Is another gospel spreading among our youth? That is the conclusion one must reach in light of the research that C. Smith and his partners reported in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (cowritten with M.L. Denton [Oxford University Press, 2009]) and in Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (cowritten with P. Snell [Oxford University Press, 2009]). “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD) is the impressively ominous designation given to this religious view, which relegates God to the periphery of human endeavor, trivializes morality, and is neo-hedonistic. All the more disturbing is that it appears to be a heresy of our own making since the subjects Smith studied are youth and young adults reared in our churches. This essay focuses on the details of MTD in order to explore new ways of being and living that may assist the church in reaching Millennials.
Reductionist and generic in what it believes about humanity, salvation, and morality — even God’s nature — MTD posits god minimally as a deity that created and ordered the world that watches over human life. Second, this deity wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. The third claim of MTD regarding this god’s purpose for us is that the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. Ironically, however, in spite of this divine destiny, MTD’s fourth pillar contends that god is not personally involved in one’s life (perhaps, because god is not needed?) except to resolve unusual crises. Finally, the ultimate category for human existence and morality is this: good people go to heaven when they die. Therefore, the designations “Moralistic” (second and fifth propositions), “Therapeutic” (proposition three), and “Deism” (principles one and four) are apropos.
The deficits of this view as an expression of orthodox Christianity are palpable for those who understand the great scandal of particularity inherent in the gospel. After all, the central belief of our faith has never been (simply) that God (or god) exists. It is the presumption of the words of Jesus in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (NRSV). Herein we find the irreducible core of Christian faith, which the church has somehow failed to communicate to its own children.
Just how MTD misses the heart of orthodox Christology and its radical call to the one true God in Christ is described for us by K.C. Dean in her book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (Oxford University Press, 2010). Dean rightly notes that this is an aberrant form of Christianity, absurdly reductionist. All of Christian ethics is abridged to “being nice,” with nice itself a rather fuzzy notion. Of course, calling those convinced of this theology “disciples” is generous, given that, as Dean further notes, “the defining aspect of this zeitgeist is that the goal of life and will of God is ultimately ‘all about me, my comfort, and happiness’” (<http://kendadean.com/371/moralistic-therapeutic-deism/>). Such a self-referential alpha and omega could not avoid diminishing the arduous, introspective, and other-oriented demands of Jesus. However, this self-referential religion cannot but fail its adherents because the divine as envisioned by MTD is of no help in lifes’ inevitable shipwrecks. As Dean explains, “In times of shipwreck, ‘feeling good about ourselves’ and being ‘nice’ are unthinkable — and if this is all religion is for, then shipwreck naturally convinces us that God is either make-believe or impotent” (<http://kendadean.com/371/moralistic-therapeutic-deism/>). MTD is the quintessential socio-religious expression of postmodern American values — relativism’s theology.
While many cultural influences have helped to shape Millennials — e.g., the pervasiveness of multiculturalism, subjective morality promoted by postmodern theorists, education promoting self-esteem rather than discipline and accomplishment — the real question is why churches have not provided an antidote. Here, Dean has done a great service to the church, showing that these young persons are merely living out the faith they were offered in their churches. This sobering claim requires that we examine how this could be.
Consider, first, the theological ground of many mainline churches out of which MTD has spouted like an unplanned-for-crop, theological liberalism. At its core, theological liberalism is a theological approach that looks at “religion” first, Christian faith second. It takes the innate human impulse to seek the divine as the basis for all religious truth, of which Christianity is one among many (even if it is afforded an exalted position). This trajectory was set by F. Schleiermacher in the early years of the nineteenth century (see his books, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers and The Christian Faith). As he attempts to navigate the Enlightenment waters of suspicion of religion and its canonization of universal reason, Schleiermacher argues that a feeling of absolute dependence is inextricable from human existence universally every bit as much as the capacity for reason. This, then, is the foundational justification for any religious truth claim. Following Kant’s metaphysical distinction between the phenomenal (experienced reality) and the noumenal (the unknowable ground), Schleiermacher tries to defend against accusations of “projection.” Nonetheless, this project left the church with the proposal that all God-talk is just our attempt to express an inarticulate human impulse.
Whatever its merits, this theology rejects the most basic of Christian dogmas: faith is a gift to us and God is nameable and knowable. God has initiated his self-identifying work of salvation in a messy and inescapable specificity, first in the history of Israel, and finally in the person of Jesus Christ. As K. Barth reminded the liberal theologians of his day: “The Christian kerygma…does not speak generally of the existence of a Son of Man…but of the fact that the Jesus who has come as the Messiah of Israel has come into the world as the Saviour of the world…. His universality is revealed in this particularity” (Church Dogmatics, IV/1: 167). Despite its well-intentioned efforts to make faith rationally persuasive by locating “God” in human self-awareness, liberalism depends on human desire and need for the church’s faith to be justifiable. How could we blame young adults for believing all religions are equally limited, desperate attempts to name the voiceless and unknowable deity? Where liberalism seems generous to other faiths — that is, in its inclusiveness — it most decidedly fails us.
A second theological factor contributing to the ecclesial climate in which MTD has flowered is liberalism’s polar opposite, evangelicalism. In its own way this “Bible-focused” theology has made an inner experience of God the lynchpin of faith. Throughout my life as an evangelical I have grown accustomed to this defense of faith: “someone with an experience is never at the mercy of someone with an argument.” As satisfying as this might be in the face of atheistic or agnostic challenges, the individual self is still truth’s Archimedean point. Furthermore, the experience of God proclaimed is often an exclusively private invitation to salvation, a calling to come to Jesus because he will give peace, joy, and hope. Hence, therapeutic concerns, in soteriological rhetoric, have replaced the gospel proclamation of God’s kingdom breaking into the world quite apart from our experience. Much of contemporary evangelical teaching has turned Christ’s salvation into a commodity — the source of happiness rather than a New Creation. Should we wonder why “being happy” is so central to MTD?
Given MTD’s embrace of deism and its unknowable god, the church must reassert the claim that the self-revelation of God is found in the absolutely objective, historical specificity of Jesus as God Incarnate. For a generation that has come to the logical terminus of theological liberalism and evangelical experientialism, the church must take this first step. It must rediscover orthodoxy. Where many call us to soften our claims about the objective truthfulness and authority of the gospel in light of postmodern doubts about universal metanarratives, I contend that the church’s faith will only find resonance in the hearts of Millennials when we proclaim Christ as the exclusive revelation of God and the only way that God is truly known. We must become again intellectual disciples of Jesus if we are to move beyond the kind of experiential solipsism that is the mark of liberalism and evangelicalism. From Scripture and church history we know this is the way of God in the world. Israel’s covenant before the nations is particular in nature. Even more so, the incarnation of God’s Son — condescending to be “just one more” perspective in the ocean of ideas in the first century — is exclusive. Furthermore, the history of the church calls for us to take our place alongside the first century fathers and mothers in the faith, who bore witness to Jesus’ exclusivity to the Roman Empire’s relativism and multiculturalism.
The church’s second step, in line with its resolute confidence in the truthfulness of the gospel, is to enter joyfully into the tumult and mess of the tournament of narratives — namely, displaying a genuine generosity toward our interlocutors. Herein we will reflect God’s own gracious engagement with his recalcitrant world. We will not only have a genuine interest in what others have to say in this conversation, but we will remember that Christians do not have a narrative to “impose” on others. God’s story has captured us and we know that this story embraces the whole world. Hence, holding out the invitation to believe and to offer reasons for belief, we can show how contending with ideas and beliefs does not imply a rejection of the person holding them. Our motive, if we are truly God’s people, will be to love the other, not simply to display our passion for pure doctrine. In this, the primacy of Scripture is a given for us, since we know of no other Jesus save the one in holy writ. But we must treat Scripture as a means of grace to point to God in Christ, recalling that Jesus, and not the Bible or Christianity, is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” Scripture must never become an end in itself.
As Jesus reveals and defines God, so does he reveal and define humanity, calling humanity to holy love. Thus, in a third step, the church must seek after holiness, not simply as an ethical concern, but as an epistemological necessity for declaring God’s truth. By rediscovering the true essence of holiness, a convincing explication and defense of the faith is possible, and the beauty of our faith is both shown and taught. Far too many Christian dogmas — original sin, substitutionary atonement, the problem of evil, the virgin birth, the resurrection, etc. — are treated as abstractions or approached by proof-texting. When so treated, they seem unrelated to life’s tormenting ambiguity in the here and now. By living the Truth we profess in holiness, we demonstrate the vision of human existence that is inherent in orthodoxy. This begins with confession of our sins and not others’, with mourning the still-too-real-suffering of the world, and admitting that evil still seems to dominate creation. Holiness creates an awareness of the struggle of people’s lives. Furthermore, as our lives reflect the reality of the gospel, we may then point with integrity to the historical witness of Scripture: Christ’s incarnation has taken the horror of human existence into himself by becoming a human. God has carried his own judgment against sin. God really has raised Jesus from the dead to renew creation, and opened the way to human transformation into the fullness of the imago Dei, that is, the image of the God now known as Trinity.
The church can be the incarnation of glad tidings by proclaiming and living a new humanity in God’s kingdom. But living it rightly requires us to learn to draw distinctions — sharp ones. We have to describe what kingdom-living looks like, how one participates in this kingdom, and how it can be missed. One does not stumble into it by well-meaning intentions. Rather, by pointing to the concreteness of God’s acts in history as the cornerstone of our faith, we can insist that Christ is worthy of complete devotion. If we fail to present the credible reasons for our hope, we consign Millennials to the sub-Christian deity they — to their credit — do not love or worship. However, through our own intellectual repentance, we can reclaim the historical faith and make Christian disciples who think with the “mind of Christ.” The true gospel speaks of, provides for, and establishes the beatific vision, and participation in the Triune life is where we find our true existence together. Here, truth is made real, hope is made attainable, and ethical life becomes rich.