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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

MTD and the Theological Context of Prayer Book Revision: A Response

Derek Olsen has a post in which he uses a term, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism ("MTD") that has become quite a favorite in the "traditionalist" Christian blogosphere, and so has connotations that he may not intend. It's used in his setting of a context in which Prayer Book revision in the Episcopal Church will take place. To set the stage a little:
There are some these days (I think of Elaine Pagels and others) who underscore the diversity of early Christianity to remind us that the stream of apostolic Christianity that became orthodox Christianity and that grounded the Undivided Church was one among many in order to suggest that some of the others are perfectly valid ways of being Christian and that orthodoxy became orthodox because the mean patriarchal Fathers constructed it that way so they could oppress everybody else. I don’t agree with that perspective, and that’s not why I’m bringing up the diversities of Christianities in the past. My point is simply that claiming Christianity does not automatically ensure orthodoxy.

In fact, I’d argue that orthodox Christianity is once again a minority among Americans generally and even among Americans who claim Christianity. The majority faith is Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD). Again, the major tenets of MTD are:

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. he 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.

Furthermore, I think that some of the classic Christian heresies are currently functioning in such a way to blur the edges from Christian orthodoxy into MTD.
OK, let's stop there a moment. Leaving aside Olsen's views on Pagels and Ehrman, which I find unduly dismissive, I generally see MTD used by traditionalists as a way of characterizing (actually caricaturing) the Christianity of those they define as liberals. Including, sometimes, real liberals, like yours truly, who in fact does not hold such a belief. I'm a creedal Christian; that informs my liberal views, not contradicts them. So, generally, I've seen MTD come up as a pejorative for the view held by the (non-present) Other, to facilitate their dismissal. That said, it originated in empirical research into teenagers' beliefs, so there is a core reality behind the term.

Moving on with Olsen: "Again, we need to recall why heresy is an issue. I think sometimes there’s a sense that there’s a “patriarchal dogmtic thought police” who wants to make sure that you’re under their thumb and you’re only thinking what they want you to think. Throw that notion out—it’s ridiculous."

No. Witch hunts were real; so too was the patriarchal, anti-woman screed by John Knox, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558), and so too have been many claims of heresy used to deny women's right to political, social, legal, let alone religious equality. The ordination of women remains a bone of controversy to this day, as witness the disruption--by a priest no less--of the first female bishop of the Church of England, earlier this year. Alister McGrath, no liberal, has noted that ""the extension of the category of heresy was an important instrument of social control."

This isn't a major point in Olsen's analysis, so why am I harping on it? Because I think he underestimates the extent to which the abuse of the term "heresy" by religious authorities as a means of maintaining dominance has engendered distrust and skepticism of orthodoxy as a concept. I won't "fisk" the whole essay; I actually think that much of it is quite good, and explores some ways that modern attitudes toward religion can echo ancient heresies. But in doing so, I think that Olsen makes it all rather too easy on orthodoxy. Let me give you a particularly egregious example:
Neo-Marcionism: Marcion was a gnostic who taught that the Creator spoken of in the Old Testament as the God of Israel was a lesser being who imprisoned souls and soul-stuff within material reality. Jesus came to save us from creation and material reality, and taught us of his Father who was all love who was different from the lesser, evil, Creator active in the OT. The modern form is the general rather nebulous notion that the God of the Old Testament is the mean god who does mean things; the God of Jesus is the good god who loves you and thinks you’re great. Whereas the first two heresies are presently taught by thinkers who write books that are discussed in Adult Forums and such, this one tends to be more cultural than presented as an actual argument. This heresy helps bring Christianity into conformity with MTD by denying the continuity between God the Creator and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who was intimately related with human life in its particularity (pt 1, 4), and downplaying the notion that God has some very clear and specific commandments on the ordering of human life an[d] relationships (pt 2).
Oh, as usual, dear. Writing off the "general rather nebulous notion that the God of the Old Testament is the mean god who does mean things" as just a way of bringing Christianity into conformity with MTD, and brushing off God's "very clear and specific commandments on the ordering of human life an[d] relationships" enables us to elide some pretty tough stuff in the OT, doesn't it? Read C.S. Lewis on the "imprecatory psalms":
In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth. In others the same spirit ceases to be frightful only be becoming (to a modern mind) almost comic in its naivety... One way of dealing with these terrible or (dare we say?) contemptible Psalms is simply to leave them alone. But unfortunately the bad parts will not "come away clean"; they may, as we have noticed, be intertwined with the most exquisite things...At the outset I felt sure, and I feel sure still, that we must not either try to explain them away or to yield for one moment to the idea that, because it comes in the Bible, all this vindictive hatred must somehow be good and pious. We must face both facts squarely. The hatred is there - festering, gloating, undisguised-and also we should be wicked if we in any way condoned or approved it, or (worse still) used it to justify similar passions in ourselves.
Need an example?--Psalm 137:9 leaps to mind, or the genocidal passages theologians struggle with.

Look, I'm not advocating for Marcion. But let's not pretend that shying away from these passages as expressing the true essence of God is somehow not a moral reaction to some dubious texts. As that defender of orthodoxy Charles Gore pointed out, the Hebrew Scriptures are a melange of folklore, history, imaginative history, drama, and storytelling. Pretending that the more *ahem* sanguinary, or dubious passages are consonant with the teachings of Christ, and are as much of God, is asking the understandably skeptical reader to ignore her own reaction. Gore went so far as to argue that only with the prophets do we begin to see the lineaments of God's self-revelation. That's not Marcionism; it's acknowledging that there are many strands in the Bible, and not all of them are equally moral.

If you want to win people away from MTD, it seems to me critical to offer them a nuanced view of the Bible, one that acknowledges, as did Lewis and Gore, that not everything in it is of God; you have to get past the pain of a people oppressed, or, in earlier sections, the evolving understanding of a people only discovering monotheism, and defining themselves as against their neighbors. Christians haven't always gotten it right throughout history--why should we be surprised that the history in the Hebrew Scriptures records a tale that is not always edifying?

But to ignore the difficulty, and blame it on MTD, seems to be asking for a principled moral rejection from the uncommitted. We can do better. And we'd better.

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