American Religion Infected by MTDs
Fri, May 13 2011 03:38 | religious sociology
The lives of adolescents are a clear indicator of what is going on in the rest of society, so if teens are infected by a new religious ideology, chances are they are reflecting (loudly and garrishly) the state of the rest of us. "We see best when we are at the boundary" is how theologian Bob Dykstra explains the revelatory power of teens. By analogy Dykstra points out that an ocean's dynamics are far more apparent on the coast line, where the sea interacts with the shore, rather than out in the middle. So too, with adolescents: the interaction of childhood with adulthood provides fertile ground for seeing what makes children children and adults adults.
I begin here because Soul Searching, Christian Smith's fine study of the spiritual lives of adolescents, has much to tell us about our spiritual lives as adults.
When the book came out six years ago, I read a review of it in The Christian Century. My take-away from this review was that Smith believed we had an adolescent spiritual crisis on our hands: youth no longer could articulate a traditional Christian point of view. Instead, youth had overwhelmingly succumbed to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (hereafter MTD). I found this claim misleading in that it singled out youth when it appeared to me that much of the church and indeed, even a dedicated, seminary trained, paid professional Christian like me had sipped the MTD cool-aid. So I wrote a letter to the "Century" saying as much. What I didn't realize at the time is that the book is immune to such a criticism. So while Smith and Denton "discover" MTD in their study of adolescents, they believe it is prevalent in all age groups throughout the United States (see pg. 166). And here I thought for all these years that I had made an important, sociological discovery!!
What is MTD? What is this new way of to which many Americans of all ages hold subscriptions? According to Smith and Denton, who coined the phrase, MTD involves the following claims:
1. A God exists who created and orders 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. (Soul Searching pp.162-163)
If you are like me, at first glance you have a hard time judging these statements as different than Christianity. True enough, the further down the list you go, the less Christian (at least Protestant) they appear. Statement 5 clearly goes against grace not works as the basis of salvation. Statement 4 is clearly wrong on a theoretical level but, alas, is a fine summary of my own spiritual life in practice (how about yours?). Statement 3 reminds me of John Piper's Christian Hedonism and is not too far from the first question of the Westminster Catechism. How can one disagree with the beginning of statement 2? Even the pluralistic claim at the end sounds like C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. Statement 1? Any Christian want to disagree?
Smith and Denton's point is not that MTD is antithetical to traditional Christianity or other mainstream traditional religions in the United States (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.). Instead the point is that MTD cannot exist by itself but nests in these religions, significantly altering them into something that everybody can agree upon. Furthermore, the moralistic point is best understood as a particular kind of moralism that supports the ends of consumer capitalism (hence virtues like moderation and self-denial disappear).
In some ways, as long as we focus on what MTD does, we are in danger of losing the richness of traditional Christian faith. The problem with MTD is that we lose the biblical narrative which gives shape to our morality: (There are times when niceness is not a virtue. The central goal of life is not MY happiness but a particular form of joy that abandons my happiness and denies myself because I am caught up in the love of God.) There are times when God calls us to do particular things in particular places that may require us to move out of a place and even a practice even though the very things we are moving away from are "good, nice and fair." I can be "good, nice and fair" to my friends but God may call me to move into a realm where I will have to be good, nice, fair (and forgiving!) to an enemy or stranger, or person whose condition makes me feel uncomfortable.
I've been thinking about how a Christian response to the MTD that pervades my life and congregation should affect my preaching and worship leadership. Here is what I have come up with:
1. Against the moralism of being "good, nice and fair" in general an antidote is to preach that Jesus calls us to practice these virtues in difficult places, amongst enemies and strangers.
2. We are to listen for the call of God. Abraham could have been "good, nice and fair" in Ur of the Chaldees but God called him to move and practice such virtues (along with patience, sacrifice, hope and hospitality) in strange lands.
3. We are also called to move beyond concern for our own happiness. Our prayers should include not only the congregation and our loved ones but also strangers and enemies, the homeless, the poor and hungry.
4. I need to remind myself and my congregation about the immensity of God's grace. We don't go to heaven or find salvation in God's new creation because we are good but because God is gracious to fallen people like us. The love of God that Jesus extends is not love for good, moral people but love for tax collectors, prostitutes, those who deny him and run away at his time of great need. But to all of these and to us Jesus comes with love in the form of forgiveness and restoration.
5. God calls us to life together, as a church and as a church within the world. MTD is an individualistic spirituality and my preaching should explicitly highlight the "one-anotherness" of Christian faith with its love and forgiveness that go beyond niceties and goodness in general.
As one who lives among people who accept MTD and who too often thinks and acts as a practitioner of MTD, my prayer is that God will help us move beyond the platitudes of our culture and into the resurrection life of the living Christ whether as a sixteen year old, six year old or eighty six year old. May God help us.