cjbanning: (Symposium)
This is the first of what will presumably be several posts on Kendra  Creasy Dean's Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church, which is being read throughout the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey this January through June as part of its One Book program.

I blame Rod Dreher.

Rod Dreher was a blogger at Beliefnet.com, where he consistently provided a voice which was theologically, politically, and culturally conservative. Dreher was the sort of guy I would read in order to stay fluent in the best arguments in favor of those positions with which I disagreed, in service of trying to be someone who was a) generally well-read and b) intellectually honest. I didn't read his blog religiously, but I would stop by sometimes when I was in a particularly strong mood to disagree with someone, and some of the bloggers I prefered reading (Ross Douthat and Andrew Sullivan in particular) would also link to him from time to time.

Rod Dreher's blog is, I think, the first place (or at least the most memorable place) I heard of "moralistic therapeutic deism" (MTD), the "benign whatever-ism" which Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton identified as the dominant faith of U.S. teenagers in their book Soul Searching, the end result of the "National Study of Youth and Religion." According to Smith and Denton, MTD has five main tenets:
  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.
Dreher consistently saw MTD as a pervasive, corrupting influence polluting Christianity. Of course, that is also how he views liberal Christian theology, so there was always a part of me, reading his thoughts on MTD, that figured that anything which Rod Dreher detested so passionately couldn't be all that bad.

Looking back, I realize I foolishly and without realizing it bought into the implicit etiological narrative I was reading out of Dreher's posts that MTD was sort of a natural endpoint of the slippery slope of liberal theology started by Friedrich Schleiermacher, and continuing through Paul Tillich. Dreher says outright that MTD "is what I believe progressive religion generally is" and makes the link more or less explicit in, for example, this critique of "[p]ost-boomer Christians (PBCs) -- which is to say, young adult Christians":
a majority of PBCs -- 56 percent -- lean towards liberal Christianity. Only 38 percent call themselves conservative-leaning. But does that mean that tomorrow's Christianity will be more liberal? By no means: more than half of religious conservatives attend church weekly, while only 14 percent of religious liberals do. It doesn't take a genius to figure out which demographic is more likely to pass on faith to their children. Then again, perhaps they will pass along a kind of faith -- hello, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism -- just not a faith that would be recognizable by any meaningful historical standard.
More or less accepting this framing of MTD by Dreher led me to conclude that while MTD went much further than I would have preferred in discarding traditional Christian orthodoxy (cf. my statements in Theology and Emergence: "We [. . .] don’t talk enough anymore about the Trinity, about the Holy Eucharist, etc. [. . .] As Christians, we need to talk about these things much more, although probably as well as rather than instead of the more sexy culture war issues"), it was still far preferable to fundamentalism and conservative envangelicalism. As Ross Douthat notes in his response to a defense of MTD by Damon Linker, "The more you fear the theocon menace, the more you'll welcome the Oprahfication of Christianity - since the steady spread of a mushy, muddle-headed theology is as good a way as any of inoculating the country and its politics against, say, Richard John Neuhaus's views on natural law." (Let me note en passant that Linker is absolutely right in viewing those views on natural law as both philosophically untenable and socially damaging.)

After all, MTD wasn't sexist or homophobic. It didn't encourage to reject the findings of modern (secular) history or science, or to embrace supernaturalism. It didn't oppose the reproductive freedoms of women. It was tolerant of other religions. I found myself sympathetic to the teenagers who, in Almost Christian,
defended Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as a worldview they were proud to own, a fair representation of what Jesus intended, if not what he actually said. Tom, a seventeen-year-old lifelong Presbyterian, wondered: "Doesn't the church want us to treat people fairly, be happy, solve our own problems, and get along?" Some considered Moralistic Therapeutic Deism an improvement over what Christianity has come to symbolize in much of the world, as people identify "Christian" with "American." Shawn, a sophomore on the church youth council, exclaimed: "Do I believe that God wants people to be nice and fair to each other? Yeah, I'd stake my life on that!" (27)
Looking at the five tenets of MTD,
  • #1 should be non-controversial to the vast majority of Christians (at least outside the fairly esoteric area of apophatic a/theology).
  • #2 should be as well, as much as the behavior of some Christians might lead one to think otherwise.
  • #3's egoism admittedly falls short of the altruism most Christians (myself included) see as being central to the faith (although it has much in common with those churches which teach a gospel of prosperity).
  • #4 loses the experiential dimension which is at the heart of Christianity's mystic core (as I un/preach in sermons here and here), but also tends to avoid supernaturalism.
  • #5, while simplistic as far as soteriologies go (and clearly bordering on works-salvationism), is also still far preferable to a Calvinism in which people in their total depravity are damned to eternal torment because God capriciously neglects to extend grace to them for what can only seem to be utterly arbitrary reasons, or an Arminianism which understands the acceptance of grace solely in terms of holding a certain set of propositional beliefs as true. Admittedly, it does, in positing a literal and non-mystical heaven, seem to assert some type of realist metaphysics which may not be philosophically tenable.
I entered Almost Christian with this almost knee-jerk reaction of wanting to defend MTD--not as ideal, but as a lesser evil compared to much of American religiosity--against the claims of heterodoxy. However, having finished the first chapter and half of the second, I've found myself pleasantly surprised. Dean primarily locates her critique (so far, at least) of MTD in #3 and #4, exactly where my own critique would rest, arguing not so much for a return to an ungenerous orthodoxy as for a new liberal orthopraxy. (Orthodoxy denotes "right belief"; orthopraxy, "right action.")

Dean takes the title of her book (about which I will no doubt have much more to say, but this post is already overlong) from a quote by John Wesley (she is a pastor in the United Methodist Church, which was founded by Wesley). According to Wesley, the difference between an "almost Christian" and an "altogether Christian" was not belief in the Trinity or the two natures of Christ or the Real Presence or any other dogma, but an action: love (5). The problem with MTD, according to Dean, is "that in fact [it] lacks the holy desire and missional clarity necessary for Christian discipleship" (6) and is "so devoid of God's self-giving love in Jesus Christ, so immune to the sending love of the Holy Spirit" (12)..

Dean echoes one of my most persistent themes by making this lack of love the result of a pietistic Protestantism which focuses on beliefs rather than experience )

For Dean, then, the problem of MTD is that it is loveless (taking on #3) and that it is non-experential (#4): a critique which is firmly rooted in a position liberal mainline Protestant theology, as befits her UMC affiliation. Liberal theology then, rather than being the cause of MTD, is actually the antidote--but of course, it must be a liberal theology which is effectively articulated and communicated. And this, quite obviously, is not happening.

MTD's failure is that it seeks to deal with conservative theology (both Protestant and Catholic) not by engaging with it but by ignoring it. Its critics are right that that type of approach can result only in a weak, passive faith that is unable to stand up for what it claims to believe in (goodness, fairness, justice, liberation). The solution to the rise of MTD is for the mainline churches to be more boldly prophetic in asserting a liberal orthodoxy, drawing on the insights of Protestants like Schleiermacher and Tilich (and their 21st-century heirs, like emergent Tony Jones or feminist Rebecca S. Chopp) and on Catholics like liberation theologian Leonardo Boff and feminist Rosemary Radford Ruether.

And yes, that involves being aggressive about teaching doctrine: that the relational nature of a Triune God models for us how to live our lives in loving community and how Scripture, Tradition, and Reason speak to us through a perichoretic dialectic of conversation. That the Incarnation informs our understanding of the goodness of the body, including sexuality. That the imago dei tells us that gender is irrelevant in the face of our common reflectiveness of the divine. We need to be much, much better catechists, and we cannot fool ourselves that that catechism does not come with a social and political agenda (centered on the liberation of the oppressed).

And so I find myself forced to do what I dislike the most, agreeing with Rod Dreher, if only on this specific lament:
the mixed blessing of unity )
a final thought )
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"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

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