Soul Searching, Part 9- Moralistic Thereapuetic Deism and the Collapse of the Church in America

Perhaps the most alarming and also the most honest section of the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers is the one that contains these passages:

In short, our teen interview transcripts reveal clearly that the language that dominates US adolescent interests and thinking about life, including religious and spiritual life, is primarily about personally feeling good and being happy. That is what defines the dominant epistemological framework and evaluative standard for most contemporary US teenagers- and probably for most of their baby boomer parents. This, we think, has major implications for religious faiths seriously attempting to pass on the established beliefs and practices of their historical traditions.- p. 168.

We have come with some confidence to 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 step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language, and therefore experience, of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward. It is not so much that US Christianity is being secularized. Rather, more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.- p. 171.

Thinking in blatantly philosophical terms, I think what we are seeing here is an effect of Enlightenment/Modern thinking as reflected in American individualism.

Modern philosophy in general attempted to exalt the abilities of humanity to solve all of life’s problems through concrete and scientific advances. This optimistic, triumphant spirit is very prevalent in American thought where it was embodied in the individualistic spirit of the American dream.

Modernism is built on the concrete: science and engineering are the golden occupations of Modernism.

Purely abstract things, like morality, religion, etc., cannot be addressed through such processes, which is often argued to mean that we must be either be skeptics or relativists regarding religion or morality.

This skepticism/relativism leads to a variety of systems of morality (and religion) that attempt to provide some sort of moral guidance without making absolute claims.

Typically, the guiding principle for these systems is “whatever makes you happy” or “whatever you feel is best.” These systems are very much rooted in emotions and the immediate satisfaction of our desires. Is it any wonder, then, that our churches have begun to teach the same, even if it is couched in more religious terms?

Far too often we hear that following God will make you rich or that following God is the key to happiness. Godliness the is the key to a successful marriage (it no doubt plays a part, but I know plenty of non-believers with more successful marriages than most of the believers I know). Godliness is the key to satisfaction at work (I never found this to be true when I was working in the food business…).

And what is Godliness anyway?

It frequently gets defined in terms of jumping through religious hoops: reading scripture and praying everyday, attending church regularly (all things that ensure that people who work in ministry, like I do, have jobs).

Now, no doubt all of these practices are beneficial. And no doubt godliness is beneficial. But is that a good motive for being religious? Especially for a religion that claims in most of its literature that selfishness is wrong and immoral, this whole scheme sounds very selfish!

A final consideration concerning the implications of all of this for church leadership and global missions:

There are two conflicting phenomena going on in the global church.

First, the dominant presence of the church in the West is shrinking while the presence of the church in non-Western parts of the world is exploding.

Second, the leadership of the church is still overwhelmingly Western.

In part this is natural- the West has existing leadership structures that have yet to be built in the developing parts of the world.

However, it is also worrisome.

Particularly among American missionaries who attempt to provide leadership to other parts of the Christian world, it is often the case that American modes of thinking are exported to other regions.

Given everything we have said already about the dangers of American individualism for the faith, this should set off a lot of alarm bells.

Somehow as we educate and teach other cultures to follow Christ, we need to keep in mind that we have not exactly done this well ourselves and that we do not need to teach them to repeat our mistakes but instead to learn from them and avoid them.

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