Tag Archives: moralistic therapeutic deism

What do Twenty-first Century Christians Believe?

In his book We Cannot Be Silent, R. Albert Mohler summarizes some research by Christian Smith into the elements of faith that are most prominently exhibited in the lives of teen and young adult Christians in the first decade of the twenty-first century. I would love to read the books in which Smith details his research, and I will read these books, but the summary reported by Mohler is so consistent with my own observations that I will dare to say that Smith’s research is disturbingly accurate. Smith uses the term moralistic therapeutic deism to describe what passes for orthodox Christianity in the lives of many young people.

As soon as you look at the term, you see why it fits. First, these young people have a fervent commitment to what they believe is morality, but the core of their morality is nothing like the moral code of the Bible. In fact, their morality is not an expression of God-fearing faith, but rather it is an expression of human-fearing despair. Their morality suggests that murdering unborn babies and shutting down vital industries because polar bears are alleged to be starving are essential expressions of compassion and responsibility. Nevertheless, they knit this moral code into a general sense that God must want them to do right.

Second, they aspire to decisions and actions that make them feel better; the outworking of their morality is therapy for their vague but persistent feeling that the existence of humans is a cosmic threat. Because of this attitude, they enter into a consensus that all sorts of things that cannot be proved threaten humans and the whole earth but the threats must be believed because the threat is so dire. They don’t believe in sin, and certainly not in original sin, but they are sure that humans as a species are responsible for every bad thing that has ever happened.

Finally, they worship a God who has no image, and they feel most in tune with their spirituality if everybody is mouthing the same words, even when the words have no legitimate meaning. The deity to which they consistently turn is government, and in the words of government, as laws and regulations, they find the outworking of their penance and absolution.

According to Christian Smith, the adherents of moralistic therapeutic deism have a simple creed:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

The worldview of people who subscribe to this creed is about saving polar bears, curing cancer, and dividing everything equally. Safe, consensual sex in any combination of humans renders marriage an obsolete concept, an unborn baby is protoplasmic waste whose only value is as a vehicle for research, and it is immoral to eat broccoli, because vegetables have feelings, too.

This worldview is in serious conflict with the biblical worldview that starts with a commitment to Jesus Christ and works out as follows:

  1. I put my trust in the triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  2. I center my life in Christ.
  3. Christ is first, and I am last.
  4. I willingly die rather than give up Christ. The cross is Christ’s glory and my greatest aspiration is to be like him.
  5. Instead of self-actualization, I aspire to be obedient to God’s will.
  6. My weakness is a gift that allows God’s power to triumph.
  7. In contrast to the culture, I always stand out rather than blend in, living by God’s absolute revealed values.
  8. I do not evolve, and my values do not evolve.
  9. I am first to take on the dirty jobs, serving others rather than promoting self.

It is inevitable that God’s worldview will be in direct conflict with feel-good deism. This is not a bad thing. What is unfortunate is that for so long, moralistic therapeutic deism has held sway in the culture as if it were Christianity. It is actually quite a beneficial development that Christianity is now clearly differentiated from all other ways of living.

The real challenge ahead for confessing Christians is the inevitable conflict when confessing Christians exercise their right to free exercise of religion while moralistic therapeutic deists look askance at behavior they disapprove as surely as any atheist does. Why can’t Kim Davis just do her job and hand out marriage licenses to same-sex couples? Why doesn’t football coach Joe Kennedy go silently into a room and pray behind closed doors instead of “making a scene” on the fifty-yard line? Why must those rabid pro-lifers pray and sing on the sidewalk in front of the local Planned Parenthood clinic? For the twenty-first century deists, secular definitions of marriage, prayer and abortion just make sense, and they cannot understand why the quaint language of some ancient book has any bearing on life and death in the contemporary world.

Confessing Christians, Christians who can state their faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, have been standing out from the general culture for about two thousand years. It will always be so. This is our destiny.

 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.     —John 15:18-19 ESV







The Spiritual Worldview

A persistent complaint about Christianity is the “hypocrisy” of Christians. I recently met a lady who told me she was Buddhist, even though faithful Christian parents reared her. She said that three different times in her childhood, she was sexually assaulted by Christian clergy. Those experiences marked her, and she wanted no part of Christianity. Most of the Christians I know who have attempted to speak to unbelievers report stories about Christians who lie, cheat, steal, and behave in a generally disreputable manner. Christians who do not act like Christians lead non-Christians to believe that there is no good reason to become a Christian.

On the other hand, one will rarely hear someone criticize a Christian for un-Christlike behavior when that person says, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” This little empty aphorism is just as un-Christlike as sexual assault or theft, but non-Christians do not recognize that fact, because this notion is quite popular among secular thinkers. Yet even Christians often do not recognize that this statement makes self, not God, the center of life.

This idea is one of many statements that fall into the general category of “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a term coined by Rod Dreher, a cultural analyst who contrasts this philosophy with a Christian worldview. Facebook posts are full of MTD. They are often posted as text added to gorgeous photos of sunrise, galaxies, and the like. They look quite inspirational, but the inspiration is to look at self, the god within, rather than God Almighty, our Creator.

Here is another example of such a post, a statement attributed to someone called The Kamarpa:

“Ask yourself what kind of person you want to be in the life that you will live today. Throughout the day, remind yourself that your life is happening right now.”

When a secular thinker reads such words, he feels good. He sees in such a statement a reminder that he is his own god. He need not be in submission to anyone, because he can simply ask himself what to be. He can ask himself each day, and the answer may be different each day. He need not get in a rut. No perseverance required here. If it doesn’t feel good, then leave it alone.

Sad to say, when Christians read such a statement, they, too, feel good. Some Christians do not really see any conflict between this statement and the Christian faith. How could such a nice idea be un-Christlike? Shouldn’t we examine ourselves each morning and try to live better lives?

Of course we should, but the idea of asking ourselves, rather than God, what needs to be done each day is alien to the fundamental teachings of Christianity. A fellow Christian asked me one day, “Why shouldn’t I go ahead and align myself with the universe and pray to God at the same time? What could it hurt? After all, I’m just putting myself out there for whatever opportunity I can find.”

The ancient Israelites are the most well documented example of what happens when people believe that they can serve both God and gods. They had no problem marching into the Temple with lambs and bulls for sacrifice to God and then marching out to the high places to worship Baal. God had given them Ten Commandments which were to shape their lives forever, and the first one was “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2 NIV84). The prophets repeatedly called them to repentance and faithful lives, but it was just too tempting. Why did they have to be the only people in the world with only one god? All the other people had many gods. It was much more fun. Those gods were much more accommodating. To worship those gods, one visited temple prostitutes, and that was much more delightful than all that talk about sin.

The ancient gods and the book The Secret all teach that people ought to get what they want. The ancient gods, which are resurfacing today in all their glory, did not necessarily yearn to give people what they wanted, but they were not averse to being persuaded by gifts and orgies in their honor to fulfill people’s wishes. Of course, if the wishes were not fulfilled, it was always a simple matter of human failure to fulfill the god’s expectations. In consequence, the Israelites, and people today as well, thought that God’s failure to grant their wishes was about some failure to say the right word or do the right ritual. Those ancient gods had minimal expectations of human behavior and no expectation of real commitment. Daily life had little to do with those gods, and the Israelites, as well as people today, liked it that way.

The Secret teaches that the universe wants people to get their wishes. People like my friend believe that the universe is “star stuff,” as Carl Sagan used to say. That means that they don’t think of it as a false god. However, that does not keep them from swallowing the thesis of The Secret, a thesis which makes the universe into a god. Ancient pagans have no problem with the universe being a god. The teachings of The Secret are no different from any other form of pantheism. They are also no less dangerous that any explicitly named religion that teaches pantheism. My friend had fallen for the notion that he was just playing the odds, hoping that one way or another, he would get what he wanted.

Faith in Christ is not one among many options for a happy life. Adding Christ to the mix of powers one petitions for a good day or wisdom or wealth will not add positive weight to one’s case. Trying to worship Christ and worship self at the same time will not work. To worship ancient gods, the universe, or any other power in order to get what one wants is to worship self. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself.” Jesus is exclusive. Believe him, or don’t believe him. Never try to play the odds. Never try to bundle up as many gods as possible in the hope that one of them will fulfill your wishes. The need for wish fulfillment is worship of self.

Martin Luther’s Morning Prayer is a good model for starting the day with self-examination in the light of one’s relationship with God. Rather than asking oneself what the day ought to be, Martin Luther recommended looking first to God:

Martin Luther’s Morning Prayer

In the morning, when you rise, you shall bless yourself with the holy cross and say:

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. If you choose, you may, in addition, say this little prayer:

I thank Thee, my Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son, that Thou hast kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray Thee to keep me this day also from sin and all evil, that all my doings and life may please Thee. For into Thy hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Thy holy angel be with me, that the Wicked Foe may have no power over me. Amen.

Then go to your work with joy, singing a hymn, such as one on the Ten Commandments, or what your devotion may suggest.

From Martin Luther’s Small Catechism

In this manner of prayer, the first thing one does is to address God, not self. This prayer points to God each morning. It does not invite us to ask ourselves what we want. It addresses the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and doesn’t ask for anything until after worship in God’s presence. The next step, recitation of The Creed is a testimony of faith beginning with the words, “I believe in God . . . .” After that, praying the Lord’s Prayer points to God with words of both worship and petitions. All these practices point to God, not self. Finally, one offers up one’s own concerns for the day ahead in a prayer that asks, “that all my doings and life may please Thee.” Compare this practice of beginning the day by turning to God and offering self to God with a habit of beginning the day by turning to self to ask self what self wants.

After the Transfiguration, Jesus came down the mountain to find his disciples in disarray. A man had brought his demon-possessed son to them for exorcism, and they were failing. Jesus rebuked their lack of faith, and then he took care of the problem. Later, after they had escaped the crowds, the disciples asked, “Why couldn’t we get rid of it?” (my paraphrase) Jesus did not tell them that they didn’t use the right words or the right ritual or the right potion. He reworded his rebuke about their lack of faith by saying, “The only thing that works for this kind is prayer.” (my paraphrase) The problem was that they were asking themselves what they needed to do instead of asking God. They trusted themselves to know what to do. They trusted in self. They did exactly what Kamarpa recommends: Ask yourself.

I believe that the greatest deficit among self-identified Christians is faith in Christ. Poll after poll confirms that many, many self-identified Christians do not believe that Jesus is “the Way.” They believe that he is “one of the ways.” A Christian worldview begins with Christ, and if anyone wants to call himself a Christian, he must begin by recognizing that Christ is the only Way. Rod Dreher believes that “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD) is replacing biblical Christianity across our culture. That is sad, because moralistic therapeutic deism will not save anyone from demons or transform anyone into a powerful servant of God. The reason self-identified Christians often do not act like Christians is that they do not follow Christ. To practice moralistic therapeutic deism is not the same thing.