Book Review: Faith Formation in a Secular Age – Andrew Root (pt.3)

Sometimes really smart people do strange things. And then, because they are smart, other people follow them in that strangeness. Pretty soon you have a whole bunch of really smart people doing strange things, not because they really want to, or even because they have really thought about it, but because following the first really smart person seemed so, well, smart. It is called “group think,” and sometimes that strange thing that the first person thought up is just simply innocent and inconsequential, and sometimes it can be malevolent and have some really nasty results.

For years now, maybe even generations, people have been asking the question, “how do we instill faith in our children, indeed, how can we instill faith in anyone?” Over the past few years that question has reached a fever pitch because of the (almost) incessant reporting of how many young people are leaving the church, and how many people now report that their religious affiliation is “none.” They claim to be spiritual, but just not religious. Devoted church members are right to be concerned, and the providing answers to stop the exodus of these individuals is a growth industry within Christian journalism.

But, have you noticed something deeply troubling about all the answers? I did not – until I read Andrew Root’s book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age.

No one asks the question, What is faith?

Here we have a massive group think going on because some smart person, actually many smart persons, thought up a solution to why people are losing their faith, and dozens of others have chimed in about why it is occurring and what can be done about it.

And no one, at least to my knowledge, has bothered to sit down and ask that very simple, and fundamental, question. It seems that if we are going to try to form something, we had better be certain of what it is that we are trying to form.

This is why I think Root’s book is so critical at this time, and agree with him or not, at least he has gone back to the core issue. If we do not have a certain grasp on what we are trying to accomplish, I dare say we are never going to be very successful in accomplishing it.

In my own experience, whenever faith is discussed there is an automatic, almost knee-jerk, response to quote Hebrews 11:1 as the definitive answer to the definition of faith, and then move on without much deeper thought. That is, faith is an mental assent, an agreement to a concept or a doctrine. We can’t see it or touch it or taste it, but we believe it, therefore we have faith. While not ever specifically addressing Hebrews 11:1, Root basically identifies this understanding as actually being part of the problem – not that the text is a problem, but our secular understanding of Hebrews 11:1 is the problem.

I am going to simplify tremendously here – and summarize in just a few words what Root does in several chapters – but Root proposes that the core issue we have in forming faith is that all we attempt to do, and all we do if we are successful, is convince people to accept a doctrine or set of doctrines; we really do not form faith. I see this so clearly within the Churches of Christ. We teach someone to accept a set of beliefs about the church, or certain practices of the church, and if they agree with us we baptize them and assert that they have been “converted” from denominationalism or from the world or from whatever, and a few years later they are gone. We shrug our shoulders and say, “well, something must have happened to have made them lose their faith.” No – they had their minds changed, just like we changed their minds before we baptized them. We did not form faith in them, we just made them to be “Church of Christers” for a brief period of time (and, I hate that moniker with a passion that approaches psychosis).

I heard it expressed like this years ago – and the truth of this aphorism is damning – “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

After a thorough and rather ruthless examination of our secular age (and what has created it) in chapters 1-6, and after a transition in chapter 7 (which, by the way, is critical to understanding the rest of the book), Root goes on in chapters 8-11 to unpack this fundamental question – what is faith? He does not resort to proof-texting Hebrews 11:1, but rather turns to the apostle Paul and Paul’s pregnant phrase, “in Christ.”

In the briefest of summary – Root’s exploration and explanation of faith is thoroughly Pauline. The core of Root’s understanding of faith is found in Acts 9 – the story of Saul of Tarsus conversion to Christ. From that event Root goes on to examine Paul’s ministry, and through that ministry to define the terminology that Paul uses in his letters. (Aside here – his discussion of Philippians 2:5-11 blew me away – and opened up an entirely new vision of the self-emptying of Christ.) Now, as I did in my first review, I will warn you that Root uses technical theological terminology that many may not be familiar with, and if not, will find confusing (kenosis, hypostasis, theosis, among others). Root demonstrates that faith is formed  through experiencing death, and allowing the death of Christ to transform that death into a new life – a life of service and ministry. Faith is formed when someone (or maybe many someones) minister the death of Christ to us, so that, by our death we become “little Christs” through the death of Christ, and as a result we minister that death to others.

As I have said before – it is a deep argument, skillfully presented, and worthy of serious study and reflection. I cannot – and I probably should not have even attempted – to summarize it in one paragraph. You may not agree with it. But I will say this with the seriousness of a broken leg (something I know about all too well) – if you disagree with Root you had better have your “i’s” dotted and your “t’s” crossed, because Root’s argument is serious, and at least in my humble opinion, 99% correct. I will save my major quibble with Root for tomorrow.

As I have done in each of these “reviews,” I urge you to purchase, to read, and to study this book. It has reminded me of some things that I have been taught in the past (although not put together in the package that Root does), it provides a philosophical understanding of our “secular age” that I found to be gripping, and his presentation of what it means to have faith, and therefore to form faith, was convicting, and to be perfectly honest, embarrassing.

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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