Thursday, April 18, 2013

Jesus and the Pharisees and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

Now there's a mouthful.

'Jesus' photo (c) 2007, tonystl - license:

I wouldn't say that I'm a terribly fearful person. I rarely make choices based on fear; in fact I would frequently do well to have a little more fear. But one fear I've had over the past year or so, in the background of my mind, is the fear of ending up a Pharisee. Especially as I've watched some of the Christian debate in the public sphere, I've asked myself both "What would Jesus do?" (and I mean that as non-trivially as possible) but also "What would the Pharisees do?" I don't want to be a Pharisee.

I've been listening to the New Testament in 2013, and it's been fascinating. These people seriously got Jesus' goat. Last week, we covered this on our reading plan:
You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
I read that, and I thought "Please God, do not let that be what you say about me. I don't want to be that guy." But over the past six months or so, I've also been spending some brainpower on America's national religion: Moralistic therapeutic deism, or MTD for short. According to El Wik:
Moralistic therapeutic deism ... is used to describe common religious beliefs among American youth.
  • A god exists who created and ordered 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.
It's not hard to imagine where this comes from: it's taught in churches all the time. People pick MTD up out of the air in America... it's not just teenagers that believe this. Over 90% of Americans believe in God, but the vast majority of them believe in this. It's not Fosterism (yet), but we're getting there. People are into Jesus because he sounds like this.

Except that he doesn't. He doesn't at all. Perhaps the most shocking thing for me, as I've been listening to the Gospels again, is how much of what Jesus says goes expressly against MTD. To the extent that such a belief system is compatible with Christianity, it's at the fringes. To the extent that these five ideas are true, it's as incidental to the core things that Jesus taught about himself.

And so the takeaway for me, as I've been watching the myself and the church over the past few months, is that I need to beware MTD just as much as I need to beware "Pharisee-ism." Both sides are equally seductive, and equally dangerous. I need to live in the constant tension between John 5:39-40 and  an equally terrifying verse: Malachi 2:17.
You have wearied the Lord with your words. 
“How have we wearied him?” you ask. 
By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”
Don't be that guy. 

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