By 1800, traditional Deism was on the wane, its concepts either incorporated into other theological movements (most prominently in Unitarianism) or replaced in the popular imagination by the resurgence of both atheism and orthodox Christianity. Yet as the sociologist Christian Smith found just a few years ago, significant numbers of American Christians, especially adolescents, are only “tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition” and instead embrace “Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, according to Smith, is the set of beliefs that includes:
1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life, except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
The “deism” of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is only loosely connected to the Deism that was moderately popular from the 17th to the 19th centuries. While both versions of deism acknowledge a supreme deity and the reward for good behavior, the modern type makes no mention of punishment for the wicked. Both also agree that what God expects from us is to act morally toward our fellow man. But they differ quite distinctly in their attitudes toward our inability to live up to our moral duties. Traditional Deists such as Edward Herbert of Cherbury were still influenced enough by Christianity to both acknowledge the concept of sin (“we ought to be sorry for our sins and repent of them”) and express the need for contrition and repentance (“Divine goodness doth dispense rewards and punishments both in this life and after”).
The modern therapeutic deists, in contrast, believe their chief obligation is to their own happiness. If they have any conception of sin, it is likely to be individualistic, as in one famous definition: “Being out of alignment with my values.”
Age of Enlightenment to the Age of the Therapeutic
What accounts for the resurrection of Deism in the late 20th century? How did traditional Deism transmute into Moralistic Theraputic Deism? The answer lies in the middle term—Therapuetic—and the man who almost single-handedly ushered in the Age of Therapy: Sigmund Freud.
As theologians Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson have explained,
The God of the Deists was a far-away, radically transcendent deity. Yet the Enlightenment outlook worked to bind God closely to nature and human reason, so closely that God’s transcendence came to be dissolved in the immanence of the divine within the orderly realm of creation and reason. Rather than look beyond the world to find God, the Enlightenment ultimately turned within.
Although both traditional and modern deists (as well as the New Atheists) dissolve transcendence into immanence, embedding it within creation and reason, the effect and emphasis differ considerably for each. The Deists in the Age of Enlightenment admired Jesus as a moral exemplar but rejected him as the Son of God. In contrast, the deists of the Therapeutic Age have no qualms with confessing the deity of Christ—as long as doing so will improve their own well-being and happiness.
We All Speak Freudian
And that is where Freud enters the picture. Freud’s enduring legacy on folk psychology is twofold. Most significant is his turn to the hidden recesses of a person’s inner being, rather than the outer influences of community and environment, in order to uncover the true self and determine what is necessary for emotional health and happiness. Second is the language either invented by or colored by Freudian psychoanalysis: denial, projection, repression, sublimation, id, ego, fetish, fixation, introversion, anal-retentive, neurotic, Oedipus complex, pleasure-principle. These are the terms that Americans—a perpetually self-diagnosing people—use to communicate with and understand our neighbors, and ourselves.
This therapeutic lingo forms the conceptual basis by which other technical jargons—such as theological terms—are interpreted. Consider the term “closure,” the idea that after trauma or loss, individuals have an innate need for a firm solution rather than enduring ambiguity. Closure is a concept derived from Gestalt therapy with no parallel in Scripture, yet it is often considered a necessary precondition for forgiveness, particularly forgiveness concerning a grave injustice. The idea that God would expect us to forgive without first experiencing closure strikes the Therapeutic Deist as akin to emotional nihilism.
These therapeutic concepts also have a way of coloring our understanding of God’s self-revelation. In Isaiah 48:11, God claims to seek his own glory: “For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.” Such passages confuse the modern Deist, for they make God appear to be—to use another term coined by Freud—a “narcissist.”
More often, though, therapeutic language wholly replaces theological concepts. In his study, Smith notes that the teenagers used the phrase “feel happy” more than 2,000 times in the interviews. None of them used the terms “justification” or “being justified,” “sanctification” or “being sanctified.” The “grace of God” was explicitly mentioned only three times.
“The language, and therefore experience,” Smith found, “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.” Smith views this not as a sign that Christianity is being secularized, but that it is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or being replaced by a quite different religious faith.
How We Make Deists Instead of Disciples
This new form of deism is particularly distressing because churches have aided in its spread. As Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, recently noted,
The elephant in the Christian church today is that we are not seeing robust disciple-making taking place. You are more likely to find evangelicals affirming that there is more than one way to get to heaven today than you were 15 or 20 years ago. Why? We’ve done great at getting them in the door and occupying their spiritual appetites, but we’ve done terrible at actually growing them up and grounding them in the faith.
Although no tradition is entirely without blame, evangelicalism bears a large share of the responsibility. Many of our churches have wholly embraced therapeutic language and concepts while all but abandoning the role of catechesis.
Almost every nondenominational congregation has a worship leader, and yet only a few have a catechist. Sunday school classes may teach the young the stories of the Bible, but few provide in-depth teaching on theology. New adult believers have it even worse. They may be asked to attend a brief class, but doctrine is given short shrift, if presented at all. If they do ask about the content of their faith, what they are expected to believe, they may be given a pamphlet or a book recommendation and a map to the nearest Christian bookstore.
While we have mastered the task of making converts we are by and large failing, as Stetzer says, in our duty of making disciples. Teaching the basic doctrines of the faith is not an optional task, a project that we can undertake if we have time left over from our prayer breakfasts and small group meetings—it is a matter of eternal consequence. We no longer have the luxury of ignoring our responsibility to provide this desperately needed doctrinal instruction. We will either start making Christian disciples or our culture will continue to make deists who have a fondness for Jesus.