Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is a term coined by sociologist Christian Smith. It describes the beliefs and general religious outlook of modern Americans. Five core beliefs makeup this religious perspective.
- A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
moralistic because it “is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person.”
Therapeutic means it is “about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherent” Thus it is not about things like “repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering …”
Deism is the “belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs—especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved.”
Smith writes about the vision of God this view espouses:
“the Deism here is revised from its classical eighteenth-century version by the therapeutic qualifier, making the distant God selectively available for taking care of needs… something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”
A Common Cultural Consensus
Author, Rod Dreher, in his work “The Benedict Option,” explains the scope of M.T.D. today. He explains the continuing problem as a shallow immaturity rooted a vapid knowledge because of a lack of real discipleship.
MTD is not entirely wrong. After all, God does exist, and He does want us to be good. The problem with MTD, in both its progressive and its conservative versions, is that it’s mostly about improving one’s self-esteem and subjective happiness and getting along well with others. It has little to do with the Christianity of Scripture and tradition, 10 which teaches repentance, self-sacrificial love, and purity of heart, and commends suffering -the Way of the Cross- as the pathway to God. Though superficially Christian, MTD is the natural religion of a culture that worships the Self and material comfort.
As bleak as Christian Smith’s 2005 findings were, his follow-up research, a third installment of which was published in 2011, was even grimmer. Surveying the moral beliefs of 18-to-23-year-olds, Smith and his colleagues found that only 40 percent of young Christians sampled said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or some other religious sensibility. It’s unlikely that the beliefs of even these faithful are biblically coherent. Many of these “Christians” are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality.
An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 per cent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.” These are not bad people. Rather, they are young adults who have been terribly failed by family, church, and the other institutions that formed-or rather, failed to form-their consciences and their imaginations.
For the modern believer they may envision God as an everlasting Mister Rogers. Someone who is not a helicopter parent mucking in your bossiness and telling you how to live your life but a cardigan wearing Kind Butler who will be there if you need him.
I want to conclude with a story and a suggestion. The story gets at how obvious this problem should be yet many cant see it. First the story,in His lecture on M.T.D, reformed theologian Michael Horton tells a story of a liberal theologian’s experience of a modern conservative evangelical church service. He begins with a little back story:
While I was doing a post-doctoral research fellowship on the East Coast, a mainline theologian [told me about going] to his daughter’s and son-in-law’s house for Easter one year. And he said they go to one of these sprawling evangelical church growth churches, based on church growth models and techniques, and he says, “I thought it would be interesting to go with them on Easter Sunday.” He said, “I thought I’ll get them at their best.” Everybody’s at their best on Easter Sunday, talking about Jesus and the resurrection. He’s telling me the story. He said he went there and he knew that his children were going to try to evangelize him because he’s a mainline theologian. And he said, “I walked in, and there was nothing visibly that would suggest that I was in anything other than a mall. But I said, okay, I’m just going to sit down, and it’s not about that [the mall look], I’m going to sit down and wait for God to open His mouth and start talking to us with God’s greeting at the begin. [Referring to the liturgical blessing greeting invocation of the Holy Spirit] Well, there was no greeting from God at all. There was a greeting from the minister as if it were his living room, welcoming people into his presence, but not God addressing His people.”
He said, “I went through the whole service. I kept waiting. He thought, well, they’re evangelicals. They put everything into the sermon. There’s no liturgy, but they’ll put everything into the sermon. The Word of God all gets poured into this one half-hour presentation. I’ll wait for that.” And he said, “This was Easter. We had not yet sung anything about the cross and the resurrection. We had not heard any Scripture read. And we had not prayed. There had been a couple of quick, ‘hey there’s’ but not real prayer, corporate congregational prayer.” He said, “So we got to the sermon, and it was about how you can turn your scars into stars, and your crosses into stepping stones. Jesus conquered His opposition and so can you.” There was no gospel in it. It wasn’t about what He had done for us. It was about how what He did can be done by us too. After the service, They got in the car and drove home, and it was pretty quiet. And the son said, “Well, Pop, did you hear the gospel today?” And he said, “No.” He said, “Did it touch your heart?” “Did what touch my heart?” “Well, did… did the Spirit touch your heart?” He said, “How could the Spirit possibly have touched my heart? His Word wasn’t present.” He said, “I have been in liberal churches where there was more of the Word of God at least in the liturgy, than was in the whole service in what I thought was an evangelical church on Easter… I don’t know how you could imagine that I could have been evangelized today when God didn’t even show up.”
Horton gives the take away from the story
This situation can be found across the board. I’m hearing it more and more. When I was growing up, we knew the churches in town, where it was, Christless Christianity. But today you can’t point to anything. It’s across the board today. It’s across the spectrum from fundamentalists to liberal, from Arminian to professing Reformed.
A Short Spiritual Diagnostic
The spirituality of American Christianity is infected with M.T.D. Yet many can’t see it. Ironically a liberal theologian, unsure on so many aspects of the faith could still diagnose the problem. If he can see it, why do we often fail to see it? I think it’s because we fail follow Paul’s admonition look for our blind spots (1 Cor 11:31).
Occasionally setting aside time for self-evaluation is a good spiritual practice. In light of this I suggest we all do something of a soul diagnostic. Below is a short list of questions formulated to help you think through the problems associated with M.T.D and see if you unknowingly hold to some tenants of M.T.D.
Eight questions to discerning M.T.D influence on you. Read each answers yes or no.
- Do I desire experience more than knowledge ?
- Do I prefer choices to absolutes.?
- Do I embrace preferences rather than principles/truths?
- Do I seek comfort rather than growth?
- Do you believe, faith must come on our terms or it is rejected.?
- Have I enthroned myself as the final arbiters of righteousness?
- Do I believe i am the ultimate rulers of our own experience and destiny?
- Am I more concerned about social justice than sound theology?
If you get five or more ‘Yes’ answers you may believe aspects of MTD.
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