Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Andrew Root)

Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 211 pages.

I was first introduced to Andrew Root through his book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer as youth worker. I had seen several references to this book after reading his work on Bonhoeffer, and so I thought I would give it a read (after all, if someone writes on Bonhoeffer, they can’t be all bad, right?). I can honestly say that from a philosophical/theological perspective, it has been a long, long, time since I have had my foundations as shaken as they have been by this book – if ever. But I mean this in a good way – it was a constructive shaking, and in a strange sort of way, it was also re-affirming for some ideas and conclusions that have been latent, but that I have not had the mental acuity to put into concrete expression.

This post will not be all that I have to say about Root’s book – it is just too deep for one little review. What I intend to do here is to just give a brief overview, add some reflective comments, and suggest that I will be looking at a number of Root’s conclusions in greater depth in later posts.

In summary, Root asks one question, “How can we form faith in a secular age,” but in so doing he actually raises a far more basic question – “What is faith?” You might think that is a silly question, because everyone knows what faith is. But for Root (and I think he is spot-on correct here), what we have come to accept as “faith” is really nothing more than assent to a doctrine or set of doctrines. This understanding has had all kinds of negative effects on the church, and is the primary reason why the church is so frantic to discover why so many people are leaving “faith” and to discover what to do to reverse the exodus.

Faith Formation in a Secular Age is divided into two main sections: Part One (chapters 1-6) is basically a philosophical explanation of how the culture and the church have arrived at the place where we stand – the “secular age.” Part Two then addresses how faith can be formed in that secular age, and more fundamentally, addresses the content of what we call “faith.”

I will say with no hesitation that this is NOT an easy book  to read unless you are conversant with (1) philosophical terminology and (2) academic theological terminology. While I would never discourage anyone from purchasing a book, I have to be honest and say that unless you are willing to exercise some synapses and look up some technical vocabulary, this book might be above the head of many readers. I’m pretty sure Root lost me in all the verbiage, and that is unfortunate – this book needs to be read at the non-specialist level, and it just comes across as more of a university level (or maybe even graduate level) philosophical/theological work.

With that caveat in place, the real genius of this book is that Root traces the development of our “secular” world and puts his finger squarely on a problem that has bedeviled the church for decades – the rise of our infatuation with “youth” and “youthfulness.” He openly confesses that he is following the writing of a philosopher whose work Root believes is the “first philosophical book written in the twenty-first century that will be read in the twenty-second” (p. x). Part one is, hopefully not to be too dramatic, a devastating examination of our infatuation with youth, the youth culture, and how that fascination has utterly changed the teaching and behavior of the church. I would suggest that part one is the most easily understandable section of the book, and is worth the price of the book by itself.

In part two, Root then tackles the main question he raises (what is faith), and suggests there is a way for the church to form that faith in this secular age. It is in chapter 7, however, that the real heavy lifting of the book begins (at least for me – others may have different opinions). In chapter 7, Root identifies three different levels, or modes, of secularity. The rest of the book is difficult if not impossible to understand if you miss, or misunderstand, these three modes of secularity. I cannot begin to explain them here (I will discuss chapter 7 and its importance in a later post) but suffice it to say that the “secular” age in which we live today is one that eliminates the possibility of any experience with a transcendent being – God, as a personal being, is simply eliminated from the picture. Faith, in Root’s understanding, is the experience of this transcendent being in our lives, and therefore to form faith in this secular age we must open ourselves up to the indwelling presence of this transcendent God. The key for Root is the apostle Paul’s phrase “in Christ.” Root’s development of the importance of this expression, and the relationship of this concept to faith formation, is deep, and his terminology frequently gets in the way, but I will suggest that Root is on to something here – and his conclusions make far, far more sense to me than the other “solutions” to the faith problem that I have seen.

As with any book that is this heavily philosophical, and theological, I do have some serious concerns. For me, the biggest problem lies in the final two chapters of the book where Root attempts to align his conclusions with the (primarily) Lutheran concept of “faith only.” My issues with this attempt are two: (1) Paul never says “faith only” – it is a purely Lutheran creation, and (2) Root seems to go out of his way to “reconstruct” common Lutheran understanding, and, not being a Lutheran scholar, I am just not convinced he is entirely successful.

I will have much more to say about this particular issue, but the most glaring failure of this book is Root’s (intentional?) refusal to acknowledge one of Paul’s most profound emphases – that of the necessity of baptism for his understanding of faith. I kept waiting for Root to discuss this point and it just never comes. I think Root is basically correct in his understanding of faith in Paul’s thought, but by neglecting the event of baptism he short-circuits his entire argument. In short, Root is just entirely too Lutheran to admit that baptism is critical for the formation of faith – even as he as gone to such great lengths to prove that faith for Paul is being “in Christ.” The omission just boggled my mind.

It is not often that I find a sentence at the end of a book that serves as one of the greatest in the book, and as an advertisement for the purchase of the book. However, I will close the “review” section of this post with just one such quote from Root – and one that I hope will spur you to consider buying, reading, and even studying this book:

The church will never be able to convert an atheist through argumentation but can only invite that person to experience faith by experiencing the action of ministry. (p. 210-211).

If you are a minister, elder, youth leader, or other church leader, you owe it to yourself to buy this book and invest in some time to read it. As I said above, it will not be the easiest book you read this year – but it may be the most significant! You will not agree with everything Root says – I never agree with everything an author says. But, and I say this cautiously, you will learn more about the culture in which you live and will be challenged to review some of your previously held beliefs, more by this book than perhaps any you might read this coming year.

P.S. – This is volume one in a three volume “trilogy” – and the second volume is in the pipeline for delivery some time this year, I believe. I look forward to reading it as well.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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