Deism Old School versus New School   1 comment

Although modern historians would like us to believe that Deism exerted a overriding influence on the Founding generation, tradition deism was, in fact, fading by 1800. Its concepts had been incorporated by other theological movements (mostly Unitarianism) or displaced by a resurgence in both atheism and orthodox Christianity. Even Thomas Jefferson had become a regular church goer, though he continued to hold heterodox beliefs.

So, it might be a shock, more than 200 years later, to discover that significant numbers of American Christians, especially adolescents, are only nominal Christians with a tenuous connection to actual historical Christian tradition and embrace what Smith termed “Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Boiled to its essential elements: a god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth; He wants you to be good and fair to each other in keeping with the Bible and other world religions; life is about happiness and feeling good about yourself; God doesn’t need to be involved in your life unless you need his help with something; good people go to heaven when they die.

The “deism” of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is only loosely connected to the Deism that was moderately popular from the 17th to the 19th centuries. While both versions of deism acknowledge a supreme deity and the reward for good behavior, the modern version avoids the discussion of punishment for the wicked. Both agree that God expects us to act morally toward our fellow man, but they differ sharply in their attitudes toward our inability to live up to our moral duties. Traditional Deists (i.e., Thomas Jefferson or Edward Herbert of Cherbury) were still influenced enough by Christianity to acknowledge the concept of sin (“we ought to be sorry for our sins and repent of them”) and express the need for contrition and repentance (“Divine goodness doth dispense rewards and punishments both in this life and after”).

The modern therapeutic deists, in contrast, believe their chief obligation is to their own happiness. If they have any conception of sin, it is likely to be individualistic, as in one famous definition: “Being out of alignment with my values.”

How come the resurrection of deism in the late 20th century and how did traditional deism transform into Moralistic Theraputic Deism? The answer lies in the middle term—therapuetic—and the man who almost single-handedly ushered in the Age of Therapy: Sigmund Freud. (PHOTO)

The God of the Deists was a far-away, radically transcendent deity. Yet the Enlightenment outlook worked to bind God closely to nature and human reason, so closely that God’s transcendence came to be dissolved in the immanence of the divine within the orderly realm of creation and reason. Rather than look beyond the world to find God, the Enlightenment ultimately turned within. (Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson, 20th Century Theology: God & the World in a Transitional Age)

Although both traditional and modern deists turn the transcendence of the God of the Universe into the immanence of pantheism, thus entangling it with creation and reason, the effect and emphasis differ considerably for each. The Englightenment Era deists admired Jesus as a moral exemplar but rejected him as the Son of God. The Therapeutic Era deists have no qualms with confessing the deity of Christ—as long as doing so will improve their own well-being and happiness.

Freud’s enduring legacy on folk psychology is twofold. Most significant was his focus on finding the true self and determining what is necessary for emotional health and happiness by delving into the hidden recesses of a person’s inner being rather than the outer influences of community and environment. Second is the language either invented by or colored by Freudian psychoanalysis: denial, projection, repression, sublimation, id, ego, fetish, fixation, introversion, anal-retentive, neurotic, Oedipus complex, pleasure-principle – terms that perpetually self-diagnosing Americans use to communicate with and understand our neighbors, and (worse) ourselves.

Therapeutic lingo forms the conceptual basis by which other technical jargons (i.e., theological terms) are interpreted. Consider the term “closure.” After trauma or loss individuals have an innate need for a firm solution rather than enduring ambiguity. Closure is a concept derived from Gestalt therapy and has no parallel in Scripture, yet it is often considered a necessary precondition for forgiveness, particularly forgiveness concerning a grave injustice. The idea that God would expect us to forgive without first experiencing closure strikes the Therapeutic Deist as akin to emotional nihilism.

These therapeutic concepts also have a way of coloring our understanding of God’s self-revelation. In Isaiah 48:11, God seeks his own glory quite openly: “For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another.”  The modern deist sees such passages as narcissistic – another term coined by Freud – and therefore inherently negative.

In the 21st century, therapeutic language wholly replaces theological concepts. Cristian Smith notes that the teenagers in his study used the phrase “feel happy” more than 2,000 times in the interviews. None of them used the terms “justification” or “being justified,” “sanctification” or “being sanctified.” The “grace of God” was explicitly mentioned only three times.

“The language, and therefore experience,” Smith found, “of Trinity, holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, church, Eucharist, and heaven and hell appear, among most Christian teenagers in the United States at the very least, to be supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward.” Smith views this not as a sign that Christianity is being secularized, but that it is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or being replaced by a quite different religious faith.

And, it is a faith that churches are at least partially responsible for creating.


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