Defending the Therapeutic: Part 3, Perhaps Pick a Different Word

Recall from the last post that what Christian Smith describes as "therapeutic" in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is this:

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is about providing therapeutic benefits to its believers. It is finally about feeling happy, good, safe, at peace. It is about achieving subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems, and getting along nicely with other people.

Okay, what to think about this?

Well, you could read this in very different ways. For example, you could give this the coddled snowflake reading. Faith is about "feeling happy, good, safe, at peace." Faith is about "achieving subjective well-being." There's little here about costly grace, counting the cost, sacrificial love, denying the self, or discipleship as a "long obedience." That's a fair observation. But one could also give this a more generous reading. Does faith result in joy and peace? It should. Does faith help us solve problems? I think so. Does faith help us get along with others? It does. 

My point here is following up on my observation from the first post. Faith does have psychological and relational benefits. So the issue isn't with the therapeutic per se. Smith is using the term "therapeutic" in a narrow and specific sense. Generally and generically, "therapeutic" means "related to the healing of disease." Using that broad definition, faith is, as I've pointed out, "therapeutic." Faith is healing.

Smith, though, means something a bit different. Smith's definition of "therapeutic" is something akin to "that which makes me happy." With "happiness" meaning something like "pleasure" or "fun." And if that's close to what Smith means, I think he should have chosen a different word. Because doing something that makes me happy, something pleasant and fun, isn't what we normally mean by therapeutic. If you've ever been in therapy, doing that hard work, you know that few would describe it as "fun." Therapy is hard, and a lot of people avoid it precisely because of its difficulty. Given that, maybe Moralistic Hedonistic Deism would have been better word choice. Or Moralistic Self-Indulgent Deism. 

Perhaps quibbling with Smith's word choice here is not a big deal so long as we understand that he's using "therapeutic" in a narrow, almost pejorative, sense. But my concern here is how this narrow, pejorative meaning of the word "therapeutic" has become, for many Christian pastors and thinkers, the only and regulating meaning of "therapeutic." This pejorative take on "therapeutic" makes any claim that faith has mental health benefits immediately suspect. Which, as I've said, is a very strange view to take. 

Seriously, every time I talk with pastors about how God fills "the Ache" (described in Hunting Magic Eels) one of them will invariably raise their hand to ask, "But isn't that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?" Every. Single. Time. It's like a Pavlovian response. Any hint that God provides us comfort triggers a pearl-clutching concern about "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism." For heaven's sake. Have pastors never read the Psalms? Whenever I get these questions, I always respond, "Whatever happened to 'Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee'? I thought y'all loved that line." Why wouldn't God be medicine--be therapeutic--for our ailing souls? How did the pastoral class get so befuddled on this rudimentary point? 
The confusion here concerns a poor word choice. By "therapeutic" you don't mean "related to the healing of a disease." By "therapeutic" you mean something pejorative, something like self-indulgent pleasure, happiness, or fun.  

And if that's what you mean, maybe choose a different word. 

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