I recently finished reading Peter Kreeft’s book Back to Virtue. In this book, Kreeft claims that our current civilization may well be the weakest ever to grace the face of the planet. This is due, he says because we have lost the knowledge of virtue.
This is not to say that we are less virtuous as a people than those that came before us. It is, rather, that
We know more about what is less than ourselves but less about what is more than ourselves. When we act morally, we are better than our philosophy. Our ancestors were worse than theirs. Their problem was not living up to their principles. Ours is not having any.
Kreeft wrote Back to Virtue in 1986, and shortly after finishing the book I read an article that offers some pretty damning evidence that Kreeft was on to something. The article detailed the National Study of Youth and Religion. This study surveyed over 3,000 American teens about their religious beliefs and found that the overwhelming majority could not offer any articulate explanation or defense of their own religious beliefs or the beliefs of the religious body they belong to. Rather, they espoused what the researchers described as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a religious philosophy that, while acknowledging the existence of a divine power, sees as the central goal of life being happy and feeling good about oneself.
This god, in the words of the researchers, is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.
I hope I don’t have to point out that a religious philosophy more antithetical to authentic Christianity would be hard to find.
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism hinges on a god made, not so much in our image, as to our liking “ a god that never criticizes, never badgers, never demands. A god that stays safely away in a box until we find ourselves in some crisis or in some need, who can then be marched out not to make things right but to make us feel better. This is a safe god.
The God of Christianity, however, is not safe. He is dangerous. He pops up when he’s not wanted, not invited. He charges us with impossible tasks. He asks us to build arks, to leave our homeland and travel to a strange new land of promise. He tells us that we are to lead his people out of slavery and gives us the strength to battle giants. He tells us to leave behind our families, our possessions, our lives to follow him. He tells us to take up our crosses.
He asks us, in the mystery we celebrated just two weeks ago, to die with him.
This is a far cry from the disinterested deity society seeks. This is a God who stands for something and expects us to do the same. This God pursues us like a jealous lover, a God so aptly described in Francis Thompson’s poem The Hound of Heaven:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasm’d fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturb’d pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat — and a voice beat
More instant than the Feet —
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”