God doesn't want you to be nice

Rainbows are nice. People should be something more.

Rainbows are nice. People should be something more.

Part 3 in a series of posts about Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a religious phenomenon which the National Study of Youth and Religion suggests is the largest religion among young people in the United States. I'm loosely riffing off Kenda Creasy Dean's Almost Christian.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) is a heresy.

I don't mean to be an alarmist here.

The word 'heresy' comes from a Greek word that means opinion or faction. The early church had a basic consensus on what Christians should believe. It was the teaching of the apostles that had been handed down to them since New Testament times; it was eventually formalized in what we call the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds. In other words, these early Christians believed things, and they thought they were true, and they thought they were important. Things that were similar to but ultimately at odds with this doctrinal consensus were given the name 'heresy' because they were mere factional opinions, and not the teaching that had been entrusted to them and that was believed by Christians everywhere. 

But we don't talk about heresy much anymore. The concept has fallen out of fashion. Why that is the case is connected to a complex history that we don't have space to recount here. But rest assured that I would much prefer to be burned at the stake myself than to do the same to another. It also must be acknowledged that there is a wide body of questions that are debatable, and it is fine for Christians to have different opinions on these issues. We should be extremely careful when we start to throw around this sometimes-abused 'H'-word. But if we are to be Christians in any meaningful sense we do need to believe at least some things. And so it will be useful to try to reclaim this currently unstylish word. 

With that in mind, understand that I don't mean to be casual or flippant when I say that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (or MTD) is the most pervasive heresy in North American churches, and could very well be more common than traditional Christian orthodoxy. Briefly, MTD consists of the following 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 took a critical look at #1 last week, but today I want to pick apart #2 a little bit. This is the 'moralistic' aspect of MTD; it's the notion that God basically just wants us to be nice to other people, and that this is the essential moral content of the Bible and most other religious traditions. I have a few comments.

First, it is obvious that there is a ton of overlap among the largest world religions when it comes to questions of morality. For instance, the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you can be found on the lips of Jesus, but similar ideas can be found not just in Judaism and Islam, but also in many other religious and ethical traditions. 

But the overlap of these traditions is not total. We disagree on plenty of morally important issues, and we even disagree about what counts as a morally important issue. For instance, Christians claim to worship the God of the Jews - we are, for our part, closer to Judaism than to any other tradition. But Jews think that the type of meats they eat and how they are prepared is morally significant, while Christians can eat basically any non-human animal without moral scruples.

And certainly the moral content of Christianity cannot be summed up in terms of simply being "good, nice, and fair" to others. Jesus pushes back when the rich young ruler calls him "good" (Mark 10:18), he wasn't very nice to moneychangers in the temple (Mark 11:15-16), and the way he spoke to the Syrophoenician woman wasn't fair (Mark 15:26). Jesus tells people to hate their families (Luke 14:26), says he came to bring division (Luke 12:51), and is complicit in the destruction of a herd of two thousand pigs (Mark 5:11-13). Or consider the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). There the kingdom of God is described as being extremely unfair - the folks who worked an hour get the same wage as those who worked all day. In a way, the gospel itself is wrapped up in the unfairness of God - we sinners don't get what we deserve; we get something immeasurably better. But, I hasten to add, God's grace toward us is much more than God being nice to us!

Further, no major religious or ethical tradition that I'm aware of thinks that people are just supposed to be nice to each other. Even the Golden Rule itself seems to be far more interesting than mere niceness.

Now of course God doesn't want us to be bad, jerkish, and unfair. I'm just saying that "good, nice, and fair" sounds pretty lame next to Jesus' call to take up your cross and follow him. Christians too are called to kindness, but it's a kindness rooted in God's self-giving love, and not in our own abilities to avoid being bad, unfair jerks.

Once a man got beat up pretty bad by robbers on the road to Jericho. A couple of religious leaders each passed him by. I'm sure both of them were perfectly nice gentlemen. But then a Samaritan went way beyond nice. God doesn't want you to be nice. God wants you to love. And sometimes that means getting your hands a little dirty. 

In my next post I'll take a look at #3 - the notion that the best goal for a human life is to be happy and feel good.