Warning to Christians: Are you a deist?

Ken Myers, host of Mars Hill Audio, writes in a November 2011 letter to subscribers:

Let me go out on a limb and suggest that the real danger posed by celebrity atheists like [Christopher] Hitchens is to distract us from a greater threat to Christian faithfulness: good old American deism. It has been six years since sociologist Christian Smith and his colleagues described (in the book, Soul Searching) the religious assumptions of most American teens as adding up to “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” In all likelihood, the teens are deists (Smith suggests) because their parents are. Here are the key attributes of the belief system of the majority of our young (and their mentors):

  1. A God who exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Deism is more of a threat than atheism because deist assumptions are so frequently found to orient the lives of professing Christians. For the deist, God may exist, but He is watching us from a distance. He is not a personal God, not a jealous God, not an interrupting God, not a demanding God. The deist can cheerily celebrate Christmas without pausing to reflect on the real-life consequences of the Incarnation: all of the ways it re-orients our assessment of human nature, of the goodness of Creation, and of the reality of God with us. Deists, in other words, can happily live like gnostics.

Deists can celebrate Easter as a holiday that highlights the affirmation of life. The remarkable fact that in Christ’s resurrection the remaking of heaven and earth has begun can be safely ignored, as can all of the consequences for how we live now.

According to Christian Smith (and his colleague Kenda Creasy Dean, author of Almost Christian), American churches contain many nice people who are effectively deists. The presence of this “Christianish” population suggests that if one fails to take time to be thoroughly Christian – to live deliberately against the grain of conventional American culture – one’s beliefs devolve into deism.

Louis de Bonald once quipped “a deist is a man who has not had time to become an atheist.” At least the forthright atheists define where they stand. They have taken the time to abandon false consolation. Deists benefit from the comfort of a God (however vague) who stands by to help them and the convenience of a God who makes no inconvenient demands. And, come December, they don’t get hounded by Fox News for “waging war on Christmas.”

But they are, nonetheless, idolaters. Their God is a beguiling counterfeit. In his 1956 book The Discovery of God, Henri de Lubac described the unsubstantial God of deism who – for many – was so easily washed away by the flood of skepticism that reached a high water mark in the late 19th century. The suffocating waters of that flood have not receded far and threaten to extinguish the wispy God of still other churchgoers.

The deist’s God, the God of several modern ‘theodicies’ which weigh and measure him rather than defend him, the God who can hardly say ‘I am’ any longer, the God who tends to be no more than ‘the universal harmony of things,’ who rules a beyond where ‘everything is the same as here,’ the God imprisoned ‘within the limits of reason,’ who no longer intervenes in the world, who is really nothing but the projection of natural man, who is distant yet without mystery, a God made to our measure and defined according to our rules, a God merged in the ‘moral order of the universe’ as man understands it, a God who is not adored and whom one can only serve by the cult of morality, a God who is ‘only accessible in pure knowledge’ and who is ‘nothing but that knowledge itself,’ a God in fact whose thoughts are our thoughts and whose ways are our ways: such a God has proved very useless in practice and has become the object of a justified ressentiment. And when at last man decided to get rid of him altogether in order to enter into his own inheritance, he was only a shade, ‘reduced to the narrow limits of human thought.’


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