The American Religion: Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism (MTD) Part 2
If you have not, please read Part 1 of this 3 part series. Here, in Part 2, I describe my understanding of “therapeutic” in “MTD.”
First, however, I want to remind readers about something many seem either not to know or forget.
Here, in blog posts like this, I am definite NOT describing ALL churches or ALL Christians. I am describing a trend of a type within American Christianity. Please don’t respond with something like “My church isn’t like that!” or “I don’t know Christians that are like that!” Of course not—if you say so. It’s an “If the shoe fits” kind of thing. I know from my own study and experience that there are new trends, even fads, growing among American Christians. Never am I claiming that these are universally true of all churches or Christians. Now, with that out of the way…
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
“Moralistic, therapeutic deism” is the label given by sociologists of religion Christian Smith and Kesa Dean to a relatively new religion common and growing among American Christians—especially younger ones. It is embedded within American churches. As a Christian theologian my “job” is not only to describe it but also to counter it by pointing out how and where it deviates from orthodox Christianity.
“Therapeutic” in MTD points to a solution to the anxiety created by moralism. It means (more or less) that even though we cannot live up to God’s (frowning) expectations he always forgives without consequences. And, taken to an extreme, it means that “God is your biggest fan” regardless of how you live (even if he wishes you lived a better life).
Let me illustrate. A now rather old gospel song contained these lyrics: “Though it makes Him sad to see the way we live, He’ll always say ‘I forgive’.” Nothing about repentance. It’s all sunshine and roses after admission that we all always fall short of God’s moral expectations. The proper response to our moral failure is “Don’t Worry; Be Happy.”
Broadening out now to an illustration about the American attitude toward the true function of religion in general…. Years ago I saw a one frame cartoon in The New Yorker that showed a young woman sitting in a chair talking with a therapist. The “balloon” over her head (with words from her mouth) said “What good is an epiphany if it doesn’t make me feel good?”
To too large an extent (again NOT TRUE UNIVERSALLY) Americans regard religion, including evangelical Christianity, as a tool for their recovery from fear, anxiety, guilt, and distress. Of course, it CAN BE THAT. But it is not authentic Christianity if that’s ALL it is.
The meaning of “therapeutic” in MTD is NOT merely the truth of God’s forgiving grace but grace taken for granted, Bonhoeffer’s “cheap grace.”
In the many, many contemporary expressions of popular Christianity I encounter the main message is some version, more or less, of “how to live your best life now” and “don’t worry; be happy” because God loves you.
The ideas of God’s wrath, sin, conviction, and repentance have dwindled in comparison with the ideas of God’s love (often represented as indulgence), grace, mercy, acceptance as you are.
The God of MTD is two faced. On the one hand, he is frowning and disappointed with us due to our seeming inability to live in his will. On the other hand, he is always also forgiving and accepting—without repentance.
Outside of hard core fundamentalism, the growing message of much Christianity is similar to how theologian H. Richard Neibuhr described the liberal Protestantism of his day: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
Anyone who knows what “liberal Christianity” means—historically and theologically—cannot help but recognize that much of American Christianity, even that which calls itself evangelical, has embraced much of it—not by purpose but by neglect. Neglect of doctrine, church discipline, talk about God’s wrath and the need for repentance, hell, etc.
Now I’m going to depart from Dean’s and Smith’s meaning of “therapeutic” in MTD and add a dimension of my own. I believe there is a therapeutic thrust at the core of Calvinism. It is the message that whatever is happening, without exception, glorifies God and is therefore ultimately good. As one famous Calvinist of the past put it “Those who find themselves suffering in the flames of hell can at least take comfort in the fact that they are there for the greater glory of God.”
Ultimately, I believe, the attraction of the new Calvinism (if not all Calvinism) is this idea that all is well even if it doesn’t seem so. “Behind a frowning providence He [God] hides a smiling face.” Ultimately, seen from God’s perspective, nothing is really fundamentally wrong. It is all as it should be because God designed, ordained and governs it all—down to the smallest detail including sin, evil and (seemingly) innocent suffering.
This is the therapeutic thrust of Calvinism. Yes, Calvinism includes talk about God’s wrath and our need for repentance, but it also includes meticulous providence in which nothing in the world is really out of place. It is all as it should be and as God wants it to be—for his glory which is our summum bonum.
Of course, Calvinists will object. But if they do, they had better give a good reason for it.
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