Updated: Jun 22, 2020
The other day I came across a phrase that I first discovered in seminary. Though I heard people talk about it, I didn’t fully understand it. But after coming across it again, I now realize that many of my conversations with people, inside and outside of the Church, could be boiled down to the phrase: Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD).
And what maybe even more surprising is that you very well could be a Moral Therapeutic Deist.
“Moral Therapeutic Deism,” is a phrase that was created by sociologists Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton in their book 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. They summarized MTD in five points:
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.
The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
Good people go to heaven when they die.
How does this sound to you? Is there anything you’d disagree with, or does it fit your worldview and theology?
These five principles are held by many in our culture, including a significant percentage of people who call themselves Christian. I think many of my classmates at the Christian college I attended would agree to these five statements, and several of my seminary peers would as well. I’ve had countless conversations with friends over the years that would adhere to these tenets of faith. Even discussions during Bible studies and with longtime churchgoers have unconsciously revolved around MTD. Many of the arguments I hear against certain passages of the Bible are rooted in how they make people uncomfortable, or better yet, how the passage pushes back on their unconscious MTD worldview.
Many believe the Christian faith naturally holds these five positions, and they are distraught when they hear a sermon that directly goes against it. I think about how the Catholic Church has been characterized as outdated and out of touch with modern people for not holding these five beliefs.
The point of this article is not to get into a lengthy theological debate. There are plenty of articles out there that have addressed that. Instead, I simply want to introduce you to MTD if you’ve never heard about it, and give a very broad reason for why it is not good for us Christians.
First, it is completely focused on the individual person. This shouldn’t surprise us since we live in an individualistic society, but it will shape our expectations of God. For MTD, God is distant and not involved in people's lives (which is Deism), but if God is involved then he is at the beck and call of the individual.
God is a butler who attends to our needs or a superhero who is expected to save the day when something has gone wrong. But that has not been the understanding of Jews or Christians ever! The biblical story is centered on God’s action in the world and in our lives. He is the primary actor, not us! Humanity has fallen from grace through our own disobedience, and God has come to the save of his people, first by revealing his will for us and the world through the Law and the Prophets and then ultimately through the Incarnation with Jesus.
A good Moral Therapeutic Deist would squirm at that last sentence. They might say,
Fall from grace? Why are you talking about sin? I’m a good person. I try my best to do nice things for people.
Who are you to say I’ve been disobedient? I’ll be the judge of my actions.
And don’t start talking to me about the Bible. That book is messed up. Have you ever read it? It has war and rape and adultery and that’s supposed to be a holy book?
Where a modern person is naturally suspicious about authority and institutions (for some good reasons I might add), but that doesn’t mean you throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Church is filled with broken people and is run by broken people, but in the end, it is God’s Church, not ours. The Bible has some very strange and disturbing scenes, but we cannot judge them on our modern throne without looking in the mirror to the atrocities that are happening around us (modern-day genocide, human trafficking, and sex slavery just to name a few).
The Bible is not just the story of the Jewish people or early Christians, but it is our story too. When we read these stories, we realize that humanity hasn’t changed that much. We are still jealous, vindictive, and selfish people who, by the way, God loves and died for on the cross.
Even as messed up as we are God calls us to himself. But for that to be the case we must lay aside our own ambitions and desires and follow him. We must realize that we are sinful and broken and in need of a savior. If we deny this then how do we explain the actions of Stalin and Hitler? How about Idi Amin and the more recent actions of Bashar al-Assad? How can we talk about being good, moral people when we have the capacity of doing terrible things to one another?
We are broken. Humanity is broken and we must submit to God’s good and gracious will for our lives if we want to find any answers to the human predicament. The Bible is filled with stories of broken people, but they are the same people God was trying to work through, just like he is trying to work through all of us. But to do so we must let go and submit to him. Modern people do not like to submit to anything or anyone. It is in our bones to resist this type of authoritative call. But though it sounds like oppression, it is, in fact, perfect freedom.
And that’s the paradox to the Christian journey. To be free we must submit and even sacrifice.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship).
Bonhoeffer not only said these words, but he ultimately lived them out. He was executed by the Nazis two weeks before American troops liberated the concentration camp where he was held.
Bonhoeffer reminds us that the central goal of life is not “to be happy and to feel good about oneself.” Rather the goal and purpose of life is to do the will of God. The Lord’s Prayer explicitly says, “Thy [God] will be done.” As one friend of mine says, “We were made to love God and to serve God.” It’s as simple as that, and yet it takes a lifetime to figure out how to do that.
Life is not about the individual's goals and accomplishments, but how we can grow closer to the God who loves us and sacrificed himself so that we might be with him.
Now let's turn to the fifth point, “Good people go to heaven when they die.”
It may be helpful to first talk about the ancient Israelites. They believed in a place called Sheol. It’s referenced a number of times in the psalms.
Psalm 6:5, “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?”
Psalm 49:14, “Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd; straight to the grave they descend, and their form shall waste away; Sheol shall be their home.”
It was where all the dead dwelt in, what Fleming Rutledge describes as “a shadowy subexistent state” where there was no hope for a meaningful life after death. Instead, it was expected, no matter how faithful or wicked one was that Sheol was their final destination.
It’s hard for us to fathom that the Jewish people would adhere to such strict laws their whole life, and not expect a reward. There was no prize at the end of all this. It was their honor and duty as a Jew to abide by God’s law.
As Rutledge says, “It is one of the most admirable aspects of the Hebrew faith. The eternal God was worthy in and of God’s self. Individual reward beyond death had nothing to do with it. The community had the responsibility and privilege to continue to praise God for his marvelous acts on behalf of his people in this life” (The Crucifixion).
For us, heaven is seen as a reward for good behavior. It’s the icing on the cake to a life well-lived. But that was never the point. The hope and longing for the Christian soul is to be with the LORD wherever he is.
One preacher I know posed it this way, “Would you rather be in heaven with the devil, or in hell with Jesus?” The point has never been about heaven but it has always been about being with God.
Being a good, moral person is an excellent thing to strive for, our society would be better off if everyone were like this, but that’s not exactly what God is asking of us. We can be a good person, and still be selfish, jealous, and prideful.
God isn’t asking us to simply be good but to be faithful followers.
And if that’s the case then I just don’t think every good, moral person automatically wants to be with God, just read C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. The eternal reward is the relationship with our Creator. That's appealing to some but not to all. It means that we are not Lord of our lives, and we must obey the One who is the LORD.
In conclusion, Moral Therapeutic Deism is dangerous because it is so subtle. It plays on our feelings (that's the Therapeutic aspect of it) and it negates a strong reliance on reason or even the authority of the Bible. According to MTD our personal feelings are the best ways to understand the world, and how we should act in the world. If I don't like it then I won't do it.
MTD is as common as the air we breathe, it is the modern theological water we are swimming in. What's important is that we recognize this is our current reality, and that we have some thoughtful answers to the good, moral people who hold these views.
I'll end with a prayer from St. Augustine that sums up this article quite well...
you command me to ask,
grant that I may receive what you give.
You have told me to seek,
let me be happy in finding.
You have bidden me to knock,
I pray, open for me.
Graciously direct and govern all my thoughts and actions,
that, for the future,
I may serve you
and entirely devote myself to obeying you.
and draw me to yourself,
that I may henceforth be yours
by obedience and love,
since I am already yours,
as your creature.
Yours, O Lord,
you live and reign forever and ever. Amen.
Bonhoeffer photo here.