This is the fifth and final blog in this series considering the book BAD RELIGION: HOW WE BECAME A NATION OF HERETICS by Ross Douthat. The first blog is A Recent History of American Heresy. The previous blog is The Heresy of God and Mammon.
In his book, Ross Douthat examines in great detail a number of ideas that have become broadly accepted in American Christianity, whether liberal or conservative. He examined two tendencies in American religious thinking – Messianism and apocalyptism – and how they have become part of both the political left and right in America, switching back and forth depending on which political party is in power. Thus politics and religious thinking have become enmeshed in odd ways in the daily life of Americans.
This has happened simultaneously with other developments in religious thinking in America including an intellectual search for a Jesus other than the one traditionally taught by Christianity – a Jesus more to the liking of some scholars as well as a number of Jesuses all created to satisfy the ideas held by various individuals. He also presents the role that money, Mammon, has come to play in American religion, and how it becomes a competing god from whom we hope to received constant blessings of prosperity even if we do lose our souls. One of the noted developments in this way is what Douthat calls the theology of the God Within. Former Harvard Professor Harvey Cox said in the age just prior to this new theology:
“Religious man was born to be saved, but ‘psychological man is born to be pleased.’” (p 231)
Religion ceases to be the way in which we learn to please the Lord God, and instead becomes something that pleases “Me”. The religion focused on the self makes “Me” to be the real god whom I serve. The new heresy involves the complete acceptance of individualism with post-modern rejection of any narrative which can guide or unite all human beings. It is a completely consumerist theology – religion is there to please me, and I will shop for and shape religion until it does.
“But at the deepest level, the theology of the God Within ministers to a different set of spiritual needs, and tries to resolve a different set of contradictions, than the marriage of God and Mammon. Whereas the prosperity gospel suggest that material abundance is the main sign of God’s activity in this world, the apostles of the God Within focus on internal harmony—mental, psychological, spiritual – as the chief evidence of things unseen. Whereas the prosperity gospel talks about prayer primarily in terms of supplication, the theology of the God Within talks about it primarily in terms of meditation and communion. And while the prosperity gospel insists that evil and suffering can be mastered by prayer, the God Within theology suggest that true spiritual enlightenment will expose both as illusions. The prosperity gospel is a theology of striving and reaching demanding; the gospel of the God Within is a theology of letting go. The prosperity gospel makes the divine sound like your broker; the theology of the God Within makes him sound like your shrink.” (p 217)
Sociological studies of young people reveal the following about what young people shaped by the God Within Theology believe. They have labeled these beliefs as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. . . . the God of MTD ‘is not demanding,’ the authors note. ‘He actually can’t be, because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. . . . Niceness is the highest ethical standard, popularity the most important goal, and high self-esteem the surest sign of sanctity.” (p 233) This new “creed” of the youth of America has five main tenets:
“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.’” (p 233)
Additionally, the religious trend has been accompanied by a growing self-absorption and self-centeredness. The extreme individualism already present in American culture finds a powerful expression in religion which focuses on the needs and desires of the individual. (See also my blogs Designer Religion and Which Christ Do We Believe In?)
“This growing narcissism has been a spur to excess on an epic scale. The narcissist may find it easy to say no to others, but he’s much less likely to say no to himself—and nothing defines the last decade of American life more than our inability to master our own impulses and desires. A nation of narcissists turns out to be a nation of gamblers and speculators, gluttons and gym obsessives, pornographers and Ponzi schemers, in which household debt rises alongside public debt, and bankers and pensioners and automakers and unions all compete to empty the public trough.” (p 235)
And as studies continue to show the increasing levels of narcissism in American youth, other virtues disappear.
“’We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000,’ one of the University of Michigan researchers noted—which is to say, just as My Space and then Facebook came online.” (p 236)
As Douthat reports American Christian youth come to look more and more like a product of American culture. In Genesis humans are created in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity, in the American idea god and humanity become shaped in the image and likeness of “Me”. This is of course the heretical element he is concerned with – a watering down of traditional Christianity to better suit the times and values of 21st Century Americans – individualist, consumerist, prosperous and narcissist.
Dothat also sees this abandoning of traditional Christian teachings as also opening the door to a merger between some Christians, Mormons and conservative politicians. He particularly cites how Glenn Beck, a Mormon, has worked hard to make this merger work for his own political agenda by downplaying theological differences and making political convictions the priority in the spiritual realm. Mormonism is a religion invented in America that resonates well with the ethical values that Americans frequently approve.
“To the extent that the chasm between Evangelicals and Mormons can be bridged, the heresy of God and country is the obvious place to fling out a rope bridge. This is exactly what Beck did during his Fox News run. From his boosterism for The 5,000 Year Leap to the blend of civic religion and nondenominational Christianity on display at the Lincoln Memorial, the entire Beck project represented a subtle invitation to Evangelicals to get over their anxieties about Mormonism by finding common ground with the Latter-day Saints in a shared appreciation of the Father, Son and the Holy Constitution.” (p 263)
Douthat is not opposed to conservative values or success. Just the opposite – he favors a more traditional Christianity in America influencing American politics. His concern is that the religious trends in America continue to cast aside traditional Christian values and beliefs in order to create a more convenient marriage between “religious” Americans and conservative politics. Douthat identifies himself with conservative thinking and politics and is recognized as a conservative by others. He also is clear that there is a difference between American political conservatism and traditional Christianity.
“The future of American religion depends on believers who can demonstrate, in word and deed alike, that the possibilities of the Christian life are not exhausted by TV preachers and self-help gurus, utopians, and demagogues. It depends on public examples of holiness, and public demonstrations of what the imitation of Christ can mean for a fallen world. . . . Only sanctity can justify Christianity’s existence; only sanctity can make the case for faith; only sanctity, or the hope thereof, can ultimately redeem the world.” (p 292)
Christianity in America has the difficult task of having to resist allowing the media to shape what it is and what it should be while at the same time witnessing to what the essential core meaning of who Jesus Christ is. God became flesh. God became human in Jesus Christ in order to make humanity all that God intends for humans to be. We are to share in the the divine love and life of the Holy Trinity. The media images of Christ and Christianity are all reductions of the truth, and thus are all heresies. Humans are created in the image and likeness of God, and Jesus Christ fully reveals what that means and how we can conform to that image. The hope for Christianity is not to try to conform to whatever image of religion the mass media thinks is most attractive, but for us Christians each individually and collectively as the Body of Christ to be the icon of Christ for the world.
An example of the difference between religion as God portrays it and religion as the media wants it to be is found in 1 Kings 19:11-13 where the Holy Prophet Elijah encounters God. The media would certainly want the encounter to be in all the hype, in the spectacular, in the bizarre, in the superstar, in the mighty forces of nature. God however reveals Himself in the still, small voice, something the media would ignore because it could not be portrayed in some attention grabbing way.
And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
When we only read or pay attention to those parts of the Scripture with which we agree or which we like, we listen to ourselves not to God. It is how we depart from Christ and embrace heresy.