Review of Andrew Root's "Formation of Faith in a Secular Age Vol.1 (Part2)

Part 1:  A History of the Age of Authenticity
1: The Boring Church and the Pursuit of Authenticity

The Dawn of the Age of Authenticity

Five hundred years ago we lived in an enchanted world. The self was porous and the good, the right, the true and beautiful (transcendent realities) were never thought to be a subjective apprehension. Rather we lived in a world where we could encounter such things in our lives.

After the Enlightenment, the individual’s own subjective experience became the norm. No longer worried about being troubled or encountered by transcendent realities (good or demonic), our enemy became whatever frustrated or hindered our personal pursuits.

The self was now buffered from transcendent realities; the word was disenchanted. We looked now at our own natural lives under the constraints of scientific rationalism, which meant doubting all other realities. All that was left to us was personal authenticity. Church and much of society lined up on the enemy side of this search for personal authenticity. As Root puts it, it, “the nobility of our time are those who are real and candid, obeying their desires—even over duty.” (410)

The church and its scandals are shown not only to be bad but t be inauthentic, preaching one thing and living another – a double whammy!

And this is the point at where church disconnects from modern people seeking authenticity. “In the age of authenticity, to be bored is not simply unfortunate or unpleasant; it is to be oppressed, to be violently cornered and robbed of authenticity.” (438) And “Our formation has often been boring because it has lacked the connection to our deepest embodied, lived, and emotive experiences. (438)

Before the 60’s, however, this pursuit of authenticity was confined to a small circle of avant garde people. With the birth of the youth movement in the 1960’s. The tools or expressions of this movement sex, drugs, rock and roll were frequently mistaken for the search for authenticity that fired it. The church was usually among those who damned the search by damning its expressions, sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

As a buffered self, that is closed off from transcendent realities, we are nevertheless frustrated in expressing and searching for our desires because we are deeply formed by society itself. What we can do under these circumstances is to unmask and upset them. And that’s what the sex, drugs, and rock and roll was all about. Root notes: “Sex cuts us free from the ascetic repression of religion, drugs open the mind to see its oppression, and the disestablishment riffs of rock and roll expose and oppose the torquing and shifting of cultural conformity.” (496)

In this age of authenticity the church’s talk of faith formation finds its home. After all that is a individual search and, as Taylor writes, ““For many people today, to set aside their own path in order to conform to some external authority just doesn’t seem comprehensible as a form of spiritual life. The injunction is, in the words of a speaker at a New Age festival: ‘Only accept what rings true to your own inner self.’”[1]

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in the Age of Authenticity

“We imagine MTD as a plant that shouldn’t be there—but this is our deception. MTD may not be a weed at all but the very indigenous plant species that grows in the soil of the age of authenticity—and this is why it is so hard to cut out. We struggle with MTD because we have not realized that we’ve lost the essential nutrients of the believability of transcendence. While our age of authenticity makes experience essential (and this is good), we have not found ways for these experiences to speak of a stratified reality and the encounter with a living, transcendent God.” (506-515)
“We’ve lost the essential nutrients of the believability of transcendence” – that’s the nub of the problem as Root sees it. A self cut-off from transcendence looks to the natural to find its authenticity and the church choose to try and stake its appeal to young people and others in youthfulness.

The Idol of Youthfulness

The young, through the youth movement of the 60’s became the ideal icon for the pursuit of authenticity. “Youthfulness is not a move to honor and embrace the young themselves . . . youthfulness is a kind of celebrity endorsement for authenticity itself.” (524)
If the youthful like or promote something, it is by that fact “cool,” or “hip.”

The Church and Youthfulness

The church seeks youthfulness too because that seems it best way to regain some authenticity cachet. However, Root sees problems here.

“When youthfulness becomes the measure of authenticity, faith formation is ever difficult, and not only because we fight against the disease of MTD, but more broadly because the conditions we live in minimize divine action. Our perception of the process and the passion to deliver faith formation actually makes it, unbeknownst to us, self-destructive, allowing in a worm that destroys the very thing we are working so hard to build. When we link faith to the authenticity of youthfulness, we make youthfulness itself faith’s measure. We support and affirm that where youthfulness goes, so too goes authenticity.” (533-542)
As long as youthfulness is our way to recover authenticity, we will struggle to overcome MTD “for youthfulness as authenticity is in the bloodstream.” (542)

“This means that when youthfulness is redirected, the authenticity of faith is thrown into question. Our faith-formation processes hamstring themselves by affirming the fusion of youthfulness and authenticity. When we throw adjectives in front of ‘faith,’ we do so to draw a distinction between so-called authentic faith and superficial faith, but once we set up such a dichotomy (if we are not careful and reflective), youthfulness suddenly becomes the measure of authenticity. Faith formation, then, is doomed to serve the master of youthfulness.” (542)
Thus, we have to keep up with the latest versions of youthfulness or risk losing out in the search for authenticity. We can no longer search for experience of the transcendent but have to focus on being youthful. And when we lose the authenticity/youthfulness race, the most “authentic” thing others can do is deconstruct it.
2: The History of Youthfulness
Among all the changes the 20th century wrought the greatest was change to the human condition was to make divine action seem more and more implausible as a condition of belief. Word War II was the event that ushered us into the age of authenticity and youthfulness. Two fears beset us in the aftermath of the war: return to economic depression and war with a power representing another economic order.

Both of these fears could be assuaged, we discovered through a new mass society. ”The challenge after the war was to keep industry going by making every citizen a constant and continued buyer, a small stream of spending.” (641). Keynesian economics premised economic growth on continual consumer spending. And it worked. Spectacularly!

The Men and Women of Duty

Before the age of authenticity dawned American still lived a code of duty, obligation, and authority as they pursued the American adventure (the “greatest generation”). Once we turned to authenticity, though, all hell broke loose. The Vietnam war was vigorously protested and at the same time sexual mores were flaunted as well.

The WWII generation took their duty seriously. They went to school on the GI Bill, buy a home, and have a large family, move to the suburbs, and drive a new car.

“What then swings the door open for authenticity is a consumer society. It is the duty to buy that brings forth the age of authenticity. It becomes the obligation of the men and women of duty to be their own streams of spending. Having picked up gun and grenade in the European and Pacific theaters, the weapons of the Cold War were tract housing, GE refrigerators, and Buicks. Unlike the Battle of the Bulge, this fight actually felt good; instead of your duty giving you frostbite, you got a frozen TV dinner and a new episode of Father Knows Best. But nevertheless, it was as much a duty as before. The way to assure that the Red enemy would find no foothold would be to keep the American economy humming through individual consumption and federal defense spending. The duty was to participate, through work and consumption, in the mass society. The age of authenticity enters the scene through the act of consumer duty. Yet once a generation comes of age in the womb of a consumer society (i.e., the boomers), the cords that precariously connect consumption and duty are cut, and authenticity becomes our new social imaginary.” (688-698)
 Back to the 1950s: Conformity and Consumption

This duty to consume also came with a passion for conformity. If we are to consume as a nation we will tend to consume uniformly. Even if one could not reach that degree of uniformity, that was still the goal.

We fought WWII was a sense of serving a transcendent goal, to serve the good world order desired by the Creator. With the Cold War all that changed.

“The conflict of the Cold War was completely, from head to toe, ideological; religion itself was used as a weapon in this ideological war. Church membership was important as a stronghold against the atheistic stance of Communism. Yet the real spirit of this call to duty in the 1950s had nothing to do with the experience of transcendence; it was about the immanent act of buying and consuming new products, keeping the gears of mass society moving. The Cold War would be fought with purely immanent weapons, armaments that asked not for sacrifice and cosmic significance but for a desire for the new and a pursuit of affluence.” (716-727)
The Cold War Kids

Authenticity through affluence thus turned on duty and suffocated it. Affluence and the middle class it created made it unnecessary for children to work. Suburbs created safe places for them to play. “In the mass society, toys became big business. Children’s playing could help the mass society by leading to the dutiful want for more and new toys.” (746)
The Cold War Classroom
“Decades before World War II, John Dewey had seen the classroom, and education in general, as democracy in miniature. After the war, education was to serve not so much democracy as the mass society. Therefore, as important as the content in the classroom was the school’s real curriculum: conformity.” (786)

Nonetheless, some rebels did arise (James Dean).

But the rebel couldn’t have existed apart from the pressure to join the duty of consumption. He opposed conformity by taking the segmented products of the mass society and reworking them for his own purposes, using the freedom given to him by the mass society’s duty of affluent consumption to rebel against it. The rebel, like the football star, revealed the central place of conformity in the new youth.” (786)
Segmentation and Faith Formation

The church responded to this new segmentation in society with new outreaches to this youth segment (Christian Endeavor, Young Life). The result:
“the faith formation that happened inside these segmented spaces was disconnected from the larger experience of others. Just as young people in the mass society had little direct engagement with their parents’ experience in their own segmented locale, so faith formation became stuck in the echo chamber of the culturally imposed segment.” (812-820)
Without transcendence and duty under these new condition leading to conformity, the goal for these new ministries became focused on participation in Christianity’s institutional structures. “Thus faith was reduced to participation, because participation was assumed to reveal loyalty and commitment.” (821)

What’s next? How did authenticity finally overcome the societal thrust for duty and conformity? And how does this allow youthfulness to spill over the walls of the teenage segmentation to become a cultural obsession?

[1] Taylor, Secular Age, 489.


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