Archive for March, 2010

31
Mar
10

Describing the Goodness of God

If you had to choose a hymn or worship song to describe the goodness of God, what would go at the top of your list?

I would initially think of something to do with creation, maybe dealing with how God provides good things for his creatures.   Maybe “Great is thy faithfulness.”   Possibly a setting of Psalm 23.  Or something about God’s love.

Last year I ordered a copy of A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists, from the Bicentennial Edition of Wesley’s Works.   It is an amazing piece of literature, and everyone who is interested in Wesleyan history and theology should spring for one.  The Wesleys put out numerous hymn collections throughout their lifetime, but this is the one that really stuck and became the standard of Wesleyan hymnody.

Near the start of the hymnal, there is a section of introductory hymns categorized as “Describing the Goodness of God”.  The first hymn in this section, no. 22, written by Samuel Wesley (father of Charles and John), reads as follows:

Behold the Savior of mankind
Nailed to the shameful tree!
How vast the love that Him inclined
To bleed and die for thee!

Hark, how He groans, while nature shakes,
And earth’s strong pillars bend;
The temple’s veil in sunder breaks,
The solid marbles rend.

“’Tis done!” The precious ransom’s paid,
“Receive My soul,” He cries!
See where He bows His sacred head!
He bows His head, and dies!

But soon He’ll break death’s envious chain,
And in full glory shine:
O Lamb of God! was ever pain,
Was ever love, like Thine?

It seems strange at first, because our inclination is to think that “describing the goodness of God” should mean dwelling on his eternal attributes, his care of creation, or his care of us amidst the trials of life.   But Wesley launches right into a description of the cross.

Hymn 23 begins with an even more concrete description of Calvary:

Extended on a cursed tree,
Besmeared with dust, and sweat, and blood,
See there, the King of glory see!
Sinks and expires the Son of God

In hymn 24 we find the opening lines, “Ye that pass by, behold the Man / The Man of griefs, condemned for you!” and in verse two: “See how his back the scourges tear / While to the bloody pillar bound!”

I was moved when I read through this section and realized what Wesley had done.  All seventeen hymns in this section are focused on the cross and the atonement.  There’s not one that speaks in general terms of God’s goodness.  Wesley’s christocentrism is on full display in his ordering of these hymns.

How do we describe God’s goodness?  Rather than beginning with an abstract conception of a good God, and then theorizing about what that might mean, we begin at the cross, the climax and centre of God’s self-revelation.  We begin, strangely, with Jesus at his most human – suffering, bleeding, and dying for us and for our salvation – even though this is the point in the gospel narrative that most clearly underlines the inadequacies of our preconceived understandings of God and his goodness.

It is sad that many churches today shy away from a focus on the cross, even on Good Friday!   People seem concerned that it the crucifixion story is too gruesome, or too depressing.   One time I remember someone saying to me that we needed to end the Good Friday service on an “upbeat” note – as if we somehow need to “spin” the Good Friday story into a “positive” thing.   The cross doesn’t need spin doctors.  It doesn’t need to be turned into something “positive,” and it doesn’t need to somehow be reconciled with a preconceived notion of “goodness.”  The cross is God’s demonstration of his goodness.  To describe the cross is to describe the goodness of God.  The story just needs to be told.

Let’s not rush past the contemplation of the cross this Good Friday.

I give the last word to Charles. This is hymn 27 in the Collection.

O Love divine, what hast thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s co-eternal Son
Bore all my sins upon the tree.
Th’immortal God for me hath died:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Is crucified for me and you,
To bring us rebels back to God.
Believe, believe the record true,
Ye all are bought with Jesus’ blood.
Pardon for all flows from His side:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Behold and love, ye that pass by,
The bleeding Prince of life and peace!
Come, sinners, see your Savior die,
And say, “Was ever grief like His?”
Come, feel with me His blood applied:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

Then let us sit beneath His cross,
And gladly catch the healing stream:
All things for Him account but loss,
And give up all our hearts to Him:
Of nothing think or speak beside,
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

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26
Mar
10

Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements, Part 2: Charismatic more fundamental than Institutional

This second perspective might seem similar to the “charismatic opposed to institutional” view, but there are some important differences.  In this perspective there is still a priority placed on the charismatic element of the Church, but the institutional structures are valued as necessary and themselves empowered by gifts of the Spirit.

For this perspective I’m taking Leonardo Boff as a representative.  Boff, of course, is a well known Brazilian theologian, an important figure in liberation theology.  He was orignally a Franciscan priest, but was silenced more than once for his views (including those found in the book I’m discussing here), and eventually he left his order and the priesthood.   He also has a pretty snazzy website, I’ve just discovered.

Leonardo Boff gives a strong priority to charismatic gifts arising “from below”, that is, from the grassroots, but he is also willing to speak of “hierarchical charisms.” So for Boff, the institutional side of the church is not simply devoid of the Spirit’s guidance, though there may be tensions between charismatic and institutional.  However he does view the historical institutionalization of the Church as a “failure” in a sense.  Writing about Catholicism in general, he writes that “A christological emphasis on the level of the incarnation led the Latin Church to excessive institutional rigidity.” (Church Charism and Power, 154)

However, his solution is to prioritize the charismatic over the institutional, not to oppose the two:

Charism includes the hierarchical element, but not exclusively.  Charism is more fundamental than the institution.  Charism is the pneumatic force (dynamis tou Theou) that gives rise to institutions and keeps them alive.  The principle or the structure of the institution is not the hierarchy but rather the charism which is at the root of all institutions and hierarchy (159).

So Charism becomes the “organizing principle” (155) of the church’s institutions, with an emphasis on the participation of the whole people of God, all of whom are given charismatic gifts.  The Spirit is made manifest in the Church through the diverse charisms, given for diverse services and functions, but all are oriented toward the good of the Church and working together for unity.  The role of leadership in the community, then, is to take “responsibility for harmony among the many and diverse charisms” (163).  The authorities in the church are there to ensure that there is freedom for charisms to flourish, and to allow the movement of the Spirit through the charisms to organize the Church’s life and witness.

However, Boff argues that leadership structures in the West have tended to be characterized “complete domination” in which the hierarchy “considers itself to be the only charism,” a situation in which the charismatic gifts of the Spirit will indeed be perceived as a threat to those in leadership (157).  He arrives at this conclusion via another interesting facet of his work – the integration of theological and sociological reflection, specifically of the Marxist variety.

While faith and theology provide the ideals toward which the Church is striving, ecclesiological reflection, according to Boff, begins with the lived realities of ecclesial practice, then measures these practices against theological norms.  The resulting reflection provides direction for revised and theologically informed praxis (132).  Sociological analysis is therefore part of theological analysis, with theology providing the overall normative vision, but sociology providing the starting point for reflection and some guidance as to how the normative theological vision ought to be lived out. For example, Boff argues on a theological basis that the laity have an inalienable dignity and certain inalienable rights, but his account of how these rights should be exercised in the community has clearly been influenced by Marxist social analysis.  This is seen in the fact that he gives a significant place to the concept of “power” in his ecclesiology, as opposed to the traditional theological category of “authority.”  He calls for a better distribution of sacred power, and a redefinition of the roles of bishop and priest (10).  He criticizes the centralization of decision making in the Church as move which marginalizes the people (34).  He describes the processes of the CDF (which he would soon experience firsthand) as unjust and a violation of human rights (37-38).  Thus Boff will make statements such as “The logic of power is the desire for more power,” and argue that the concrete exercise of power in the Church “follows the logic of any human power structure” (53).

The touchstone of this Marxist analysis is the critique of the inequality in the means of production.  The religious-ecclesiastical or institutional realm of the church is part of the social order, and is conditioned by the prevailing means of production in that social order (110-111).  The Church’s own means of production (in relation to cultural/symbolic goods) manifests a structural inequality, with the hiearchy producing all the goods and the laity doing all the consuming (43).   This imbalance is in complete harmony with the social realm, but full of internal contradictions, because the basic ideals of these institutions call for shared means of production (113).  Ecclesiology must be worked out with attention to these inequalities.

This approach leads Boff to a specific normative conclusion about charismatic reform movements: they must be structural as well as spiritual.  Boff is able to see the base communities of Brazil as a form of ecclesiogenesis because they are a “new way of concretizing the mystery of salvation” (126) which gives rise to new lay ministries based on the integration and equality of charismatic gifts (128).   The examples of the violation of human rights in the Church with which Boff is concerned are not simply the result of individual actions, but result from a certain way of structuring the Church.  The men of the hierarchy are mostly men of good faith, but the structures in which they operate are authoritarian.  While the Church embraces the slogan ecclesia semper reformanda, reform and conversion are typically limited to the personal and spiritual realm. In opposition to this tendency, Boff argues that the goal of charismatic reforming movements in the Church must be the recreation of the Church as an institution of power.  The church has mimicked the structures of the world, and what is needed is the conversion of the institutional Church (58).  Therefore, reform movements must embody an alternative structure, one that is more circular and fraternal. Boff believes that this alternative has emerged at particular moments in the church’s history, in various charismatic movements, evangelical revivals, and idealistic groups (156).

Boff’s synthesis of theology and social analysis is methodologically very interesting, but leans quite heavily on Marxist categories.  At times is not clear whether his view of charismatic movements in the church is driven by Marxist concerns or theological concerns.  I would prefer that theological concerns predominate. Still, Boff’s model provides a way of explaining the history of charismatic movements that has a lot of explanatory power. His ideas provide a plausible account of the history of charismatic movements and their often rocky relation to established structures, without de-spiritualizing the institutional church.  I think, however, his perspective could be aided by turning a similar critical sociological eye to the charismatic movements.  In his Marxist framework they are treated in an entirely positive light, and I would argue that this is an oversimplification.

25
Mar
10

Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements Part 1: Charismatic Opposed to Institutional

The first in my typology of views on “charismatic movements” deals with a perspective I’m calling “charismatic opposed to institutional.”  This viewpoint basically sees the charismatic element of the church as the “true” or “original”church, and the institutions as a corrupting, stifling force that squeezes out the charismatic life.  According to this perspective, then, “charismatic movements” would represent the re-emergence of primitive, Pauline Christianity.

In scholarly circles this discussion begins with debate over the constitution of the earliest Christian communities.  Rudolph Söhm was responsible for bringing the discussion of charisms into modern scholarship (found in his Kirchenrecht, published in 1892).  Söhm was a lawyer, and the original reason for his investigation of primitive Christianity was occasioned by a dispute with fellow jurists regarding the status of civil law in Christian marriage ceremonies.  This set him on the path of researching the history of canon law, and the necessary corollary discipline of church history.  Söhm argued against the prevailing “voluntary association” consensus among protestant scholars in the 1880s, positing instead that the earliest Christians viewed their communities as drawn together and constituted by the charisms of the Spirit, meaning that they understood the Church as a spiritual entity which was beyond all human law. The contrast here is between the church constituted by the consent of the members in a democratic “free association” sense, and the church as constituted by the charismatic action of the Sprit.

According to Söhm, leadership and direction of the community was provided by charismatic leaders (preachers, teachers, and bishops), and was not formalized into offices.  In Söhm’s views, such formalization of charismatic authority into offices came later as a failure and a retreat from the original organization of the Church. Leonardo Boff characterizes Söhm’s view by saying “Faith in the Gospel gave way to faith in divine law” (Church, Charism and Power, 68).

Söhm’s interpretation of the early Church had a profound influence in the early twentieth century, though it was not blindly accepted.  Adolf von Harnack agreed that the primitive church was charismatic, but proposed that there had originally non-charismatic leadership as well, identifying the charismatic leaders with itinerant preachers and prophets who exercised a universal ministry, and the non-charismatic with the local presbyters, bishops, and deacons (primarily in The Constitution & Law of the Church in the First Two Centuries).  In the final analysis, Harnack followed the same line of thinking as Söhm in proposing that the non-charismatic leadership eventually overtook and excluded the charismatic leadership, thus pushing aside the originally charismatic element in the Church.

Hans von Campenhausen provided a variation on this thesis, by identifying the non-charismatic leadership with Jewish Christianity, and the charismatic leadership with the Pauline communities.  The two models were later merged, and the error in Campenhausen’s reading of primitive church history was the investment of the offices with sacred significance, a move which, in effect, led to the exclusion of charisms (Ecclesastical Authority and Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries).

For the most part, later 20th century scholarship has taken a more nuanced view of the relationship between the institutional and charismatic in the church (more on that in later posts).  But the idea remains common in the popular Christian imagination.   Of course, revivalist groups, and charismatic movements would often read early church history in this way.  Inevitably a new movement that does not fit well with established leadership structures will interpret those structures as a stifling form of opposition to the Spirit’s work.

The problem with this perspective, of course, is that no purely charismatic movement can exist for any period of time without developing stable institutional structures.  Once you set a time and place for a meeting, and decide who is on set up, who is leading the singing, etc., you have begun the process of institutionalization!  So, if this is true, what kind of a reading of church history does it provide?  The church’s history is one of continual decline, interrupted sporadically by spontaneous irruptions of real Christianity, which themselves inevitably degenerate into spiritless institutions.  The result is that much of Christian history, and the majority of Christians in the world at any given time, are written off as being part of a spiritually dead Church.

Are “institutional” structures completely devoid of the Spirit’s leading?  That cannot be, if a) we believe that Christ has promised to be with his Church to the end, and b) historical continuity of any kind involves institutional structures.  It is true that there often are tensions and struggles between charismatic movements and established structures, but setting up such a clear dichotomy between the two seems to oversimplify the situation. Therefore, conceiving the institutional aspect of the Church as fundamentally “opposed” to the charismatic is not satisfactory.

21
Mar
10

signs that make me laugh: “coffee lime”

I ventured off Danforth a bit to find this sign, at Pape and Floyd, just North of Mortimer.

What on earth does “Coffee Lime” mean?

Please, if you eat lime with your coffee, let me know, because I’d really like to understand this one.  As far as I know, those are two things that don’t go together at all.

I actually noticed this place a few years ago, and I thought it was hilarious because they seemed to be copying the font and colour scheme of Coffee Time (which is everywhere in Toronto).  Coffee Time has re-branded recently, so you might not think that Coffee Lime looks anything like Coffee Time.  But their old signs look something like this:

So you can see how I was wondering if Coffee Lime was simply an attempt to fool people into entering the place. Maybe they were hoping that customers would glance quickly at the sign and go in, thinking they were at a Coffee Time.  Does that sound like a ridiculous explanation?   Well it makes more sense to me than someone simply choosing to name their business Coffee Lime.

The big problem with my theory is that Coffee Lime is attempting a bit of re-branding of their own, with this new sign out front.  They still have a tribute-to-Coffee-Time sign on the side of the building.

My confusion about this place is not helped by the fact that there is now a hot dog on the sign.  I also think it is funny that they separated “iced” and “cappuccino” with a bullet.

16
Mar
10

Charismatic Movements in the Church

I’m introducing a new series of blog posts on the topic of “charismatic movements” in the Church.  When I speak of ” charismatic” movements,  I don’t necessarily mean pentecostal movements, but those movements of renewal and reform which rise up spontaneously in the Church, and centre around particularly gifted individuals, who operate outside existing authority structures.  Such movements have existed throughout the history of the Church, and have always had a rocky relationship with the established Church authorities.

I developed this rough timeline as a teaching tool for a course I was TAing earlier this year.  We could debate whether some of these movements are “charismatic,” but I would argue that they were all charismatic in origin, meaning that they sprung up around individuals who were perceived to be specially gifted (the basic meaning of “charism” being “gift”).   The timeline gets really selective when it comes to the modern era, because at that point I had to be selective.  I’m not claiming the timeline is exhaustive at that point, but I hope it is representative.  My main purpose in creating the timeline this way was to contrast “catholic” movements (meaning those who were eventually accepted by Church authorities as legitimate) with “non-catholic.”

I should add also that I’m not addressing the issue of “heresy” here, as some of the movements in question were definitely preaching a message which was outside the boundaries of historic Christian orthodoxy. I think most people would agree that the Bogomils and Cathars were heretical, but assessing the orthodoxy of other individual movements on the list would require more of a discussion than I want to get into.

One of the questions I’m studying for my dissertation concerns how we account for these movements theologically.  How do we know if a charismatic movement is truly of God?  What do these movements represent? A return to the primitive purity of the Church?  A form of fanaticism?  A revitalizing force?

I’ve developed a typology of positions on the question of the place of charismatic movements in the Church, and this typology will form the basis for my series of posts, each of which will discuss one or two representative theologians:

  • Charismatic opposed to institutional. Here the work of Rudolph Söhm and early 20th century scholars such as Adolf von Harnack is important.  The theory of these writers is that the church was originally charismatic, but this was stifled by emerging catholicism (institutionalism in his mind) in the 2nd century.  The emergence of stable authority structures was therefore a failure on the part of early Christianity.
  • Charismatic more fundamental than institutional. I’d summarize Leonardo Boff’s work in Church, Charism, and Power along these lines.  Charism is more fundamental than institution, because it gives rise to the institution and keeps it alive. Therefore the charismatic gifts of the Spirit should be the structuring principle of the church.
  • Charismatic in tension with institutional. Karl Rahner tries to hold the two structures in tension by arguing that there are both institutional and non-institutional charismata. A Legitimate opposition of forces in the life of the Church is inevitable and should be accepted.  Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s “christological constellation” also fits under this category.
  • Charismatic complementary to institutional. More recent ecumenical work has attempted to overcome the duality of charismatic movements and institutional structures by stressing the complementarity of the two.  Joseph Ratzinger also wrote along these lines in his discussion of lay movements in the Church, even going so far as to reject the dichotomy of charism/institution as inappropriate for ecclesiology.
  • Charismatic enlivens institutional. Others stress the role of charismatic movements as enlivening forces for the institutional church.  So Howard Snyder argues that both institutional structures and charismatic movements can be seen as normal and valid in the Church’s history.  I’ll also discuss Catholic theologies of “the religious life” (religious orders, etc.) under this category.
  • Institutional over charismatic. It’s hard to find anyone who actually argues for this theologically, but it is common on a practical level, so I’ll still attempt a post on this perspective.
  • Charismatic gifts as justification for separation. Oscar Cullmann’s book Unity Through Diversity makes the argument that different the “confessions” in the Church have their own unique charisms, which need to be preserved.  Therefore he argues that continued structural separation of the churches is justified, so that these diverse gifts can be preserved.  Many denominationalist theologies proceed on similar assumptions.

While the work I’ll be discussing is scholarly, the issue of finding a place for charismatic movements in the Church has immense practical implications, and I’ll attempt to draw these out.  This has been a perennial issue for the Church, and it remains an important problem today.  Think of the controversy surrounding “emergent” and whether it is a legitimate movement of reform or a heretical offshoot of genuine Christianity.  How are these “new expressions” of church related to the established Churches?

It is also an important question for people of evangelical heritage, because move evangelical denominations began as charismatic reform movements (not as denominations or “churches”).  Does that have implications for our understanding of the Church and the place of “denominations” as they now exist?  I think it does, and I’m hopeful that reflection on the history of charismatic movements, as well as theological reflection on the nature of the Church and where they fit, can provide some direction for our life together as we seek to give faithful witness in the post-Christendom context.

06
Mar
10

more on moralism, via internet monk

This morning I read this 2005 re-post from Internet Monk – a great piece on how assurance is undermined by contemporary evangelical spirituality.  Part of the issue is the moralism I was on about in my last post:

Much of evangelical preaching today is focused on moralism of various kinds, constantly pointing the Christian to what he/she ought to be doing. Serious preaching on discipleship often directs the Christian to a variety of duties, ministry needs and pressing obligations for any true follower of Jesus. For sensitive consciences, it can seem that the Christian life is about being a “good” person, doing “good” things in a hurting world, imitating Jesus so others can see Jesus in you.

Many contemporary preachers are busy describing the Christian life as a life where the Christian finds his/her destiny and fulfills his/her dreams. Follow the principles for success and purpose, and experience God’s best for your life. But what if you are failing? Suffering? Constantly falling short? Such emphases can undermine assurance when the Christian is told the outcome of the Christian life is practical, real-world results.

I think the sincere and laudable desire to be “relevant” and give “life-applications” is at the root of much of  this moralistic preaching.  We want to give people a “so what” point at the end of the sermon, so we end questions like: “What about you? Are you doing your best with [insert sermon topic]?”

The bottom line of many sermons is “you need to do more.”  Usually the “more” is about one of three things: personal Bible study, personal prayer life, and witnessing to others.   All are important aspects of Christian life, but the problem is that our worship services, and our sermons, are designed to climax at this point of “life application.”  It is the point toward which the rest of the service points.  So the main thing that we are saying each Sunday is, “we need to be doing this or that,” rather than a proclamation of the victory of Christ. Our spirituality is focused too heavily on our state as Christians, and not enough on the constant re-presentation of the saving acts of God.  Making self-examination the foundation will lead us to either despair (if we are honest) or presumption (if we think we really are doing enough!).  Our actions, the things we “do” as Christians, come as a grateful response to God’s prior action “for us and for our salvation.”   Often times it seems that we are putting the cart before the horse by our strong emphasis on what we should be doing.

04
Mar
10

Moralistic Therapeutic Deists

Christian Smith, Notre Dame sociologist and author of some significant books on youth in North America’s churches, uses the term “moralistic therapeutic deists” to describe the default religion of our time.  Christianity Today had an interview with Smith in their October issue, in which they discussed his new book on “emerging adulthood,” Souls in Transition.  He’s got some really interesting things to say about young adults and the Church. I wish the book had been published earlier, as I’d already finished up my young adult project for the SA when Souls in Transition hit the shelves.  For example, his typology of emerging adults might have got me thinking in different ways about how I might have summarized my interviews.  He breaks down the population of young adults as follows (found on p. 36 of the print edition on CT but not in the online article):

  • Committed traditionalists (15%)
  • Selective adherents (30%)
  • Spiritually open (15%)
  • Religiously indifferent (25%)
  • Religiously disconnected (5%)
  • Irreligious (10%)

Maybe in another post I’ll speculate as to how these categories play out among young adults in The Salvation Army.

Right now I’m interested in this idea of “moralistic therapeutic deists”, because I think it is a great description of the default religion of our day. While Smith’s research indicates that some young adults are questioning the moralistic therapeutic deist framework, it still remains the dominant form of religious practice:

With Soul Searching, you found that most U.S. teens are Moralistic Therapeutic Deists (MTD). They believe in a benevolent God unattached to a particular tradition who is there mostly to help with personal problems. Are emerging adults still MTDS?

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is still the de facto practiced religious faith, but it becomes a little more complicated for emerging adults. They have more life experience, so some of them are starting to ask, “Does MTD really work? Isn’t life more complicated than this?” MTD is easier to believe and practice when you are in high school.

It’s good that today’s young adults are questioning popular religion, but the majority still practice their religion within a moralistic therapeutic framework.  By “the de facto practiced religious faith” Smith means the “cultural Christianity” of North America, but we shouldn’t think that by this he means Christianity of “the culture” as opposed to Christianity found in the churches.  It’s the pop Christianity of both Church and culture – not found in all churches but certainly preached and practiced in many.  Moralistic therapeutic deism is the default framework through which Christians interpret their lives and their faith.

So what is “moralistic therapeutic deism”?  (These are my thoughts, not Smith’s; I’m trying explain his terminology in terms of what I see in the culture.)

Moralistic: religion is basically about being a good person.  This could be taken in a number of directions. For example, a moralist religion might envision God as rewarding “good Christians” for their good actions.  They might support the popular notion that people who are basically good are going to go to heaven.   This doesn’t mean that young adults believe in absolute moral standards.  They are more likely to think of morality in relative terms, as this recent Knights of Columbus poll of Catholic millenials shows (82% say morals are relative).  Yet somehow “being a good person” remains the foundation of religious practice, even while a plurality of competing moral visions are accepted. The problem with moralism is not that it supports a moral vision, but that it makes morality the foundation of religion, rather than the saving action of God in Christ.  Salvation includes transformation, and of course it includes moral transformation.  But our moral behaviour is the result of God’s action. God’s action does not come in response to our moral behaviour.  North American churches are full of moralism.

Therapeutic: religion takes on the form of pop psychology.  In other words, God is there to help me get through my day (see my reference to the personal assistant God in a previous post).  Or, God is there to help me “reach my potential,” and “become a better me.”   Religion as therapy is about personal fulfillment, and meeting “my needs.”   God is domesticated and placed “at our service” as we journey on the road to personal “success” – whether that be in business, family life, or (as above) becoming a good religious person.  This kind of therapeutic Christianity often takes the form of psychological strategies or practical “life skills” by which we can attempt to manage our personal lives.

[I do think salvation has a therapeutic dimension, but not in the contemporary psychological sense of therapy. Wesley’s soteriology is often described as “therapeutic” as opposed to forensic.  This means that he saw salvation as entailing a process of healing as well as a declaration of justification.  Salvation is not simply about being declared righteous in Christ, but about being conformed to his likeness and renewed in the image of God.  This includes the re-directing of our desires toward their intended godly ends.   The key difference here is that the “therapy” in this case is christologically determined, and not based on a program of “self-fulfillment.”  In fact, “self-fulilment” would be the opposite of the divine therapy that the Spirit works in conforming us to Christ’s likeness.  My daily “needs” are not necessarily right and good.  Since I am totally depraved, I don’t actually know what my “needs” are.  The things I think I “need” may in fact be deadly poison.  The gospel doesn’t meet my pre-conceived needs; the “medicine” it provides also tells me what my true sickness is.  God’s mercy never comes independently of his judgment.]

Deism: This is not the same as the deism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centures, which saw God as an uninvoled creator, who got the ball rolling with creation and then just let the world take its mechanically determined course.  Moralistic therapeutic deism involves a generic concept of God, unattached to a particular religious tradition.   This God is benevolent and involved in creation, indeed he’s involved in the everyday ins and outs of our lives.  But he’s a bit abstract.  He’s the nice old guy in the sky. In other words, this deism is a far reach from the historic Christian proclamation of the particular God revealed in Biblical history.

I think we need to be constantly challenging this framework. Precisely because moralistic therapeutic deism is “the de facto practiced religious faith,” we need to hear again and again that it is not the historic Christian gospel.   People come to their faith with this basic framework already in place, and if it isn’t challenged it will remain in place.  Worse, if we tailor our preaching to moralistic therapeutic deism (which I think we often do, unwittingly), we perpetuate a vision of Christianity which is, in my view, foreign to the biblical message.

This is where I think sociological research like Smith’s can be of immense value.   Sociology is a descriptive rather than a normative discipline.  In other words sociology attempts to tell us how things are, not how they ought to be. It tells us how people behave, attempting to summarize patterns and, at times, discern causes of particular patterns of behaviour.  The Church doesn’t take its direction from sociological trends, but from the authoritative witness of scripture.  However, in understanding these trends, we can understand where people are coming from when they encounter the Christian message (including Christians themselves).   If we know that moralistic therapeutic deism is the default religion of North Americans, and we know that it is contrary to basic aspects of the gospel, how can we not respond by challenging these default assumptions?




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