Subtraction And Echoes of Transcendence

In his important book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, Andrew Root discusses how the age of authenticity (be true to yourself, you gotta be you, I am who I am) is perceived by many as an era of subtraction, and he contends that in this age of authenticity what may be needed is to indwell Secular 3 with our eyes wider open to experience as an echo of transcendence.

First, his (Charles Taylor’s) concept of Subtraction, and that we see the Christian faith as something that secularists have eliminated. Root’s contention is that it is not substracted but that we have added layers over the top.

The social imaginary of Western, particularly Christian, people is one of subtraction. We tend to assume that we’ve gotten to where we are because things have been subtracted from our cultural lives. We see our history as a subtraction wizard’s dream come true. We believe that we are dealing with an epidemic of faith formation because we’ve lost moral commitment, dropped prayer in school, declined in church attendance. Or maybe if that isn’t the list, there are other losses that have led us to this predicament. Conservatives are particularly good at heralding narratives of subtraction, but mainline liberals are also not averse to this interpretation, tending to concede the erroneous and exclusive humanist claim that, once we subtract religion from our civilization, we’ll become a much more logical and peaceful people.

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.

In such a context the term “faith” or our “faith” has been changed. It’s not so much encounter with the transcendent God as it is choice of authentic selves.

Because of the age of authenticity, faith is presumed to underlie religious participation and particular beliefs. In the age of authenticity the self is buffered and freely seeks its own path from the place of its own volition, so what I want to do and believe is what I do and believe. What I give my personal time and commitment to shapes my identity. I am what I consent to and participate in.

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.

Notice how faith comes to expression here.

The real problem with subtraction stories is that they turn everything, including God, into a concept. In the age of authenticity, I individually evaluate concepts for their worth; I pick and choose those that most help me follow my own path to authenticity. Concepts do not put a demand on me. So if the concept of God helps me be authentically me, then it is worth keeping. … The job of the truly authentic person is to subtract all concepts that are blocking the path to authenticity.

When faith formation is mobilized as a way to keep young people from sliding, drifting, or slipping away from faith, we’ve failed to notice that we ourselves have given in to the logic of subtraction.

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.

A great element of this chapter is the three levels of Secular. I give his three then his summary:

Secular 1: Sacred versus Secular Planes
Secular 2: Religious versus A-religious Spaces
Secular 3: The Negating of Transcendence

In Secular 1 the zone for transcendence was a dual plane of the eternal and temporal. In Secular 2 the zone for the transcendent was reduced to spatial locales. Secular 2 locked transcendence in the religious space. In Secular 3 the zone for transcendence becomes negated. Now in front of the doorway into the transcendent are barriers with signs that read “closed” and “out of order.

Moral therapeutic deism is totally reconfigured, not as an invasion but as the inevitable form of faith designed by the age of authenticity.

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 is a form of faith where the actuality of a personal (ontologically other) God is unbelievable and transcendence is impossible.

The additions that allow the immanent frame and Secular 3 to take hold also allow for the age of authenticity to dawn.

To say it technically, an expressive porous self, a scientific positivism, and disengaged reason free you from all obligation and duty, to authentically follow your immanent and natural desires, to seek the natural and material urges of your id before (and even in opposition to) any transcendent call. In other words, you now must serve your own journey, your own desires, more than the call of any divine being or transcendent purpose, because after all (Secular 3 tells us), they may not really exist at all.

Cross pressure is an expression he uses for echoes of transcendence in our experience, as when a parent holds a new born child. There’s more here. (Marcus Borg was well known for his emphasis on “more” in our experiences.)

What is perhaps most suggestive is what we can do about it: if experience is the only game in town in the age of authenticity, we might follow it into its world to find more echoes of transcendence.

Yet, unable to circumvent the blockage and walk through this door, we are more attuned than ever, in the age of authenticity, to our feelings and individual expressions. Therefore, we can’t help feeling the cross-pressure, sensing an echo of lost transcendence we try to ignore. We have to ignore it because it has been negated. But in the oddest way, we hear a soft call to enter this negation. Perhaps the only way to imagine faith and faith formation in the age of authenticity, where Secular 3 reigns, is to explore it through the very zone&Secular 3 gives us—to seek an understanding of faith in and through negation (by “negation” I mean experiences of loss, brokenness, and death, but also the liminality of joy and transformational hope that seeks for the negated to be made new).

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