Book Review: A Public Faith, by Miroslav Volf

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Less than 2 weeks into the new year, terrorists attacked a French publishing company, killing 12 people. We hear reports of the atrocities by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. And here in Nigeria, we are fed stories of the latest Boko Haram abduction or massacre. Lest it seem like the acts of radicals are within a single religion, we are reminded of the crusades centuries ago in Europe, the fierce battles between European Protestants and Catholics, the religious conflicts in Northern Ireland, India, Nigeria, Sudan, etc. And it seems like the world would be a better place if only all religious beliefs were either abandoned or entirely privatized within individual hearts and homes. This has been the Western ‘wisdom’ for several generations, but it is a wisdom that has been exposed for the futility and emptiness that it is. The 21st century world understands that Religion is no small matter. It really is a big deal, and it can hardly be locked up in churches, mosques, and homes. It will always struggle to be expressed and lived publicly.

In a globalized world where traditional geographical and cultural boundaries are being broken down and people and ideas freely travel across the globe, how can the collision of faiths be kept peaceful?public faith

How can society eliminate the threat of imposition (i.e., that the principles of a particular faith would not be foisted on the rest, as the agenda of radical Islamists is)? Specifically, how should the Christian community respond to this trend?

This is what this book seeks to address. It is written by Miroslav Volf, the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale University, and Founding Director, Yale Center for Faith & Culture.

He advocates a project of political pluralism. This is proposed as an alternative to both religious totalitarianism (such as we find in the rise of militant or radical Islam that has emerged in recent years) and a secularism that disallows all religious views from public discussions and interactions (the dominant outlook in the Western world since the Enlightenment). He suggests that our response as the Church would involve embracing and living out the following points:

• Christ is God’s word who has come into the world for the good of all peoples. Our faith is therefore a ‘prophetic’ faith that seeks to mend the world. When it fails to do this, it malfunctions.
• Christ came to redeem the world through his death. His instrument was preaching, not coercion. When a faith resorts to coercion, it also malfunctions.
• To follow Christ in the world is to care for others and work towards their flourishing. Dr Volf states here that, “a vision of human flourishing and the common good is the main thing that the Christian faith brings into the public debate.”
• Since the world is God’s creation, we cannot adopt a hostile stance towards it. We must adopt a pattern of appropriating what is true and rejecting what is false within it.
• We are called to be witnesses to Christ. This is how we are to help society flourish.
• No single political arrangement is legitimized by Christ; various forms are compatible with the Christian faith. However, we should, after the instruction of Christ, do to others as we desire from them by granting them the same freedoms we claim for ourselves.

This proposal is essential because our beliefs must be active in society without being oppressive. When we fail to do this, our faith malfunctions, either by being idle or by being coercive.

Idleness

A faith that makes a difference authentically is a faith that guides what we do in the world and that shapes how we understand the world and our place in it. (p. 30)

Faith is made idle when it is emptied of its power to define one’s purpose and provide direction for life. We can fall into this error when we pick and choose elements of the faith that soothe or please us, while abandoning the rest. We can also make our faith idle by submitting to the established systems that govern various aspects of our lives such as work or education, rather than following the demands of our faith concerning those areas. Thirdly, faith can be made idle when we fail to apply it to contemporary challenges and situations. When this happens, the character of that faith is distorted. An important area in which this idleness of faith has severe consequences is in our work. Faith provides direction and guidance for our lives. But where our work is disconnected from that faith, it becomes distorted and is eventually turned into an idol. As the author notes on page 34, ‘Our work can find its ultimate meaning when, in working for ourselves and for community, we work for God.’

Coercion
A second way that faith malfunctions is when adherents impose that faith oppressively on others. Many religions have at one time or the other been guilty of coercion. However, the author believes it is not an inherent aspect of any major religion, particularly the Christian faith. Our faith calls us to save the world by bearing witness to Christ, the Redeemer. When violence is adopted, faith malfunctions.

Miroslav repeatedly (and rightly!) debunks the notion that religious views are an add-on to a person’s basic self-awareness and so can be discarded at will in order to live with others on ‘secular’ grounds. Religion gives one an identity, and cannot be removed as one undresses at night.

‘When religion leaves the public square – or is driven from it – the public square doesn’t remain empty. Instead, it becomes filled with a diffuse phenomenon called secularism.’

When the Christian faith is properly embraced, it leads to true human flourishing. Over the years, a different view of human flourishing – a search for personal experiential satisfaction – has become prominent. But he show how deeply flawed this view is as he leads us to see that humans flourish only when their lives are in harmony with God:

‘… human beings flourish and are truly happy when they center their lives on God, the source of everything that is true, good and beautiful.’ (p.58)

I personally found his discussion of human flourishing very enlightening. And It is rather surprising that even though I believe God has called me to help humanity flourish through my teaching, I have never seriously considered what exactly it means for humanity to flourish. That was until I read this book. He clearly helps us see that the pursuit of personal satisfaction and pleasure is a dead end.

We lead our lives well when we love God with our whole being and when we love our neighbors as we (properly) love ourselves. (p.72)

In this task of seeking human flourishing, we interact with other faiths. And ‘a central challenge for all religions in a pluralistic world is to help people grow out of their petty hopes so as to live meaningful lives, and to help them resolve their grand conflicts and live in communion with others.’ (p. 100) Given this understanding, it becomes necessary for religious people to share wisdom among one another. For the Christian, this is the task of bearing witness to Christ, who is the Wisdom of God. And he concludes by urging all faith traditions to commune together, sharing wisdom from their sacred texts, as they seek truth and mutual understanding.

Observation
This is an excellent book that will help believers to think deeply about how our faith applies to public culture. One the one hand, we have to recover a vibrant, thick and robust faith that will be humbly but creatively lived out in the daily world. On the other hand, we share our wisdom with the rest of the world without imposing ‘truth’ on them. Our tool, as witness bearers, is persuasion.

However, I search in vain for a hint that the world might not continue to exist as a multitude of faiths. I find no hope of the worldwide triumph of the gospel, such that the knowledge of Christ shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. He does not consider that the project of political pluralism might only be temporary. This is not unique to the author; I think it is a weakness of the larger body of Christ today. While this does not detract from the usefulness of the book, the hope should be kept alive so it can motivate believers to greater faithfulness. The Bible leads us to expect the onward spread of the gospel across the nations (Zech. 9:10; Acts 13:47; 15:16-17; Isa. 2:2; Joel 2:28; Psalm 2:8). God is at work in his world, drawing all men to himself. We do not need to believe that the current global state of affairs will continue indefinitely. God’s word leads us to look for a time when our whole world would have embraced the truth of the gospel.

No religion, including Christianity, is content with being just one among many. Every religion is exclusive: it regards itself as the truth. All other religions are false, even though they may contain bits and strands of truth. While they may accept political pluralism as a means of coexisting in a globalized world, each seeks global dominance. None will stop until it can get the entire world to come under its tabernacle. This has also been the vision of the Church for centuries. The challenge for the Church (and for all other religions) is not to seek this reality through Coercion, but through Persuasion. From a Christian perspective, every other religion is a distortion of God’s revealed truth in nature. While we would respect and love their adherents as fellow creatures of God, we must not fail to see that the existence of other religions is a spiritual blindness which God is wiping out through the gospel.

In all, this is an amazing book and it deserves to be read by every Christian as we seek to live faithfully in these challenging times.

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