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Sully’s Therapeutic Deism

I’m enjoying reading a transcript of the late-night God conversation between Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens, which Sully is publishing in installments on his blog —  most recent one is here — but it does not make me happy to say that Hitchens is easily getting the best of him. Look at this passage:

H: But Andrew, I wouldn’t bother with this, I would let these beliefs exist in a parallel universe except for argumentative purposes and dialectal purposes. It’s nice, I enjoy discussing with Jesuits—nothing could be more agreeable—as I would with a Hegelian or a Randian or any of the above. But much more than Hegelians and Randians, these people want to influence my life. They say I want your children to be taught things that aren’t true.

A: No, no, my point is that the kind of religion I’m talking about—because it is much more aware of the provisionality of its own knowledge—is a much humbler approach to the divine. And certainly, someone like me would say, “This is what I believe but even I, at some level, cannot give you reasons for this; I cannot explain it entirely; I think this is how I’m trying to figure it out for myself”. The last thing on Earth such a religion would do is tell you how to live your life. Now I understand most religions are not that way, but I am trying to say that at some level, some way of being at peace with one’s own mortality and have some understanding of why we’re here, does not necessitate—even though it’s often accompanied by—the desire to control anybody else’s life. I don’t see Jesus trying to control anyone else’s life.

H: Why don’t you let me make the assumption, or make the claim, that I take the words and the positions of a true believers seriously and that I respect them. When I examine these beliefs I find that they cannot be private. It is not possible for someone to really believe this, and especially its redemptive character, and watch me go straight to hell. They would be failing in their duty, they must save me, even if it means killing and burning me would be best.

A: Not if what stops them is their understanding of their own doubt. Doubt and faith can co- exist.

This is something else. Doubt shouldn’t stay the Christian’s hand in such a case, but rather love, and charity. Hitchens is right: Christianity cannot be entirely private. Judging by the evidence in this dialogue, Sully seems to believe in a Jesus that doesn’t require anything of him, a Jesus that exists as a psychological comfort, but certainly not as Lord.

“I don’t see Jesus trying to control anybody’s life” — what could that possibly mean? Did Jesus not try to control the lives of the moneychangers in the Temple? Did Jesus turn away from the woman caught in adultery as she was about to be stoned by the Pharisees? It wasn’t his business, strictly speaking, to tell the Pharisees how to run their lives. In fact, he told the adulterous woman to “go and sin no more” — a pretty conclusive sign that he believed he had the right to tell an adulterer to stop doing that.

When the Rich Young Ruler came to Jesus and asked him what he must do to be saved, Jesus had an answer for him — an answer the rich kid didn’t want to hear. True, Jesus didn’t press the young man into his service, so in that narrow sense, Jesus didn’t try to control his life. But Jesus did tell the young man how he ought to live if he wanted to find eternal life. To say that Jesus never told anybody how they ought to live — which is what Sully means here — is not remotely tenable. Hitchens the atheist militant has a better understanding of what Christianity demands, I’m afraid.

I would say Andrew’s argument doesn’t rise to the level of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, because I can’t find the moral content in it. I’m not trying to be snarky here; I genuinely don’t understand what he’s getting at. I know he believes in some sort of God, and I know he finds comfort and meaning in the belief that there is a God, and that God loves him. But this is Therapeutic Deism, not Christianity. Jesus of Nazareth was a Palestinian Jew, not a denatured universalist vapor.

Hitchens says in this dialogue that if Christians took the utterly non-dogmatic approach Sully champions, then we wouldn’t have Christianity today, but rather some sort of Christified Hinduism. Which, come to think of it, we’re rapidly creating for ourselves.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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