The Church in an Age of Secular Mysticisms: Why Spiritualities without God Fail to Transform Us

"In this age of church decline, (Andrew) Root focuses us on the ongoing revelation of the living, acting God," writes Philip J. Reed.

Andrew Root
Baker Academic, 288 pages | Published October 10, 2023

With this volume, Andrew Root completes the “Ministry in a Secular Age” series, his project in six works, each focused on a significant theme present in the church today (plus When Church Stops Working, one shorter look at the practical aspects of volume five). No contemporary ecclesiologist is as prodigious or profound. The Church in an Age of Secular Mysticisms pairs with the first volume, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, to address the spiritual context of our lives and callings.

Root uses the word mysticism to describe the spiritualities that transform people like you and me. Fascinatingly, as Root traces personal life changes in several notable memoirs, he finds three prevalent contemporary mysticisms. First, the Pathway of Heroic Action, which emphasizes the human will to power: meeting the challenge, rising to the occasion, and finding a strength we did not know we had. Second, the Pathway of Inner Genius, which emphasizes the inner life as pure, innocent and free from sin: as we discover who we are inside, we are transformed. The route in both pathways is the same, Root concludes, noting, “(t)he ultimate telos for late-modern people is to be happy with yourself.”  Third, the Pathway of Confession and Surrender, which emphasizes a decreasing spotlight on the self and an increasing recognition of how God acts in our lives and transforms us.

Root describes this third route as the pathway of “Beyonders.” There are times when heroic action and discovery of our inner genius are called for, but these spiritualities do not deliver what we ultimately long for – transformation through union with the “God who is God.” “Beyonders” affirm that there is more to life than feeling good about ourselves. Root believes that the objective of ministry should be to form people into “Beyonders,” using the pathway of confession and surrender.

The heart of The Church is the Age of Secular Mysticisms; in fact, the heart of the complete “Ministry in a Secular Age” project is Root’s doctrine of revelation. He focuses on the Living God who reveals Godself by speaking directly to us. The doctrine of revelation is both Root’s greatest strength and most significant weakness. Root powerfully challenges us to be intentional in allowing our ministries to be driven by God’s inbreaking revelation. However, his understanding of God’s revelation seems to be formed for the most part by the perspectives of White, European, male theologians, continental philosophers and sociologists.

In recent decades, we have been blessed with a plethora of long-silenced voices who expand our understanding of what God is doing among us. Non-White, global, and feminist or womanist theologians, philosophers and others might hear Root’s call to the pathway of confession and surrender as a demand for passivity and silence in the midst of injustice. Ministry today requires us to discern the revelation of God more broadly than previous generations as we welcome varied voices.

In this age of church decline, Root focuses us on the ongoing revelation of the living, acting God made known to us in Jesus Christ. This concluding volume, as well as the entire series, is the most important and practical modern ecclesiology we have.

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