“Hello, I am a moralistic therapeutic deist.” That’s the word from a number of evangelical teens.
I really liked that phrase when I first read it, though it seemed a little clunky. It was introduced by the 2005 book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. After listening to about 3,000 interviews the authors suggested that evangelical teens describe their beliefs this way:
God wants us to be happy
God waits around until we have a problem then jumps in to help
Good people – people who are nice – go to heaven
In other words, they are moralistic therapeutic deists.
And don’t bug these teens with religious questions for too long because they have more important things to do. They are disinterested moralistic therapeutic deists, and who wouldn’t be disinterested in such a religion?
Oh – and this is important – teens are regular people who just speak a little more blatantly than the rest of us. Poll 3,000 evangelical adults and you uncover the same basic beliefs.
To these beliefs I can add one more (Thank you for pointing this one out, Laura Andrews!).
“I must try harder.”
While so many other functional beliefs immediately sound heterodox, this one sounds biblical. Who among us isn’t trying harder to love our neighbor, love God, eat better, go greener, and exercise more? And aren’t we supposed to work out our salvation and live like athletes who want to win a race?
Yet, “I must try harder,” as I have heard it used, is always doomed to fail, as it should. It can mean: “I have tried harder and it didn’t help, and maybe I should keep trying harder, but why bother?” It can mean: “I have tried harder, and it didn’t help, but I will keep trying harder because I don’t know what else to do.” Or it can mean: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I messed up. I’ll try harder. Okay? (Now stop bothering me.)”
“I must try harder” comes from the set of beliefs in which Jesus, at most, is our [distant] coach, giving direction, encouragement, and a good tongue lashing from the side-lines while we try to compete, without much assistance, against someone clearly more skilled than ourselves. Victory is never really possible. We just hope to avoid an embarrassingly lopsided loss.
Life in Jesus, however, is restless rest, with the accent on rest. Faith, which is the primary human response to God, means that we trust him and not ourselves. More specifically, faith means, “Jesus, help!” And this is very different from a foundational belief, “I must try harder.”
I want to try harder too, but in the right way. We need to be activists in our rest. We actively ask God to show us the way, to do what he is calling us to do, in the Spirit’s power. But the belief I hear most often is the resigned, self-reliant version of “I must try harder.”
Now is always a good time to assign ourselves a new task, such as to rest in, abide in, believe in, trust in, know and enjoy the rescuer of our souls.