When Christianity becomes just one more religion in the marketplace of religions Jesus fades into the background. Is Jesus important? Yes, of course. Is Jesus the Savior of the world? Yes, according to the Bible. But so far as what Jesus does in the present tense, apart from what we do or make of him, that is where things get murky. When Jesus fades into the background, Christianity is reduced to a form of what has been dubbed moralistic therapeutic deism. Instead of Jesus, God in a general, abstract sense takes center stage. There is a God. God created the world and ordered everything according to his will. God wants us to be nice to each other. The purpose and goal of life is to be happy and love ourselves. In the present tense, God is only needed when we get in trouble. If we are good, we will go to heaven when we die. That is the sum and substance of all religions, with minor tweaks made here and there to account for personal, cultural, and historical context.
Moralistic therapeutic deism gets us off the hook.(1) This general, abstract belief in God saves us from having to take seriously the exclusive claims the Bible makes about Jesus as God and Savior. It gives us cover to live in a kind of theological relativism. Sin, death, and judgment are antiquated ideas. We often believe that God loves us just the way we are, and he would never judge us or send us to hell unless we were really, really bad, like Adolf Hitler bad. Even then, we prefer not to discuss sin and evil and hell, because they make us uncomfortable and may hurt our self-esteem. Worse yet, other people may think we are being judgmental or “judgy.”
Moralistic therapeutic deism places an emphasis on individualistic faith. Belief is personal and private. How each person chooses to express their beliefs is their prerogative. People can get together to worship their God, but only so long as everyone understands that worship is a kind of social contract. We all agree that we want to worship our God together. We all agree to get along for an hour or two on Sunday. We agree to behave ourselves, put on our Sunday best clothes, and act out the previously agreed upon rituals. But we are all aware that whatever is to be gotten out of worship, whatever is meaningful for each believer, is personal. In fact, the only true sin in a church that has embraced moralistic therapeutic deism is for people to be too certain about their convictions, and to try to impose them on others.
At root, moralistic therapeutic deism is really about instruction in how to live a moral life. It preaches that God’s will for our lives is that we be good and happy. To be a good Christian, then, means that we are nice people who are focused on personal growth and self-improvement. Growth and self-improvement, whether they are framed as growth in grace or the Spirit, are important because we should always be focused on being kinder, more respectful people. Likewise, we are to take seriously our mental, physical, and spiritual health. After all, how can we grow and improve if our personal lives are a train wreck of mental, physical, and spiritual illness? When we take care of ourselves, we are better able to help others. Finally, we do our best to be successful at whatever task we undertake. Why? Because our success allows us to live in relative safety, happiness, and peace with God and each other. Our success at being religious opens up more opportunities to add to and embellish our do-it-yourself religion.
At root, moralistic therapeutic deism is really about instruction in how to live a moral life. It preaches that God’s will for our lives is that we be good and happy.
For those who have grown up in a church, God-talk and theological conversations serve the purpose of further cementing the foundation of whatever religious shack they have built for themselves. Emphasis on individual faith and not being judgy toward others punctuates much of the Christianity I have encountered over the years. This is mirrored and has probably been learned from our broader culture. Believing in God and being nice to each other has become the post-modern Christian’s version of the Golden Rule.
In this respect, then, any talk about God is kept abstract and vague so as not to challenge or offend other people, especially other believers. In this way, we end up with a God who is nonspecific and therefore inoffensive. He, she, or it is open to multiple definitions and meanings depending on the individual’s present felt needs. Yes, there is a God. Yes, this God created all that exists. But God does not make demands of us so much as to offer encouragement like an over-anxious yoga instructor. Whatever God is to the individual believer, one thing is for sure. God is distant.
This kind of God makes sense to us, even when we dress him up as Jesus. He demands nothing from us. He is always ready to answer our prayer. He would never judge us for our life choices. He is the perfect God for us—harmless, meaningless, and godless. Of course, this has proven fatal for Christian churches.
For many Christians in American churches, this means they spend their lives as Lutheran, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, or nondenominational but would feel equally at home in worship with Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. They believe in God, they are religious, they love a good praise song, and they just want to be happy. And this is made possible so long as they are not confronted with the biblical witness to Jesus, that his death and resurrection is the end of all religion, even the religion of nice, happy, well-behaved Christians.
Jesus warns us to surrender our claim on all our religious beliefs.
The most “in your face” way Jesus upsets our nice, happy vision of Christianity can be found in the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector (Luke 18:9–14). Two men went into a temple to pray— one extravagantly, the other quietly. Simple enough. But Jesus’ parable is not about prayer. It’s not about humility, piety, or what we must do and leave undone to merit God’s good graces either. Instead, Jesus’ parable is about the end of religion as we imagine it. The parable is about the uselessness of doing all we can to get right with God. It’s about how foolish it is for us to even try.
Jesus does not say, “You’ve been doing it wrong the whole time. Now, here’s how to get this religion thing right.” Instead, Jesus warns us to surrender our claim on all our religious beliefs. All the stuff we do to justify ourselves to God is unjustifiable. That is why Jesus points us to his birth, death, and resurrection. This is how God finds the lost, strengthens the weak, and raises the dead.