Thursday, April 29, 2010

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

While it may be true that most millennials do not pray, worship, or read scripture, they are not devoid of "spiritual" or religious convictions. Indeed, in their book focusing on teenagers entitled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, authors Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton describe a discernible creed that unites America's teens. And it's thoroughly post-Christian.

Concerning Smith and Denton's research, Collin Hansen writes as follows in an article for Christianity Today entitled "Death by Deism":

Though they aren't journalists, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton broke one of the biggest stories in contemporary religion with their 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Conducting the most comprehensive study of religion and teenagers to date, the sociologists discovered a newly dominant creed that they dubbed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). Rather than transformative revelation from God, religion has become a utility for enhancing a teenager's life. Smith and Denton lay out the five points of MTD:

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.

Surely American teenagers did not invent this new religion. A quick scan of bestseller lists, television guides, or public school curricula will reveal MTD's appeal. Indeed, the God of MTD sounds like the "cool parent" teenagers adore.

"God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is 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," Smith and Denton write.

Read it all.

According to the Wikipedia entry for "Moralistic therapeutic deism," Smith and Denton maintain 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."

Meanwhile, some "progressives" continue to argue that Christianity must adapt or perish. But if MTD is the dominant new creed of the culture, then Christianity's adaptation to the culture's fundamentally post-Christian worldview merely aids and abets decline by leading the Church beyond anything recognizably Christian. As Matthew Lee Anderson of "Mere Orthodoxy" rightly notes, "The better slogan is, in fact, 'adapt and perish.'"

The accommodationist prescription for stemming Christianity's decline is itself symptomatic of that decline. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. But not less.


Joe Rawls said...

I posted on MTD last year and I suspect that it is the defacto worldview of huge numbers of mainline Christians.

Bryan Owen said...

No doubt that MTD worldview includes many deacons, priests, and bishops.

hawk said...

Yet, when you read the book, "Soul Searching", you find that the authors discover MTD across the spectrum of religious traditions and MTD is more closely associated with the public religiosity of the United States than one particular sect or denomination or religious subgroup. Jews and Catholics and conservative Evangelicals are as likely to be adherers to MTD as mainline Episcopalians or Methodists. In fact I would make the argument that MTD has been the dominate view among Christians ever sense the early Christians embraced Greco-Roman culture.

I didn't find an indictment in "Soul Searching" to our Christian faith as it is experienced in lives of many Episcopalians. Sure, there are places in many Episcopal churches where MTD prevails, yet the preaching and teaching I have experienced in the church has railed against MTD, even among the more liberal clergy.

In our current context I think MTD is a result of poor formation which is a result of the compartmentalization of faith. Faith has become a choice among many choices, and many people are as likely to be just as passionate about soccer as they are Jesus. Yet, a cursory understanding of Christian history would suggest that this is the way it is always been. The idea that there was a time when the Christian faith wasn't reduced to contextualized MTD seems naive. Paul's letters suggest that MTD was a problem in Corinth and Ephesus and Phillipi and the idea that MTD wouldn't predominate in post modern America should not surprise us.

If anything, I believe the "decline of the mainline" which your blog seems to lament will result in less MTD and a more engaged and "orthodox" faith among believers. The church will always have those unwilling to engage the faith as it has been handed down from generation to generation in the church, but as Christianity becomes less and less culturally necessary (writing from Birmingham, Alabama), I believe the Jesus faith will be more fully experienced among her adherers.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, hawk.

I fully agree that we can find MTD across the spectrum. It is certainly true that there have always alternative "Lords" to rival the Lordship of Jesus. So maybe there have, as you note, always been contextualized forms of MTD from the beginning of the Christian movement. In our own time, it seems reasonable to think that MTD takes on certain characteristics in the wake of the rise of faith in the omnicompetence of reason and then again in the wake of the romantic, existentialist, and emotivist movements of the past 200 years or so. And so, to quote Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s Foreword to Charles C. Brown's Niebuhr and His Age: Reinhold Niebuhr's Prophetic Role and Legacy, we are prone to embrace "guileless confidence in the unalloyed goodness of spontaneous impulses and in the instant solubility of complex problems."

I share the hope that the decline of the mainline will, indeed, "result in less MTD and a more engaged and 'orthodox' faith among believers." But as I quoted from another source in a previous posting, "It could be that as we start to move into more intensive discipleship, we will shrink before we grow." Even if our current leadership were having a serious public conversation about the decline and increasing irrelevance of the Episcopal Church, that's not a popular idea.

The Underground Pewster said...

With MTD, who needs the Episcopal church, or any church for that matter? The 5 points of MTD sound like the things I hear coming out of one of our church's adult Sunday school classes. The 5 points look like a good starting point for making a thoughtful, patient apologetic.

BillyD said...

And yet I think I'd rather hang out with those who believe that good people go to heaven when they die, than those who are sure which of their neighbors are going to hell, and why.