Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Public Faith

Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good, Brazos Press, 2011. 174 pages.

Miroslav Volf and Ryan-McAnnally-Linz, Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity, Brazos Press, 2016. 240 pages.

Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. He is a native of Croatia. He leads in ecumenical and inter-faith dialogues. He is the author of over fifteen books. Some of his books are Work in the Spirit and Exclusion and Embrace. Linz was a doctoral student and research assistant under Volf.

In A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good, Volf explains how theology can be applied in a pluralistic world. He asserts, "Unlike those who think religion should stay out of politics, I will argue in this book that religious people ought to be free to bring their visions of the good life into the public sphere" (x). He argues for a religious political pluralism and against religious totalitarianism. Volf's goal is to "sketch an alternative to totalitarian saturation of public life with a single religion as well as to secular exclusion of all religions from public life" (xiv). He believes that there "is no single way in which Christian faith relates and ought to relate to culture as a whole" (xv).

Volf thinks that Christian faith can malfunction in two ways. The first way he calls the "idleness of faith." One way it fails is by not shaping the lives of Christians and their "social realities." For faith not to be idle it needs to be applied to every area of life. The second malfunction Volf calls the "coerciveness of faith." Faith may seem oppressive when it is not. The author observes, "Those who affirm contemporary social polytheism will deem oppressive any faith that claims that God is the God of all reality, and they will do so no matter how the faith tries to bring God to bear on all aspects of life" (17). In addition, Volf states, "From the perspective of people who believe that faith should shape their vision of human flourishing and of the common good, speaking in a religious voice is not oppressive but salutary; they would betray themselves and make their faith malfunction if they were silent or did not give religious reasons for their positions" (17). This term "flourishing" is very important to Volf. Some Christian thinkers refer to the same idea by the term Shalom. It means a wholeness to life. Every area of life prospering and healthy. One way it is coercive is when Christians use their faith to legitimize violence. Another way is when Christians justify ungodly means for godly ends. A third way is when they force their faith on others. Volf asserts, "A coercive faith-a faith that seeks to impose itself and its way of life on others through any form of coercion" (xvi).  He believes that Christians contribute to human flourishing "not by imposing on others the vision of human flourishing and the common good but by bearing witness to Christ, who embodies the good life. All these topics are presented in Part I.

In the second part the authors analyzes an engaged faith. In chapter 5 he speaks of Christians identity and difference. He shows tow inadequate responses to pluralism is accommodation and separating from the world. The author offers a third way. He says that the best way to change the world is by engaging the culture. He believes Christians need to engage all "dimensions of culture" with their "whole being." In chapters 6 and 7 Volf describes two ways to engage culture: "witness to non-Christians and participation in public life." In chapter 6 Volf discusses that Christians are called to share wisdom. They also receive wisdom from non-Christians. One way to share wisdom is through love and forgiveness. In chapter seven he speaks of engaging publicly. The author argues for support of pluralism as a "political project." He argues that people of faith should practice "hermeneutic hospitality" to one another's sacred texts. We should allow frredoms for others that we want for ourselves. Last, it is wrong to coerce others in regards to religion and faith.

Wolf's first book was mostly about theory. It was about how Christians can  exercise their faith in the public sphere. In the second book, Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity, gives instruction on how to pursue the common good in the public sphere. The authors state, speaking of the first book, "It sketched a vision of a publicly engaged Christian faith that affirms pluralism as a political project, and it argued that the Christian faith's deepest convictions support just such an approach to public engagement" (ix-x). The second book picks up where the first book left off. It "explores what kind of virtues and commitments should inform the public engagement of the followers of Christ" (x). The book is divided into three parts. In the first part it discusses the commitments needed for public engagement. The second part discusses the convictions for public engagement. It is the biggest part of the book. The author discuss many of those issues that are discussed publicly: wealth, the environment, education, work and rest, poverty, borrowing and lending, marriage and family, new life, health and sickness, aging life, ending life, migration, policing, punishment, war, torture, and freedom of religion. This is a very helpful section for the reader. The author helps the read to see the essential points of each issue. He tries to take a position that is fair to all sides. In addition, he offers areas where there is room for debate. Lastly in each of these chapters there is an annotated bibliography for both introductory reading and advanced study.

In the last part Wolf describes the virtues needed to participate in the public sphere. He has a chapter for each virtue: courage, humility, justice, respect, and compassion. For example, the chapter on respect, the author asserts, "Every society is divided by strong disagreements about the important issues of its common life, from tax policy to immigration. Further complicating the picture, most people today live in pluralistic societies with numerous ethnic, religious, and class groups. People with different and sometimes clashing visions of the good life have to live with one another" (202). Besides, they have to live with the injustices from the past. For example, the current divide over police and racial profiling and the killing of unarmed persons. Disrespect to others just makes the situation worse and it does not conform to the character of Christ.

Wolf's two books on Public Faith are a gift to the Christian reader. The Christ is often confused by the rhetoric used on all sides. In addition, they are not sure how the Christian faith applies to these issues. It is even more confusing because there are Christians who represent all sides on the political spectrum. Currently, you often hear of a cultural war between red and blue states. It seems war is not the best metaphor since it might increase hostility. These two books will make the Christian believer more informed on these issues and how to better engage their culture.

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