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Public Faith Paperback – 15 May 2013
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From the Back Cover
Serving the Common Good in Public Life"Why should Christians use the resources of their faith to speak to and to serve the common good rather than reducing the faith to a message that soothes individuals or energizes them to pursue success? And how can they do that without coercing those who are not Christians? Miroslav Volf sets for himself the daunting task of addressing these two deep and urgent questions in a way both that is widely accessible and that takes account of the scholarly literature. He succeeds on all counts."
--Nicholas Wolterstorff, Yale University; senior fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia "Our efforts as people of faith to bring our religious convictions into the public arena have clearly malfunctioned in recent years. But Miroslav Volf does not want us to retreat to a 'private faith' mentality. Instead he offers profound counsel about how faith-based public advocacy can promote the common good in our increasingly pluralistic world. This important book is packed with wisdom!"
--Richard J. Mouw, Fuller Theological Seminary "An indispensable guide for voices of faith within the arena of public discourse. A Public Faith is arguably the most important book on the topic since H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture."
--Randall Balmer, Columbia University "This insightful exploration of how Christians may faithfully engage today's political and pluralistic culture provides accessible, wise guidance for people of all faiths."
--Publishers Weekly (starred review) "[Volf] is one of the most well-respected modern theologians to address the issue of religion and politics in a fairly systematic way. His contribution in A Public Faith is highly original. . . . I found the book learned, interesting, and creative. It is written accessibly and will interest laypersons and scholars alike. The book deserves a wide audience and is one that will affect its readers well after they have turned the final page."
--Hunter Baker, Christianity Today (5-star review) A Public Faith was named one of the Top 100 Books and one of the Top 10 Religion Books of 2011 by Publishers Weekly. It also received a 2011 Book of the Year Award from Foreword Magazine and a 2012 Nautilus Silver Book Award.
About the Author
Miroslav Volf (DrTheol, University of T bingen) is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture in New Haven, Connecticut. He has written more than fifteen books, including Exclusion and Embrace (selected among the 100 best religious books of the twentieth century by Christianity Today), After Our Likeness, and The End of Memory.
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For me, that is the message of this book: it is perfectly possible to be a professing Christian and to love God with all your heart on the one hand, and be inspired and formed through discussions and debates (in all kinds of ways) with non-Christians on the other hand. Only by doing this will I be able to live with them in one and the same society, without judging those other people because they are different.
In the chapters before the conclusion Volf tries to show why many followers of the Christian faith malfunction in a non-Christian culture. Although his findings are recognizable, they seem to be based on anecdotal evidence. The theological answers he offers in response to his findings are sound and thorough (albeit a bit short and thus condensed).
He also discusses the question of what a Christian's main concern in the world ought to be: interestingly he does not propose that Christians ought to be evangelizing in the traditional sense of the word, instead he believes - and of course he gives some biblical arguments for this as well - that they should be working towards human flourishing, because in that way the good things of God come to us.
In the last chapters before the conclusion Volf discusses an engaged faith. In these chapters he shows in a balanced way what it means for Christians to be a Christian in this culture and in this world. Fortunately, he does not only talk about how Christians ought to live in relation to non-Christians, but he also discusses what they ought to do in relation to their self. That, this piece of self-critique, is sorely missing in many other pieces on the role of Christians as Christians in society.
All in all, Volf has written an interesting and thought-provoking book--hopefully, it also provokes some acts. At times the book is a bit short on arguments and embeddedness in well-researched examples, but in the light of the good ideas that are presented in it, that is not really a big problem.
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Volf relates the sum of the premise for this volume in his introduction stating; "My contention in this book is that there is no single way in which Christian faith relates and ought to relate to culture as a whole. The relation between faith and culture is too complex for that. Faith stands in opposition to some elements of culture and is detached from others. In some aspects faith is identical with elements of culture, and it seeks to transform in diverse ways yet many more. Moreover, faith's stance toward culture changes over time as culture changes. How, then, is the stance of faith toward culture defined? It is--or it ought to be--defined by the center of the faith itself, by its relation to Christ as the divine Word incarnate in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." It is with this contention that Volf seeks to explore three questions he poses within the pages of A Public Faith. The questions follow:
1. In what ways does the Christian faith malfunction in the contemporary world, and how should we counter these malfunctions (chapter1-3)?
2. What should be the main concern of Christ's followers when it comes to living well in the world today (chapter 4)?
3. How should Christ's followers go about realizing their vision of living well in today's world in relation to other faiths and together with diverse people with whom they live under the roof of a single state (chapters 5-7)?
Personally, I found chapter one, Malfunctions of Faith, fascinating. Volf frames this piece in a framework he calls "ascent and return" malfunctions and bases the discussion on the prophetic illustrations of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. To quote Volf's definition of these points, he describes ascent malfunctions as "the result from breakdowns in the prophet's encounter with the divine and reception of the message." He goes on to say, "Every ascent malfunction is at the same time a return malfunction." If my paraphrase is correct, the return malfunction further compromises the message or word of God by transforming it in their own name or in the name of some alien god... or god of their own making. This chapter is full of brilliant thinking I had previously been unexposed to; for instance, he describes the concept of idolatric substitution as one of the ascent malfunctions using the golden calf story from the Exodus narrative. It is introduction to some of these (for me) new concepts using stories I understand or am familiar with that was helpful in preparing me for the next chapters of the book. I will say again, this first chapter was fascinating to me.
Chapter two continue with greater detail and explanation describing practical malfunctions of faith. Specifically, chapter two addresses the malfunction of idleness as it regards faith. Volf shares three main reasons for faith's idling: (1) for some people, the faith they embrace demands too much, so they pick and choose, as in a cafeteria, filling up their tray with sweets but leaving aside the broccoli and fish. (2) Believers find themselves constrained by large and small systems in which they live and work; to thrive, or even to survive, they feel that they must obey the logic of those systems, not the demands of faith they embrace. (3) Concerning the faith itself, the faith either is not applied to new circumstances or does not seem relevant to contemporary issues. Volf goes on to provide counters to idleness with suggestions on how we might understand and practice an active faith through blessing, deliverance, guidance, and meaning.
I must admit I got a little bit bogged down in chapters three and four having to stop several times, put the book down, and really thing through what I was reading. I was relieved when Volf neared the end of chapter four with this summary recap of part one of the book:
"Most malfunctions of faith are rooted in a failure to love the God of love or a failure to love the neighbor. Ascent malfunctions happen when we don't love God as we should. We either love our interests, purposes, and projects, and then employ language about God to realize them (we may call this "functional reduction"), or we love the wrong God (we may call this "idolatric substitution"). Return malfunctions happen when we love enither our neighbor nor ourselves properly--when faith either merely energizes or heals us but does not shape our lives so that we live them to our own and our neighbors' benefit, or when we impose our faith on our neighbors irrespective of their wishes.
The challenge facing Christians is ultimately very simple: love God and neighbor rightly so that we may both avoid malfunctions of faith and relate God positively to human flourishing. And yet, the challenge is also complex and difficult..." (p.73)
Amen. Complex and difficult indeed.
Chapters five and six are two more extraordinary discourses on very practical applications of living the Christian faith in a pluralistic society. Chapter five, Identity and Difference, addresses the identity of the Christian within the context of a society or community. The context being realized as having an identity that is different from the mainstream of the community...remaining unique, being seen as different, but not being separate... able to contribute without being completely absorbed: This is my paraphrase. Volf summarizes his thoughts as follows; "To become a Christian means to divert without leaving. To live as a Christian means to keep inserting a difference into a given culture without ever stepping outside that culture to do so."
Chapter six is titled Sharing Wisdom and also ranks as one of my favorite chapters of the book. Volf's ideas about sharing wisdom was affirming and convicting at the same time for me. The past few years has taught me much in the vein of what is shared in this chapter. I continue to be stretched in my faith and my learning to be Christ-like with teaching like I have found in this chapter. I think anyone reading this book will be stretched similarly if they can maintain an openness to hear what is shared in it.
I think this is an important book; timely in nature, sobering and challenging in its message, and hopeful with its suggestions for correction. I pray it falls into right hands, leaders who are humble, intelligent, vocal, and confident about what God is doing in the world. I'll close my review with a final quote from Volf on "sharing wisdom."
"Sharing religious wisdom makes sense only if that wisdom is allowed to counter the multiple manifestations of self-absorption by givers and receivers alike and to connect them with what ultimately matters--God, whom we should love with all our being, and neighbors, whom we should love as ourselves." (p.117)
A great book; it may not appeal to a broad demographic, but for those who are willing to endure the challenges it presents, there is "much gold to be mined."
Throughout the book, I was always surprised by the depth of philosophical insight Volf possesses. Even seemingly ordinary discussions of everyday life are packed with extraordinary perceptions about culture. The first part of the book aims to counter the various “malfunctions of faith.” As everyone reading this would likely agree, Christians have not always done a good job in bringing their faith to the arena of public discourse. The two errors he discusses extensively are that of idleness, when one’s faith refuses to get involved, and coerciveness, when one’s faith doesn’t respect the integrity of others by forcing their conversion. Idleness happens as believers think their faith is not relevant to their everyday lives or think its moral requirements are too difficult. On the other hand, coerciveness occurs when Christians want political power or worldly success in the place of a desire to love their neighbor as themselves. It could also happen as a result of that faith’s dwindling influence, and manifest itself as the attempt to force its observance upon others. As I mentioned in my previous post on culture, Volf too argues for a middle ground in which Christians recognize the unique contributions of their faith and utilize them for the good of the world.
Volf criticizes the modern idea that the good life can be summed up by personal experiences of satisfaction while returning to St. Augustine’s theology of God as the object of real human desire. As Christians, we believe that our way of life provides the best way for individuals of the world to live. Contrary to idleness or coerciveness, he advises Christians to understand their faith’s role within public life, whether at work, school, or play.
The second half of the book deals with the theory of a lived-out faith engaging the world. Volf, coming off his most recent researches into globalization, communicates this through the perspective of a pluralistic world. Because there are many religions and many ideologies vying for influence and more adherents, love must be our central guide. This means that we give our faith tradition to others while at the same time being willing to accept the good that comes from others. Many times, Christians view their own truth pursuit as over because they have Christ. But this is to neglect the necessity of openness in public dialogue to the wisdom others may offer. Toward the end, Volf suggests that religious people should bring their faith into everyday life not by declaring its differences from others nor its similarities with others’ social programs, but by being itself. In other words, it is a call for authentic Christianity to be presented to the world in the hopes that the lifestyle and message of Christians be successful in making the world a better place.
Overall, Volf’s voice is very welcome to the discussion of religion’s role within public life.