Morgan Guyton appears to be disturbed by the way some people use the term “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” The term was coined by Christian Smith and Melinda Denton in their study of the spiritual life of teenagers. It was picked up and featured in Kenda Creasy Dean’s book Almost Christian. Dean describes the key attributes of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as:
- A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over 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 is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
Dean argues that most American teens are Moralistic Therapeutic Deists because their parents and churches teach them that faith.
Guyton is distressed by how MTD gets used in contemporary church conversations. I find the concept of MTD extremely valuable and wish to defend it and preserve it as a useful tool in thinking about the state of the church today. As such, I want to respond to Guyton’s post in detail, so I am quoting it in whole. (You can read it without my commentary here.)
When Christian Smith and Melinda Denton coined the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism” in 2005, it described the way that many Christian teenagers have grown up with fuzzy theology in which God is basically nice and he just wants people to be nice and happy.
This strikes me as a simplification of the thesis of Smith, Denton, and Dean’s work, but it gets the heart of the issue. So, let’s see where Guyton goes with this definition.
Since that time, MTD has become a catch-all slur to use against any theology which doesn’t make God sufficiently strange or mean. The way to prove that you haven’t succumbed to MTD is to interpret the Bible in a way that celebrates the opacity of inexplicably arbitrary divine commands, because if God’s law is entirely benevolent and concerned with human happiness, then it must be a secular humanist projection.
Wow. No punches pulled here. MTD is a slur used by people who want God to be strange and mean and praise God for being arbitrary and opaque. I’ve not read anyone who advances such arguments or such a view of God, but I presume Guyton has some people in mind as he writes this. Having dispatched these foes by making them seem ridiculous, he moves on to recruit Jesus into his argument.
But Jesus creates a problem for this Biblical interpretive strategy when he says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
In other words, Jesus is saying that the Sabbath exists so that humans can be happy and nice to each other. If he said this today, he would be accused of moralistic therapeutic deism. True, he didn’t use those trite words that we love to sneer at, but he’s making a specific claim about the benevolence of God’s law in contradistinction to the Pharisaic use of God’s law as a means of conspicuous self-sacrifice by which they earn their salvation. If the law’s purpose is to give you an opportunity to prove your superiority to others through self-denial, then its value would be compromised if everything the law was telling you to do was actually in your self-interest. By saying the law exists for our benefit, Jesus kicks over the pedestal of self-sacrifice the Pharisees had built for themselves to stand on.
I’m not convinced Guyton’s reading of Mark 2:27 – the Sabbath exists so we can be happy and be nice to each other – is the most persuasive interpretation of what Jesus meant when he said the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.
But that aside, what stands out for me is the way the critics of MTD are boxed into a tiny Pharisaic box in which they are, by association, described as sneering legalists who are only interested in vaunting their own moral superiority over others. They appear to be devotees of works righteousness as well.
Here’s the question: is it legitimate to apply what Jesus said paradigmatically to the Bible in general? “The Bible was made for man, not man for the Bible.” This would signify that God gives us the Bible’s teachings for the sake of our fulfillment rather than as an arbitrary test of our faithfulness. Jesus also tells us that “all the law and the prophets” have to do with the two Great Commandments to love God and love your neighbor. The way I understand this is that everything the Bible teaches us about how we are to live has to do with our ability to connect fully with God (happiness) and our ability to build safe and intimate community with one another (niceness).
Don’t we need a bit more thought about the meaning of community and what it means to be “nice”? Intimate community can often be about many things other than niceness. But even setting this aside, who argues that the purpose of the Bible is to serve as an arbitrary test of our faithfulness? The Bible, rather, is given to us for our sake. We Wesleyans believe it was given for our salvation, which is the same thing as saying it is given to us to make us holy. How can that be arbitrary?
God’s perfect nature means that He doesn’t have an insecure ego that needs to be satisfied by seeing us do things in a certain way just because He said so.
He does call us to conduct ourselves with honor and holiness, but for the sake of our benefit, so that “His love might be made perfect within us.”
In any case, I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to expect the Bible’s teachings to have to do with our ability to thrive as opposed to establishing some abstract order to which we’re supposed to conform so that God will have His ego stroked.
Okay, again, who is advancing the argument that he is knocking down here? And I’m not sure what he means by saying the Bible’s teachings should have to do with our ability to thrive. What kind of thriving are we speaking of here? All that talk about hating our life and taking up crosses, not to mention all those beheaded and burned martyrs, seem to make the word “thrive” a word in need of some definition.
If that makes me a moralistic therapeutic deist, then so is Jesus!
I’m not sure if Guyton is an advocate of MTD. The way to figure that out is pretty simple. Read the list of five attributes above and determine whether you affirm them. In either event, I’m quite confident that Jesus was not a deist of any kind.
In the end, I get the sense that Guyton is tilting at foes that I have not seen. I’m sure people can use the construct of MTD in ways that do not reflect the findings of the research. But I’m confused why — if that is happening — why such false use of MTD is not called out for its mistakes. That would be a fairly simple thing to do.