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

Faith Formation in a Secular Age Vol.1                                                                                                                                 Andrew Root[1]
We live in a secular world. But the nature of that secularity is widely misunderstood. When Charles Taylor, author of the magnificent A Secular Age, says “secular,” he does not mean a world without any religion but rather a time in which it is as possible to believe as not and every form of belief is contestable or questionable. (114)

We live he claims in the “age of authenticity.” This is the world since the 1960s in which each person is believed to have their right to define what it means to be human. (124)

Many, including the church, have taken this shift to portend only bad. Self-indulgence and self-absorption run amok. This this kind of trivializing has often happened. Yet Taylor claims at least two positive gains from this shift: “But I want to affirm two features here: the change represents no passing fad, and second, it does have a serious ethical dimension.”[2]

Andrew Root, building off Taylor’s work believes that “it is only through authenticity (and its ethic) that we can reimagine ways of speaking about divine action as ministry . . . I’m opposed to how the trivial elements of the age of authenticity have produced a glorification of the spirit of youthfulness—the ways the church has been tempted to desire this spirit of youthfulness more than the Spirit of Christ. (135) He believes this glorification of youthfulness has snookered the church into buying into this trivial aspect of the age of authenticity (youthfulness) in youth and, for reasons we will soon see, and adult ministry.

“Ultimately,” though, he writes, “I’ll seek a way through our lived experience (authenticity) to encounter divine action.” (144) But this way is not straightforward and requires a fair amount of teasing out. But it is so worth it!
Introduction: Bonhoeffer Thinks We’re Drunk
Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) is the name sociologist Christian Smith gave to the faith of American teenagers he discovered as a result of a massive several-year survey and follow-up interviews. MTD means
“moralistic” (God wants me to be a good person and not a jerk);                                                                  “therapeutic” (God or religion should help me feel good); and                                                                                   “deism” (God is a concept to decorate our lives with but not an agent who really does anything).
It is, Root says, “a kind of individualized, consumer spirituality.” (197)

How could it be that such concept of faith as MTD could become the default position for America’s teenagers. Root turns to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his essay on youth ministry[3]: “Since the days of the youth movement, church youth work has often lacked that element of Christian sobriety that alone might enable it to recognize that the spirit of youth is not the Holy Spirit and that the future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ.”

To put Bonhoeffer’s claim in contemporary lingo: you’ve bought into to the cultural benefits of an age group (youthfulness) over concern for the work of the Holy Spirit, who is the one you need. This fascination with youthfulness goes like this: “’If we could only get the young here,” we assert over and over again, “then we’ll be OK.’ ‘OK; usually refers to something like being vibrant enough to be institutionally stable.” (253) We’ve all heard, or thought. that at some point, haven’t we?

But Bonhoeffer forces us to ask ourselves: Do we want the Spirit or a batch of pragmatic strategies designed to try and keep young people in the church. This attraction to youthfulness as the answer to the church’s need Root sees as the soil in which MTD grows. Root writes: “We are erroneously acting as though youth can save us, allowing our conceptions of faith to be seen as brand loyalty to the church over experiences of the living Christ, who comes to us through cross and resurrection, giving us his very self as the gift of faith.” (263)

How did it happen they we embraced youthfulness rather than a genuine experience of God as the cure for what ails the church? The flow of our culture holds the answer. We have moved into an age of authenticity (as mentioned earlier) - on “a journey to make meaning, seeking to be loyal (often only) to what speaks to us, to what engages us, to what moves us.” (280) Authenticity has many good things about it but it also carries some debits: one is youthfulness.

“’Youthfulness’ is a kind of cultural idolatry that believes that those who take on a ‘youthful frame of mind’ are best positioned to glean the rewards of authenticity itself. Youthfulness, then, is not necessarily the lived and concrete experience of young people, but a disposition or frame of mind that best delivers authenticity.” (280)
In addition to youthfulness, this turn to the age of authenticity also brought with it a denial of the plausibility of divine action which unwittingly turns over our understanding of faith to sociology. In this historical context, even our sincerest desires to be led by the Spirit are hamstrung by the flattening of faith it promotes. We are focused on building up the profile of the institutional church by retaining youth and becoming youthful rather than trusting the Spirit because such “realities” have been rendered suspect by the secularity in which we live.
More on all this in upcoming chapters.

[1] Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age : Volume 1 (Ministry in a Secular Age): Responding to the Church's Obsession with Youthfulness (Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition). Numerals in parentheses are the Kindle locations where material is found.
[2] Charles Taylor, “The Church Speaks—to Whom?,” in Church and People: Disjunctions in a Secular Age, ed. Charles Taylor, José Casanova, George F. McLean, Christian Philosophical Studies 1 (Washington, DC: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 2012), 17–18. 
[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Berlin: 1932–1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 12 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 515–17.


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