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Review - Miroslav Volf's 'A Public Faith'

Monday, 3 March 2014  | Gordon Preece

Review Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011)

Besides climate change, there are no more vociferous topics for debate today than the public role of religion, particularly Christianity in the West. Croatian (now Yale-based) theologian Miroslav Volf’s ground-breaking writings Work in the Spirit and Exclusion and Embrace (voted one of the 100 most influential religious books of the 20th century) and his own cross-cultural background in one of the most culturally and religiously vexed areas in the world, the Balkans, equip him well for this task. These qualifications make his former doctoral student (full disclosure!), turn the first leaf with great anticipation, especially as Volf is visiting Australia in mid-March.

Volf’s recent interests have shifted to the interaction of Christianity and Islam through his and Yale’s Centre for Faith and Culture. So this gives his work a different context to his Yale predecessor H. R. Niebuhr’s classic, but flawed, Christ and Culture. Niebuhr’s book emerged just after World War II at the height of the Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe, advocating ‘Christ transforming culture’. Volf writes after the Balkans War, post-9/11, on the verge of the Arab Spring now turned to Winter.

So Volf immediately engages ‘Religious Totalitarianism’ through Egyptian Sayyid Qutb, the major influence on radical Islam and on the now banned Muslim Brotherhood. He uses Qtub as one foil in order to present his own (and others, including some Muslims) ‘religious political pluralism’ as ‘an alternative to the secular total exclusion of all religions from public life and to Qutb’s total saturation of public life with a single religion’. Volf is very fair to Islam (some think too fair), repeatedly reminding us that Qutb’s is an extreme and non-scholarly Islamic position (xi, xiii). It is a monolithic expression of monotheism or divine oneness that smothers any space for diversity. And it also has Christian advocates today (xiv).

In contrast to such Christian malfunctions Volf argues: 1. Christ is God’s Word and Lamb, entering creation in love for all. True Christianity is therefore prophetic, engaged, neither idle nor mystically absorbed into divine oneness (chs. 1-2); 2. Christ redeems the world by his life and death by grace, not coercion, (chs. 1 and 3); 3. To follow Christ means seeking human flourishing and the common good; 4. Because the world is God’s creation and Christ’s ‘own’ (Jn 1:11) our posture to culture ‘cannot be … unmitigated opposition or whole-scale transformation’ but a more complex mix of transforming and subverting (ch. 5); 5. Jesus (Rev. 1:5) and his followers (Acts 5:32) are to be faithful, not coercive witnesses to God (ch. 6); 6. Christ has no political blueprint, and Christianity is politically pluralist, even if exclusivist religiously (ch. 7). In this way Volf presents in two parts a vigorous, but non-coercive Christianity (xvii).

Part I ‘Countering Faith’s Malfunctions’ begins with the prophetic Abrahamic religions. Volf sees their similar movement of the prophet ascending on high to receive revelation and descending to re-engage the world rather than wallowing in mystic absorption. Ascent and return are both essential.

Ascent malfunctions involve a secularisation or hollowing out of genuine religious experience/revelation. Reductive pop psychology and sociology take over. But ‘idolatrous substitutions’ or caricatures of God are equally problematic (10-11) e.g. carrying our cross becomes a violent triumphalism. Return or re-engaging malfunctions include idleness and coerciveness of faith. With masters of suspicion like Nietzsche and Marx, Volf notes that Christian faith is not only a malfunctioning opiate or downer but in its marrow ‘an “upper,” a “stimulant” energizing engagement, something Marx misses (15).

The second return malfunction is coerciveness. This distorts a proper concern to voice religious motivations and goals for public engagement. But the ends easily lead to manipulative means and people being abused e.g. Serb soldiers in the Balkans War riding tanks flashing three fingers for trinitarian orthodoxy (18). At fault is ‘thinned out’, irrelevant, cost-less faith (19-20). The antidote is more, not less faith, fully formed believers resisting misusing faith oppressively’.

Ch. 2 on idleness presents a positive perspective on ordinary work as a form of public faith, as meaningful, self-caring, meeting needs, creating community. We are co-workers with God as God creates, preserves, blesses, transforms this world, previewing the next. ‘No greater dignity could be assigned to our work’. And it will last, for good, if done in that spirit (35). It is public and permanent.

Ch. 3 brilliantly argues against Christianity’s alleged inherent violence. Its vast bulk, as for other religions, are peacelovers. 30 or 40 fighting ethnic groups in the world out of c. 1500 does not make ethnicity wrong any more than a similar minority of violent Christians makes Christianity wrong. Again, Volf cites unknown heroic, forgiving Balkan Christians. They are also a powerful apologetic against ‘the self-inflation of the negative’, its tendency ‘to loom much larger than the comparatively much more prevalent good’ (50). Even the 9/11 terrorists weren’t particularly religious. Yet they’ve been exploited by New Atheists to argue for the intrinsic violence of all religion.

Ch. 4 explores‘Human Flourishing’, distinguishing a futuristic optimism extrapolating from the past and hope as a new gift from God (cf Moltmann, 55-56). As Augustine says, we need ‘enjoyment of God, and each other in God’ (58). But the ‘anthropenctric shift’ of modernity led us to lose both, for without God as guarantor of the inviolability of his image, we use his images to project our own reflection on them. So hope post the 60s was shrunk ‘to the scale of [instantaneous] self-pampering’ (Delbanco). But the vastness and eternity of our desire can never be satisfied (63), not even by some churches.

Volf draws on ancient Jewish and Islamic religious sources and secular philosophers to argue for a fit between our vision of reality and human flourishing (66). This despite those wanting to be artists of their own lives, running against the grain of reality (69). God is loving Creator and we are to be loving creatures. This is relational reality and fundamental to human flourishing (74).

Part II ‘Engaged Faith’, builds on the distinction between real (i.e. fitting divine and human reality) and malformed faith. Ch. 5 ‘Identity and Difference’ addresses the western church’s situation of being ‘one player among many’ (177). We live in pluralistic, highly specialized, functionally differentiated, self-authorising societies, resisting interference. Different Christians deal with this differently. 1. Theological liberals largely advocate accomodation, correlating Christianity and progressive society. Volf cuttingly quotes Chesterton’s ‘those who marry the spirit of the age will find themselves widows in the next’. The rapid pace of cultural change accelerates this. It is also a recipe for the status quo, forgetting change. Liberals echo ‘a voice that is not their own’ (84-85).

2. ‘The Post-liberal Program’ reverses the conformation, expecting society to conform to a biblical linguistic world. But this closes them off from the wider world. Here Volf distances himself from some of his Yale forbears like Lindbeck and Hauerwas. Communication with non-Christians assumes some linguistic commonality and openness to learning by listening. Not everything non-Christian is idolatry (86).

3. ‘The Separatist Program’ retreats from the world (87), but not completely, so occasionally it re-enters like ‘aggressive sects’. But this ignores Jesus’ coming to his own (Jn 1:11), and the world as God’s good world, and our (fallen) home. Christian difference is ‘soft difference’, ‘internal to a given cultural world’.

Borrowing from de Certeau, Volf notes how indigenous people adapt even when colonized, actively subverting the imposed laws, practices and culture of their colonisers, ‘they divert without leaving’ (90). Christians do not e.g. need to invent new eating utensils. But there are practices we must reject, e.g. slavery.

Volf summarises this chapter with ‘two noes and one yes’. The first no is to total transformation. We never start on virgin soil. Even the new Jerusalem is partly in continuity with the old order, drawing ‘the glory and honor of the nations’ into it (Rev. 21:26). The second No is to Accomodation, due to loss of voice and identity (94). The yes is to Engaging the world, first as whole people, second in all dimensions of culture. ‘It is total in scope but limited in extent’, not just by their fallenness but by our finitude. We seek to mend the world and salvage and strengthen what is good (97).

Ch. 6 ‘Sharing Wisdom’ uses a more modest way of describing distinctive contributions of religions in a pluralistic society, enlarging people’s ‘petty hopes’ to broader horizons, and reconciling their ‘grand conflicts’. Wisdom is: 1.’an integrated way of life’; 2. ‘Nuggets’ or concrete advice on how to flourish; 3. Wisdom is a person (Prov 8, Jn 1:1-14), as Creator, and incarnate Word. It is true for all, food for human flourishing (102). Therefore it is obligatory to share such wisdom personally and publicly, out of love (103-4). This gift is not a zero sum game, food from our tables that means less for us, but more like music, shared without diminishing. It is ‘witness’, not a tyrannical imposition nor a sales pitch (Isa 55:1), not mere instruction but imitation of Christ, not a mere ‘midwife’ to others birthing their own inner wisdom from their womb, but from the Creator’s Word/Wisdom made flesh (106-8).

Wise sharing respects receivers, offering nuggets of wisdom with the risk and freedom of them being used uniquely, but preferably as part of a lifestyle, looking to Christ as their origin, embodiment, fulfilment of their best selves. The sharer also receives from the other, learning and listening hard. Though we have received all things in Christ the Creative Word, there are many ‘parts of the Word’ and ‘seeds of truth’ as John 1:3-5 and Justin Martyr said of Greek philosophy. But they must be tested by how they fit the story of the enfleshed Word. Further, Christians have not yet fully drawn on all Christ’s wisdom, so have no monopoly on it (112). We need to share wisdom with love and forgiveness, offering and receiving it.

Finally, Ch. 7 ‘Public Engagement’. Volf firstly draws on Charles Taylor’s repudiation of the assumption that societies inevitably secularise as they develop. There are ‘multiple modernities’ and the 20th century’s secularization was largely accomplished by Communist coercion. Today’s ‘fastest growing world-views are religious – Islam and Christianity’, the latter growing particularly from the bottom up (120-21). We live in a world of increasing religious diversity, where workplace religious issues are increasingly common, like racial and gender diversity issues. Again, Volf’s ‘public’ faith is not limited to State politics. Both secularists and religionists are warned against nostalgia, privileging a previous era against public pluralism. ‘A modernist longing for a secular world is bound to be disappointed, just as [is] the nostalgia for a “Christian Europe”, “Christian America” [or Australia]’ (122-23).

Volf draws on Wolterstorff’s affirmation of liberal society but where religious reasons and motivations are not banned from the public square. This is a default privileging of secularism. Communities of believers and non-believers each ‘have a right to speak … in a voice of its own’ (125). Abrahamic monotheism favours liberal pluralistic political arrangements because there is one God, to whom all are related equally; we are to love all; we cannot claim rights we won’t extend to others, religion cannot be coerced.

For Volf, the claim that all religions are really the same is really a claim that religious pluralism is really the one true belief, above all particular religions (128). Better to allow religions to speak in their own distinctive voice. Likewise, Lessing’s trumping questions of religious truth with ‘uncorrupted love’, a common strategy today, trivializes truth. Mutual searching for truth is what Volf calls ‘hermeneutical hospitality’ towards each other’s texts (136).

Volf’s conclusion affirms Obama’s Cairo speech in seeking a way beyond ‘the clash of civilizations’. He opposes this to Qtub’s Cairo document, where he started. Qtub’s religious totalitarianism starts from the monotheistic tenent that ‘there is no god but God’. But when linked to love of neighbour in Christian and Islamic texts this requires a form of political pluralism, not theocracy. It also allows God’s delegation and mediation of authority by religion and the State in their respective spheres. Qtub’s making God into a micro-manager, literally puts the dictatorial devil in the detail. Further, (following the Anglicans, which Volf now is, not the Puritans), the values and criteria of a community ‘must only be compatible with God’s revelation, rather than being directly derived from God’s revelation’ (142-3). Rather than cutting oneself and one’s community off from unbelievers as Qtub argues, Volf shows how Christians are called into all cultures. God’s law is universal but should be applied democratically, not coercively. There is no role for religious or Christian revolution. Instead freedom of religion and political pluralism are the right responses to ‘religious totalitarianism’. Faiths doing this can insert themselves into the plural public square to promote their unique vision of human flourishing and the common good, offering it freely to others in a spirit of love (144-45).

Volf’s Public Faith is an accessible Christ & Culture for a more pluralistic world of resurgent public religions, beyond the relative security of his predecessor’s Ivy League common rooms.

Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos and Honorary Research Fellow of MCD University.



Ian Hore-Lacy
March 4, 2014, 9:08PM
Great stuff!
Let's pray that brother Turchynov can express this in Kiev through to May!

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