Archives For Deism

christless-christianityChristless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church outlines what its author, Michael Horton, believes to be a fundamental shift in American Christianity.

Pinpointing cause, consequence and remedy, Horton tackles both Pelagian and Gnostic tendencies within American Christianity and culture. For Horton, America is pulling away from Christocentricity in its social activism and its proclamation of The Gospel.

In its place is what American sociologist, Christian Smith identifies as, ‘Moral Therapeutic Deism’. The basic message of which ‘is that God is nice and we are nice, so we should all be nice.’ (p.42).

Christless Christianity is a critique of both liberal Protestant, emerging and Conservative (American Evangelical) Christianity. (Think of the latter as the body corporate and the former two as the body collective.) Even though the body collective still considers itself beyond institutional Christianity, both are institutional and both have a hand in promoting ‘moral therapeutic deism’.

In Horton’s view, both corporate and collective have downgraded the Christian faith and what it means to be Christian. His criticism begins with a lengthy discourse on Joel Osteen, which then takes on the ‘therapeutic narcissism’ (p.72) of “God is a genie” consumerism (p.68), the “seeker sensitive” mega church phenomenon and the “personal Jesus” of American Evangelicalism. His second criticism flows into a less aggressive admonishment of liberal Protestants, Brian McLaren and the emerging church.

‘‘For many Americans reared on the “Christian America’’ hype of the religious right, “emerging church” movements may seem like a major shift, but [it’s just a change in Parties]’ (p.116) For all of the Emergent Church movement’s incisive critiques of the megachurch model, the emphasis still falls on measuring the level of our zeal and activity rather than on immersing people in the greatest story ever told’ (p.119)

According to Horton, the body corporate is guilty of replacing the proclamation of the Good News with just good advice. Positive psychology is king.Consequently, the understanding of what it means to follow Christ is diminished into slogans and ‘works-righteousness’ (p.123). It has taken the place of good exegesis, deed (sacrament) and the correct teaching of The Word (preaching).

Whereas the body collective, in its rejection of both Pentecostal and American Evangelical consumerist institutionalism, progressive “Christian” (liberal protestant) and Emerging churches, aren’t free of guilt. In many ways they’ve replaced Jesus as the Gospel with the social gospel. Theology is surrendered into the service of an ideology.

 ‘In many ways mirroring the Religious Right’s confusion of Christ’s kingdom of grace with his coming kingdom in glory and the latter with a political agenda already defined by a political party, the Religious Left seems just as prone to enlist Jesus as a mascot for programs of national and global redemption.’ (p.114)

As Horton states,

 ‘Loving and serving our neighbour is the law, it’s not the Gospel (p.123) […]‘There exists today a false distinction between law and love, whereas the biblical distinction is between law and grace – the law tells us what God expects of us; the Gospel tells us what God has done for us (p.125).’

In today’s terms, this is equal to the theological statement, “God is love” being replaced with the term “love is love”; Good, grace, holiness and righteousness are interchangeably used with niceness and tolerance. “Love is all you need” and being nice become seen as the prerequisites that an individual can use to buy into God’s good graces. Jesus as free gift and His embodiment as ‘grace in the flesh’[ii] is ejected.

 “Just love God and people” is not the Gospel; it is precisely that holy demand of the law that we have grievously failed to keep. Our love toward God and neighbour is the essence of the law; God’s love toward us in Jesus Christ is the essence of the Gospel; 1 Jn.4:10’ (p.136)

Horton’s description of the basic message of Moral Therapeutic Deism, shares similarities with late feminist and political scientist, Jean Bethke Elshtain who in her book of the same year, ‘War On Terror (Just War Theory)’ warned of the dangers attached to reducing the depth of Christianity to an “ethic of universal niceness” (source). From which we don’t see Christian doctrine, but instead a Machiavellian politick, where appearances become more important than substance.

‘’Seeker friendly” filters tune out that which is deemed non-offensive and tune into whatever wins popular applause. As a result, the Gospel and the mission of the Church are obscured. The uniqueness of Christ is undermined. The Christological centricity, along with the centripetal and centrifugal nature of Christianity-as-mission is then effectively negated.

‘To the extent that churches in America today feel compelled to accommodate their message and methods to these dominant forms of spirituality they lend credence to the thesis that Christianity is not news based on historical events just another form of therapy’ (p.180)

Horton labels this as the takeover of Christian doctrine by self-salvation, Pelagians and special inner revelation; self-deification, Gnostics. Christians are encouraged to ‘feed themselves’; to rest their faith in an inner ‘voice (p.59); to buy into any spiritual’ (p.179) experience where they can attain ‘self-salvation’ (p.42).

The act of grateful obedience, in response to the Divine judgement and mercy that delivers humanity from sin in Jesus Christ is jettisoned.

In sum, ‘Christless Christianity‘ takes a stand against corruption. In doing this, Horton pushes back against Pelagian and Gnostic influenced trends that see Jesus as the Gospel, replaced with the social gospel, and  the ‘preaching the Gospel replaced with preaching just good advice’ (p.202).

Horton makes no apologies for charging straight into the behemoth of Christian compromise for corporate or collective benefit. It is no secret that the left and right divide permeates the church as much as is does the state. In his critique, Horton calls out both, arguing that they are as guilty as each other in preaching an alternative Gospel. The only remedy for which is resistance and reformation.

Horton’s critique is relevant. It’s sharp and appropriate. Christ cannot be divorced from Himself, nor can He be separated from those He represents:

‘…being grafted in Christ, we are delivered from this miserable thraldom; not that we immediately cease entirely to sin, but that we become at last victorious in the contest.’ [iii]

Come the second reformation.


Notes:

[i] Horton, M. 2008 Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, Baker Books Baker Book Publishing

[ii] Attributed to John Webster

[iii] Calvin, J. Commentary On Romans (Romans 6)

Disclaimer: I purchased the book and received no payment of any kind for offering this review.

Jules Verne BrittanicaDespite what might be a popular conception for those of us, raised in, by, and with pop-culture, author, Jules Verne (1828-1905) was neither American nor British.

Verne, the author of ’20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ and ‘Around The World in 80 Days,’ was French.

He wasn’t a curious atheist or even a fierce agnostic. Not that being an atheist or agnostic disqualifies anyone from having anything of value to say.

It’s just worth noting that there is a distinction between the man and any perpetuated assumptions that deconstructionism, selectively-applied-to-support-an-agenda might create. (Through, say, it’s presumed, superior grasp of authorial intent?)

By which, I mean, the inadvertent creation of a long-winded meaning, in order to explain a meaning, but which ends up having nothing to do with the author’s actual, original and intended meaning.[i]

Verne was, according to common belief, a deist.  An unorthodox Christian belief that became popular in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries.

Evidenced by the concept that, ‘God helps those who first help themselves’.[ii]

Or as is understood by our Muslim neighbours in the Quran as,

‘Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.’[iii]

More precisely, deism is

‘a movement of rationalistic thought that acquires knowledge of God solely by the use of reason as opposed to knowledge gained through revelation (God’s making himself known; Jesus Christ) or church teaching.’[iv]

With some amount of caution about oversimplifying deism, it is, in a sentence, Christianity without Christ. It has little to nothing to do with grace, gospel or the relationship, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, has chosen to establish, rescue and then secure, with humanity.

The five points of deism are:

  1. ‘the belief in a supreme being
  2. the obligation to worship
  3. the obligation of ethical conduct
  4. the need for repentance of sins
  5. divine rewards and punishments in this life and the next’[v]

It could be argued that deism is syncretism, landing somewhere in the middle of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Their similarities fused together in a way that allows for the possibility of an absolute reason-in-unison between the three. Not quite universalism.

It’s easy to see why deism was attractive. It advocates an easy tolerance.  Appearing to be justified by reason it’s seen as a useful tool for mediation, one that ignores differences. Conveniently, God’s relationship with us is reduced to a utilitarian, religious checklist that is then imposed back onto Him.

Effectively, God’s reconciliationMaritime steampunk in the uniqueness of Christ is displaced. He is reassigned to the role of under-Lord who exists to meet the desires, wants, progressive goals and universal happiness of His human-overlords.

The outcome being totalised subservient coexistence.

Held out at a distance God is detached. His transcendence over-emphasised, He is thought to be unmoved until we choose to move.

Consequently, God’s free act in Christ is stolen. Like the prodigal son’s father, God’s decision to move before we do is overlooked. His reach and run towards us rejected as foolish, embarrassing and undignified.

Driven by hypocritical intolerance, this empowers a push towards the slow annihilation of the Christian. God is enslaved, Christ subsumed. In its place is established the quintessential, dysfunctional kingdom of man or woman. The unexpected result being the embodiment of terror; power held in place by the tyranny of suspicion and the misuse of appearances to manipulate reality in order to maintain such power.

In truth this easy tolerance is a ruse. At best it’s only an uneasy truce between those in the West who seek to displace Christianity and elements of fascist ideology that, in part, still marches on through the desert sands of the Middle East and the halls of Western academia.

As for Verne, perhaps his later works are an enquiry into this. Perhaps they are a judgement on humanity about what can happen when progressive optimism turns into human arrogance.

The caution and detail within Verne’s tales show that he was a keen observer, not a prophet. His words are a reminder to the over-confident, self-assured and tenured wise.

Not a lot of accessible contemporary debate[vi] appears to exist about how much his theism was influenced by deism, and how heavily or not, deism or theism might have influenced his work.

Most commentators seem to settle comfortably on the point that Verne rarely mentions Jesus Christ, so his deism is considered unquestionable.

On the surface they appear right. However, doubt about their conclusions is justified. For example: Verne had apparent fascination with Mormonism.[vii]

In the relatively unknown, 1871, publication ‘A Floating City’, Verne, in response to the sails of the Great Eastern being drawn out of respect for a Sunday Church service at sea, writes:

‘I thought myself very fortunate that the screw-propeller was allowed to continue its work, and when I inquired of a fierce Puritan the reason for this tolerance, “Sir,” said he to me, “that which comes directly from God must be respected; the wind is in His hand, the steam is in the power of man.” I was willing to content myself with this reason, and in the meantime observed what was going on, on board.’[viii]

In addition, certain parts of ‘A Floating City’, ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ and ‘Around the World in Eighty days’ provide us with evidence of Verne’s respect for traditional Christian devotion, it’s place in society mixed with a healthy criticism of the church-as-institution.

For now, outside quick token mentions of deism, those details are left to trivia and the footnotes of historians.

Yet, without real enquiry, or interest in it, any debate about Verne’s faith and theology will remain locked in speculation.Relegated to the rubric of opinion. Any conclusions will remain quietly hidden within the realms of mysticism, steampunk fashion, and the realm of science-fiction, a category that Verne is too easily assigned.

 

“Static objects mustn’t be confused with dynamic ones, or we’ll be open to serious error.” – Captain Nemo [ix]

 


References:

[i] Wordy, I know, but…it makes sense when you think about it.

[ii]  A quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, this is, however, more than likely a proverb which originated in Classical Greece.

[iii] Quran 13:11

[iv] Mcdonald, M.H in Elwell, W.A (Ed.) 2001 Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd Ed. Baker House Publishing Company (p.329)

[v] Ibid.

[vi] It’s difficult to find any.

[vii] Verne mentions it with an air of fascination in both A Floating City, and Around the World in Eighty Days.

[viii] Verne, J. 1871 A Floating City (Illustrated) Kindle Ed. (p.45)

[ix] Verne, J. 1869 Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, BookRix GmbH, Kindle Ed. (p.29)

Images:

1. Jules Verne, Brittanica.com

2. Photo of an old divining suit I took in Ballina, NSW. Filtered using picmonkey.