Christian Smith

Worshiping the “God” of MTD: Modern Idolatry, Ancient Roots

This is a piece I wrote a couple of years ago for a certain magazine, but it was not published. So you, dear readers, may enjoy it now. 

A little over a decade ago, the sociologist of religion, Christian Smith, examined the lives of religious contemporary American teenagers, interviewing, among others, young Christians. What he discovered was very revealing.

According to Smith, most of those he spoke with held views about God and their relationship to him, which, whilst bearing a faint resemblance to the religion in which they had grown up, were, in many ways, dramatically different – owing more to contemporary cultural and spiritual norms than to ancient religious traditions. Smith argued that these beliefs formed a kind of spiritual ‘complex’, and was the de facto (and dominant) religion amongst teens in the United States. Smith christened this phenomenon, ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ (or MTD for short).

The concept of MTD needs some unpacking. Smith contended that religious teens held to several fixed points in their creed: God, generically defined, wants all people to “be good, nice and fair to each other,” with goodness here being defined in a vague sort of way; God also, governs the world at a distance, though he might not intervene all that frequently; when he does intervene, it is to help people solve problems that confront in their lives; the chief aim in life is to develop a positive self-image – something that God is supposed to guarantee; and that ‘good’ people will go to heaven. For the teens Smith interviewed, these elements were axiomatic, amounting to belief in a laissez-faire god, whose interventions are chiefly therapeutic, who asks people to practice a fairly banal kind of morality, and who guarantees – based upon adherence to that morality – a place of enjoyment in the hereafter.

What was really astounding was Smith’s discovery that most of his subjects had not developed their ideas independently; rather, they had imbibed them from the religious communities of which were a part. This led Smith to contend that they were simply reflections of a wider phenomenon, prevalent in mosques, synagogues and (importantly) churches. If that is so, then MTD encompasses many more people, not just those Smith interviewed.

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Whilst the modern world – with its consumerism, deep individualism and transactional view of so much of life – is particularly conducive to the propagation of something like MTD, we should not make the mistake of thinking that some “golden age” of religion lies somewhere beyond the range of our own historical grasp. And, more to the point, neither Christians individually, nor the church corporately, has been immune to the phenomenon. I am reminded, for example, of the great popularity that the Prosperity “Gospel” has achieved in many putative Christian communities: trust in God, and all your (material) dreams will come true! A generation or two ago, families may have gone to church, not because they discerned a divine summons to be a part of a new, spiritual community, but because of cultural constraints. The real goal, it seems, was not obedience to God, the ground and centre of all that is, but cultural integration and local respectability. Similarly, when Christianity was the dominant civil religion in the West, developing contacts within a local church community could do wonders for an aspiring businessman. Again, God was seen an instrument, and religion merely functional – lacking, perhaps, truth and significance in itself, and reduced to a means towards a more fundamental (in this case, economic) end.

Such a phenomenon stretches back even further, all the way to the very dawning of Christianity. About two decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul had to wrestle with a raft of problems besetting the church in Corinth. Called to live out a life of holiness and obedience before the God that had liberated them, the Corinthian Christians had tried to fuse the Gospel with pagan ideas of religion and spirituality. Far from seeing the Gospel – and the God who stood behind it – as something to which they were called to yield, the Corinthians viewed it as something that could be used to get ahead. This is reflected, amongst other things, in what Paul says about personality cults (1 Cor 1:10-12, 3:1-9), sexual immorality (5:1-6), and self-aggrandizement through the exercise of spiritual gifts (Chs. 12-14). In all these ways, the Corinthians had fallen into the trap of treating God as secondary, as little more than an instrument that could be manipulated for other ends.

It is for these reasons that contemporary individualism can only ever function as one type of explanation for the phenomenon of MTD. Sure, it can well flourish in such an environment: a spiritual creed that emphatically places the individual at its centre certainly plays well to our present age. But if what I have said is true, then using God, or the divine, for oneself is not merely the preserve of the modern age; using God as an instrument – a kind of secondary tool – is something to which people in every age are prone. Perhaps, beneath the varied manifestations of superficial spirituality and counterfeit piety lies the primal reality of the humanity’s propensity towards idolatry – of reducing the transcendent God to a human fabrication, which can then be tamed and exploited. Paul, of course, knew this well, when he excoriated humanity for its tendency to exchange the glory of the immortal Creator for bits of his creation (Romans 1:20-23, 25). Even the Corinthians, living so soon after the events of Easter, had constructed for themselves an idol that bore only faint resemblance to the God of the Gospel that Paul preached. Whether it’s in its ancient or modern guise, idolatry succeeds in turning God – and the spirituality that flows from him – into a mere function of a person’s own psychological interests and desires.

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How different this is from an authentically Christian view of God and ourselves. As I was thinking about MTD, three main differences stood out, which together have profound implications for the construction of a genuine Christian spirituality. First, MTD seems to reflect a very ego-centric view of spirituality and religion, and is to that extent well-suited to our present, individualistic age. This is seen particularly in the way it shapes a person’s ethical outlook. Whilst MTD makes room for fairness and niceties, it promotes a kind of ‘no-cost’ morality, which will only go so far as the needs and interests of the individual will allow. As Smith discovered even this system of morality was, for many of his subjects, another means of attaining subjective wellbeing: ‘do good, feel good’, in other words. Neither (divinely-mandated) goodness, nor the image-bearing objects of that goodness, are ends in themselves; on the view of MTD, they are instruments for the more self-centred goal of bolstering personal self-esteem.

Christian ethics is much more radical than that, for two main reasons. On the one hand, it is founded upon the figure of Jesus himself, who gave us a model of sacrificial service before God and others. Where MTD uses the self as the yardstick of what is right and good, for Christian spirituality, it is the character and life of Jesus that grounds all ethics. Similarly, where MTD is focused primarily upon the individual, Christianity is focused, in large part, upon others. Many of Jesus’ parables have this flavour about them. He talks, for example, of the “wise and faithful” person as characterised by a willingness, in deference to God, to serve others with what he or she has (e.g., Luke 12:42ff).

It’s hard, too, not to think of what Paul says when he writes to the church in Philippi. The believers there should adopt an attitude like that of Jesus himself, who “made himself nothing”, “taking the…nature of a servant”, and “humbling himself…to death…on a cross” on behalf of others (Philippians 2:5-8). This represents a far more comprehensive, far more sweeping, approach to the ethical – indeed, the righteous – life. It is a life that revolves, not around the needs of self, but around the needs of others, even if that means sacrificing what is cherished or treasured. True Christian spirituality asks a person to order his or her life around an enduring commitment to the needs of others. Indeed, Paul’s exhortation in Philippians points to the dramatic nature of this commitment, as the Christian seeks to emulate Christ: it must lead to an imitative willingness to put aside any claims one might have, whether those claims relate to one’s status, possessions, comforts – even, according to the passage, one’s own life.

On the other hand, the kind of ethical change that authentic Christian spirituality demands – indeed, enables – moves far beyond the essentially affirmative formula of MTD. Given that MTD rests on the individual’s moral estimations for its ethical centre, it can never be truly transformative. Jesus’ well-known exhortation that one must be “born again” in order to “see” God (John 3:3) points subtly in this direction: the present, transient world can never provide the resources for a genuinely spiritual life; one must “begin again”, as it were, with the life of the Christian representing such a break from the past that it can be described as a new birth. In this, we must remember the centrality of the figure of Christ: he functions, not only as the paradigm for authentic Christian living, but as the foundation making it possible in the first place. Christian orthodoxy calls for a complete re-ordering of a person’s life, ethically and spiritually, as a person’s old nature is left behind, and a new nature is adopted (Col 3:5, 10). And this can only come about because of the pioneering work of Jesus himself. It is, of course, through him that one may undergo that change, as one is taken from the realm of sin and death and corruption, and placed under the aegis of him who sets the pattern for true, image-bearing living. MTD, by contrast, makes no room for the fundamental renovation of a person’s nature, nor can it; it can only encourage superficial change at best.

The second main difference I discerned is deeply related to the first. The ego-centric nature of MTD implies that God is also treated as a means to an end. God is reduced to a kind of “cosmic butler” (Smith), there largely to satisfy our wants and resolve our problems. God is ‘consumed’, so to speak, providing a product – in this case, spiritual harmony and psychological peace – to people whose main concern is to derive from religion whatever they can to help them along in life. Again, it’s difficult to overstate the difference here from a genuine Christian view of God. If true religion calls for service to others as a clear demonstration of piety, then it also sees obedience to God – from which flows the call to give of oneself to one’s fellows – as the greatest good. What the Gospel does is upend our relationship to the transcendent. God is not a “cosmic butler”, but the Lord of the cosmos; Christ, as the one who uniquely reveals this God, is the master; his claim over our lives – leading inevitably to the summons to self-giving love – is total and comprehensive. Moreover, he is not some kind of instrument, or the means to a more fundamental end, precisely because he is, in himself, the ultimate end and fulfilment of all things. He is utterly transcendent — sovereign over everything — whilst also constituting the existential ground of all that is. As Paul put it, when he preached to the pagans of Athens, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Christian spirituality remains adrift unless it is tethered to an acknowledgement of God as the One upon whom everything exists, and from whom all life flows. He is the beginning and the end, the source and the summit, of all existence. Trying to use God to reach something that one sees as the ultimate goal (as MTD implicitly does) is like a person who, having lost a torch in the middle of the day, decides to use the brilliance of the sun to search for it – hoping then they will be able to find that little source of light, and use it for the illumination they so desperately seek.

At any rate, the deism of MTD ironically undercuts whatever comfort one might seek from this kind of god. He is a distant deity: neither greatly concerned with the world’s affairs (save for wanting to guarantee psychological stability in certain people), nor driven to do anything, fundamentally, about it. He is the absentee-landlord of eighteenth-century deism, with a little bit of Oprah-inspired therapeutic wisdom thrown in for good measure. This brings me to the third main difference between the creed of MTD and authentic Christian belief. Whilst the God of Christian theology and tradition is transcendent, he is most certainly not distant. For it is in his transcendence – his freedom from all constraints, both material and metaphysical – that he is able, at the same time, to be intimately involved in the affairs of his creation. Reading through, say, John’s Gospel, shows us the twin truths of God’s supremacy and closeness, upon which a robust Christian spirituality may be built. He is, on the one hand, the Creator of all things, who through his Word has fashioned and animated this world (John 1:1-3). But he is also the heavenly Father, who condescends to those who are his, welcoming them into the intimate fellowship of the Trinitarian community (John 14:23; 17:26). What follows is an abiding, deep-rooted joy, based upon the enduring presence of the Creator himself. It is, in other words, the goal and focal point of true spirituality. With its offers of superficial succour, tied as they are to the vagaries of a person’s psychological state, the God of MTD represents a parody of what union with the divine is meant to look like.

* * *

MTD, then, is simply the latest in a litany of creeds and spiritual ‘packages’ offering the mirage of piety and religious devotion. At any rate, if we were to follow its underlying logic, we’d be left with a domesticated deity, denuded of his sovereign majesty. Any claim he might want to make upon us would be empty, since we would ultimately be at the centre of our spiritual lives. Such a relationship appears to be a far cry from what both Scripture and Christian tradition have affirmed about the Creator: he who brought the worlds into being with his command, who declared that he is the self-existent “I AM”, and who confronted Job in the storm. The temptation towards idolatry which confronts every age is something that also confronts the church as it seeks to represent God faithfully and genuinely.

The challenge for us, I suppose, is to humbly yield to the God who has created us, and upon whom we utterly depend. We must allow ourselves to be shaped by this God, who calls us – summons us – to be his. We cannot afford to fall into the trap of trying to look beyond him for whatever he can provide for us. He is, as I said, the ultimate foundation of everything else, such that there is no ‘beyond’. That way lies the false gods of human imagination, as do all efforts to ‘massage’ our image of the divine according to whatever cultural trends may presently be in vogue. The God Christians are called to follow cannot be tamed by human designs, or be made to fit into convenient packages, for the very reason that he is the One within whose plans and purposes we are called to fit. Such an acknowledgment is part of the very fabric of authentic Christian spirituality. Being a Christian, and pursuing a life of discipleship, requires the willingness to enter into a narrative that is not of one’s own making, one that has been opened up by the epochal work of Christ: a “world” that establishes the boundaries of truth and reality, morality and holiness. It can be difficult and demanding, in that we are not the ultimate legitimators of what constitutes the good. However, with that acknowledgement comes the opportunity to reflect and embody the ultimate Ground of all goodness – to live and act according to our (divinely-intended) natures.

To embody a fully-orbed life of Christian faith, we cannot fall into the trap of ‘consuming’ religion in order simply to satisfy some kind of spiritual dimension. As we approach God – as we approach the crucified and resurrected Christ – we are confronted with One who upends our assumptions about our relation to the divine, and subverts all of the idols that we may have constructed. For God is the One over every dimension, public and private, which compose the rather messy projects we call our lives. When we adopt this kind of posture, and clothe ourselves in this kind of thinking, we will find that those longings for fulfilment, transcendence, completeness and calm – all worthwhile and legitimate in themselves – are paradoxically met. It is a life of death and resurrection, of radical transformation, where one’s old existence is swallowed up by newness of life (cf. 1 Cor 15:53-54). It is something that contemporary constructions of spirituality, reflecting as they do the strictures and finitude of the present world, could never hope to emulate.

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