How important is theology, what we believe about God? What happens to a culture when there is a breakdown in theology? What can we do about it?
The Theology We Had
In 2005, sociologist Christian Smith, leading a project called National Study of Youth and Religion, released the findings of a monumental study in a book titled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers. The book was the culmination of the project’s five-year study, interviewing over three thousand teenagers ages thirteen to seventeen from across the U.S. regarding their personal religious beliefs. Of all studies done on all the aspects of American teenage life, religious ideas have usually gone unnoticed. This study, however, left no stone unturned.
Their findings were perplexing. A dominant 84% of those interviewed identified themselves as religious, with 75% claiming to be Christian. However, that is where the positive indicators end. Among the findings, at least two negative trends were overwhelmingly apparent. First, the researchers found apathy evident in how most teenagers answered and what their answers were. Smith described the general attitude as a “benign whateverism.” Second, teens were dreadfully incapable of articulating what they believe. All in all, the generality pictured was that while most American teenagers have religious beliefs, they just do not care that much about them, and those who do are terrible at expressing why.
In addition to this bleak outlook, the study found that five ideas about God were shared by the vast majority of American adolescents:
- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- 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.
Smith and his colleagues summarized these ideas with a now infamous term. The religious views of U.S. teenagers from a decade ago may be accurately described as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
A general idea most teenagers shared in 2005 was that morality was not a set-in-stone issue. “What is right and wrong” was more of a pragmatic and altruistic question that sounded more like “what is best for me and everyone around me.” God was not reflecting his immutable holiness in the law written on every human heart, he was merely suggesting a good way to live. As Smith and coauthor Melinda Lundquist Denton explained, this way of thinking “is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person. That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one’s health, and doing one’s best to be successful.”
Researchers found that the purpose of religion was equally skewed in the minds of teenagers. Most teenagers believed that religion was something worth having, but only for its “therapeutic benefits.” Religion was not about a spiritual connection to eternal truth that is to be worked out in everyday life. It was a cushion of familiarity used on an as-needed basis. It was not so much about being committed to a worldview as it was a way to cope with the difficulties of this world.
We must be careful assuming cause and effect when reading studies that address so many aspects of belief. However, lurking over the results of the entire study was a concept of God that could only be described as deism. As a philosophical notion, deism has developed over centuries. But, it may be summarized as the idea that God created and manages the world but keeps a “safe distance” from direct involvement in our lives. The study demonstrated that teenagers view God as more IT support for life than the sovereign creator of it. He is there if everything crashes, but there is no need for his involvement in the meantime.
To summarize, the majority of American teenagers in 2005 believed God wants us to be good and feel good but makes sure to give us our space.
The bottom line is that for an entire generation there was a breakdown of theology.
For me, the most devastating discovery of the entire study, an observation that I believe has great explanatory power, is that for many of these teens that were interviewed, the interview itself was the first time they had ever discussed theological questions with an adult. Smith testified,
Either way, it is apparent that most religiously affiliated U.S. teens are not particularly interested in espousing and upholding the beliefs of their faith traditions, or that their communities of faith are failing in attempts to educate their youth, or both.
The correlation with this trend and the rapid secularization of 21st-century culture is as understandable as it is obvious.
The Failure of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism
So, where are they now? Where are the thirteen-to-seventeen-year-olds from 2001 to 2005? They are right here (as I raise my hand). They are the twenty-five-to-thirty-three-year-olds of 2017. They are the most populous age group in the U.S. They are voters, graduate students, business owners, and young parents. They are millennials. (Cue horror movie lightning strike) Moreover, many have brought their Moralistic Therapeutic Deism with them even though it failed to enable its devotees to respond to the culture at large.
And, boy did it fail.
It was the dominant view of God as terrorism driven by militant Islamic ideology became the dominant crisis in headlines worldwide. But, how do you talk about a good and faithful God in the face of terrorist attacks if your theology basically boils down to therapy? It is no wonder this generation is leaving the church in droves; after all, we can get therapy from a place that doesn’t make you wake up early on Sunday.
It was the dominant view of God as atheism became the main subject of bestselling books with animosity illustrated by their titles, The God Delusion, God Is Not Great, The End of Faith, etc. But, how do you talk about the reality of God to an atheist if your theology basically boils down to deism? It is no wonder this generation has little concern for the things of God; after all, so many smart people have “proven” that at best God is irrelevant.
It was the dominant view of God as the sexual revolution took pop culture and politics by storm (in that order) and prompted the nation to prioritize personal autonomy in sexual identity over any view of God that dared to say otherwise. How do you talk about objective sexual identity and morality if your theology basically boils down to moral relativism? It is no wonder this generation is jettisoning Biblical authority; after all, thinking Biblically puts one on the wrong side of history.
It is plain to see that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism was not ready for such a world and may very well have helped produce it. With Islamic terrorists in a literal war, atheists in a literary war, and sexual revolutionaries in a legal war, that was our theology. It was just not enough.
It still isn’t.
So, here’s the thing…
The Theology We Need
Throughout the Bible, whenever God’s people doubt and detract, there always only seems to be one solution: a renewed high view of God. In those moments, God is always swift to draw his people’s gaze upward in order to drive their posture downward. Whether it was fire and smoke at the top of a mountain, or a wheel within a wheel, or throne room circled by seraphim, God made himself known with unmistakable glory. Then through Jesus, revealing the fullness of the Godhead bodily, God made himself known with unmistakable love. In the Bible, recording the story of redemption, revealing the history of the universe from God’s perspective, God makes himself known with unmistakable clarity.
So, what do we do with that Bible? We dive in. We study. We parse, we define, and we interpret. We exegete. We expose, we expound, and we apply. We do theology.
We need theology. We need deep, rich, mind-expanding, heart-engulfing Biblical theology. We need to dive into “the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God,” so that we come out of the other end agreeing with Paul that “of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.” (Romans 11:33-36)
Theology that narrates
The theology we need is that which reminds us of our story, the story of redemption. We Christians live in an odd and often antagonistic cultural moment. However, we have had many moments like these. Sure, we face challenges that our Christian ancestors never dreamed of, but they faced challenges to which we cannot even relate. We need a theology that gets our eyes off the winds and waves of the cultural moment and back on the author of the entire story.
We need the narrative power of Biblical theology.
Theology that explains
The theology we need is that which reminds us that all truth is God’s truth. With every mass shooting, natural disaster, and international conflict, the one humanizing question that we all agree needs to be answered is, “Why?” In those moments, a scientism that tells us everything is simply random matter in chaotic motion just won’t cut it. In times like those, a spiritualism that tells us that it is all illusion of distinction just won’t work. We need a theology that explains the pain because it is theology about a God who has felt our pain and worse, and who gives hope for relief.
We need the explanatory power of Biblical theology.
Theology that informs
The theology we need is that which reminds us that we have a purpose in this world, every last one of us. The American dream is not enough. It has turned into a nightmare for far too many. We need to understand that the image we were created to bear has infinitely more for us than the ambitions we live to fulfill. We are creative because our Creator is creative. The artist should be made aware of that reality. We are rational because the Builder of our world is rational. The engineer should be made aware of that reality. We were made to bear the image of God, and we have been given the abilities and resources to do so.
We need the informing power of Biblical theology.
Theology that diffuses
The theology we need is that which reminds us a generation is coming behind us. At this point, there is no point in pointing fingers. Baby boomers pointing at their kids saying, “When we were your age….” Millennials pointing at their parents saying, “You raised us!” The generational battles are pointless. There is only one thing that each generation inescapably passes on to the next—sin. Therefore, each generation must work endlessly to pass on a theology worth keeping. But, to pass on theology we must have a theology.
We need the generational power of Biblical theology.
The Theology We Want
Theology is tough. There are big words and bigger ideas. It is complicated and often confusing. However, it is rewarding, temporally and eternally. It is a nourishment that simultaneously satisfies and produces a thirst for more. So, if I may offer some words of encouragement for the journey.
Find the theoretical in the practical.
Orthodoxy always comes before orthopraxy. It must. When we lose sight of why we do what we do, we won’t be doing it much longer. Everything a Christian gets out of church, they can get elsewhere, a sense of community, an opportunity to serve, spiritual fulfillment, everything. Yet, the one thing they can get nowhere else is a theological basis for all of it that fuels a desire for more of it. We get sick of our friends, we tire of helping others, and spiritual passions fade. However, theology turns our friends into family (or potential family) as brothers and sisters in Christ. Theology turns our helping others into following in the footsteps of our Savior. Theology turns our religious practices into an eternally meaningful relationship.
Find the edification in the education.
Academic work does not negate spiritual passion. Thinking and feeling are not mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact, they complement one another. The more information you learn about your soulmate, the more you want to learn. The maker of your soul is no different. Can theology become a cold abstract discipline? Absolutely. So, avoid that pitfall by keeping it directed, not at a subject, but at the person of God. We know him because he made us to know him. We study him because he first revealed himself to us. We love him because he first loved us. Theology turns the academic pursuit of knowing about God into a personal pursuit of knowing God.
Find the discipleship in the relationship.
For decades, a popular mantra among American Christians has been “Christianity is not about a religion; it’s about a relationship.” While I understand the intent and sentiment of this Christian catchphrase (believe me, I do), I also believe it has and causes multiple problems. The problem it brings to the topic of this article is the massive oversimplification it assumes for the commitment of the disciple of Christ. Imagine if I were to express the same idea about my wife: “It’s not about a marriage; it’s about a relationship.” The death-stare that I would receive would be the stuff of legend.
Is Christianity about a relationship? Yes, and amen. Nevertheless, it is a relationship that grows broader and deeper with the knowledge we have about God. The gift of theology is in the privilege of knowing more about God so that we can know God more.
When we take up the task of theology, there are times when we look more like a skeptical Thomas or a oscillating Peter than we do a worshiping Mary. But, that is life of a disciple. That is the life of theology. We enter in awe of the God who saved us, thirsting to know him more. We continue to learn of him through our doubts and confusions. We live for the moments in which everything clears, and we catch a glimpse of our Father, our Savior, and our Comforter. We long for the day when our faith will be made sight and our theology will be made perfect.
Until then, we study. We read. We write. We do theology, because we need theology.