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Malforming and Reforming Faith - interview with Miroslav Volf - part 2

Monday, 30 June 2014  | Miroslav Volf and Gordon Preece

Part 1 can be seen here.

GP: In A Public Faith, you talk about “malformations of faith”. How do those malformations develop in relationship to Christianity and other religions today?

MV: In religion’s public and private roles I’ve identified two major malfunctions: one is a faith that doesn’t shape or direct life, but only comforts and heals.  It is malfunctioning because it’s not transforming the world in any significant way.  The other malfunction is that of coerciveness of faith, a faith that wants to shape the realities but by imposing itself on others.

There is a malfunction of faith which abdicates the notion of truth, that there may be something at stake here in the particular claims Christian faith makes regarding other religions, and therefore gives up witnessing to them.  There is also a faith that betrays itself by corrosively and manipulatively imposing itself on others, as if everything different has to be bulldozed away.  It can’t abide the idea that there may be something we might learn and respect from other faiths, and that therefore we ought to build bridges to them to live in peace with them.

GP: Concerning religious malfunctions, you talk about prophetic types of faith, something we often associate with public life. What about the everyday, less visible practices of the more personal dimensions of faith? Do these have a prophetic function?  I think of your parent’s actions, for instance, the things you learnt from them.

MV: I don’t like to contrast a private, small-scale, communal sphere with the public sphere.  There are differences, but there has to be integration. What happens in the public domain impacts on a very intimate sphere, even on our desires, and vice versa.  What happens in the quiet recesses of the heart, in family rooms and churches, impacts upon the public imagination and how public engagement occurs. The most prophetic thing is a well-lived life, alive in the presence of God.  The well of “prophetism” turned outward is a shaping of one’s own life in that presence, so this piece of reality I inhabit is conformed to God’s transcendent claim, and then speaks consequentially to the wider public.  That’s not the only way it happens. Sometimes, we, as broken people, see things rightly and can project prophetic messages even when unable to live them, but generally our prophetic engagement ought to be nurtured in the deepest recesses of our hearts.

GP: Your first book Work in the Spirit enabled Christians to take their work seriously as having some continuity with the new heavens and new earth.  In A Public Faith you also talk about the importance of daily work as a form of less glamorous public, prophetic faith.  Could you expand on that?

MV: I don’t like to contrast church theology and public theology because the church is not only gathered but also in dispersion.  When they’re not gathered around the Lord’s Table or around the Word of God or praising God, they are in their workplaces. And it’s precisely there that faith has to be lived out, at multiple levels - from private demeanour, the way we look at or relate to another person, to high-level corporate decisions we make.  They all ought to reflect deep Christian commitments.  Reflection on the nature of human work is an integral aspect of that.  Most of our time is spent living Christianly outside of church and home and so we ought to reflect on what it means to live worthy of our calling in those settings.

GP: In A Public Faith, you argued against the ‘New Atheist’ assumption that religion is intrinsically violent. Could you say a little more on this?

MV: Observing how faiths function in the world, certainly Christian faith, what seems obvious is when there are breakdowns, and hypocrisies, particularly of relatively prominent people.  It can sensitise us to possible dangers or breakdowns of our own faith, but we shouldn’t confuse the media prevalence of such events with the reality of ordinary people’s lives. Regular worship and faith can function as a very sturdy spiritual capital in our everyday practices.  Instead of simply zeroing in on egregious cases we ought to attend to how faith functions most broadly, without wanting to separate ourselves from people who commit egregious acts.

GP: Some recent surveys note a massive deficit of discipling practices, particularly for younger people. How is your Centre for Faith and Culture at Yale tackling these issues?

MV: It’s a huge challenge.  Part of the reason for our program on ‘Adolescent Faith and Flourishing’ is because we want to attend to the transmission of faith understood as not just beliefs but as an integral set of practices, especially in adolescence.  The person running this program is one of the rare senior ministers (especially of a wealthy and prominent congregation) who has made his top priority to attend to and be with adolescents.  It’s gone from a very small group to one of the most well-known youth programs in the city.  We need to pay much more attention to that liminal stage, especially as often in homes the faith is not transmitted anymore in traditional ways, partly because of a breakdown of sturdy, continuous, stable family life.

GP: In a group of Christian professionals in India recently, a female architect lamented how time pressures and social fragmentation made it difficult to have practices like praying and reading Scripture together as it is difficult getting families together for a meal.  Can some of the practices of your Croatian context, which stamped your character and discipleship, be translated into a different Western context today?

MV: In many ways I don’t have even beginnings of an answer.  One of the great challenges in our modern, globalised way of life—always being connected and wired—is the difficulty of transmitting traditional cultural and religious words and practices.  How does transmission happen?  Our ethnic customs, eating practices, and religious celebrations all take time and require repetition.  They take on the stable continuity of interactions, and in a ritualised form, but that has become increasingly difficult in a globalised age where our attention is completely divided, and we’re dispersed.  You can’t get a family to sit around the common table, it’s a huge cultural challenge, but also for transmission of faith and the shaping of influences, so you can observe how faith works in people’s lives and has lasting impact on your life.  That’s a great challenge that we need to devote real energy to figure out.

GP: For all your trying to pass on Christian cultural practices, you’re also strongly engaged with various media: you tweet, you’ve got over 10,000 Facebook followers, you’ve been on ABC’s Q&A. You talked earlier about being in an age that finds it difficult to do abstract theological or philosophical reasoning, and that you’ve adapted your own patterns of writing and communication.  For all the profound, classical theology below the tip of your iceberg, you write with simplicity, in a publicly accessible way, though dealing with difficult issues. How do you do it?

MV: Unless theologians and church folk learn first how to connect the central claims and convictions of Christian faith with the central challenges of life so faith becomes alive, we’ll marginalise ourselves.  While scholarly theological research is essential, ways of communicating are needed for people untrained to follow 200 pages of an argument, but who live in a very impressionistic, quick, quip-like, aphoristic kind of culture, with images combined with narratives. 

We need to communicate profound Christian truths and concerns in new media.  So I try to tie Christian convictions to particular stories and narratives of life.  On Twitter I use aphorisms, which is an intellectual achievement if done well.  Great aphorists like Nietzsche compress an amazing amounts of thought that stimulates thinking, opening up possibilities.  Twitter can be very trite but it creates possibilities for very reflective engagement.  That’s at least what I’m trying to do with social media.

GP: That’s a great challenge to leave us with.  Thanks very much, Miroslav.


Dr Gordon Preece was a PhD student of Professor Volf and is Director of Ethos and Honorary Research Fellow, MCD University of Divinity.

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