The Christianity many shrug at isn’t the real thing
Having graded another semester’s theology exams, I hereby file a report from the front lines. To wit: here is the actual theology of young Canadians.
No, I haven’t polled thousands of people according to the rigorous methods of an Ipsos or Angus Reid. But I have taught and examined several thousands of students across this country for several decades now. So I offer here a composite sketch of what many, many Canadian young people truly think Christianity teaches – think it seriously enough that they put it down on an exam paper.
Jesus is a good man who taught us about God and being good to other people. He performed some wonders, or at least was Himself so wonderful that His disciples later made up stories about Him to illustrate in a mythical way His impressive sanctity, kindness and ability to evoke good in other people.
Following Jesus’ example is what it means to be a Christian. The Bible can assist us as both a rule book and a repository of inspiring stories. Alas, the Bible is also confusing, out of date and a repository of horrifying stories. So you have to pick and choose what to believe and receive from it, according to what you find helpful.
The main payoff for being a good Christian is going to heaven when you die. This is a spiritual existence, typically pictured as a sort of vast cloudbank like the one you see outside the window of an airliner. Some grand, ancient, shining buildings might punctuate the landscape and, yes, some streets of gold run among them.
There are probably rainbows there too. And everybody nice you’ve ever known – plus your favourite pets.
Heaven is where our souls go once our bodies die, and we spend eternity in an everlasting worship service, strumming harps and singing along with angels to God. It might seem boring now, but at least there are no bad things there – no pain, no suffering, no hunger, no threats. It’s very peaceful, if also dull – although for people who are really good Christians, probably they would enjoy it.
Hell is an awful place of smoke and fire presided over by Satan in which he and his minions torture non-Christians forever with pitchforks and flames. That, at least, is what some churches preach, although we hope it isn’t actually true.
Nothing about the Cross. Nothing about the Resurrection or Ascension of our Lord. Nothing about regeneration and sanctification by the Holy Spirit. Even the Church hardly ever shows up in these summaries.
The grip of this view is so strong that even when a professor teaches them otherwise … many, many Canadian young people default to this moral therapeutic patronage.
This popular understanding of Christianity has been called moral therapeutic deism by American sociologist Christian Smith. Do good according to the given moral code and you will have a better life, as God has designed things.
I call this popular religion moral therapeutic patronage, modifying Professor Smith’s popular phrase because typically in deism God constructs the world and then leaves it be, while these Canadians seem to think God can be prayed to for help in extreme circumstances and will sometimes, although unpredictably, come through. Moreover, this God will reward earnest effort, so the main thing is to just try hard to be good.
I report this with a grave sense of failure. Why? Because while many of my students have written final exams representing Christianity in more correct ways, too many of them have set out this view even after listening to orthodox doctrine for a dozen weeks. The grip of this view is so strong that even when a professor teaches them otherwise, and their final grade is on the line, many, many Canadian young people default to this moral therapeutic patronage.
Pastors, ministry leaders, parents, teachers – we face a daunting challenge in 2020 as we try to help Canadians understand what Christianity actually teaches before we begin to help people actually believe it. The educational task before us is severe – long before we get to the evangelistic one.
Still, the widespread and discouraging indifference to Christianity reported across this country may be, at least in many cases, indifference to something quite different than, and quite inferior to, the actual Good News. Let’s carefully teach the gospel truth, shall we, and see what happens?
John Stackhouse is professor of religious studies at Crandall University. Find more of these columns at www.FaithToday.ca/ChristAndCulture.