Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

14 October 2013

Fad Faith

Columnist Bill Uhrich of the Reading Eagle writes about the religious individualism of these <United> States. More people have been identifying themselves as "spiritual but not religious." In support of this claim he cites Sheila Larson, a nurse who in the 1980s, awash in psychotherapy, coined her own religion, "Sheilaism." She is no "religious fanatic," but dutifully follows her "own little voice."

Now we should consider this an extreme example of the "cult of the self," especially if she bought stationery; but we cannot doubt that eponymous religions abound, each having a hand-crafted creed, code, and cult. To their adherents, these religions are refreshingly simplified, malleable, and unquestionable.

Uhrich cites an example from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to illustrate how the popular understanding regarding slavery has developed, as seen through Huck's decision not to turn in runaway slave Jim. In fine, Huck acted contrary to the mores of his day, but laudably in our own.

I cannot gather whether Uhrich is using the development of popular (even Christian) beliefs regarding slavery to justify our contemporary trend toward individualism, as if to say, "Human beings en masse have been wrong about some considerable issues; how, then, can we trust any kind of religion that claims to be unchanging and divinely sanctioned?"

Blessed John Henry Newman has sufficiently treated the "development of doctrine" for reasonable people to accept it without dismissing God's institution and continued guidance of Catholicism (and, by extension, other Christian communions).

I cannot be so certain, however, that God has instituted and continues to guide me.

Uhrich presents the most recent iteration of individualist religion: "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" (MTD). The name says it all:
  • Moralistic: "Being a nice person" is the extent of its code.
  • Therapeutic: "Feeling good about myself" summarizes the cult.
  • Deism: "God intervening as directed" is the creed.
Sociologist Christian Smith has coined this way of life. It really centers on personal euphoria (the goal of therapy), as the choices that result in good/bad feelings about oneself are morally good/bad, and God's involvement with human beings is minimal, and only as necessary for our perceived well-being.

Some thoughts about MTD:
  • It is widespread, and like the Gnosticism of yore, it can infect any faith. Catholicism in particular has its variations.
  • No sane person objects to acts of kindness (random or forethought). In the diverse marketplace of faith, one path is as good as another, so the distinctiveness and value of all paths dissolve in favor of reaching out to people--especially in time of national or local appeal, in a "bandwagon" sort of cause.
  • Prayer has the single objective of accomplishing my designs and limiting my hardships. I can pray the "Unlimited Novena to St. Jude" or any number of rosaries; I can light candles until the fire department is on standby; I can even "have a Mass said" for me to make God pleased about me (even if / because I am not so pleased about me).
  • Any talk of the cross of Christ, much less our share in it, is repudiated. Pain (of whatever sort) is the enemy, which must be eliminated by any means. A close second is the internal conflict that comes with the clash of conscience with objective truth, which ends up swept under the proverbial carpet in the process.
  • God handles the big stuff like the movement of the spheres. He can keep out of my plans until I ask for Him; otherwise, please keep Thy distance!
What if we worshipped, obeyed, and believed as the Church teaches simply because we know her to be instituted by Jesus for the salvation of the world? What if we did what our informed conscience knew to be right simply because we knew it to be right, without craving recognition or satisfaction?

That level of faith and internal consistency may not be a realistic expectation from myself, let alone from anyone else; but I pray and work toward it. A living relationship with the Lord in the Church moves us away from deism; it situates good feelings within the context of God's evaluation of us and a healthy appreciation for the concerns of our associates; and it directs us to sacrificial, just actions that tend to promote justifiably good feelings.

It may not resemble the stereotypical faith of the 21st century. but it does sound like a faith that has been around for a long while, and will survive the current tides.


  1. Thank you for posting this, Father. I have found these MTD-tendencies to be especially strong here in my territorial-parish. They are very difficult to counter, and very easy to fall prey to. It takes constanct vigilance on my part to ensure I am not falling into that too-easy trap, and also keeping an eye on my children and how their thought-processes are developing. I probably tend to go "too far" in the opposite direction, if there is a "too far" point - but I certainly agree it is exceptionally difficult, at least for me, to have "that level of faith and internal consistency." But having the direction laid out, knowing where it is I need to be heading, helps to keep me working toward that direction - even if I seem to lose my way more often than I would like.

  2. In this and every respect we proceed together! I suppose that maintaining this balance ought not become so tense that we snap. Let us take it easy, trusting in the same Holy Spirit who gave birth to this Mess so long ago.