Source: Wikimedia Commons

May 5, 2015

What to Do about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?

In an earlier article I wrote about “moralistic therapeutic deism,” as described by Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and Princeton Seminary professor Kenda Dean. The focus was on diagnosing the problem: What is this new “almost Christian” religion, and how did it become so prevalent among teenagers and young adults?

It was the parents, Dean contends, that taught their children to think this way: that God acts principally by giving rules for individuals to find happiness and be nice to others, that he helps individuals feel good about themselves when they encounter trouble, and that otherwise he leaves people to their own devices. Even the church bears responsibility for fostering this sub-Christian attitude.

So if we want to call young people to Christian faith, it falls to adults in the church to change their approach. But how? How do we present a Gospel that is so much more than the watered-down message of moralistic therapeutic deism?

Kenda Dean offers an abundance of ideas in her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church:

  • We need wider adult involvement with youth in the church. Instead of sending teenagers off to a room labeled “youth group” under the supervision of a specialist “youth minister,” their parents and other lay adults and other pastors need to take responsibility for their spiritual formation. Dean recommends one-on-one relationships of “spiritual apprenticeship.”
  • Adults have to model for youth a “conversational Christianity.” They need to tell “the peculiar Christian God-story”–especially the parts about Jesus. They should give testimony to how God has made a difference in their lives.
  • The church needs to impart to youth a “missionary impulse”: that Christian faith isn’t just about their own inner development, but also about reaching out in transforming love for the world around them.
  • The church needs to invite more youth into “liminal experiences” apart from their daily lives. Experiences such as Christian camps and mission trips, by challenging young people with unfamiliar and disorienting circumstances, prompt critical self-reflection that can lead to a deeper faith.
  • The church should place renewed emphasis on spiritual practices of prayer, Bible reading, and contemplation through which faith can grow.

All these are suggestions worthy of our consideration. Many churches would be helped if they took Kenda Dean’s advice. But there’s one piece missing here. Dean concentrates on the techniques of faith transmission; she rarely attends to the content of the faith being transmitted.

This prioritization of technique is characteristic of many oldline Protestant and even evangelical circles, where doctrine has become a dirty word. Dean seems to share this suspicion. She warns against a “vexing fallacy,” which is “the assumption that there is only one way to interpret Christianity’s core beliefs, and that this interpretation must be taught if teenagers are to adopt a consequential Christian faith of their own.”

Dean posits a false dichotomy when she insists that the purpose of instruction in the faith “is not primarily to foster beliefs about Jesus but the cultivation of trust in him.” She has little use for apologetics upholding the truth of the Gospel. Instead the Princeton professor favors a kind of Christian testimony that “neither dissects an argument, nor makes one; it is more inclined to sing.”

But which song that we shall sing? Is it “amazing grace … that saved a wretch like me,” or something smoother? Which is the “God-story” that we’re telling our youth? About which Jesus are we talking? Is it the awesome Savior, the Word become flesh, whom Scripture presents? Or is it some other Jesus more suited to post-modern sensibilities?

Similarly, what is our mission as we go out into the world? Is it Jesus’ Great Commission or something less controversial? What are the lessons we would have our youth learn from their “liminal experiencies”? What is the end to which our spiritual practices are directed?

There is no getting around questions like these. There is no getting around the necessity for sound Christian doctrine.

In espousing a “general principle of inclusiveness” in biblical interpretation, Dean seems to downplay the possibility that there might be false readings–heresies, to use the language of the ancient church–that would lead our children astray. Yet at the start of her book she identifies one such false teaching, moralistic therapeutic deism, that is doing great damage. Surely there are other temptations that must be resisted with equal determination.

Resisting those doctrinal departures is part of our mission at Theology Matters. We resist by affirming the great Gospel that we have received. That Gospel is the content of our response to moralistic therapeutic deism–and to every other human thought pattern that falls short of God’s glorious truth. We must lay hold of that Gospel more firmly as we practice many of the faith transmission techniques that Kenda Dean suggests.

This article originally appeared on the website of Theology Matters

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