Review Essay: The Pastor in a Secular Age

The Pastor in a Secular Age
By Andrew Root

On the faculty of Luther Seminary in St. Paul MN, Andrew Root is producing some intriguing work on faith in a secular age and the pastor in a secular age. These are the titles and subjects of the first two of what is to be a trilogy of books on ministry and the church in a secular age. A constant conversation partner and what is more, a foundation for these volumes is Charles Taylor’s vision in his magisterial The Secular Age.

The subtitle to the book being reviewed here is even more provocative and direct—“ministry to people who no longer need a God.” Divided into two parts, Root first takes us on a ride through the past almost 3000 years of the church. He selects some notable figures in what he calls a historical map of the pastor as we come to our secular age. The pastors he selects are not presented, as he admits, as exemplars, not necessarily the only or the best ones to model the pastoral office. Yet they do capture something of the time period and help us grasp just what different visions of church and world there were in earlier periods. Augustine, Thomas Becket, Jonathan Edwards, Henry Ward Beecher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Rick Warren are the pastors Root selects for consideration. Root anticipates surprise and criticism in this selection and acknowledges there are others who could have been included. One could immediately name Basil the Great, Gregory the Great, or Ambrose, and in our own time Alexander Men, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., or H. Richard Niebuhr, to mention just a few. Yet Root wagers that these pastors selected nevertheless present something significant of the periods in which they lived and worked. They also reveal distinctive visions of how the Gospel should be preached and ministry exercised in the particular eras in which they worked.

The specific issues these figures grappled with witness to the vivid sense of the sweep of history Root pursues in this volume. These include the emergence and the discovery of the self after the ancient period. He also tracks the enchantment of the world, the awareness of the supernatural and natural realms interpenetrating each other—think of demons, miracles, plagues and other catastrophes as the direct actions of God in judgment and punishment. As we know, such enchantment eventually fades in time and its disappearance raises even more challenges. Chief of these is how to detect the presence and will and action of God in a world increasingly understood solely in scientific, that is, empirical terms.

These pastors grappled with the perennial dilemma of the connections between faith and ordinary life. All of them faced major historical changes—the end of empires and long-established political and economic structures. The innovations they encountered– the movement toward the nation-state, from a small town, agricultural existence to the dominance of industry and technology and the growth of cities. The church and these her pastors confronted towering issues such as civil war, slavery, industrialization, massive immigration, world war and economic depression, cultural revolution, and the hunt for authenticity. We ourselves struggle with some of these like racism, diversity, gender, sexual identity, and the relationship of church to state and society still. With Taylor as a guide, Root ultimately pursues, in the midst of all this, the massive loss of faith and how the church, through public ministry endeavors to respond.

Root employs Foucault’s lectures on pastoral power in Paris 1978 as a bridge to the second half of this volume, and a fascinating interlude Foucault’s thinking provides. In this second part, Root takes us back to fundamental biblical images of God, drawing on Robert Jenson’s theological work. Root believes in once again seeing ministry as  “the central shape of divine action itself,” and returning to the God of Exodus and Resurrection. And in this coming back to the core of faith, we are no longer seeking to retain cultural, political and social expressions of faith from historical periods now past and gone. Nor are we ignoring or trying to overcome the time and perspectives in which we live in the 21st century. Here, I believe, is Root’s distinctive gift in this volume. Root’s approach is savvy to the disenchantment of mystery and the spiritual, also to the indifference as well as suspicion of religious “nones” and those at a distance from faith and communities of faith. Where to turn?

The lived-out pastoral careers of the figures he tracked in the first part of the book depict how previous eras confronted both faith and change. In our time, though, their encounters and their strategies cannot be adapted easily to fit the political and social conflict in which we exist. Nor can their efforts in ministry be repeated in our 21st century’s blend of sheer ignorance and sophistication. Back to the blood and guts realism of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Despite the distance of millennia, Root is quite right about the unremittingly concrete experience of God amid murder, all sorts of personal and political mayhem, totally corrupt and wicked rulers, warring factions within communities of faith and the enduring hardness of the human heart.

Root’s theological discernment informs him of the many names and images of God these writings present to us—shepherd, lover, hunter, farmer, nurturing mother, forgiving father, to mention just a few. He chooses to redirect us to God as “minister,” a bit jarring at first when we connect the divine servant with the all too human ministers/pastors/priests we know. But in the end, this is an illuminating theological vision on his part. God as the one who cares for, ministers to, saves—this is echoed to be sure by exegetes and well supported by the texts themselves.

The other part of this equation, namely how God is minister, in turn, shapes the women and men who minister, both as laity and ordained, is more challenging. Now and again, my own experience in pastoral ministry made me pause and question some of his examples. Good clinical pastoral practice does demand many times, simply presence, silence, and it is the case, given the terrain of doubt and loss of faith in our time.

There are situations that do not immediately allow the preaching or reading the scriptures, or the administration of holy communion and anointing, not to mention confession and counsel. At least not right away and perhaps not in exactly traditional form and manner. These most incarnational and sacramental actions, while perhaps more difficult for some to access today, remain nonetheless powerful gestures in which bread and wine and oil, touch and words bridge between the human and the divine. These are indeed the divine actions which Root rightly says are still powerful even in a secular time, when our “immanent frame” permits no outside intervention. I do not fault Root for not spelling out in detail how pastoral creativity should be exercised in practice. This is in itself a sign of his discernment, since often the pastor must listen and observe very carefully in order to find the way of communicating Christ, of allowing God as minister to be unimpeded—never easy to do. Nevertheless, such a more concrete, practical consideration of ministry in practice is needed.

This is an articulate and wise theological reflection, the second in a trilogy Root has planned. It is often a very moving, thoughtful contemplation of ministry in a time where God seems unnecessary for many, when only the empirical is thought truthful and when truth itself has become questionable on the public stage. There are many areas that cannot be examined in such a focused study. Formation and continuing mentoring and support of pastors—these are just a few issues that desperately call for consideration today.  I would assign it in formation programs as well as the volume preceding it and the one to follow it. This trilogy will be a most valuable and impressive effort to come to terms with faith, community and ministry in our time.

Andrew Root, The Pastor in a Secular Age: Ministry to People Who No Longer Need a God, Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic, 2019, pp. xxii + 291, paper, $ 26.99, ISBN 978-0-8010-9847-5

REVIEWER: Fr. Michael Plekon

Michael Plekon, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus, of Sociology, Religion & Culture, at The City University of New York, Baruch College and a priest in the Orthodox Church in America.

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