American Christianity needs to let therapeutic ‘believing’ die in order to move forward and impact the world.
A therapeutic form of ‘believing’ is not about individual doctrines or particular answers to any of those age-old questions of existence or the faith. In fact one could be a therapeutic conservative or progressive Christian. It is not about a collection of ideas that are assented too but one particular shape believing took in light of modernity. Therapeutic belief is about the existential shape of one’s faith and not (primarily) about its particular content.
Therapeutic Christianity takes the ‘as is’ structure of our world, church, and self off the table and asks ‘how can we as function better as individuals? How can we make our world a bit better than we found it?’
My assertion is that therapeutic Christianity became a possibility because of modernity’s secularizing trends and ended up being the religious ally to the very structures whose outcomes threaten life on our planet in the next 100 years. Should the church retain its therapeutic form of life, its professed connection to Christ will continue to become incredulous.
Prior to modernity God was necessary and determinative in the West’s account of reality. One couldn’t talk about what it means to be individuals, communities, biological or economic beings without God. In fact all reality was perceived as a cohesive whole with God at the top of the Great Chain of Being.
During the Enlightenment the progress of science disenchanted the world, taking God’s necessity for the World’s enduring existence off the table. The Nation-State and eventually democratic forms that privileged the individual’s voting conscience came to determine humanity’s political arrangements and our economic relations came to be determined by the market. These were not of course the only non-religious social relations that came to hold sway in modernity, but more than the religious loss of interpretive authority was the conscious awareness of religious plurality…and not just all the new types of Protestantism!
Under these conditions in which religion lost its ability to be identified as the shared organizing structure to society, the ubiquitous sacred canopy, or the culturally assumed ‘given’ for life and as such religion had to reposition itself. Though religion ceased to hold authority in reality, it did come up with all sorts of theological justifications for the minimization of its authority. These theological mythologies about the divine origin of ‘democratic freedom,’ for example, enabled the religious faithful in turn to be faithful to other life-determining structures as though they were of God.
Rendering the story of modernity this way serves to highlight both the origin and shape of therapeutic Christianity.
Therapeutic Christianity originated along with global capitalism, the Nation-State, and democracy and has functioned in such a way that its practitioners assumed these three structures into their faith.
These three historical and contingent structures which mediate our social relations, determine the possibilities for life and the means by which power is exercised and distributed are understood (at least in practice) as final. Our age is the age of fine tuning the fruits of humanity’s social evolution. Our ministry as a church is to help its members be good people (citizens? consumers?), advocate for a slightly more benevolent system (regulations? rights? redistribution?) and care for its victims.
The problem is that the world can’t take another 100 years where the followers of Jesus put more faith in the ‘as is’ political, economic, and ecological arrangement than our inherited religious beliefs.
- Yes there are many Christians who use their faith therapeutically as a security blanket and need to be honest about their genuine doubts;
- Yes too many leaders just say what everyone wants to hear, performing belief on the behalf of others, so that serious questions never get raised;
- Yes much religion has become a marketable means to comfort and console human beings looking to ignore suffering, responsibility and the absence of meaning.
But underneath the hidden doubts the ‘postmodern’ and ‘progressive’ types are letting come up for air are some strong and unquestioned beliefs about the finality of our human and ecological relations.
Perhaps the most problematic belief in Christianity isn’t the inerrancy of scripture, strict Calvinism, religious exclusivism or ‘open but not affirming.’ What if the future of life on our planet is most threatened by our unconscious blind faith to the ‘as is’ assumptions integral to therapeutic Christianity? More importantly, what if Christianity freed from its role atop the symbolic chain of Being can take another form that doesn’t assume the ‘as is’ structures of our suicidal machine are final and is even more Jesuanic (that is a nerdy form of Jesusy!)?
Jesus, Paul, and the early Christians were an eschatological people. The apocalyptic prophet was crucified and through the event of the resurrection the church came to see the first fruits of New Creation breaking through in the present order. The eschatological breakthrough made the divinely gifted future of Creation present.
Said a different way, the kingdom made present in the ministry of Jesus became the permanent coming horizon of each and every moment through the resurrection. The resurrection of the cross-dead Jesus was God’s confrontation of each and every inherited structure and assumption about the world as it is with the prophetic critique and eschatological hope of New Creation’s ‘will be.’
The resurrection then and now proclaims to every present order that they are not final. Each time a disciple prays the prayer Jesus taught they pray for God’s kingdom to come and will be done on earth, they are participating in the genuine ‘will be’ structure of Christian existence. The shape of a faith formed in the God’s promise of what will be is far from therapeutic. It cannot assume our present ‘as is’ structure is final. Even while recognizing the progress made through the advent of democracies, nation-states, and capitalism, a Christian cannot assume that this is the best our world can get.
A Christian can’t relegate faith making it a particular means to cultivate a kinder, gentler, and slightly improved version of the world we are handed. If we are honest about our global situation we know we can’t. In letting a therapeutic faith die it is my hope that the church stop pleading the 5th or silently affirming our world as it is and find its prophetic voice again. We must insist that humanity can dream and create a more just and equitable way of relating as peoples and to our planet. We can do better.
What is needed are more Christian heretics. Christians for whom their previously assumed and unquestioned allegiance to Global Capitalism is as shaken as their ability to talk about original sin. We need heretical Christian communities where in our worship, devotion, and living our unquestioned fidelity to a utilitarian and mechanistic relation to Creation is rejected. Heretical Christians and a Prophetic Christianity are actually interesting, as in I would gladly get up on Sunday morning to be a part of that community. It is making claims for itself and our world in response to God’s promise in Christ.
A Christianity given shape by what ‘will be’ can never be content with what already is and that is exciting. It is inspiring.
You can hear more about Therapeutic Christianity in contrast to both Prophetic and Messianic version of Christianity in the this week’s TNT Call-In Special on the church and the world .