What kind of God do you believe in?

From the Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, MO

From the Precious Moments Chapel in Carthage, MO

Part 2 in a series of posts about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism 

When I was a kid I imagined God looked just like the other characters in my Precious Moments Bible, complete with a disproportionately large head, gigantic and gentle and emotionally manipulative tear-drop-shaped eyes, shaded in more or less pastel hues, and, above all, harmless. 

Those Precious Moments figures were only a passing fad, but this way of characterizing God is still with us (okay, maybe without the tear-drop eyes). 

A few weeks ago I started a series of posts about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), a religious phenomenon which the best research available (the National Study of Youth and Religion) suggests is the largest religion among young people in this country. According to the researchers the beliefs of MTD are summed up in these five convictions:

1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over 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 is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.
— "Guiding Beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," Almost Christian, p. 14

I'm going to spend the next few posts analyzing these five beliefs and comparing them to classical Christian orthodoxy. Most people who believe these things identify as Christians, but there is a world of difference between these five core beliefs of MTD and what Christians have believed down through the centuries. Of course this MTD 'creed' wasn't made by a worshipping community; it was made by sociologists trying to explain what people really believe. Nonetheless, if we take it seriously it can help us think more clearly about what it means to be a Christian in this century. 

So let's start with conviction #1: a god exists who made the world and orders things and watches over us. This one seems okay, doesn't it? There's basically no problem here. Just to check our work though before we move on, let's compare it with the Apostles' Creed: "I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth." I could be nitpicky and complain that MTD conviction #1 doesn't overtly identify this God as the Triune God of Christianity (by using a word like "Father") or I could fret over whether or not something about God's Almighty-ness should have been included, but I'm splitting hairs here. I could just as easily be nice to this first point and give it credit for at least implying God's Providence (which is lacking in the Apostles' Creed) and complement its helpfully pastoral tone.

So I don't think Christian's disagree with this point at all, at least as far as it goes. Nonetheless if we keep in mind the context of #1 within this five-point belief scheme, we find that these two critiques - and even the two compliments - expose the problem that we'll find later on in beliefs #2-5. Conviction #1 is the only completely unobjectionable belief in the lot, but it's also the only belief here that is mainly about God - the other four are mainly about me (or you, I guess). Compare that to the Apostles' Creed, where I am hardly even in a supporting role (you too, I'm afraid). There the emphasis is much more on God and what God is doing in the world. With MTD we're talking about God too, but this god is more like a handmaid or a butler or something - he's there, but he's really only important because of what he can do for me (or you, I guess). 

So the lack of any reference to God's "Almighty-ness", and even its pastoral tone betray the fact that this religious creed is really about believing in a Christian-ish God tailor made to serve my needs. He can probably find you a parking spot or something, but is only really worthy of your worship if you're feeling generous or don't like sleeping in on a Sunday morning. 

To sum up, conviction #1 has basically no problem, but it's a little thin, and it doesn't say nearly enough. And it's by far the best of the set. 

In my next post I'll take a look at #2 - the idea that God just wants us to be nice.