The God Within emphasis of so much modern religion is a serious challenge to orthodox Christian faith. By removing the tensions that exist between true faith and reason the distinction between the Creator and the creation is routinely denied, both subtly and intentionally. Devotees often feel complete freedom to obey their “inner promptings of Supreme Self or Highest Thought” (229). In Bad Religion, journalist Ross Douthat perceptively observes:
One thinks here of Orwell’s famous admonition that saints should be judged guilty until they are proven innocent. To be sure, often they are innocent: Christian orthodoxy doesn’t exclude the possibility that God might call someone to abandon what can seem like their immediate moral responsibilities. Certainly nothing in the literature of the God Within is as radical as this Gospel admonition: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (229).
Orthodoxy can embrace mysticism but it when it does it always places a hierarchy of goods and ordinary duties on the followers of Jesus. The God Within places no restrictions on the faithful, just a freedom to gloss over one’s own desires with one’s Highest Thoughts being the word of god itself. The result is “a milder sort of solipsism . . . a kind of spiritual comfort food . . . not a spur to moral transformation” (230).
In The Triumph of the Therapeutic: The Uses of Faith After Freud, author Philip Rieff suggested in the mid-1960s that the new animating spirit of the age to come was very likely going to be personal desire, not political ambition. Man as a religious being was giving way to man as psychological being, not an ideological person. While this thesis has been entirely true (which one is finally) it sure does seem to capture something of the major shift from justice and salvation to personal and emotional fulfillment. Rieff wrote, “Religious man was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased” (cited on page 230). The goal of modern man became the way to manage abundance. This aptly fits with the reigning paradigms of God that are preached from many pulpits and on various religious broadcasts in 2012.
Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton conducted a 2005 study that showed America’s teens had embraced the kind of therapeutic theology that Rieff saw coming forty years earlier. They said the dominant thinking of modern teens was “moralistic, therapeutic deism.” That discovery has been widely discussed in popular and academic circles for good reason. This is where most young Americans are in terms of religious faith. Smith and Denton found that most teens and younger adults did not understand what their churches had taught them or they did not care to believe it if they were taught orthodox faith. What they actually believe is a “de facto creed” that (according to Smith and Denton) has five premises:
- A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life.
- 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 resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
This is how Smith and Denton arrived at the now much-used descriptor: Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism.
But Douthat suggests that this term is not entirely right. Therapeutic it is but deism suggests a distance between God and man, a sense of divine detachment. These five points do not suggest anything like 19th century deism. The truth is that this modern therapeutic thinking has brought God very near but he has drawn near to us as a therapist who is there for our happiness. God is more like (and this is Smith and Denton speaking now) “a combination of Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problem that arises, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves.”
The end result of all of this God Within Us thinking is a spirituality of niceness. This god is completely tolerant. For this reason no one should ever try to share their faith with another person since one person’s faith is just as good as the next person’s. This toleration creates a society that might be accepting but it is one that is not deeply interested in what is just. “As narcissism has waxed, empathy has waned” (234). The cult of the God Within has made American religion an “enabler of . . . excess rather than a potential curb against it” (235). For this reason Ross Douthat’s critiques of unhindered and unbridled capitalism are strong but profoundly needed. An affluent society, driven by so powerfully by its appetites, has little use for divine judgment or accountability. This also explains why the appeal of an atheist like Ayn Rand lingers on, influencing some parts of the political right, even in some Christian circles. It also explains why free markets without morality are a disaster waiting to destroy us if we do not restore sanity to our religious life.