September-October 2019

Post date: Oct 28, 2019 1:39:22 PM

Among believing Americans of various Christian denominations and different religions, there is an emerging trend of beliefs. Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton noted the following five defining characteristic of what they termed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

- 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 solve a problem.

- Good people go to heaven when they die.

These elements can seem attractive. However, for someone who believes that Christ is the Way and the Truth, and the Life, the important question is “are they true?”. Because Christ is the Truth, St. Paul could then teach: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable if anything is excellent or praiseworthy think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). As Christians, trying not to nitpick, we can generally agree to the first two points. Similarly, we can find some agreement with the last point, but not without some caveats, including:

- only God knows those who are truly good, and

- we may often not be able to understand His judgments (“Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you [chief priests and elders]” Matt. 21:31).

That being said, the third and fourth points do not fit within the framework of Christianity. The third point begins by stating that the central goal of life is to be happy. From a Christian perspective the goal of life can be expressed in various ways. We can talk about it as becoming “holy as God is holy” (cf. 1 Pet. 1:16 ), acquiring the Holy Spirit according to the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov, becoming partakers of God (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4), or uniting ourselves to Christ, as we affirm in the baptism service. A common thread of these descriptions for the goal of our life is that they are not centered on the self; the center of the Christian life is God.

Looking at the second part of the third point, how we feel about ourselves, whether good or bad, is an evaluation (conscious and subconscious) performed by the self and based on criteria which are developed by the self (consciously and subconsciously). Whether good or bad, such evaluations are generally unreliable. As an antidote, the Church directs us to live our lives in repentance, commending them in their entirely to Christ our God. Doing that, we can say with St. Paul that we live “not having a righteousness of [our] own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith” (Phil. 3:9).

The fourth point is just as problematic from a Christian perspective. A common prayer talks about the Holy Spirit as being “everywhere present and filling all things.” That does not sound like a God who is not involved in life. In Orthros, one of the hymns we sing in mode 3 says: “In the Holy Spirit, as in the Father and the Son, radiates intrinsically every gift of goodness. And in Him all things both live and move.” That is a central tenet of our faith: that everything exists in God and because of God and, without His sustenance, nothing can exist. God is, because of Who He is, involved in everyone’s life at every moment. We can choose to ignore that involvement and we may even try to run away from it, but that does not change God’s presence and His involvement. If we do not exist except by God’s grace and, if the goal of life is to be united with Christ, then it makes no sense to say that God does not need to be involved in one’s life.

There is very little required of a person who subscribes to the tenets of Moral Therapeutic Deism, in terms of both belief and action. If the main goal in life is to be happy, many elements of Christianity in general and Orthodox Christianity in particular do not make sense. What is the point of communal worship, which St. Paul admonishes his audience in Hebrews not to forsake? What is the point of confession? Or fasting? What, even, is the point of communion? Put all that together, what does it matter that one be Orthodox? But if life is about being united with Christ, everything changes. All things that bring us in communion with Christ and facilitate that communion are no longer nice adornments, old fashioned practices, or occasional disruptions and burdens to be borne. They are part of the “one thing needful;” things which the Church has kept and is offering to us for our salvation, that we may fulfill our vocation to be the likeness of God. Coming to that realization changes how we understand ourselves as Orthodox Christians, how we live our lives, and how we relate to the Church.

May God grant us grace to recognize Him everywhere and at all times and to always strive towards communion with Christ.

With love in Christ,

+Fr. Peter