Victoria Osteen’s recent faux pas (well some think it was a faux pas, I do) about God being happy when we are happy is a helpful illustrator of what I want to address in this mini-essay. For many North American evangelical Christians God has become our buddy in the sky, the God who snuggles up with us in our quiet times away from the hustle and bustle of everyday real life. For many evangelicals, God is more at our whim, he is meant to meet our psychological needs, and intended (by us) to make us feel normal in an otherwise abnormal world. For many an evangelical God is at our behest, and becomes who we make him to be rather than the other way around.
Theologian, J. Todd Billings, after sociologist, Christian Smith has labeled this type of movement, and evangelical making of God as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD, hereafter). Here is how Smith defines the lineaments of MTD:
- A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
My guess is that this sounds very familiar to you, in fact it might hit closer to him than you would like to admit. Truth be told, this inclination has been around for centuries, but it is modern man and woman who have been plagued with this style of pedestrian religion, in the name of Christ, probably more than any other age. We are conditioned by an understanding of God that suits us, that is fits well with being an American, or living with the relative creature comforts the Western world has to offer us. But there is a history behind this.
Herman Bavinck, a Dutch Reformed theologian who lived and wrote during the latter half of the 19th century (in Amsterdam) gets into the theological history that has led to what Christian Smith and Todd Billings have labeled as moralistic therapeutic deism. Bavinck was working in the period just after much of the theology behind MTD was being developed by certain German theologians like Fredrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Hermann, et al. What he has written on the topic sounds eerily close to what we have now come to call MTD. Here Bavinck is commenting on how some of the theologians of his day were articulating this early form of what has now more popularly been labeled as moralistic therapeutic deism:
Revelation, he says [he is referring to one of these theologians, i.e. Ritschl], is not an external thing, but “man receives the revelation, which is the ground of his religion, because the depths of his own being are opened to him.” Religion is a new life, and rests upon an experience of the power of moral good, as Jesus has shown us. To trust in that power is to believe, to live, to be saved. And because religion is thus “the complete quickening of a man, there is no general religion, the same for every one, but there are only individuals in religion.” So we see that from the standpoint of religious psychology there is no longer a place for metaphysics, theology, or dogmatics, nor even for an “ethics of the religious personality.” For every standard fails here; there is no single law or rule; the individual man is the measure of all things, also of religion; God does not say how he will be served, but man decides how he will serve him.
I think Bavinck’s insight, from the late 19th century is penetrating and pertinent to our own 21st century context as North American evangelicals in particular. What becomes difficult for us, as evangelicals, to identify this type of self-serving religion in our midst, in our personal lives is that we have no real critical space to distinguish between this type of moralistic religion and the real Christian religion that we claim to inhabit; because we have conflated the two. As I have written elsewhere in regard to this very issue, and drawing off of Swiss theologian Karl Barth and his critique of the 20th century German Christianity that he was a part of during World War I and II: “It is this absolutized ‘Conservative Self’ that presumes that what it means to be moral, and Christian is to ask, simply, ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ This perfectly illustrates Barth’s critique of the German Liberal Protestant. For them, as for us, to be Christian, was to be nationalist, exceptional, and normal.” And so we end up worshipping a projection of God that looks more like ourselves, our better morally good self, than the God revealed in Jesus Christ.
I know this little essay has probably come off like something that makes you feel like you have been beaten around the head, but isn’t that what we need sometimes? I think the most dangerous thing about living the way we do, as moralistic therapeutic Deists who have absolutized ourselves, and adopted a morally good Gospel (as Bavinck described it) is that we really have no space to actually hear from God. We have no capacity to see that God is truly Lord who contradicts us at our every step, but who at the same time graciously nurtures us even as he rebukes us in our sinful mode of being. There is hope, just not in ourselves.
 Christian Smith, Soul Searching, 162-63 cited by J. Todd Billings in Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church, 22.
 Herman Bavinck, The Philosophy of Revelation, loc. 2853, 2862 kindle.