Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism

In their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton coined the term “moralistic, therapeutic deism” (MTD) to describe the spiritual lives of American teenagers. Based on a research project called the “National Study of Youth and Religion,” Smith and Denton observed a set of beliefs (doctrines, if you will) commonly held by teenagers today:

  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 he is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Since the publication of this book, MTD has become a familiar summarizing term that captures the general religious outlook of our youth. Many have argued that this description fits the wider population’s spirituality as well. Some even think this is a good thing! Any Christian who has been catechized in sound doctrine will recognize this (unconscious) creed conflicts with orthodox Christian faith. In MTD, there’s no need for Trinity (≠deism), incarnation (≠therapy), or redemption (≠moralism).

An Easy Target

I’ve read and heard numerous Christians lament this creed as fundamentally unchristian, and it is. But in Evangelical circles, MTD has become a bit of an easy target to attack because it so obviously diverges from orthodoxy. Everyone knows it’s wrong, and we all shake our heads at those other people who so misguidedly fail to grasp the truth.

But Smith and Denton have put their finger on something that runs much deeper than this anemic creed, something of which all of us, including my Evangelical brothers and sisters, are guilty. MTD isn’t just a bad creed. It’s a fundamentally upside-down orientation to life, and it’s an orientation that all of us, secular or not, naturally share. And that means it’s not enough to simply look at the creed and shake our heads in disagreement. In fact, Smith and Denton created this creed as a summarizing term not because people actually walk around with those doctrines in their heads but because they were trying to put their finger on this orientation.

In short, MTD is an orientation in the making since the Enlightenment that sees God in obligation to us and not the other way around. MTD describes our deeply felt convictions that God must be about our well-being and happiness (hence therapeutic). It’s not us who must be justified before God, rather, God must justify Godself to us.

Seeing Ourselves

That’s why the problem of evil is such a pressing question for Westerners whereas in Ancient times it was not the most troubling question with which people wrestled. If we are owed happiness and circumstances that please us, then God better do some explaining as to why my life isn’t going the way I want. If I cannot see any good reason why God would allow suffering in my life, then God must either not exist or be a moral monster.

The MTD orientation also explains why churches have become highly focused on relevance, being positive and encouraging, and meeting people’s perceived needs and preferences regarding corporate worship and programming. We moderns don’t come to God needing to be justified. We come demanding God work for us. I can reject the creed of MTD but still involve myself with a Christian community that “pursues God in a way that works for me.”

This insight is reason #2,567 why I am convinced we have to return to biblical and historic church practices (both in worship and community) that reorient us properly to God. The form of worship and ministry in most Evangelical churches shares rather than repels the orientation of MTD, and so while we can see the errors of the creed, we can’t see our own reflection in it.

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