Virtue vs. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism

A study by Christian Smith and other researchers at the University of North Carolina found that American teenagers hold what has been termed a new religion, which Smith and his colleagues call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, or MTD. A summary of their research can be found in the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers.

MTD consists of such beliefs as:

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.”

There is much worth discussing in the article linked above, and the book itself. God is not our therapist, nor do we obtain His favor by earning it. Here, I want to focus on a few important distinctions between the pursuit of Christian virtue as articulated in Being Good, and some of the core beliefs of MTD. I will especially focus on how the pursuit of virtue in daily life is distinct from beliefs 3-5.

A life of Christian virtue should not be centrally motivated by the goal of personal happiness and feeling good about oneself. These may come as a byproduct of Christian virtue, but they are not the central aims of life. I take it that life’s central aims for the follower of Christ are to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:29-31). This requires a host of moral and intellectual virtues, some of which are explored in our book. Christ did come to give us an abundant life (John 10:10), but in Scripture that life is cashed out as a life of sacrificial love, in which we consider the interests of others to be more important than our own (Philippians 2:1-11). It is a life in which we participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:3-11). These are tall orders, and to make progress in them we need God to be involved in our lives in deep and constant ways, not merely to solve our problems for us (in contrast to 4 above). And being good is not the reason we are able to spend eternity with the Triune God and all who love Him, but rather grace opens such a life up to us, which of course should motivate us to pursue growth in the character of Christ.

American teenagers did not come to hold MTD in a vacuum, they were influenced by many both in and out of the church towards these beliefs. It is time that adults model and teach the Way of Christ, rather than the way of MTD. This is a life of struggle, a life of joy, a life of adventure, and a life that is ultimately satisfying. It is not easy, or comfortable, but it is the life that God has called us to pursue as those who seek to know, love, and follow Him.

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  • Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life
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