The danger of MTD – Moral Therapeutic Deism – to Youth Ministry (but not what you think…)

Faith communities love acronyms. There are landfills full of WWJD? bracelets to prove that acronyms distill complex ideas down beyond a catch phrase to a few letters and allow a certain hyperlinkedness to vast amounts of data.  In many ways, acronyms are a gift but they can also be a distraction by offering a seemingly summative and all-encompassing certainty.  The latest acronym to take youth workers and many church leaders by storm is MTD which is short-hand for Moral Therapeutic Deism.  Launched into the world via their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers (Oxford, 2005) which resulted from an in-depth study of American teenagers self-reporting about what makes up and sustains belief through the National Study of Youth and Religion.  The findings of the study distilled in Soul Searching hold that what is religious belief for teenagers in America across ethic and religious backgrounds is what Smith and Denton term MTD or Moral Therapeutic Deism which sees belief as a code of right and wrong behaviors (moral) that is centered on the question of what the person needs to feel better about themselves (therapeutic) and organized by a view of the Divine as completely separated from the realm of lived experience, completely at a distance, and only there to consult and affirm (deism).  After the study was released and the book published five years ago, a flood of reactions and later sub-industry has arisen around this model of MTD.  Churches are worried, parents are feeling guilty, and youth workers are frantically seeking new models to change this trend.  To be sure, Smith and Denton have some great data and the ‘wake up call’ to get serious about working with youth toward a deep and abiding sense of what makes up belief should be addressed.  That said, I do worry that many are adopting this MTD mantra without a critical examination of what is at stake and is the course correction proposed in Soul Searching and the MTD concern truly what we need.

In short:  is the supposed cure potentially worse than the disease?

Critiques of Christian Smith’s Soul Searching:

1. There is a danger of a “one size – fits all” view to what is considered biblical literacy and deep faith that plots toward rationalism over and against embodiment and practice :

Smith and Denton argue that “all religious groups seem at risk of losing teens to nonreligious identities[1] which assumes that there is an easily quantifiable religious identity is out there that we can appeal to that is somehow counterpoised to so-called ‘secular’ identities.  I have to admit being puzzled by this notion of ‘nonreligious’ identities and deeply suspicious of what the ‘religious’ persona that is backgrounding this assessment would look and feel like.  As someone watches a generation of young people grab a hold of all the consumerism that Evangelicalism had to offer to ‘mark’ their faith as real – shirts, hats, CDs, messenger bags, etc – as well as use catch phrases and social behaviors valued in certain circles but foreign to others, I am not sure I am buying what Smith and Denton are putting on the table.  They go on to state that “a number of religious teenagers propounded theological views that are, according to the standards of their own religious traditions, simply not orthodox.”[2] To that I would say… come to a Youth Specialties conference and see if you can find the orthodoxy that is being romantically idealized.  Here are people who work with teens and draw from the breadth and height of the Christian tradition – contemplative Celtic prayers mixed with various social networking platforms and funded by sociological and theological reflection.  One of the MTD critics who is voicing a similar concern to what I am reflecting on is Theologian Tom Beaudoin at Fordham University.  In the chapter “The Ethics of Characterizing Popular Faith” from his great book Witness to Dispossession, he underscores the fact that faith is complex and not an easily reducible thing:

[T]heology itself is discovering with ever greater complexity, the particular beliefs that are “sanctioned” by religious leadership, at any particular time and place, are deeply implicated in “nontheological” or “nonreligious” political, social, cultural, and economic factors.  The very opposition between “picking and choosing” and “accepting the whole” is itself a recent way of imaging, often for the sake of an intended control, what the options for belief are today – much like the opposition between fundamentalism and enlightenment, or relativism and moral fundamentalism.[3]

2. The study that Smith and Denton offer in Soul Searching doesn’t sufficiently allow for the inherently inarticulate nature of real faith.

Last time I checked, ‘faith’ was not ‘certainty’.  Following on from the fact that religious vs. irreligious identities are difficult and possibly problematic to view as a goal of our work with young people, the core of Smith and Denton’s work is a concern that youth cannot articulate what they believe with clarity and certainty. As they say:  “The bottom line is, when it comes to their religious belief about God, U.S. teens reflect a great deal of variance on the matter, and perhaps in some cases more than a little conceptual confusion.”[4]

Again, I would ask *who* actually has a LACK of variance in regard to their faith story and can offer a clear picture of belief

As noted by Nancy Ammerman in Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, faith is known through and practiced as “fragments”, “side plots” and “tangents”[5] more than systematically theorized and rendered.  Ammerman puts it this way: “A person may recognize moral imperatives that have a transcendent grounding without ever having a ‘religious experience’ or being able to articulate a set of doctrines about God.”[6] Think for example about the man born blind in John 9.  In this narrative, the man is questioned by many religious leaders (read: data collecting researchers) about what ‘happened’ to him.  Continually he can’t articulate a response that is enough for the religious professionals.  He ultimately states that in reference to who Jesus is that “whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know,’ the man replied. ‘All I know is this: I was blind and now I see.’” (9:25)  And here is a man who Jesus celebrates and embraces for a faith that while can’t be articulated is a faith worthy of emulating as testified to its inclusion in our canon of Scripture.

3. The problem and later solution seems to revolve all-too-conveniently around institutional religion and doesn’t take into account the ‘Pandora Effect’ of social media, internet, web, globalization as a good thing

According to Smith, institutional representatives are the “agents of religious socialization”[7] and as such should bear the burden of righting the wrongs of MTD to a large degree.  That is fine on one level – churches, synagogues, mosques, and other institutional locations should continue to seek new ways of spurring on conversations for and about faith.  Yet what Smith and Denton don’t take into account is the role that other networks play is framing faith and that, in many ways, these serve to remind us that God does indeed move in mysterious ways.  Tom Beaudoin makes the following comment in regard to this aspect of Soul Searching: “The authors imagine religious beliefs as starting from pure official teaching, stewarded by contemporary religious leaders, well or poorly, through official channels, such as programs of religious education.”[8]

Now… I don’t know about you, but faith is a messy thing and how ANYONE comes to some understanding of God and what resources that belief is anything but clean.  When I was in high school, I had a lot of questions about what belief was supposed to be and thought that most things about Christianity was more in line with the Marxist critique: simply a ‘opiate for the masses’, a balm for those unwilling to embrace the horrors of a life without God with courage and choose a fairy tale instead.  So I read everything I could get my hands  – from Carl Sagan’s Broca’s Brain to The Tao Te Ching – in trying to make sense of what meaning actually was.  Yes, I count myself as a Christian and yes, I situate myself within the orthodox understanding of the faith as framed in the ecumenical creeds and Scriptures canonized by the apostolic faith.  But did my starting point begin with the Church?  Not really.  Is what resources and sustains my question for a deeper and more abiding faith generated solely by the church within which I find myself?  Somewhat.  Am I clear and articulate about what faith is for me?  I suppose better than some.  Does this cause me anxiety?  Not at all.   This leads to my last comment…

4. Eclecticism is not necessarily a bad thing…

Piggybacking on the last concern, there is the assertion in the MTD industry that eclectic approaches to faith development is something of an aberration and that authentic faith is to be found in categorical resolute allegiance to a particular faith tradition.  When Smith makes the statement that  “U.S. teens as a whole are thus not religiously promiscuous faith mixers”[9] he is seeing this as a good thing.

Is this a good thing?

Smith and Denton go on to state that “based on our experience talking through these issues face-to-face with teens around the country, we estimate that no more than 2 to 3 percent of American teens are serious spiritual seekers of the kind described above: self-directing and self-authenticating people pursuing an experimental and eclectic quest for personal spiritual meaning outside of historical religious traditions.”[10]

In many ways I don’t find comfort in this at all.  When did seeking manifold resources by which to ground and still release a faith in being that is larger than institutions, larger than reason, more compelling than route recitation of dogma and more enlivened than an appeal to a dead past?  Students I know find ‘common grace’ flooding through the music they listen to, the books they read in comparative lit courses, in the art they study from the 16th century, and even in the characters they follow on TV shows as ephemeral as Glee, as gritty as The Wire, as bizarre as Lost, and as ridiculous and ironic as Monty Python.  This is in keeping with St. Paul’s repose to the world as he spoke to the Athenians in Acts 17 – seeking not merely the so-called orthodox rendering of what constitutes the faith tradition, but beginning with a tour of their museums and finding whatever cultural artifact seemed to shimmer and resonate with that which connected with their searching for meaning.

So… what do you think?  As you listen to the cry of concern voiced by the MTD industry calling us to a deep state of alarm and fear for the sake of our teens, can we temper that fear and concern with knowledge that faith has always been a messy thing that is difficult to articulate, and often drawn from a crazy and seemingly random set of sources?


[1] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 88

[2] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 136.

[3] Beaudoin, Tom. Witness to Dispossession (New York: Orbis, 2008), p. 81

[4] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 42.

[5] Ammerman, Nancy (ed.) Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives (New York: Oxford UP, 2007) p. 226.

[6] Ammerman, Nancy (ed.) Everyday Religion: Observing Modern Religious Lives, p. 226.

[7] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 27

[8] Beaudoin, Tom Witness to Dispossession (New York: Orbis, 2008), p. 81

[9] Smith and Denton, Soul Searching, p. 32.

[10] 78

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