The Spiritual Landscape
Two: The second tendency in American church history has been a de facto love of deism. The influence of the Enlightenment's clockmaker God is, of course, stronger in some parts of the country than in others. And it has a complex role in American history.
Some of its advocates considered their position superior to that of Christianity. Thomas Paine, for example, has been characterized as an "Anti-Christian" deist. Others combined their deistic tendencies with church attendance, including Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and (more controversially) Washington.
Historians have also argued that deism is more or less a dead movement. But the tenets of Unitarianism, the odd website or two devoted to contemporary deism, the language of civil religion, and the rhetorical efforts of some Progressives to get around language about the Trinity and Incarnation suggest otherwise. Deism, like Gnosticism with its dualistic language, is one of those movements that don't really need a club or a school to continue asserting their influence.
It is as much a bent of mind as it is a discernable movement. And it is alive and well in parts of the Progressive church, but all you can do is talk about (not to) a God like that—and there's not really a lot to say.
Three: The third force dampening our ability to talk about an experience of God is something that ought to be positive, and it is to an extent: our seeker-friendly orientation.
This is nothing new (although you would think it is, to hear us describe it). Jesus was seeker-friendly. So was Paul. (Remember all that "Neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female" language in the Epistles?) In fact, the global presence of the church is due in large part to the trans-national, trans-ethnic appeal of the Gospel message. And while the church's apologetic has been offered in defense of its faith, that defense has also been shaped by a desire to render it accessible to those who have had their doubts.
The problem is that today's emphasis on welcoming seekers amounts to "say nothing that offends others—receive anyone and everyone as part of the family without requirements of any kind." In fact, the current approach is so amorphous that it isn't really necessary to talk to or about God at all. Tracking the same phenomenon elsewhere in the church, Paul McCain observes:
If I were an unbeliever and I attended these churches and listened to all their sermons week after week, how would I define the term "Christ Follower"?
Here's the answer I came up with after reviewing the sermons preached at these seeker-driven / purpose-driven churches over the last 24 months:
Christ Follower: Someone who has made the decision to be an emotionally well adjusted self-actualized risk taking leader who knows his purpose, lives a 'no regrets' life of significance, has overcome his fears, enjoys a healthy marriage with better than average sex, is an attentive parent, is celebrating recovery from all his hurts, habits and hang ups, practices Biblical stress relief techniques, is financially free from consumer debt, fosters emotionally healthy relationships with his peers, attends a weekly life group, volunteers regularly at church, tithes off the gross and has taken at least one humanitarian aid trip to a third world nation.
The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. is an Episcopal priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, and writer. He is the author of several books, including Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Luke (Morehouse, 2009) and What God Wants for Your Life (Harper One, 2005).