Today, Father Steve takes a look at a recent CNN article about the religious phenomenon among young adults that author Kenda Creasy Dean calls "fake" Christianity. He offers his commentary on this therapeutic "gospel of niceness," describing how we got to this point and where we go from here.
recently appeared on CNN which reported on the phenomena of “morally therapeutic deism” masquerading as Christian faith among teens and young adults. This “fake” form of Christianity is having a deleterious effect on the nation’s churches according to Kenda Creasy Dean, who has authored a study of this trend in a new book entitled Almost Christian
. Dean laments that in terms of three out of four American teens who call themselves Christian, fewer than half practice their faith, deem it important to their lives, and cannot talk coherently about their beliefs. The survey included Catholics and Protestants from both conservative and liberal congregations. Responding to critics who noted that teens and young adults cannot talk coherently about any deep subject, Dean retorted that this is simply not true. “They can talk about money, sex, their family relationships with nuance.” I would add to this from my own experience that teens and young adults can demonstrate at times rather sophisticated takes on everything from politics to entertainment to sports, but ask them about the content of the Christian Faith and its meaning, and there are usually two responses: blustery opinions about “religion” that parrot the mainstream media’s emphasis on whatever is trending at the moment and wide eyed silence.
What might be the cause of the diminishment of even the most basic knowledge of the Christian way of life among young people? Dean and others reason that it is all the result of the promotion of what is termed “a gospel of niceness”, the reduction of Christian faith to vague social concerns: being true to oneself, getting along with others, and awareness of problematic behaviors such as promiscuity or drug use. God, in this construal, is mostly an abstraction, rather than the densely textured revelation of Biblical witness. The source of this “morally therapeutic deism” is not young people; it has been constructed for them and delivered to them by adults. In other words, the problem here is not young people, but those responsible for them- catechists, pastors, and parents. And it isn’t as if the promotion of “morally therapeutic deism” is without serious consequences. Dean identifies it as the primary reason that teens and young adults abandon churches. Their receptivity towards the Faith is met with the impression that there is not all that much to it, and so they take the secularist option and essentially opt out. The impression most of these teens and young adults will carry throughout their lives is that Christianity doesn’t really have all that much to offer that they couldn’t readily just make up for themselves or find in a self-help publication. In other words, we are subverting ourselves by employing vague jargon in place of a rich immersion into the theology and practice of the Christian Faith.
Father Barron weighed in on all this in an address given to catechists
a few years ago. His point is that we have the content that we need to present the Faith to young people in a way that will engage them for the rest of their lives, but do we have the will to do so? Many have demonstrated to me that willingness, but have raised the legitimate complaint that the much of the infrastructure that the Church employs to advance its catechetical project is resistant to change. Despite the abject failure of catechetical models based on morally therapeutic deism there is a suspicion from within the catechetical and educational elites that anything other than the status quo will mean a return to the propositional model of the Baltimore Catechism. My response to this objection is that at this point we could do worse than older propositional models- we could keep things the way that they are in the maddening expectation that eventually we will see a different result.
In relation to all this, I found an interview with Rodney Stark
posted on the Patheos site to be illuminating. There is a genealogy to efforts to introduce our young people to the faith. Intentional moves were made to the model of catechesis that currently vexes us. Stark talks in this interview about the decline and dissolution of the formally mainline Protestant churches, and how that decline was largely self-induced by decisions to propagate certain forms of theology. In other words, the theology that backs up our catechetical project (and our parishes) matters profoundly. In fact it is a matter of life or death for the Church’s mission and our communities. The idea that theology is merely an abstract, academic hobby that has little relevance to the real world is a caricature that we simply cannot afford to believe anymore. Further, until we change the underlying theological ethos that informed the entire catechetical project all the applications of new and relevant technology are not going to work. I would assert strongly that catechetical models that are rooted in the theological experiential expressivism, that has as its precedent the theology of Frederich Schleiermacher, got us precisely where we are right now. This was coupled to a popularized form of Karl Rahner’s negotiation with Kant, which all too quickly took the zeal and content out of catechesis. After all, why bother with passing on the Faith at any level of depth and intensity if we can all just be anonymous Christians anyway -or better yet: morally therapeutic deists.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.