Against Sheilaism

It may not seem this way, but what I wish to discuss is perfectly reasonable, so hear me out. My admittedly opaque title refers to part of a 1985 volume, Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah, et. al. (University of California Press, updated, 1996). The book, as the subtitle states, is about “individualism and commitment in American life”.

In the chapter on religion the authors raise the topic of Sheilaism. They write, “Today religion in America is as private and diverse as New England colonial religion was public and unified.” They then discuss their findings, centring on one American woman. Here is what the authors wrote:

“Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as ‘Sheilaism.’ ‘I believe in God. I am not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.’ Sheila’s faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many. In defining what she calls ‘my own Sheilaism,’ she said: ‘It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.’ Like many others, Sheila would be willing to endorse few more specific injunctions.”

They continue, “‘Sheilaism’ somehow seems a perfectly natural expression of current American life.” And one could add Australian life. Her “faith” is a mix of positive thinking, self-esteem, New Age mumbo jumbo, with a few God words thrown in.

It of course has absolutely nothing to do with biblical Christianity. Sadly not only are there plenty of non-Christian folks involved in a religion like this, but so too are many who call themselves Christians. They may roll up to church once and a while, consider themselves to be fairly moral, and not engage in too many of the really overt sins.

But they are not Christians at all. Their religion is Sheilaism. It is all about themselves, in other words. It is not a God-centred faith. It is not a Christ-centred faith. It is not a Scripture-centred faith. It is not a creedal-centred faith. It is a me-centred faith, pure and simple.

Bellah and his team call this a “radically individualistic religion, particularly when it takes the form of a belief in cosmic selfhood.” In this religion “God is simply the self magnified.” They speak of “therapeutic privatization, the shift from casuistry to counselling”.

The focus is entirely on self and meeting any perceived needs. Instead of an other-centred faith which looks upon the needs of others, and is self-giving, this is a me-centred faith which looks upon the needs of self, and is self-centred. Self has become divinised while God has lost his divinity.

And millions upon millions of people in the West live this way – many of them still somehow thinking they are Christians. It is a smorgasbord religion, a non-committal religion, a tourist religion. David Wells discusses this type of religion as follows:

“This is not the journey of the pilgrim. That is biblical faith. This is more like the journey of the tourist. Tourists, when they visit places, are there just to take in the sights and sounds. They don’t really contribute anything to the places where they are — except, of course, they leave behind their cash. Tourists, that is what we are becoming. Tourists: we move through life flitting from idea to idea, from novelty to novelty, from new person to new person, never settling, always moving. Selecting the best sights, the highlights, the choice cuts, avoiding the mess on the edge of town, the slums, all the uncomfortable things, the struggle of really knowing people. Never settling, always moving, lest we hear the hollow clang of our own emptiness. Tourists. That’s what we are becoming. Inquisitive, curious, picking up the tidbits of other people’s depth. Tourists.”

Those who are genuine disciples of Christ are not tourists. They have made a fundamental change of allegiance from self to Christ. They have died to self, renounced self, and crucified self. The cross-centred life is all they now know. Yet countless evangelical Christians know nothing of this faith.

As Wells wrote elsewhere: “The loss of the traditional vision of God as holy is now manifested everywhere in the evangelical world. It is the key to understanding why sin and grace have become such empty terms. . . . Divorced from the holiness of God, sin is merely self-defeating behavior or a breach in etiquette. Divorced from the holiness of God, grace is merely empty rhetoric, pious window dressing for the modern technique by which sinners work out their own salvation. Divorced from the holiness of God, our gospel becomes indistinguishable from any of a host of alternative self-help doctrines. Divorced from the holiness of God, our public morality is reduced to little more than an accumulation of trade-offs between competing private interests.

“Divorced from the holiness of God, our worship becomes mere entertainment. The holiness of God is the very cornerstone of Christian faith, for it is the foundation of reality. Sin is defiance of God’s holiness, the Cross is the outworking and victory of God’s holiness, and faith is the recognition of God’s holiness. Knowing that God is holy is therefore the key to knowing life as it truly is, knowing Christ as he truly is, knowing why he came, and knowing how life will end.

“It is this God, majestic and holy in his being, this God whose love knows no bounds because his holiness knows no limits who has disappeared from the modern evangelical world. He has been replaced in many quarters by a God who is slick and slack, whose moral purposes turn out to be avuncular advice that we can disregard or negotiate as we see fit, whose Word is a plaything for those who wish merely to listen to themselves, whose Church is a mall in which the religious, their pockets filled with the coin of need, do their business. We seek happiness, not righteousness.”

Sheila sought only happiness, not holiness or righteousness. So do millions of others, many thinking they are also followers of Jesus. This is just-so religion, but not biblical Christianity. This is selfishness with a cloak of religion over it. This is deception and illusion.

No wonder Jesus made entrance into his kingdom so difficult. He deliberately made it tough for people to become one of his followers. He wanted to weed out all the tourists and self-seekers. His demands would of course weed out any Sheilas of our day.

As Martyn Lloyd-Jones once wrote, “The ultimate choice is always the choice between pleasing self and pleasing God.” Far too many self-pleasers think they are pleasing God. Better to discover now that this is not the case, than to find out later when it will be too late.

[1160 words]

9 Replies to “Against Sheilaism”

  1. Very good, Bill. In the beginning, God made man in his image. Ever since, man had been trying to make God in our image.

    While that’s easy to recognize in those around us, I found your article to be challenge for my own faith. How much do I seek God, and how much do I seek my own comfort instead? Which is backwards, of course – by seeking God I find my own needs met, but when I ignore my relationship with him for the sake of trying to meet my own needs, I wind up with neither.

    Ronin Akechi

  2. By the Lord Harry, Sir, you make a powerful statement.
    Chris Langan-Fox

  3. Thank you Bill, this is a very powerful message, very good for self evaluation. I am sure we are all guilty of Sheilaism from time to time. With this post you have helped me identify exactly what it is that make people believe they don’t need the fellowship of the saints. They have their Sheilaism fellowship of their own making. Your pastoral gifts have real come through with this one, very useful material, thanks again.
    Bill Heggers, Perth

  4. Thankyou Bill. More good pastoral stuff! The Lord has been calling me recently to die to self in a real way, and this post puts another welcome nail in my “coffin”.

    That quote from Martyn Lloyd-Jones really hits home. It’s a choice one has to make at all times in life’s decisions, whether large or small.

    And the more I die to self and live for the Lord, the more my heart reaches out with love towards other people.

    God’s Word is proved right every time. Amen.

    Brian Pratt

  5. This article on me-ism hit home Bill; it is on this subject that I have been thinking of late, though from a different angle.
    It started when Barak Obama gave his support to same sex marriage, he said he and his wife had put a great deal of thought to it, and as Christian, we are commanded to ‘do unto others that you would have done unto you’
    I feel sick that people who call themselves ‘christians’ can be in support of same sex marriage. These ‘christians’ choose what to include from the Bible in their own ‘me-ism’ religion, and then have the cheek to call themselves and their religion christian.
    Take Mark 12: 28-34 particularly 30-31; in reply to the question ‘which is the most important commandment of all?’ Jesus replied ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second most important commandment is this: ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself. There is no other commandment more important than these two’
    It seems these ‘christians’ have ignored the most important commandment of the two (mark 12:30) ‘to love the Lord your God with all that we are’, for if they truly did they would see that homosexuality is a stench to God’s nose.
    You see, me-ism is not centred on God, it all comes down to ‘what matters to me’. Their thoughts on same sex marriage follow the line ‘if I were gay I would want to marry the person I love.’
    The only god they serve is themselves.
    Sadly, there are many in church who have gone down this line and many a church that teaches it.
    For those Christians that put God first, in the words of Paul, (Ephesians 6: 10-13) Build up your strength in union with the Lord and by means of his mighty power. Put on all the armour that God gives you, so that you will be able to stand up against the devil’s evil tricks. For we are not fighting against human beings but against the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world… So put on God’s armour now! Then when the evil day comes, you will be able to resist the enemy’s attacks; and after fighting to the end, you will still hold your ground.

    Mark Lambert

  6. It is somewhat frightening the amount of times that Christianity’s core is summed up with “the golden rule”. My spirit cries out “no, we are to love God first, then when we find out from him how to love our neighbour as ourselves, then we can go ahead with that and “love our neighbour without doing him damage.”
    C.S. Lewis describes it well in his essay “man or rabbit?

    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  7. Brilliant and necessary piece. Correcting instruction is so liberating. Definitely an article each could read to themselves for a starter.
    Servaas Hofmeyr, South Africa

  8. The 21st century – born out of 20th century individualism:

    “MECU” = my credit union (until I can get out of it totally)
    iPhone/iPad/iPod – personal entertainment
    my-anything – My Computer, my-ki, my stuff!

    The I/Me/My generation…

    John Angelico

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