Review of Andrew Root's "Faith Formation in a Secular Age" (Part 6)

7: Faith and Its Formation in a Secular Age


We think of our world in terms of subtraction. For example, we taken prayer out of school, lost our moral guidelines, church attendance has declined.  More liberal folks think if we could just get rid of religion we be more rational and peaceful. Our faith formation, then, becomes a plugging up of the holes caused by this subtraction. But these pragmatic actions don’t work because the problem is not subtraction.

Charles Taylor says it this way: “Modernity is defined not just by our ‘losing’ an earlier world, but by the kind of human culture that we have constructed.”[1] It’s not the world we’ve known minus some vital components we can replace but a whole new world. “Rather than subtraction, we’ve added layers of authenticity and youthfulness, creating forms of cultural and social life where ‘the God gap,’ for many, simply isn’t there.” (2458)

“The adding of the mass society and its need for consumer want brought forth a bohemianism that turned us from duty to authenticity—making those who are full of youth the priests of self-fulfillment.” (2458) Faith, or what guide and directs our lives, has fundamentally shifted, become new. And the church has not grasped or grappled with that. “The age of authenticity has turned our conception of faith into something that more closely matches the imaginary of authenticity than it does biblical faith.” (2469)

We keep trying to shore up faith by inducing assent to various “truths” and solidify institutional participation. What cuts the nerve of faith in the age of authenticity, however, is the reality of God, the plausibility of transcendence and assumption that the world is flat. ‘In the age of authenticity, the self is buffered, the world is disenchanted, and God is always on the verge of being reduced to a psychologically created imaginary friend.” (2477)

Picketed Faith

God is still a “picket” in our North American cultural fence but the reason why for those whose still have it is now authenticity. People choose or not for their own reasons to keep or jettison the God “picket.” Subtraction stories make everything into a concept. And concepts make no claim on us. We pick and choose what we believe in the age of authenticity. Subtraction and authenticity go together.

“Faith formation as plugging holes created by subtraction plays into the logic of subtraction. The youthful priests of authenticity are willing to flatten the world, removing complexity and conceiving of life as a random bundle of concepts that can be kept or discarded as one individually chooses.” (2497)

“In the end, faith is not really “something” but rather “the absence of subtraction.” Faith is not constructive but is rather the (chosen) unwillingness to subtract a concept from your individually constituted fence (most often given to you by your parents). We don’t treat faith as a movement into a new reality or a sense of entering into the Spirit; neither does faith mean relating to God and others in some different way. Rather, we operate as though faith is simply the willingness to resist subtraction.” (2507)

Three Kinds of “Secular”

The real issue, even more than the loss of God as a concept, is the reality of God himself. The age of authenticity  has made the world flat (as we have seen) and the idea of God or transcendence unbelievable or at least much more difficult to believe in.

“More pervasive is that our culture has little room for belief in a God who is both transcendent and personal, who acts to bring forth an all-new reality, promising transformation. It is not necessarily subtraction that is our problem but rather the development of a social imaginary that gives little heed to transcendence or divine action.” (2515)

People still do experience transcendence now, but some of the support for that experience, the practices and locales that gave earlier people ways to express and experience it, have been overwhelmed by all the age of authenticity has added.

Charles Taylor tells our cultural story as one of addition rather than subtraction. “All that has been added has, in turn, blocked out the probability of a transcendent God who is anything more than people’s individual pet idea or concept.” (2534) The door to faith has not been subtracted but blocked by a pile of additions (for example, scientific positivism, materialism, expressive individualism).

Secular 1: Sacred versus Secular Planes

500 years ago the secular and sacred were two different temporal planes of reality. All sought the sacred plane. Indeed, that was the point of life. Some people were set apart to tend to the cultivation of the sacred while everyone else did the chores and necessities of daily life. But this was more a strategic separation than a real one. “Transcendence remained an ever-present reality as the farmer lived with an imaginary in which the eternal and temporal planes of existence met and often interpenetrated each other.” (2551)

“Taylor explains that the transcendent was not bound in people’s heads but loose in the world. Some things were secular (like the farmer’s pitchfork) and others sacred (like sacraments, chapels, or the bones of a saint). Some things took you into the transcendent and some did not. The zone where people could encounter transcendence was a massively open door that would dwarf you in its enormity (even to the point of fright), because it was imagined that things in the world were enchanted and the self was porous.” (2579)

Secular 2: Religious versus A-religious Spaces

The transition to the modern world redefined the relation between secular and sacred. “To say “secular” in Secular 2 meant “a particular space that was a-religious.” It was (is) a space where the willing of human minds promises to be absent religion. In turn, the sacred is now a unique space where human willing is allowed to seek the interest of the religious. It is a distinct and special location where religious belief and practice are allowed their freedom.” (2588)

Now the sacred has to invade a secular realm that really has no room for it. Trying to get prayer back into public schools is an example. It’s no longer a situation of planes of eternity and time, but rather a struggle for space in the culture.

In Taylor’s Secular 2, faith, instead of being experience of the transcendent in the permeable realm of the secular, becomes about affiliation (in belief and participation) with the cultural and societal institutions of religion.

“Faith through the lens of Secular 2 is willful affiliation with religious institutions; it is choosing to locate yourself in the cultural space of institutional religion.” (2616)

“We want young people to have faith, which means we want them to define themselves inside religious rather than a-religious spaces.” (2626)

“Divine action is much harder to encounter in Secular 2; transcendence must penetrate the buffered force field of the self and change the will of an individual. Because these spaces have become defined mostly as material, cultural, and societal, the doorway into the transcendent becomes very segregated. To encounter the transcendent, we willfully enter the religious space to open up our mind—feeling mindfully engaged in worship, preaching, and the study of Scripture. We encounter divine action when we really believe something, when we willfully commit to God by committing to religious space over secular—and transcendence itself is only possible in the religious space itself.” (2636)

Secular 3: The Negating of Transcendence

Secular 1 sees transcendence in different planes of existence. Secular 2 segregates faith to a separate sphere a religious one, within a secular, non-religious, sphere. In Secular 3 transcendence and divine action are unbelievable.

“Secular 2’s obsession with the definition of culture and societal locales and its fight over turf through the willing of human minds allow for the creation of a new frame for our social imaginary. And this frame crops out, almost completely, the doorway into the transcendent. Taylor calls this new encasing, an outgrowth of Secular 3, the immanent frame.” (2636-2646)

Secular 3 might have a little place for self-created spirituality, but only as a natural and psychological choice, only as a way of seeking authenticity, finding oneself. Spirituality, then, is bound to and even serves the immanent frame.

Because we assume we know what faith is (keeping people in church and really, really believing something), we can move on quickly to pragmatic tools that win us institutional loyalty. “If faith were truly a reality of cosmic and ontological encounter, if it brought forth into your being a completely alien ontological reality, if it swept you into an encounter with a transcendent force, then defining its shape and possibility would be necessary over and over again.” (2670)  In other words, genuine contact with God requires continual renegotiation and restatement.

“All of this means that something like MTD (which is paradigmatic for the struggle we feel in faith formation) is not the consequence of a dreary church that has subtracted serious faith formation from its mind. Rather, MTD is the direct project (and in fact the endorsed and honored perspective) of faith built for the immanent frame of Secular 3 and the age of authenticity. MTD did not grow like a fungus when we were not looking. MTD is not an unfortunate and haphazard occurrence. It is an intricate construction designed perfectly for the world of Secular 3.” (2685)

Crossed Up

The additions which make Secular 3 possible also make the age of authenticity possible. Freed of all ties, obligations, traditions, and sense of transcendence, we are free to follow our natural desires and material conditions (authenticity). “Youthfulness becomes a deeply significant endorser, for the youthful are those most free from the constraints of the superego against following the natural and material urges of the id.” (2700).

Oddly, even in Secular 3 we sometimes find ourselves sensing, experiencing “echoes of transcendence.” Now, trussed up in the immanent frame, searching for authenticity, it is authenticity itself that is the only way to return to transcendence.

It’s the age of authenticity’s focus on experience that is the path we must take. “Therefore, it may be within cross-pressure itself, between Secular 3 and the echo of the deep longings of human experience, that we can explore what faith and faith formation might be.” (2717)

Too Easy: The Road through Negation

In Secular 3, though we may indeed hear “echoes of transcendence,” these experiences come coated with doubt. We hear them and at the same time hear their negation.

“Rather, for such experiences to be anything more than hiccups of the individual and her journey of authenticity, transcendence or divine action must be reimagined within negation itself (for there is no other zone for it).” (2755)

“Our contemporary faith-formation programs seem to be one step forward and two steps back because they fail to see our issue as Secular 3 (the implausibility of transcendence), choosing rather to focus on Secular 2 (religious vs. a-religious locales). And this wrong focus keeps us from seeing that we are surrounded by negation. It is only within or up against negation that faith can be discussed at all.” (2755)

Summary and Moving Forward

Our experiences of loss, brokenness, and death, but also the liminality of joy and transformational hope that seeks for the negated to be made new may well be the path to grappling with our echoes of transcendence in ways that lead to faithfulness.

It is in Paul, and in his theology of the cross, that we may find the resources to negate the negation of Secular 3 and find access to genuine transcendence and faith formation.

[1] Charles Taylor, “Afterword: Apologia pro Libro suo,” in Warner, VanAntwerpen, and Calhoun, Varieties of Secularism, 302.



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