprehensible love, love that is harsh and able to kill; the God taken for granted by so­-called “good Christians,” who behave as if they could not understand the atheist’s anxiety and uncertainty, and as if the latter were merely stupid or malicious—this self-evident God of the good Christians is also an idol of which we must beware…


Something like this really can happen to us. Let us ask where the idols, the false concepts of God, are in our own personal piety. If we think that everything ought to make sense, to be palpable; if we think that things ought to go well for us, that everything in our life should always be crystal clear; if we think, with the aid of a manual of moral theology or with any other concepts, norms, principles—no matter how true, how correct—we could so shape our life that it would run absolutely smoothly; if we think that God must be at our disposal as long as and because we serve him; if we think it isn’t right that things should go badly; if this is how we think, then behind these cherished illusions there is a false image of God and this is what we serve. If these images are shattered by God himself and his life, by his guidance and providence, then one thing should be clear from the beginning: what is disappearing is not God, but an idol.