Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

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mtdthumbRecently, whilst preaching from Colossians 3 on an aspect of sanctification, I mentioned a term that I had recently heard, subsequently explored, and am now convinced should not be foreign to our own vocabulary. I learned that, despite the term being fresh to my own ears, the philosophy to which it refers to is not. The term sounds terribly technical and complicated, but its meaning is actually easy to grasp. “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” or MTD, refers to what “Christianity” has evolved into, practically, in many people’s minds today.

This term seems to have been coined by a sociologist, Christian Smith, who has written two recent books, which (in the opinion of Dr R. Albert Mohler) are seminal in their significance. Much subsequent thought and perspective will germinate from them.

The books written by Smith, entitled Soul Searching and Souls in Transition, detail some research that has been done with the same sample of 3,000 teenagers in the USA over a period of ten years. This research has highlighted some fascinating trends in the religious lives of these teenagers as they have been followed through their teenage years into young adulthood. (They are now described as “emerging adults.”) Generally, Smith has identified a trend in which there is a postponement of settling down into adulthood (i.e. delayed commitment to the markers of adulthood such as marriage, parenthood, pursuit of career and ownership of fixed assets). Increasingly young adults are displaying an appetite for transience, exploration, experimentation, uncertainty, failure, and the starting over process. In the midst of these trends, there is evidence of estrangement and alienation from traditional beliefs.

In this emerging kind of Christianity, there is still a willingness to assert that things are “right” and “wrong.” There is still an openness to those categories, but there is no coherent basis for deciding what is right and what is wrong and why. So, this “Christianity” is moralistic. But it is also therapeutic in that it is all about me. I am here to feel good and to be successful. I am “working with God” to overcome my personal problems. That is where the deism comes in: There is talk about God, but He is far removed from us.

This MTD involves the following convictions:

  • A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth;
  • This God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other as taught in the Bible and by other major world religions;
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself;
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when He is needed to resolve a problem;
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

As you read those five convictions, do they not sound awfully familiar in their description of what many Christians actually believe? The important point that needs to be made here in discussing MTD is to point out that this is not biblical Christianity!

Smith’s point is that too many young people are inadvertently buying into the popular idea of autonomous individualism, where there is an ambiguity of beliefs. He goes on to make the point that as more and more people become alienated from “traditional” Christianity, there is a phenomenal mission field before us, in our own culture! His research has shown that there is a strategic opportunity for intervention and influence on the part of believing parents, and other adults who have relationships with these young people.

Part of the solution, he asserts, is that we need to counter this rampant selfish individualism, and offer biblical encouragement for them to view marriage and parenthood as significant means of grace for these young adults. During the period of adolescence we have the most strategic opportunity for intervention by means of a relationship with an adult that is not a parent.

What an affirmation of the vital relevance of the local church, and the ministry of serious-minded parenting! What an encouragement for us all to sit up and take note of the reality of MTD, and the value of us cultivating strategic relationships with the many young people around us, both in the church and the society at large! How thankful I am to Albert Mohler and Christian Smith for a stimulating insight into the subtlety of false gospels!

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