Monday, February 6, 2012

It's All Good

If you asked your average Christian what the single greatest threat to Christianity was you'd likely get answers ranging from Islam to Obama, to a Muslim Obama.  We usually think of the worst threats being external and either religious or political, when I believe the greatest threat to the future of Christianity in America really is a cultural issue that has been sneaking within.  Just because certain other religions disagree with us doesn't mean they are the real competition, and I believe Satan is happy as can be having major world religions just look at each other squabbling while religion itself is eroded away.  I also think vilifying either side of the political spectrum with religious arguments just contributes to the problem by making Christians look small-minded and focused more on agendas than a life changed by their savior.
Keep in mind that I believe enough in the sovereignty of God to think that Christianity itself can be killed off or that it is actually in danger, we aren't that powerful to screw it up.  What I'm talking about is on an individual level and especially for our children to pass on an authentic faith that will serve them as adults rather than weak superstition, rigid dogma, or assuming they have it all figured out when they don't have a clue.  I'm more interested in how to engage a teenager about faith or how to discuss my faith with someone who just doesn't see it as all that important.  What it comes down to is the term "Christian" has really come to lose a lot of its meaning, we can't just assume that when the term is used that people actually know what it means.  Its like the word "love," which can be used to mean anything from "I passionately love my wife and children" to "I really love chocolate ice cream."  Now people refer to themselves as "Christian" if they sometimes go to church, or kind of believe there might be a god out there somewhere, or if their parents are Christians, or if they just happen to be an American.  This makes it kind of hard for me as a counselor because I often have clients state right out of the gate that they are a Christian and for me that has a set of presuppositions that often aren't what they were implying.  It also means that talking to teenagers and young adults about faith involves a verbal jujitsu to get them to consider God at all much less allow themselves to be pinned down by any label or categorization.  

For me it helps to have a starting point of what it is that someone actually believes rather than me making random assumptions one way or the other, but it seemed like it kept coming back to one coherent set of beliefs that really weren't Christian but couldn't be otherwise categorized.  Finally the great University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill produced a sociologist named Christian Smith who has written a book that has defined exactly this set of beliefs I keep running into.  In Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers he writes about a concept he refers to as moralistic therapeutic deism which to me helps elucidate the belief system that our culture serves up in heaping doses through every form of media until it becomes just the atmosphere we walk around in.  Maybe the saddest part of the study revealed that for most teenagers the interviewer was the first adult in their lives to ever ask them questions about or engage them in discussion about matters of belief.  Most parents rely on church, youth group, or their own sterling example to be sufficient for helping their teens know everything they need to know about faith.  The belief system of Moralistic Theological Deism (MTD) can best be understood by the following five belief statements:
1. "A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human 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 does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem."
5. "Good people go to heaven when they die."

Now some of you may read those and think, "well that's pretty much what I believe," or "what is so wrong with that?"  It isn't a problem except that it isn't even close to Christianity even though as my religion professor referred to it, "It tastes like chicken" meaning it is close enough to resemble orthodoxy to make its way inside the church and gain widespread acceptance.  When most teens, along with most public figures and celebrities talk about Christianity, this is what they are talking about.  It would take way too long to break down exactly what the theological differences are but I'll hit some of the high points.  MTD sees God as "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." Some major things are missing or perhaps purposely excluded because they make us as Americans uncomfortable, like the depravity of humanity.  If the only people who make it to heaven when they die are "good" people then we are all in trouble, because Jesus will be standing there all alone.  We like to use the term good, because then it is up to us and we can just send Jeffrey Dahmer, Bin Laden, and our ex-husband to Hell while we and all our friends and family get to be good as determined by us.  If however we think we can really be "good" then it follows that God would want us to be that, except that the cross is a blaring reminder that we are all screw ups in need of mercy and grace rather than rock stars getting cheered on by a god who just wishes he were as awesome as us.
MTD also assumes that everything in this world is all about us as humans, whatever makes us happy, while Christianity says that the entire created world is about God and his glory and honor.  We like to rewrite things with us as the central focus, but in Christianity there is no room for that - God isn't focused on our happiness that comes and goes, if anything he cares more about our holiness, but ultimately he is focused on everyone experiencing just how huge he is and being humbled in the process.  There are great benefits we receive when we see God accurately but the cost is having to see ourselves accurately as well, because if it is all about God and not us then he gets to decide reality and not us, he gets to judge and not us, and he gets to decide when and how he involves himself in our world.  He isn't a genie to be rubbed so we can get bailed out of crises but ignored when we think we are good, he is the King of kings and Lord of lords to be worshiped and obeyed.

Where is the good news in all of this?  MTD leaves you feeling self-righteous, important, and good enough but ultimately unfulfilled because it is hollow.  We all want something to devote our lives to that is bigger than ourselves because at the core we all know we really aren't that important and even when we define good for ourselves we don't live up to our own standards. All the conflict in our lives stems from seeing ourselves as the most important thing, it is outrage that we aren't being treated the way we feel we deserve because of our greatness.  Without a God that forgives us exactly because we can't make it right on our own and are hopeless without his mercy we will never be able to truly forgive another person - unless you know what it is like to be forgiven the best you can do is ignore or try and rationalize the harms against you.  Without a God who is greater than us and the collective opinion of others we'll never develop a stable sense of worth and value.  And if we don't understand God's unconditional one-sided love that benefits us while we have absolutely nothing to offer him we'll manipulate every relationship we have trying to get what we want and expect from people.  

So maybe rather than asking stupid questions of our kids, coworkers, and friends like "Are you a Christian?" we can begin asking what their thoughts and beliefs are on God and what he wants in their life.  We need to stop blithely accepting labels thrown out that have no meaning and actually engage in real dialogue or we'll both be nodding and have no idea how far apart we really are.  I think one reason we avoid the deeper conversations is we don't feel confident in what we believe because our entire culture presents a different picture.  It's OK to talk about a loving God who wants you to be happy that is there for you in a pinch but knows when to scram so you don't ever have to feel bad.  But popping someone's bubble and letting them know that they aren't their own God, that the world religions have vastly different and mutually exclusive belief systems, and that trying hard to be good just polishes the facade and  you invite criticism and ridicule.  Laying out the beliefs of MTD should help us engage our culture in a relevant way, open up dialogue, and provide hope for people who as try as they might can't squeeze fulfillment and purpose out of a false gospel.  

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