My Missions Professor, Rev. Jay Hallowell, wrote the following for the seminary newsletter. I have included it here as is (with a little edits on the format) and will interact with his thoughts in the near future.
How Are You Dealing with Moralist Therapeutic Deism?
By Rev. Jay Hallowell
The mental and spiritual defenses of many churches and believers are mostly in place against Satan and his forces, against various cults and other religions, against secular humanism, and against similar foes. It is not so clear to me, though, that these defenses are ready against Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
What is Moralist Therapeutic Deism? The real religion of young adults in the USA has been and continues to be studied by the National Study of Youth and Religion. (NSYR)[i] The NSYR has discovered an amazing consensus in the actual faith of these American young people. They did indeed find variations and differences between and among Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus, Buddhists, and non-religious teenagers. But, “when one sifts through and digests hundreds of discussions with U.S teenagers about religion, God, faith, prayer, and other spiritual practices, what seems to emerge as the dominant, de facto religious viewpoint turns out to be some version of this faith. [Moralist Therapeutic Deism[ii]]”[iii]
What are the beliefs of Moralist Therapeutic Deism?
- A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.[iv]
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.[v]
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.[vi]
- Good people go to heaven when they die.[vii]
Where do the young people learn Moralist Therapeutic Deism? They learn it from their parents and other significant adults in their lives. In other words, this is not a new faith or religion.[viii]
The researchers recognize that Moralist Therapeutic Deism is not ‘orthodox’. That is, it is not congruent with the basic teachings of any of their religious backgrounds. In the context of the answers of those claiming ‘Christian’ or ‘Jewish’ background, the researchers noted:
But this God is not Trinitarian; he did not speak through the Torah or the prophets of Israel, was never resurrected from the dead, and does not fill and transform people through his Spirit. This God is not demanding. He actually can’t be, since his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. In short, 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.[ix]
Other American believers, including me, feel that these research findings provide a very insightful and all-too-accurate name and description of actual faith of most Americans.[x] Most Americans do think of themselves as ‘Christian’. Many do not even know that they are wrong, that they are actually Moralistic Therapeutic Deists.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) is:
· the actual faith expressed in too many ‘Christian’ hymns, songs, and choruses.[xi]
· the standard of the kind of ‘devotional’ books that take a Bible verse out of context and add a nice story.
· what too many church members and seekers want to hear and feel from their pastors and churches.[xii]
· profitable for makers and sellers of bumper stickers, posters, bookmarks, T-shirts and similar ‘Christian’ gift items.
· quite appealing and attractive to many people.
· the basis of some ‘Christian’ multimedia presentations.[xiii]
· already common in the Philippines and in at least some of the Filipino-Chinese churches I have been able to visit.
· not historic orthodox Biblical Christianity. At best, it is syncretism.[xiv]
How can we make sure that our mental and spiritual defenses are adequate for discerning Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, rejecting it, and following Christ instead?
- Classic Reformation creeds, catechisms, and good systematic evangelical theologies provide one important way to understand (orthodoxy), live (orthopraxis), and enjoy (orthopathos) Biblical Trinitarian Christianity.
- Church history can provide vital and clarifying analogies and perspectives.
- The best way, of course, is the way of the Bereans in Acts 17:11. The systematic exegetical study of whole books of the Bible and the systematic exposition of them is the best way to develop the defenses we need to reject Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and to learn through the gospel of Jesus Christ the way of the Triune God.[xv]
In 1985, the Apo Hiking Society released the song American Junk. It was very popular in the Philippines at that time. The song included the line “American Junk – get it out of my system.”[xvi] Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is American junk. For the sake of the glory of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, let us get it out of our systems!
[i] They contacted 3,370 young people randomly via telephone for brief surveys, followed up by 267 in-depth personal interviews. For additional details of the previous and ongoing studies of the National Study of Youth and Religion, see their website: http://www.youthandreligion.org. A book about their research findings was published: Smith, Christian and Denton, Melinda Lundquist, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, 2005, Oxford University Press, Inc. A version of the chapter “Summary Interpretation: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” from this book is available for free at http://www.ptsem.edu/iym/lectures/2005/Smith-Moralistic.pdf. (as of 1/29/09). A version of their chapter “Conclusive Unscientific Postscript,” also from the book, is also available for free at http://www.ptsem.edu/iym/lectures/2005/Smith-Implications.pdf. (as of 1/29/09) PTSEM is the Princeton Theological Seminary. The quotations used in this article are copied (very convenient!) from the downloaded chapters.
[ii] The researchers, not the young people themselves, named it Moralist Therapeutic Deism.
[iii] Smith-Moralistic.pdf (see bibliographic details in endnote 1, above)
[iv] This is what they mean by ‘moralistic.’ (Biblical morals are far different and higher than this definition.)
[v] This is what they mean by ‘therapeutic.’
[vi] This is what they mean by ‘deism.’ They acknowledge that this is not the usual definition of ‘deism.’
[vii] The five beliefs are copied from Smith-Moralistic.pdf (see bibliographic details in endnote 1, above). The footnotes are my comments.
[viii] What is the best way to reach young people? By converting their parents and other significant adults in their lives from MTD to Biblical Christianity through the in-depth communication of the whole gospel. See Smith-Implications.pdf for this and other suggestions.
[ix] Smith-Moralistic.pdf (see bibliographic details in endnote 1, above)
[x] For example, consider the following recent quote: “Smith [and Denton]’s 2005 book… gave us a memorable description of America’s true majority religion.” Ted Olsen, Managing Editor, “Inside CT: Comfortable Guilt”, Editorial in Christianity Today, December 2008, page 7.
[xi] For example, it is easy to sing even a hymn like “Trust and Obey” in a way that supports MTD. Read the book of Romans, where the phrase ‘the obedience of faith’ (‘believe and obey’ in the NLT) occurs in Romans 1:5 and 16:26 and well summarizes how both Jews and Gentiles access the gospel or the righteousness of God as described in the whole book of Romans. It is all for God’s glory, according to Paul in Romans and in the immediate context of those two verses. In contrast, the hymn “Trust and Obey” is about ‘being happy in Jesus’ without clearly communicating who Jesus is or what he has done. I humbly suggest that we change the words of the chorus to “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to bring glory to Jesus, but to trust and obey.” I will let you suggest how to change the verses of that hymn (and other songs) to more clearly communicate Biblical Christianity.
[xii] and seminaries
[xiii] In 2006 some of my BSOP students asked me to view the video Facing the Giants because they were not sure how to understand or analyze it. I did so. I noticed that concepts like ‘Christ’, ‘Jesus’, ‘sin’, ‘crucifixion’, ‘resurrection’, ‘justification’, ‘sanctification’, ‘Holy Spirit’, etc. were not included in the movie. The main passages of scripture used in the movie were taken out of context and applied in ways not compatible with those original contexts. There were in fact no ‘giants’ in the movie: no poverty, no AIDS, no world hunger, no pollution, no graft and corruption, no unreached people groups, etc. I told my students that the video might reach ‘theism.’ Now I would answer their question differently. The movie is a nearly perfect example of MTD. I do not mind it being used in evangelism and discipleship, as long as it is used in contrast to real Biblical orthodox evangelical Christianity. In other words, the video needs to be introduced and followed with a clear in-depth presentation of the gospel.
[xiv] “Syncretism of the gospel occurs when its essential character is confused with elements from the culture. In syncretism the gospel is lost as the church simply confirms what is already present in the culture.” Grenz, S., Guretzki, D., & Nordling, C. F., Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999, page 111. At worst it is idolatry, worshipping a mental image (not wood or stone) of God based on human ideas, not the Triune God revealed in the Bible.
[xv] Seminaries like BSOP are sometimes viewed as being irrelevant by those following and promoting MTD. They are correct. Greek, Hebrew, Hermeneutics, Church History, Old Testament, New Testament, Biblical and Systematic Theology, and similar core seminary courses are necessary and relevant for real Christianity, but not for the ‘Christian’ version of MTD.