Are You a Heretic? Distorted God Images Catholics Hold

Sep 14, 2022

Dear Souls and Hearts Members,

Last week, we discussed the top 10 needs that fuel modern-day idol worships, and you can check that out here in our archive.

Today, we approach the question of idols from a completely different direction. Bur first, I want to make a radical assertion. Here it is.

Are you a heretic?

You hold many heresies inside. Even though you may be a devout, faithful Catholic who holds fast to all the teachings of the Church, you still have heretical beliefs and assumptions within you.

Now I can imagine you saying to me “That, dear Dr. Peter, is going way too far. That’s insulting. I have struggled and sacrificed to hold all that the Church teaches to be true. And you accuse me and everyone else reading this reflection of being a heretic? Explain yourself.”

OK, I will. Thanks for asking (and not unsubscribing — at least not yet, before I can make my case).

First, I argue that almost all Catholics, more than 99.99% of us hold within us heretical beliefs and assumptions.

Second, I am not calling you a heretic – instead, I asserted that you have heretical beliefs.

Furthermore, I’m not accusing you of any sin. Sinfulness vs. no sin is a major difference between formal heresy and material heresy, a distinction that Ron Conte describes well in his blog Material vs. Formal Heresy. Formal heresy is sinful. Material heresy is not.

Conte opens his article by stating:

Material heresy is an idea which is contrary to an infallible teaching of the Magisterium. Whenever we refer to material heresy, we are talking about ideas, not persons.

So it’s important to remember that, by definition, a material heresy is not sinful. The 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on heresy explains as follows:

The heretical tenets may be ignorance of the true creed, erroneous judgment, imperfect apprehension and comprehension of dogmas: in none of these does the will play an appreciable part, wherefore one of the necessary conditions of sinfulness–free choice–is wanting and such heresy is merely objective, or material.

In contrast, formal heresy is a willful rejection of definitive Church teaching done with adequate knowledge and awareness of that teaching, as the Catholic Encyclopedia further explains:

On the other hand, the will may freely incline the intellect to adhere to tenets declared false by the Divine teaching authority of the Church. The impelling motives are many: intellectual pride or exaggerated reliance on one’s own insight; the illusions of religious zeal; the allurements of political or ecclesiastical power; the ties of material interests and personal status; and perhaps others more dishonourable. Heresy thus willed is imputable to the subject and carries with it a varying degree of guilt; it is called formal, because to the material error it adds the informative element of “freely willed”.

Conte, in accord with traditional Catholic theology defines formal heresy as follows:

Formal heresy is a sin committed by a person, the sin of believing or asserting or teaching material heresy… [However, a] person who believes, asserts, or teaches material heresy, without knowing that it is contrary to definitive Church teaching, is not a formal heretic. Formal heresy requires a knowing deliberate choice. And such a person is not properly called a heretic at all, since they have not committed that sin. There is no such thing as a “material heretic.”

In summary, I am not arguing you are not a heretic, but I do maintain that you likely hold material heresies. And I think I can prove it, if you are open to really looking inward for a moment. Let’s get into that looking inward via a phenomenological approach that invites you to go more deeply inside yourself.

God concept vs. God image

But first, we need to make an important distinction between two terms, two ways that we look at God: our God concepts and our God images.

What is a God concept? My God concept is what I profess about God. It is my intellectual understanding of God, based on what I have been taught and what I have explored through reading and what I have I decided or chosen to believe about God. The God concept of orthodox Catholics is reflected in what the Creed, the Scriptures and the Catechism say about God. One’s God concept is conscious and freely embraced.

What is a God image? God images are totally different. My God image is my emotional and subjective experience of God, who I feel God to be in the moment, in my bones. My God image is how my emotions, how my heart interprets God subjectively, and that interpretation of God may or may not correspond to my God concept (or reality) at any given moment. God images are often latent and unconscious. Research indicates that God images are initially shaped by the relationship with one’s parents, and that God images are heavily influenced by psychological factors. God images are always formed experientially, and they flow from relational experiences and how we construe and make sense of those experiences when we are very young. You don’t choose a God image; it is initially formed into you. And you can’t will a God image away, it’s not subject to the sheer force of your will. But you can create conditions which change your God images.

An example: anger at God

Have you ever experienced anger at God? Or irritation, annoyance, frustration, bitterness, resentment, etc. toward God? If so, that is evidence that, at least in that moment, you were holding a material heresy about God. Why?

As Stuart Clem in his article How to Be an Angry Christian, According to Thomas Aquinas explains:

Understood generically, the passion we call “anger” is something good. It is defined by a desire for vindication — the vindication that belongs to justice (ST I-II.46.2). It is a desire to see God’s order restored in creation and in human society. When we witness actions that are opposed to that order, there is a morally right response to those actions: anger. As with all the passions (fear, joy, sadness, desire, etc.), anger manifests itself as a bodily response. We feel anger; we don’t just think it.

On these terms, we can understand why anger is a virtue. The passion of anger is a response to something that we have deemed to be wrong with the world. It reflects a judgment about the way things ought to be. This judgment is a movement of the will. When our reason and our passions are rightly ordered, we recognize injustice for what it is, and we feel angry about it. As Aquinas explains, in instances where a person witnesses injustice but does not feel anger, “The lack of anger is a sign that the judgment of reason is lacking” (ST II-II.158.8 ad 3). The absence of anger can be a vice.

When we feel angry at God, that means that something within us has interpreted God as being unjust toward us or toward somebody else. And that can’t be true. The anger is the indicator of the material heresy within — that something within us has weighed God in the balance and found Him wanting in justice. Some evaluative process within us has judged God as being unjust – that our God image is that of an unjust God (at least in this instance, in this moment).

All anger toward God is disordered (but not necessarily sinful) because God is never unjust. And if we are honest with ourselves, we will recognize that we have all kinds of disordered thoughts, feelings, emotions, assumptions, and so on roiling around within us toward God, especially when we are destabilized and off-balance psychologically or spiritually.

Much of faithful Catholics’ anger at God is banished from conscious awareness. I have personally witnessed hundreds of cases in which a deep anger at God was too threatening, and was suppressed, repressed, denied, or kept out of conscious awareness by a variety of psychological mechanisms and coping strategies. So even if you don’t feel anger toward God in conscious awareness, that doesn’t mean that you are free from anger toward God in your unconscious. Unconscious anger is prominent in those Catholics who struggle with scruples, and I discussed this at length in the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast in episode 87, titled Scrupulosity: When OCD Gets Religion.

Spiritual “dark place” exercise

I invite you to do this when you have about five minutes of quiet uninterrupted time, when you can engage and connect with a time of spiritual darkness or difficulty. Here are the steps.

  1. Remember a time when you were in a spiritually dark and distant place. It could be from a long time ago or recent.
  2. To a moderate degree, enter back into the experience of that memory. We don’t want it to be overwhelming. But we are seeking, in a mild way, to re-experience that time, to reconnect with the emotions, thoughts, body sensations, visual imagery, and any other inner experience of that time.
  3. While in the pain and distress and suffering of that spiritually dark place, what did you feel God was like?
  4. Were you able to hold on to the reality that God the Father and Mary are your spiritual parents who treasure and cherish you as their beloved child? Or did a part of you have some other image of God and Mary?
  5. What kind of conflicts about who God really is emerged within you in that time?
  6. If you are willing, write down how you perceived God in that spiritual dark time. Did He seem distant, uncaring, cold, absent, indifferent, irritated, angry, disappointed, dismissive, humiliating, condemning, bitter, judgmental, or even disgusted with you?
  7. If you just went with your feelings and not your intellect – how would you have described God when you were in that spiritual dark place – what was your God image in that moment?

What did you learn about your God images from this exercise?

The importance of God images

God images, and working through God images is so important that I put together a seven-episode Interior Integration for Catholics podcast series describing 14 common negative God images based on the work of William and Kristi Gaultiere, in their book Mistaken Identity. Here is the series on God images, with a brief description of each episode and links:

Sinning, God Images and Resilience – Episode 23 (33 minutes) We dive into how our God images impact us, and how they compromise our deep, abiding confidence in God, with practical suggestions to begin correcting those God images through experiencing God in new relational ways in prayer.

God Images and Self Images – Episode 24 (43 minutes) In this episode we examine God images, God concepts, self-images and self-concepts throughout the life of Susan, from early childhood all the way through middle age, drawing from her experience to more clearly identify how these images and concepts interact.

Drill Sergeant Gods, Statue Gods, and Preoccupied Manager Gods, Oh My…– Episode 25 (45 minutes) We go deeply into three common problematic God images with their corresponding self-images and how they develop, with stories to illustrate.

Dictator Gods, Pharisee Gods, and Scrooge Gods – Episode 26 (42 minutes) We examine how we can have multiple negative God images, and go into three more kinds of problematic ways of feeling about God — the Unjust Dictator God Image, the Vain Pharisee God Image, and the Critical Scrooge God image.

Robber Gods, Aristocrat Gods and Marshmallow Gods – Episode 27 (34 minutes) In this episode, Dr. Peter discusses the malleability or changeability of God images, and dives into the Robber God image, the Elite Aristocrat God Image, and the Marshmallow God image.

Police Detective Gods, Pushy Salesman Gods, and Heartbreaker Gods – Episode 28 (41 minutes) In this episode, Dr. Peter Malinoski reviews three more problematic God images, how they develop, the self-images that go with them, and how they are exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis, with stories to illustrate.

Magic Genie Gods and Party-Pooper Gods – Episode 29 (40 minutes) In this final episode in our God image series, we cover two more problematic God images, how they develop, and how they impact relationship, using stories to illustrate.

If you have not yet listened to these, I strongly encourage you to do so, there is so much valuable information in those episodes, along with ways to resolve negative God images.

God images as idols

In last week’s reflection, The Top 10 Needs That Fuel Modern-Day Idol Worship, I shared how you can look at modern-day idols like money, power, sex, pornography, and so on as the maladaptive ways that people are trying to meet deep underlying attachment needs and integrity needs.

In this reflection, from an entirely different perspective, we can look at how our God images impact us. I think an even more powerful and useful way to understand our modern-day idols is look at our God images. An unacknowledged, unconscious God image still yield great power in our lives. God images were formed into us by our experiences, and how we made sense of those experiences, often at a very young age. And if we don’t address those negative God images, then consciously or unconsciously, we build a religion around those God images.

The only cure for distorted God images

The only way that these God images can be healed and resolved is through experiencing God as He actually is in relationship. You cannot study your way out of negative God images. You cannot argue yourself out of them. You can’t just will your way out of them by your own striving. The way negative God images are healed is by coming into close relational connection with the living, loving God as He is, allowing Him show you His love and His care for you, personally and intimately. He needs your openness and receptivity to His love to heal your negative God images.

The alternative….

If we are not actively seeking to bring our distorted God images to God in relationship, if we stay distant from Him for whatever reason (fear, shame, anger, ignorance), we will not learn any differently, even if we get PhDs in theology, because we are letting these little idols fester within us. We can’t will them away by our own strength, but we can choose to bring them to the real God and put them in His hands. The podcast episodes above will show you how to do that.

We will continue with more about God images next week. In the meantime, as a free gift for you, I want to offer a downloadable PDF chart of the 14 negative God images, their corresponding self-images, and my ideas about how those God images develop, starting in childhood.

Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,

Dr. Peter

P.S. Please forward this email to anyone whom you think might find it helpful. Nothing helps Souls and Hearts grow as much as word-of-mouth.

P.P.S. Just a quick addition to last week’s reflection – I forgot to mention that we often substitute one modern-day idol for another. Why? Because both idols are maladaptive attempts to meet the same underlying attachment need or integrity need. Because the first idol was cast down without meeting the underlying need, a second idol was erected in its place. That is such a common dynamic with unmet attachment needs and integrity needs. I also forgot to mention one of the most common idols – our romantic partners. We so often have unconscious expectations that our romantic partner will complete us by meeting one or more of the underlying attachment or integrity needs.

P.P.P.S. Don’t forget that you can get in touch with me by phone for a 10-minute chat at 317.567.9594 during my conversation hours every Tuesday or Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern time or you can reach out to me directly at my email crisis@soulsandhearts.com. None of that is therapy or counseling – I won’t be providing clinical services, but you’re welcome to bring up the themes I’m discussing in these weekly reflections and in the Interior Integration for Catholics podcast.

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