I’m not sure the title of a book can better capture our age than Philip Reiff’s 1966 classic The Triumph of the Therapeutic, especially in the tumultuous 2020. The book is Reiff’s take on Sigmund Freud, who he thought a genius, and the response of other psychoanalysts to him, like Carl Jung. It’s a dense book, full of academic-speak, but Reiff seems to lament that human well-being had become the sin qua none of American culture, and that was in 1966! And this turn to self, he predicted, would not bode well for our future. The word Therapeutic technically means of or relating to the treating or curing of disease; curative, but in a cultural sense it means that the most important thing in life is the self, and making one feel happier, more self-fulfilled. The triumph of the therapeutic is seen in the religion of most Americans. Sociologist Christian Smith coined the term for this religion, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). He describes it in his book Souls in Transition:

First, a God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth. Second, God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. Third, the central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. Fourth, God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. Fifth, good people go to heaven when they die.

This type of faith is

  • moralistic, i.e., it is primarily about being a decent person
  • therapeutic, i.e., its focus is on whatever is beneficial for me, whatever can ameliorate any issues or problems I have in my life
  • Deistic, i.e., God is there when I need him, but otherwise life is lived as if he was the watchmaker who built the thing and it keeps running without him.

MTD, in other words, is all about me! In the age of the iPhone and iPad, the age of the sovereign self whose consumer preferences extend to every area of our lives, this doesn’t surprise us. Self-fulfillment is almost a constitutional right in America. Most people, especially the younger among us, think it’s even a cosmic right. I like what Kenda Creasy Dean says about MTD in her book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church :

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism has little to do with God or a sense of a divine mission in the world. It offers comfort, bolsters self-esteem, helps solve problems, and lubricates interpersonal relationships by encouraging people to do good, feel good, and keep God at arm’s length. It is a self-emolliating spirituality; its thrust is personal happiness and helping treat each other nicely.

In case you didn’t know the word either, emolliate means to make weak, ineffective, or effeminate. No matter what label people put on MTD, it is not Christianity.

What happened in Western culture to allow the therapeutic to triumph was the long transition from modernism to postmodernism, which all began with the Enlightenment rejection of God’s revelation to man in Scripture. Even though Enlightenment philosophers rejected religion, they continued, illogically, to embrace truth. It took the ruthlessly logical German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to accept the inevitable: without God truth no longer mattered, if such a thing even existed; all that mattered is “the narrative.” What was “true” was in the eye of the beholder. The subjective, what was internal to us, our feelings, emotions, perspectives, had to triumph over the objective, what was outside of us (like truth), before the therapeutic could triumph. And oh how it has triumphed!

The irony is that the obsession with the self, and the innumerable attempts to make us happy and fulfilled, has left most people terribly unhappy. The evidence is everywhere, but maybe the self isn’t the best place to start in our desire to find meaning and hope and purpose in life, but in the one who created the self, our selves, all selves, and find the answers in him. He has revealed himself to us in creation, in Scripture, and fully in Christ, and he alone can fill the God shaped vacuum in all of us.

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