Moralistic Therapeutic Deists

I know it’s a bit of a mouthful, but moralistic therapeutic deists is the term that’s being used to describe many young people growing up in evangelical churches in the United States. It’s highlighted in a recent study by Kenda Creasy Dean, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, who says that the religion of many American teens is actually “fake Christian”.

The report says that if you’re the parent of a Christian teenager your child may be following a “mutant” form of Christianity, and you may be responsible. Dean says more American teenagers are embracing what she calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Translation: It’s a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.

As many churches start their “autumn and winter’s work” especially with youth organisations, this report makes us think again about what kind of beliefs we are actually teaching our children and young people.

Moralistic therapeutic deism was first coined by author Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame to describe the common religious beliefs among American youth. It was reported in 2005 his book, Soul Searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. The research project, entitled the National Study of Youth and Religion, was funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. It found that many young people believed in several moral statutes not exclusive to any of the major world religions:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered 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.

These points of belief were compiled from interviews with approximately 3,000 young teenagers. The authors say the system is “moralistic” because it “is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person.” The authors describe the system as being “about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherent” as opposed to being about things like “repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering….”

And last, the authors say it is “about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs–especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved.” Although a God that is available to intercede in our lives is classically theistic, the authors choose to call this a form of Deism. They say that “the Deism here is revised from its classical eighteenth-century version by the therapeutic qualifier, making the distant God selectively available for taking care of needs.” It views God as “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”

The authors believe that “a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten stepcousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

It seems that whatever else we communicate to our young people, we need to ensure that they understand the Gospel of grace. We are sinners. We need a Saviour. We cannot be our own saviours by our own performance. And out of love and gratitude to the One who is our Saviour and Lord, we march to the beat of his drum, not the rhythms of this world.

Wisdom from Luther

My friend and former colleague, Carl Trueman has begun a series of blogposts on the reformation 21 blog on what Luther understood a theologian to be. In good style, Carl names his original sources and draws out some very useful practical lessons.

Most pastors and preachers are reluctant to take on the label of “theologian” (even though that is what they are for their flock). What is described here can be applied with equal force to all of us who “labour in the Word” and who seek to share the results of our labours with our people week by week.

Here is the text of the first blogpost, with the promise of more to come.

I want to start a short series of posts today on Martin Luther’s understanding of what makes a theologian.  The sources for reflection are primarily two: a passage from his Table Talk (no. 3425; not as far as I know available in the standard English translations) and the preface to the first edition of his German works (1539; available in vol. 34 of the Philadelphia edition of Luther’s works in translation).

The preface contains just three things that mark out a theologian: prayer; meditation; and agonizing struggle.    The Tabletalk lists six: the grace of the Spirit; agonizing struggle; experience; opportunity; careful and constant reading; and a practical knowledge of the academic disciplines.  As the shorter is, by and large, subsumed under the longer, I will use the six headings for the next six posts.

As a prologue, however, I want to draw attention to the fact that Luther does not talk about what constitutes theology but about what makes a theologian.  This is somewhat characteristic of his approach: many people have noted the importance of his “theology of the cross,” which he articulated most dramatically at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518; but the text of the disputation theses do not speak of a theology of the cross; rather they speak of a theologian of the cross.  Theology, for Luther, is the words spoken by human beings in response to the words God has first spoken to them; thus, theology is a personal action; and therefore, there can be no discussion of theology without first discussing the agent, the one who speaks theologically.  Theology is an abstraction unless it is understood as the action of the theologian.

This is an odd idea in a world where the separation of church and academy is now a given.  Theology, like mathematics or biology or literary theory, represents just another object to be studied.  It has become a technical exercise, divorced from the character and identity of the practitioner, a matter simply of learning the techniques or the rules of the game.  In this context, theologians like to think of themselves often as nice people, as socially acceptable, as aspiring to places at the cultural table, as being accepted by others.

But this was not so for Luther: the theologian was one who had been seized by the Word, gripped by the address of God, whose very identity was determined by the this prior address of God which then compelled and shaped any response he might care to give. This process was agonizing, existential, redefining at the most fundamental level the person’s own self-understanding as the huge gulf that exists between Creator and creature in all of its terrifying glory comes home to the theologian and drives him again and again out of himself and to the cross where hangs the Incarnate God.  A theologian — a true theologian — was one who, through agonizing struggle was driven again and again by the Spirit to wrestle with the text of scripture so as to discern its meaning, and then communicate that meaning in the power of the Spirit to others.  As I hope to demonstrate in future posts, nobody who casually bandies around theological ideas, or who talks comfortably about doubt and temptation, is worthy of the title “true theologian” as Luther understood it.

Heat and Light

I have been back to normal pastoral and preaching duties for one month now, and it has been good, yet challenging, to get back to the disciplines of preparation for preaching and pastoral visitation. There is something about pastoral ministry that is both very demanding and also most rewarding.

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards

I have been reading a wee bit of Jonathan Edwards (1703-58) again. He was probably America’s greatest theologian, although many would argue he was not as comprehensive or as balanced in his theological writings and reflections as, say, the English Puritan, John Owen (1616-1683).

Edwards’ sermon on John 5:35, “He was a burning and shining light”, and entitled “The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister”, is particularly helpful in emphasising the need for a minister to be characterised by both heat and light. Even though written many years ago, there is a contemporary relevance to what he says. This applies particularly to preaching.

Light refers to the content of a sermon, heat to its delivery. If a preacher has light without heat, he may please his audience with entertaining sermons or (more likely) he may bore them with academic and accurate sermons. But he will not reach their hearts. If a preacher has heat without light, he may excite and arouse the emotions of his audience, but any change in their lives will be short term because he will not reach their hearts either. So a good sermon must contain both heat and light. It must be a clear and illuminating exposition of Scripture, but it also needs to be warm, powerful and fervent.

Continue reading “Heat and Light”

Why a Confession of Faith?

The question often raised in churches that hold a confession of faith as a subordinate standard is Why? Why do we need a confession of faith? Are confessions of faith not simply engines of division?

In a recently re-published book, The Erosion of Calvinist Orthodoxy, Ian Hamilton, minister of Cambridge Presbyterian Church, concludes with a very interesting chapter on why the church needs a confession of faith. Continue reading “Why a Confession of Faith?”

What’s wrong with Women Bishops?

The controversial issue of the ordination of women, and especially the appointment of women bishops, continues to be a discussion point within the Anglican communion. A recent blog by Richard Perkins, the minister of a new Anglican church in south-west London is an excellent summary of the position held by many evangelical Anglicans and others who hold to what they believe is the biblical position. He says,

Given that we’ve had a woman Prime Minister, a woman as Head of M15 and we send women to war it’s surely a little anachronistic that an institution like the Church of England should prevent women from having the top jobs. Of course, whether they’re the top jobs is a discussion for another time. ….But people increasingly find the ineligibility of women for the Episcopacy as an act of outrageous and ‘criminal’ discrimination. It may well be that Government Legislation will one day make it a criminal offence to ‘victimize’ women in this way.

To deny positions of authority and leadership to women in the church is not meant to cause offence. But because of where our culture is, it does. But just because the culture is saying something doesn’t necessarily require us to change our position, but it ought to send us back to the Bible to make sure we’ve got it right.

Christ Church, Balham is part of a group of churches in the west end of London known as Co-Mission churches. These churches are vibrant, growing congregations, and are popular among a younger generation of committed Christians. Their position on the issue of women bishops does not seem to detract from their ability to attract and use the gifts of able, talented young men and women.

I had a conversation recently with a senior Anglican cleric, and he was pointing out that, in some English dioceses, if a candidate for the ministry expressed reservations about the ordination of women he would almost certainly be rejected, but another candidate could express concerns about basic Christian doctrines like the resurrection and no eyebrows would be raised. If true, that seems to send out a crazy message: we know exactly what the Bible teaches about the ordination of women, but we aren’t sure what it says about the resurrection.

The ordination of women as ministers or their appointment as bishops is not a gospel issue, but it is one which requires careful biblical reflection. I am sure God does not want us to be confused on such a practical issue.