Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements, Part 2: Charismatic more fundamental than Institutional

This second perspective might seem similar to the “charismatic opposed to institutional” view, but there are some important differences.  In this perspective there is still a priority placed on the charismatic element of the Church, but the institutional structures are valued as necessary and themselves empowered by gifts of the Spirit.

For this perspective I’m taking Leonardo Boff as a representative.  Boff, of course, is a well known Brazilian theologian, an important figure in liberation theology.  He was orignally a Franciscan priest, but was silenced more than once for his views (including those found in the book I’m discussing here), and eventually he left his order and the priesthood.   He also has a pretty snazzy website, I’ve just discovered.

Leonardo Boff gives a strong priority to charismatic gifts arising “from below”, that is, from the grassroots, but he is also willing to speak of “hierarchical charisms.” So for Boff, the institutional side of the church is not simply devoid of the Spirit’s guidance, though there may be tensions between charismatic and institutional.  However he does view the historical institutionalization of the Church as a “failure” in a sense.  Writing about Catholicism in general, he writes that “A christological emphasis on the level of the incarnation led the Latin Church to excessive institutional rigidity.” (Church Charism and Power, 154)

However, his solution is to prioritize the charismatic over the institutional, not to oppose the two:

Charism includes the hierarchical element, but not exclusively.  Charism is more fundamental than the institution.  Charism is the pneumatic force (dynamis tou Theou) that gives rise to institutions and keeps them alive.  The principle or the structure of the institution is not the hierarchy but rather the charism which is at the root of all institutions and hierarchy (159).

So Charism becomes the “organizing principle” (155) of the church’s institutions, with an emphasis on the participation of the whole people of God, all of whom are given charismatic gifts.  The Spirit is made manifest in the Church through the diverse charisms, given for diverse services and functions, but all are oriented toward the good of the Church and working together for unity.  The role of leadership in the community, then, is to take “responsibility for harmony among the many and diverse charisms” (163).  The authorities in the church are there to ensure that there is freedom for charisms to flourish, and to allow the movement of the Spirit through the charisms to organize the Church’s life and witness.

However, Boff argues that leadership structures in the West have tended to be characterized “complete domination” in which the hierarchy “considers itself to be the only charism,” a situation in which the charismatic gifts of the Spirit will indeed be perceived as a threat to those in leadership (157).  He arrives at this conclusion via another interesting facet of his work – the integration of theological and sociological reflection, specifically of the Marxist variety.

While faith and theology provide the ideals toward which the Church is striving, ecclesiological reflection, according to Boff, begins with the lived realities of ecclesial practice, then measures these practices against theological norms.  The resulting reflection provides direction for revised and theologically informed praxis (132).  Sociological analysis is therefore part of theological analysis, with theology providing the overall normative vision, but sociology providing the starting point for reflection and some guidance as to how the normative theological vision ought to be lived out. For example, Boff argues on a theological basis that the laity have an inalienable dignity and certain inalienable rights, but his account of how these rights should be exercised in the community has clearly been influenced by Marxist social analysis.  This is seen in the fact that he gives a significant place to the concept of “power” in his ecclesiology, as opposed to the traditional theological category of “authority.”  He calls for a better distribution of sacred power, and a redefinition of the roles of bishop and priest (10).  He criticizes the centralization of decision making in the Church as move which marginalizes the people (34).  He describes the processes of the CDF (which he would soon experience firsthand) as unjust and a violation of human rights (37-38).  Thus Boff will make statements such as “The logic of power is the desire for more power,” and argue that the concrete exercise of power in the Church “follows the logic of any human power structure” (53).

The touchstone of this Marxist analysis is the critique of the inequality in the means of production.  The religious-ecclesiastical or institutional realm of the church is part of the social order, and is conditioned by the prevailing means of production in that social order (110-111).  The Church’s own means of production (in relation to cultural/symbolic goods) manifests a structural inequality, with the hiearchy producing all the goods and the laity doing all the consuming (43).   This imbalance is in complete harmony with the social realm, but full of internal contradictions, because the basic ideals of these institutions call for shared means of production (113).  Ecclesiology must be worked out with attention to these inequalities.

This approach leads Boff to a specific normative conclusion about charismatic reform movements: they must be structural as well as spiritual.  Boff is able to see the base communities of Brazil as a form of ecclesiogenesis because they are a “new way of concretizing the mystery of salvation” (126) which gives rise to new lay ministries based on the integration and equality of charismatic gifts (128).   The examples of the violation of human rights in the Church with which Boff is concerned are not simply the result of individual actions, but result from a certain way of structuring the Church.  The men of the hierarchy are mostly men of good faith, but the structures in which they operate are authoritarian.  While the Church embraces the slogan ecclesia semper reformanda, reform and conversion are typically limited to the personal and spiritual realm. In opposition to this tendency, Boff argues that the goal of charismatic reforming movements in the Church must be the recreation of the Church as an institution of power.  The church has mimicked the structures of the world, and what is needed is the conversion of the institutional Church (58).  Therefore, reform movements must embody an alternative structure, one that is more circular and fraternal. Boff believes that this alternative has emerged at particular moments in the church’s history, in various charismatic movements, evangelical revivals, and idealistic groups (156).

Boff’s synthesis of theology and social analysis is methodologically very interesting, but leans quite heavily on Marxist categories.  At times is not clear whether his view of charismatic movements in the church is driven by Marxist concerns or theological concerns.  I would prefer that theological concerns predominate. Still, Boff’s model provides a way of explaining the history of charismatic movements that has a lot of explanatory power. His ideas provide a plausible account of the history of charismatic movements and their often rocky relation to established structures, without de-spiritualizing the institutional church.  I think, however, his perspective could be aided by turning a similar critical sociological eye to the charismatic movements.  In his Marxist framework they are treated in an entirely positive light, and I would argue that this is an oversimplification.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deists

Christian Smith, Notre Dame sociologist and author of some significant books on youth in North America’s churches, uses the term “moralistic therapeutic deists” to describe the default religion of our time.  Christianity Today had an interview with Smith in their October issue, in which they discussed his new book on “emerging adulthood,” Souls in Transition.  He’s got some really interesting things to say about young adults and the Church. I wish the book had been published earlier, as I’d already finished up my young adult project for the SA when Souls in Transition hit the shelves.  For example, his typology of emerging adults might have got me thinking in different ways about how I might have summarized my interviews.  He breaks down the population of young adults as follows (found on p. 36 of the print edition on CT but not in the online article):

  • Committed traditionalists (15%)
  • Selective adherents (30%)
  • Spiritually open (15%)
  • Religiously indifferent (25%)
  • Religiously disconnected (5%)
  • Irreligious (10%)

Maybe in another post I’ll speculate as to how these categories play out among young adults in The Salvation Army.

Right now I’m interested in this idea of “moralistic therapeutic deists”, because I think it is a great description of the default religion of our day. While Smith’s research indicates that some young adults are questioning the moralistic therapeutic deist framework, it still remains the dominant form of religious practice:

With Soul Searching, you found that most U.S. teens are Moralistic Therapeutic Deists (MTD). They believe in a benevolent God unattached to a particular tradition who is there mostly to help with personal problems. Are emerging adults still MTDS?

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is still the de facto practiced religious faith, but it becomes a little more complicated for emerging adults. They have more life experience, so some of them are starting to ask, “Does MTD really work? Isn’t life more complicated than this?” MTD is easier to believe and practice when you are in high school.

It’s good that today’s young adults are questioning popular religion, but the majority still practice their religion within a moralistic therapeutic framework.  By “the de facto practiced religious faith” Smith means the “cultural Christianity” of North America, but we shouldn’t think that by this he means Christianity of “the culture” as opposed to Christianity found in the churches.  It’s the pop Christianity of both Church and culture – not found in all churches but certainly preached and practiced in many.  Moralistic therapeutic deism is the default framework through which Christians interpret their lives and their faith.

So what is “moralistic therapeutic deism”?  (These are my thoughts, not Smith’s; I’m trying explain his terminology in terms of what I see in the culture.)

Moralistic: religion is basically about being a good person.  This could be taken in a number of directions. For example, a moralist religion might envision God as rewarding “good Christians” for their good actions.  They might support the popular notion that people who are basically good are going to go to heaven.   This doesn’t mean that young adults believe in absolute moral standards.  They are more likely to think of morality in relative terms, as this recent Knights of Columbus poll of Catholic millenials shows (82% say morals are relative).  Yet somehow “being a good person” remains the foundation of religious practice, even while a plurality of competing moral visions are accepted. The problem with moralism is not that it supports a moral vision, but that it makes morality the foundation of religion, rather than the saving action of God in Christ.  Salvation includes transformation, and of course it includes moral transformation.  But our moral behaviour is the result of God’s action. God’s action does not come in response to our moral behaviour.  North American churches are full of moralism.

Therapeutic: religion takes on the form of pop psychology.  In other words, God is there to help me get through my day (see my reference to the personal assistant God in a previous post).  Or, God is there to help me “reach my potential,” and “become a better me.”   Religion as therapy is about personal fulfillment, and meeting “my needs.”   God is domesticated and placed “at our service” as we journey on the road to personal “success” – whether that be in business, family life, or (as above) becoming a good religious person.  This kind of therapeutic Christianity often takes the form of psychological strategies or practical “life skills” by which we can attempt to manage our personal lives.

[I do think salvation has a therapeutic dimension, but not in the contemporary psychological sense of therapy. Wesley’s soteriology is often described as “therapeutic” as opposed to forensic.  This means that he saw salvation as entailing a process of healing as well as a declaration of justification.  Salvation is not simply about being declared righteous in Christ, but about being conformed to his likeness and renewed in the image of God.  This includes the re-directing of our desires toward their intended godly ends.   The key difference here is that the “therapy” in this case is christologically determined, and not based on a program of “self-fulfillment.”  In fact, “self-fulilment” would be the opposite of the divine therapy that the Spirit works in conforming us to Christ’s likeness.  My daily “needs” are not necessarily right and good.  Since I am totally depraved, I don’t actually know what my “needs” are.  The things I think I “need” may in fact be deadly poison.  The gospel doesn’t meet my pre-conceived needs; the “medicine” it provides also tells me what my true sickness is.  God’s mercy never comes independently of his judgment.]

Deism: This is not the same as the deism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centures, which saw God as an uninvoled creator, who got the ball rolling with creation and then just let the world take its mechanically determined course.  Moralistic therapeutic deism involves a generic concept of God, unattached to a particular religious tradition.   This God is benevolent and involved in creation, indeed he’s involved in the everyday ins and outs of our lives.  But he’s a bit abstract.  He’s the nice old guy in the sky. In other words, this deism is a far reach from the historic Christian proclamation of the particular God revealed in Biblical history.

I think we need to be constantly challenging this framework. Precisely because moralistic therapeutic deism is “the de facto practiced religious faith,” we need to hear again and again that it is not the historic Christian gospel.   People come to their faith with this basic framework already in place, and if it isn’t challenged it will remain in place.  Worse, if we tailor our preaching to moralistic therapeutic deism (which I think we often do, unwittingly), we perpetuate a vision of Christianity which is, in my view, foreign to the biblical message.

This is where I think sociological research like Smith’s can be of immense value.   Sociology is a descriptive rather than a normative discipline.  In other words sociology attempts to tell us how things are, not how they ought to be. It tells us how people behave, attempting to summarize patterns and, at times, discern causes of particular patterns of behaviour.  The Church doesn’t take its direction from sociological trends, but from the authoritative witness of scripture.  However, in understanding these trends, we can understand where people are coming from when they encounter the Christian message (including Christians themselves).   If we know that moralistic therapeutic deism is the default religion of North Americans, and we know that it is contrary to basic aspects of the gospel, how can we not respond by challenging these default assumptions?