The American Religion: Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism (MTD) Part 3
If you have not yet read parts 1 and 2 of this series, please do it now—before reading and especially before responding to this essay which is about the “Deism” in Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism (MTD).
Deism has many faces. Smith and Dean used it in a rather informal ways not directly related to intellectual-religious history. Here I will follow their lead—instead of using “deism” to designate a particular group of religious free thinkers of the (mostly) eighteenth century. The true prototypes of that type of religious thought we call deism were John Toland and Matthew Tindal. There were certainly others, but they are the two main free thinkers associated with the heyday of deism in the eighteenth century. Thomas Jefferson and others like him were greatly influenced by them.
Here, however, I am going to use “deism” in its more popular sense: the belief that, although God exists and is watching us (as says the popular song), God does not act in special ways in the world. That is, there is only one true miracle and that is creation itself.
Now, of course deism comes in many varieties and degrees. Not all deists are consistent. Some will admit a miracle such as the resurrection of Jesus but deny the truth of all other miracle stories. Others, especially Christian deists, will admit that we cannot know how many miracles God has done but generally relegate God to a being who watches us, judges and forgives us, but does not often, of at all, interfere or intervene in nature or history.
The MTD that I encounter on a regular basis includes a neglect of any active presence of God outside the “inner world” of the individual. And even the inner world of the individual is mostly closed off to sudden interventions or acts of God that are radically transformative.
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In other words, to put it in one way, contemporary American Christians, by and large, in general, many excepted, tend to think the stories in the Acts of the Apostles either didn’t happen as depicted or happened only then.
Varieties of deism are abundant in American popular culture. In one popular movie “God” goes on vacation and leaves a young man in charge. In a popular British television series a Catholic priest talks often about redemption and forgiveness but rarely, if ever, about miracles or the possibility of an intimate relationship with God. Then there is the popular saying “Prayer doesn’t change things [or God]; prayer changes me.”
So what is the problem with deism in MTD—the American religion?
Anyone who reads the Acts of the Apostles and the rest of the New Testament (to say nothing of the Old Testament) cannot miss the emphasis on God’s involvement in the world. Deism is at best defective Christianity, powerless Christianity—except in the sense of God empowering people through giving them moral encouragement and impetus to act against, for example, injustice.
One way to “get a handle” on the deism of MTD is to compare American Christians’ attitudes toward miracles or any direct divine special action with those of Christians from Africa and Asia. I have taught numerous divinity students from those continents and they all have one thing in common—a belief that American Christianity is (mostly) missing any sense of the reality of an invisible spiritual world populated by angels and demons in which God acts supernaturally—especially in response to faithful, fervent prayer. Also, events Americans tend to shrug off as “coincidences” Christians from other continents—especially the Global South and Pacific Rim—tend to view as sometimes special acts of God to be discerned spiritually.
In MTD, for the most part, God is watching us from a distance and frowning or smiling—depending on how we are living our lives. But God is rarely thought of as the cause of anything other than the universe itself as a whole and our relief of the “burden of sin” which is the mostly false feeling of being inadequate if not condemned.
Now, some will think that the only alternative to deism is religious fanaticism—such as viewing God as a great heavenly vending machine into which we put our prayers and/or beliefs with the guarantee of some material blessing. Not at all. And an abundance of miracles is not the only alternative to deism. The proper alternative to deism is not just the belief in but the experience of God’s intimate involvement in life.
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