The God Problem

When St. Paul said in Ephesians 6 that our struggle was not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers, he was not kidding. What we might add today is that the principalities and powers have shrewdly made sure that the struggle is precisely over our “flesh and blood,” over the very meaning of physical human life in its coming to be and in its fullness.

How so?

Basically, many like to maintain, on the slimmest evidence, that no human nature exists. We can reconstruct it as we wish. The only trouble is that our reconstructions become more and more monster-like, more and more unlike anything really human. Since these creatures are “our babies,” as it were, we have to define them as good. We have to tell them that what we did to them was the best. What God planned for us was “anti-human.”

God is hated in the world insofar as He sets limits to our human desires or activities, even if these limits function for our real good. Human nature itself displays a certain order that can be understood, freely accepted or rejected. God does not force us to be what we ought to be, what would make us be best what we are. We have to choose it. If God is responsible for these limits, we can either thank Him for directing us to what is our real happiness or reject Him as interfering with our quest to be what we want to be. Perfection is thus self-defined. It does not come by living the virtues and ruling ourselves.

An iron logic strangely hovers about our existence. We are free to act in almost any way we decide. We are not however free to deny the consequences of our acts. Those consequences are there for us, or in many cases for someone else, to pick up the pieces. Nor are we free to come up with reasons for what we do that do not hold up in argument. For a while, if we choose a way of life that is deviant or disordered, we can blame others for our suffering, say, the Church, parents, the culture, schools, or politics. But after a while, we realize that something more is going on here and external sources are not responsible for all our failings, pain, or confusion. The location is our own souls.

The principalities and powers come in. We find out that the Church, our parents, and such are reflecting not themselves but something in being, something of what is. They are not free to call what is evil good, at least not without a price to their own souls. If they do call evil good, or good evil—and there is pressure on them to do so—they too join the other side.  What happens to us is that we suspect, reluctantly perhaps, that a personality or a grace lies behind the limits. We are not facing something dead but living.

Why is this a “God problem?” We insist on justifying the way we live. We do not just say, “I live this way,” but, “it is good that I live this way.” We make a claim before the world that demands agreement. We try to avoid the implication of this claim by a relativism that makes anything that anyone does to be all right, no matter what it is. We find that we insist that the other admits that what we do is good, not just that it is what we do. On the latter criterion, we are no better than the animals, for they are brought to their good by instinct, not by reason.

In order for us to justify the way we live, we have to get rid of the notion that an order exists in our human being. We have to maintain that the distinction of the sexes was accidental. We have to deal with the consequences of our acts. The nagging specter of God’s order for our own good becomes a burden on our souls. For our own peace of soul we must boldly affirm that God does not exist. This affirmation, we think, makes us free of God. Those who continue to believe in God’s existence are no longer merely deluded people, they are dangerous. We must deal with them.

We must restrict what they call “freedom of religion.” Religion itself is the real problem. Religion is an illusion. We must drive it from the public order. We will not be free till the last vestiges of God are eradicated from our midst. We can no longer “respect” religion or conscience. We want to give our “rights” to do whatever we will to everyone whether he wants them or not. If someone does not want them, that person cannot really belong to our culture or polity.

The God problem is God. He dared to tell us that His idea of our “flesh and blood” was better than the one we are concocting for ourselves. We dare not admit that He was right. Therefore, He is a problem, a reality to be denied existence. Such is what is beneath the surface of the increasingly bitter activities of our polity.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017) and The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    We are deluding ourselves, if we think morality can be established on philosophical grounds, or on a “Natural Law,” accessible to all.

    As Miss Anscombe, probably the greatest Catholic philosopher of the 20th century put it, “In present-day philosophy an explanation is required how an unjust man is a bad man, or an unjust action a bad one; to give such an explanation belongs to ethics; but it cannot even be begun until we are equipped with a sound philosophy of psychology.  For the proof that an unjust man is a bad man would require a positive account of justice as a “virtue.”  This part of the subject-matter of ethics, is however, completely closed to us until we have an account of what type of characteristic a virtue is – a problem, not of ethics, but of conceptual analysis – and how it relates to the actions in which it is instanced:  a matter which I think Aristotle did not succeed in really making clear.  For this we certainly need an account at least of what a human action is at all, and how its description as “doing such-and-such” is affected by its motive and by the intention or intentions in it; and for this an account of such concepts is required.”

    As Pascal said, “Thus, without Scripture, which has only Jesus Christ for its object, we know nothing and see only obscurity and confusion in God’s nature and ours. “

    • Tasantir

      But don’t Buddhists and Christians  share a great deal of  morality and that shared thing is called Natural Law. CS Lewis called it Tao to emphasize that it is not limited to Christians but to all humanity.

      • Post-modernism, however, goes beyond this and denies all Natural Law; in fact we see about us the denial of all Nature.  People tell us they love nature and we should preserve nature, but what they seem to mean is “the outdoors”.  “Nature” no longer means “limitations inherent to creatures as part of their existence” nor does “nature” mean “the innate purpose for which a creature exists”.  The Abolition of Man includes the Abolition of Nature.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        As Pascal pointed out, “Men admit that justice does not consist in these customs, but that it resides in natural laws, common to every country.  They would certainly maintain it obstinately, if reckless chance which has distributed human laws had encountered even one which was universal; but the farce [la plaisanterie] is that the caprice of men has so many vagaries that there is no such law   Theft, incest, infanticide, parricide, have all had a place among virtuous actions.”


        • Tasantir

           There can be societies that have exited Natural Law or Tao at some points.
           Such as Modern West. But that does not invalidate the idea of universally true Law of human nature.  

          Pascal took the part of Jansenists against Jesuits. I believe Jansenists had somewhat unorthodox ideas.Belloc f or one was very scathing upon Pascal’s theological notions.

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  • EPB

    Said like a true Chestertonian!

  • emgallaher

    Sorry; have always thought well of Fr. Schall on the testimony of others, but do not “like” this essay.  Poorly written … where was his editor?  Too bad, because I had hopes for the thesis, but will not be sharing this.  🙁

  • Catharine

    Father, thank you for this article.  I found it to be well-written and well-reasoned, entirely consistent internally, and also entirely consistent with our Catholic faith.  I also find it interesting from some of the comments that whenever somebody testifies to the truth (or, should I say, the Truth), they are immediately attacked.  It would seem that Pope Benedict’s construct about the dictatorship of relevatism is alive and well. 

  • Catharine

    I would like to add, immediately after reading this article, I picked up my pocket New Testament, and it opened as if automatically to John 8L12-13, the part where Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.”  The Pharisees immediately contradicted him. 

  • Carl

    After reAfter reading the first paragraph I was expecting a parallel
    between the “hierarchy of the kingdom of darkness” and the hierarchy
    of the kingdom of man and his government. 
    Just like the devil and his minions much of the political and human
    authorities keep us occupied arguing social justice, life issues, and the
    definition of freedom.  All to misdirect the
    real issue on the over bearing, continually growing, big daddy government.  Bigger government is always the solution. The
    principalities and powers keep getting bigger and bigger while we argue flesh
    and blood.ochy of the kingdom of darknessierarchy of the kingdom of darkness

  • I tell my students, when we are discussing the Catholic Dante or the Protestant Spenser or the ultraprotestant Milton, or the Catholic-in-hiding Shakespeare — or Boethius, or Chaucer, or Sigrid Undset, or Mauriac — that if you are talking about freedom and you are not talking about obedience and love, you do not know what you are talking about.  Dostoyevsky suggests that man is afraid of freedom, and there’s a truth to that: freedom is frightening; license, with a safety net, is nicer.

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  • Truly an interesting read. Much truth. I am a little unclear with: “Perfection is thus self-defined. It does not come by living the virtues and ruling ourselves.” The paragraph seems to need expanding. 

    What occurs to me is that this article could be prayed as a confession of our sins and the sins of our fathers. 

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  • Raymond Nicholas

    Reading  Rev. Schall makes me think he is a true Catholic.  I wonder then, why does he remain a Jesuit?  If there  are any groups within the Chruch that best exemplify that they have a “God problem”  it is these wolves in sheep’s clothing who have deceived the laity.  It does not seem logical to me that I need to pick and choose the “good” priests from the “bad’ priests.  I gave up on the jesuits a long time ago.

  • hammar

    The problem isn’t with God. 

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  • Usarownow

    Sadly, one of the worst offenders is what afriend of mine describes as “the Godzilla of government”.

  • David Carlon

    Sniff, sniff…  I smell the truth here.   Great insight into the self delusion and illusion painted by our weak minds, Western culture, godless media propaganda, and the subtle suggestions of the princes to justify mortal sin.

  • Shannon Farrelly

    The following is not a true statement. “We insist on justifying the way we live. We do not just say, “I live this way,” but, “it is good that I live this way.” We make a claim before the world that demands agreement. ” Buddhist thought, which has morphed beyond the Buddha and its religious origins, is unlike Christian thought–chained to dogma and seeped in judgement. It is an actionable philosophy that seeks to overcome judgement and encourages compassionate, mindful existence in the moment. For those who practice this paradigm, there is no necessary justification for the moment or our behavior/choices within the moment. It simply “is.” There is an end goal…find the courage to accept reality and be the change you want to see in the world. There are scant few who would embrace such a philosophy who also seek change antithetical to a more peaceful planet. A key factor in the “God Problem” is the Christian idea of free will. You are free to choose how you live and act. But if your choices are contrary to God’s Word, you will be punished after death in a most horrific manner, whether that be literal fire or contextual eternal banishment from God’s “unconditional love.” Is that truly free will or an oxymoronic metaphysical theory? Can we not accept the unknowable nature of our physical existence and still be good purely for the sake of goodness? I was educated at Rockhurst University. It was a Jesuit who introduced me to God thought outside of religion. He said “Open your eyes and see. Humans can affirm God, love God, and strive to be and do good outside of religious dogma.” We are living in the extraordinary infancy of scientific revelation. Our understanding of creation is shifting. It’s easy to both become dismissive of a portrayal of God that is now antiquated and pedantic, or militant in radical defense of it. I cannot understand why so many intelligent, moral men become priests. Open your eyes and see: Squabbling religions are indeed a global threat to peace and human existence, hence a very real “God Problem.” Service to the greater Good must no longer be tied to defending one of many ancient prophets. In the age of technology and mass media, your best intentions in thought and practice are desperately needed to help humanity move beyond a primitive and dogmatic Philosophy of God without rejecting Him and “choosing” to tumble into a hedonistic abyss. I cannot imagine a more lonely and painful state in which a soul can exist and am thankful every day for the gift my Jesuit teacher gave me–a compass to navigate my way through the God Problem without losing faith in God.

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