Wednesday, March 3, 2010

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 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.

A few thoughts in response to this: My last post covered a good bit of the themes related to these issues, so no need to rehash everything here. Suffice it to say my assessment of Christianity in America is not too different from this one.

Thinking in some more blatantly philosophical terms, I think what we are seeing here is an effect of Enlightenment/Modernistic thinking that resounded so well with American individualism. This philosophical thinking attempted to exalt the abilities of man to solve all of life's problems through concrete and scientific means. This optimistic, triumphant spirit is very prevalent in American thought where it was embodied in the individualistic spirit of the American dream. However, most of the philosophical claims of this movement have been abandoned because of logical problems and because of the experience of the 21st century. This is much more obvious in Europe- it is hard to tell a continent that still remembers vividly the destruction of two world wars and the tenseness of the Cold War that mankind is getting better and our problems are being solved. However, the optimism of Modernism has also given way in United States to a variety of Post-Modern philosophies.

Here is what makes this all relevant to our discussion- Modernism is built on the concrete- science and engineering are the golden occupations of Modernism because the belief is that through these mechanisms all the answers that can be answered and all the problems that can be solved will be. The "can be" is important- purely abstract things- like morality, religion, etc.- these things cannot be solved according to modernistic thinking. So we have to either be skeptics or relativists about questions regarding religion or morality. Post-Modernism is often considered more radically relativistic. I am of the persuasion, however, that a positive post-modern philosophy that does not result in a radical relativism is possible (and maybe someday I will write out something that outlines such a philosophy… probably not, but lets be optimistic). This skepticism/relativism however 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 gets defined in terms of jumping through some religious hoops- reading the word and praying everyday, attending church regularly, etc.- all things that ensure that people who work in ministry (like I do) have jobs. Now, no doubt all of those things are beneficial. And no doubt godliness is beneficial. But is that our motivation for doing these things? For a religion that claims in most of its literature that selfishness is wrong and immoral, this whole scheme sounds very selfish!

One final consideration concerning the implications for all of this for our 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, I get the strong impression that there is an attempt to export American modes of thinking to these regions. Given everything we have said already about the cultural inconsistencies between what should be proper Christian doctrine and the popular American conception of 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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