This is the first essay I have written since finishing my thesis for a Master’s of Sacred Theology at Nashotah House. I was synthesizing the thought of Michael Ramsey and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the glory of the Lord. My motivation was, and still is, to act as a stimulus against the prevailing culture of political correctness, or what sociologists are now calling Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). How ironic it is to have agonized for two years in writing 95 pages of theological synthesis and then to pick up the frayed ends again today and push the learning further. That’s what theology is, after all. We can never finish deepening our knowledge of God.
The Denton and Smith study of the “de facto religion” among young people, aged 13 to 17, in 2005 coined Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Here is their distillation of the common beliefs generalized into a creedal variation of 18th-century deism.
- A God exists who created and orders 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.
While it is dangerous to generalize, their study shows that significant numbers of young people have no memory of being taught about or experience of God as Trinity, or about holiness, sin, grace, justification, sanctification, Church, Eucharist, heaven, and hell. Without these concepts and the conviction that they are profound truths, beliefs in a “higher power” degenerate into superficial desires for happiness, niceness, and, perhaps if you want it an earned heavenly reward at the end of life. Denton and Smith are quite frank about Christianity collapsing into a cracked shell of its former “Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoffer, or Michael Ramsey” vision of glory. More worrisome is their assessment of the possibility of Christianity “actively being colonized and displaced by a quite different religious faith.” Assuming that little or nothing has countered this trend since 2005, we have folks in their 20s hoping to start families, and another generation beginning without benefit of a sure foundation of mere Christianity, as C.S. Lewis would call it. How very much I want them to have what I had growing up as a child of the 1950s. And what was that?
C.S. Lewis talked about his innate yearning for God as a child at the turn of the 19th century, even without knowing it. He was sidetracked by a fascination with Norse gods and stories of their immense power. Through his Oxford friends, especially J.R.R. Tolkien, he caught a vision of a personal God yearning for him. Fifty years later, I was fascinated by the glory of a High Mass, in which the center of the Eucharist at the consecration of the Bread and Wine was hidden to me, even from my perch in the choir loft. However, I did not have to see what was happening. At age 10, I was confirmed and allowed to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. I had been taught by loving parents and a loving priest that this was reality — the way, the truth, and the life, and I had every reason to believe them.
What seems ordinary to me is all too rare today. “Walter Brueggemann argues that the cultural conditions of postmodernity require the church to function as a bilingual community, conversant in both the traditions of the church and the narratives of the dominant culture.” Nothing has changed in the Church since Irenaeus’s measure of Christian orthodoxy: “following the only true and steadfast Teacher, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” So the question in postmodern America is this: “What is it about love and the God who is love that our young people are not absorbing?”
According to Kenda Creasy Dean in Almost Christian, what has changed is our young people’s ability to reflect on their experience, comparing self-understanding learned at home, school, and church to what they are experiencing outside in college, away from home at a first job, or mission. Those locked into the “now” of technology, cell phones, Instagram, and tweets have no time, nor the developed ability to see their life experience in a collective fashion with input from others. That is a gift that each previous generation has given to the next generation, but after the 1950s the multi-generational family became the nuclear family; the 2017 family, more often than not, is the broken, single-parent, exhausted family or, more confusing, a blended family from the remnants of divorced parents, struggling to make ends meet with all adults working full-time jobs. Exhaustion leads to depression, and depression implodes upon the self. All that is left is a black hole of world-weariness.
Here is where Walter Brueggemann’s “bilingual faith” comes in. He uses the mystery of the Incarnation as a metaphor to define what Christian mission is today. In the Incarnation, God became what he loved so that through Jesus “we could become like him.” The old adage I was taught is “Christian formation is caught, not taught.” That means that deeds and words giving the same message were more credible. Dean observes that many African Christians today are grateful to the European missionaries who took the trouble to translate the Bible into their language so that they could hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
Now we need to do this kind of “translating” nearer to home instead of considering Christian faith and worship too holy to talk about. If I say I love God but hate my brother, I am the one with a problem, not my brother. Feelings, however, especially depressed feelings, do not change by our saying they should change. Hearing that bad feelings can change begins a process of transformation. Not that I alone can do this, but by reflecting on the love that transformed Jesus’ human desires into a perfect reflection of God’s desires — including redeeming a broken world beginning with me, starts a process of opening to God’s grace one person at a time. Dean’s point is that trust, as Jesus trusted his Father, was far more important than Jesus’ beliefs as a first-century Jewish carpenter or even rabbi. That same trust in God is caught from the people closest to us, not from books or movies. Personal conviction and mentoring is our hope for the next generation.
 Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005), 162f, accessed September 18, 2017, ProQuest Ebook Central.
 Smith and Denton, p. 171.
 Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is telling the American Church (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 112.
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book V, in vol. 1 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, eds. The Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (The Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1885), p. 526.
 Dean, p. 112.
 Dean, p. 115f.