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.