A return of pagan Christianity?

Soul Searching

All things old are new again. Or, so it would seem!

As I recently reread Peter Gay’s chapter on “The Era of Pagan Christianity,” I was reminded of a more recent book that reflects a similar sort of syncretism, this time in the Church of our day. Once again, “Christian thought has proven flexible and remarkably absorptive.”

In their book Soul Searching, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton describe this current form of syncretism, though they don’t use the term.

It is not so much that Christianity in the United States is being secularized. Rather more subtly, either Christianity is at least degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.

This faith, they characterize as Christianity’s misbegotten step-cousin.  And they call it Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.   This faith does not include elements of ancient philosophies such as stoicism or Platonism, the sort of syncretism described by Peter Gay.  Rather, it is a mixture that includes a variety of non-Christian elements from American culture.

[W]e can say that we have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity’ in the United States is actually only tenuously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition.

This has happened in the minds and hearts of many individual believers and, it also appears, within the structures of at least some Christian organizations and institutions. The language—and therefore experience—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 being supplanted by the language of happiness, niceness, and an earned heavenly reward.

Soul Searching is based on the most extensive survey ever conducted of the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers.  Although this research focuses on teenagers, Smith and Denton also offer a few jarring conclusions about the religious and spiritual lives of their parentsmore on that below.  Here, in a bit more detail, is what moralistic therapeutic deism looks like:

Moralistic approach to life:

  • Being moral in this faith means being the kind of person who other people will like, fulfilling one’s personal potential, and not being socially disruptive or obnoxious.
  • There’s nothing here about sin, repentance, the cross, spiritual discipleship, spiritual transformation, taking up the cross with Christ, suffering, the Fall, justification, Hell, etc. … Being moralistic is about getting along with others, looking good, being decent.

Therapeutic sensibilities:

  • It is about feeling good, happy, secure, at peace. It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along well with other people.
  • This is not a religion of repentance from sin, Sabbath keeping, of living as a servant of a divine sovereign, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etc.

Deistic view of God:

  • Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about belief in a particular kind of God, one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in our affairs—especially affairs in which we would prefer not to have God involved. Most of the time, the God of this faith keeps a safe distance.

In summary, “The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not demanding. He actually can’t be, since his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist—he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”

Soul Searching, and books like it, should be considered spiritual geography lessons—they map the spiritual terrain of the contemporary Church.  And they raise profound questions about how well the Church is doing in its engagement with the surrounding post-Christian culture.  Will our children have faith?  What sort of faith will it be?  Why are our young people not learning the content and the practice of historic Christianity?

This last question brings us to one of the most intriguing aspects of Soul Searching—what it says and what it doesn’t say about the religious and spiritual lives of the parents of the teens in the study.

We believe that the evidence clearly shows that the single most important social influence on the religious and spiritual lives of adolescents is their parents.

The best predictor of what their religious and spiritual lives look like is what the religious and spiritual lives of their parents do look like.

A few comments like these two can be found throughout Smith and Denton’s study—it is just enough to make one ask for more.  Perhaps, it’s too much to ask them for a parallel study of the parents of the teens in their survey.  But it is enough to show that the Church has as much work to do with parents as with teens—possibly more!

A paper written by Christian Smith summarizing the findings in Soul Searching is available at the Princeton Theological Seminary website.


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