A senior at APU (I’ll call her Heather) recently made an appointment to meet with me at the university because she was bothered by part of a message I gave in chapel. She was irritated by what I said about Jonah missing out on what God was doing in the world because he was focused on his little life (represented by the vine that grows over his head in Jonah chapter four) while God was busy redeeming the great city of Ninevah. I made the comment in my sermon that, “Most of us are like Jonah. We put our plans together and then ask God to bless our plans. We build our little life and add God as a condiment at the end, while God is inviting us into his life.”
Heather didn’t like that statement. Not because she disagreed with it, but because she see or understand what searching for and living out God’s purposes in the world would look like. I tried to help her think about what it would mean to seek out God’s designs for her life, but it was frustrating and challenging to help her see life differently. At the end of the conversation she said, “I guess I have just assumed that if I followed my desires and the things I love that God would be okay with that.”
Heather isn’t new to the Christian faith. She grew up going to church. And if sociologist Christian Smith is correct, she isn’t the exception. She is the rule. In his recent book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2009), Smith analyzes the results of a comprehensive study of the faith of American young people and comes to the following conclusion,
We suggest that the defacto dominant religion among contemporary U.S. teenagers is what we might well call “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” The creed of this religion, as codified from what emerged from our interviews, sounds something like this:
1. A God exists who created and orders 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.
Obviously the young people Smith and his team interviewed did not use the phrase “moralistic therapeutic deism” to describe their faith, but those three aspects are very clear. Christian faith for Heather does not make demands on her beyond a moralistic understanding of being a good person. As I talked to her it was clear that not only did God not have purposes beyond her own desires for a career and vocation but what previous generations thought of as God’s laws for how she lives out her sexuality, how she spends her resources, what she does in her leisure, and how she spends her time operate more like suggestions than divine mandates.
Christian faith for young people like Heather is first and foremost about feeling right or being at emotional peace with life. What was antiquated about the Jonah story for Heather was not the miraculous aspects of the narrative but the idea that God would demand someone to do something that they didn’t want to do. For Heather God’s will always fits with our gifts, follows our desires, and fulfills our individual dreams.
But what was most interesting in my conversation with Heather was her understanding of divine action in the world. Although she didn’t use the terms moralistic or therapeutic she did use the word deist. In explaining her own view of God’s action in her life she said, “I guess I am sort of a deist. I think of God like my parents watching me play sports from the bleachers. He cheers me on as I live my life, but he doesn’t do a whole lot else. And I think most of my friends think the same way. I guess we live somewhere between deism and practical atheism.”
Although reading Smith’s research and talking with Heather didn’t surprise me, it still deeply concerns me. I’m fearful of where a generation of moralistic therapeutic deists will end up. I’m fearful for what the Church that lives into that theological worldview will become.
But it also raises some very important questions for the adults and leaders of the Church. How do we help young people move beyond moralistic therapeutic deism? Have they learned that way of living from the adults in their life? What alternative to that view do the adults in the Church embody? How do we talk about a God who makes demands upon our lives and who requires that we seek first his kingdom and his righteousness? How do we not just talk about that God but obey that God? How do we see God continually active in our world? How do we recognize and name his activity?
Like Jonah, we are a people who stand before a God who makes ultimate demands on our life. May he swallow us up and rescue us from our moralistic therapeutic