Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

I had a moment this week where I fell into the magnetic force field of moralistic therapeutic deism. It seemed a good idea to repost this piece I originally wrote in October 2013—

My husband Lowell recently read a book entitled, Soul Searching, by Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton from Duke University. In it the authors interview a significant number of teenagers from across the United States from various faith backgrounds, across varying denominational lines. They wanted to know what today’s youth believe about God. They wanted to explore faith among the next generation.

I find their results staggering and sad.

It turns out that what teenagers believe can best be described by the coined term, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”.

Let me break it down for you.

We’ve taught our kids to be good citizens, to look out for each other, to be kind on the playground and in the classroom. We’ve asked them to be nice. We’ve asked them to embrace morality.

They also want to be healthy. They want to be happy and have fun. They want to feel good about themselves. They want a God that gives them free therapy. He shows up when life is rough and he talks them through it. The teenager lies on the couch; God sits nearby in a chair with a clipboard in his hands and he asks them questions, “How did that make you feel?”; “Tell me about that.” It’s nothing more than holy therapy.

Teenagers certainly believe that God exists. He created the world but then he stepped back a little. He’s a little distant, perhaps, but at least he’s on call. He got things started but will only intervene when we call him up like the genie from the bottle. Today’s youth are deists.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

In and of themselves these things aren’t bad. It’s nice to be nice. God does provide healing and of course he’s attentive to our needs when we call upon him.

But surely there is more than that? Moral Therapeutic Deism reduces us to a superficial self-absorbed pseudo-faith. There is no depth, no conviction, no substance to that type of belief structure.

I want more. I want more for my teenagers. I want much more for myself, for our family and our community of faith.

Of course I want our children to be nice…but I’d rather have them filled with a sense of God-himself. I want them marked by the fruits of God’s Spirit living in them: love and peace; patience, kindness, self-control. Certainly there’s morality in that but it’s more than that. There’s a radical essence to Jesus…when that permeates the hearts of my children they’ll be more than nice and well mannered, they’ll be radically like Jesus. That’s what I long for my kids.

Therapy is a wonderful tool that our family takes advantage of each week. However, God doesn’t exist to make my children feel good about themselves. He’s not their counselor on speed dial. He is God Almighty. He longs for them to be healthy and to experience joy but He also walks them through suffering. Suffering becomes the raw material for the “eternal weight of glory” that He has in mind for them. Through suffering they are transformed. I want them to push into their pain, not try to avoid it altogether. When they honestly admit their suffering, and walk into it, and through it, into true healing they allow themselves to become ‘wounded healers’ (as Henri Nouwen says) that can speak authentic truth into the hurting world around them. That sets them apart. No longer are they victims. They transcend their suffering and their story of healing becomes a story of redemption and hope for themselves and for others. In this way of honest living they avoid the faults and flaws of fatalism. They understand that pain has purpose and that that purpose includes restoration and redemption.

I long for my kids to know Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity. He’s the only thing that separates deists from theists. It’s true, God mysteriously and miraculously created the world (however long it took him, whatever method he employed) but He didn’t check out after creation. He continues to sustain and redeem. He is present and active, accomplishing His good purposes. The Holy Triune God is remarkable and relevant. He has a plan and an agenda that He is actively implementing. God became king in and through Christ Jesus and he is active in extending that kingdom until such time as Jesus returns and restores all things. He does woo the wounded to Himself and bind up the broken hearted. But he is far from distant. He is here and now. When you get too much talk about god, god, god and never get around to Jesus or the work of the Spirit you violate trinitarianism but you also violate theism, you violate God.

It seems to me that Moral Therapeutic Deism is what happens when we reduce all world religions to their lowest common denominator. It’s something we can all agree on. This isn’t limited to our teenagers. This is what we are all tempted to believe, it gets us through our days. This belief system sustains our sanity. It anchors us. It promotes world peace at the global level and civility on the playground at the local level.

Those of us raised across borders have the easy ability to speak with people of all faiths, all backgrounds, all socio-economic levels of comfort. It’s a skill-set that’s grown out of our story. It’s part of our heritage. In a sweet way that spirit of communicating across cultures reflects God’s own heart. Like any good parent, he longs for his children to get along. However with this skill, comes the particular temptation to tiptoe around the truth, to reduce our faith to its lowest common denominator. Consequently we speak of god and prayer, of hope and happiness with ease and yet we avoid Jesus, the Great Stumbling Block. Sadly we’ve learned to dodge the name of Jesus.

There has to be a way to maintain the depth of our faith and our true convictions and still talk respectfully with grace and kindness with others of other denominations, traditions or faiths. The Spirit of God leads us if we let him. We can engage vigorous debate, humourous banter and hearty conversation with kindness and self-control. We can show love and affection. We can choose to live out our faith in that space past morality and therapy and deism, where sincere Spirit-uality, a healthy transformative understanding of suffering and our Holy Triune God reside.

3 thoughts on “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

  1. Powerfully said. Thank you for holding up a mirror by which we can examine ourselves – allowing the Holy Spirit reveal subtle deceptions and thought patterns that may have crept into our belief systems.
    I like “They transcend their suffering and their story of healing becomes a story of redemption and hope for themselves and for others.” Well, I like and that and more.
    The things that you have written about here are relevant for young and old, and help us to pursue a mature faith.


  2. Thank you so much for this post that articulates how I’ve felt and what I believe to be true as well. I always enjoy your thoughts and the beauty with which you express them. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

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