Saturday, 5 November 2016

A Public Faith

I've been reading some books on Christian engagement in politics (with a small "p") and I thought I'd review them to give you some highlights.  A great place to start is with Miroslav Volf's A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good.

Volf is a Croatian-born theologian who studied in Germany under Juergen Moltmann and is now a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School in the USA.  Among other things, he is Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, an institute dedicated to the study of the intersection between faith and wider culture.  He is learned and erudite but also a very accessible author.  He is also open to a wide set of influences, drawing on Islamic and Jewish thinkers as well as Christian ones.  His book has a very simple, elegant construction around a set of pairs through which he drives a rather Aristotelian "golden mean".

Volf conceives of Christianity, along with Islam and Judaism, as a prophetic faith.  Such faiths, he says, are characterised by a two-fold movement - ascent to God to receive his message, followed by return to deliver this message to the world.  This ascent and return could be understood literally, as in Moses ascending Mt Sinai and returning with the tablets of the Law, but also metaphorically depicting our ordinary encounters with God and efforts to discern how we should act as his people.

Prophetic religion is subject to various problems which Volf characterises in four ways - two "ascent malfunctions" and two "return malfunctions".  Ascent malfunctions come from our failure understand or remain faithful to the prophetic revelation.  Volf identifies the first of these as "functional reduction", in which the rich content of the faith is reduced to worldly or practical formulae.  Faith is replaced by pop psychology or social analysis.  The second he calls "idolatric substitution", in which a living and complex faith in a living God is replaced by an idol of our making, whether spiritual, political or social.  What both these types of malfunction have in common is a failure to understand the prophetic revelation.

Volf deals with these very briefly.  He devotes much more space to his two "return malfunctions" - idleness and coercion.  Idleness is the practice of withdrawing from engagement with the world, of focusing exclusively on our mystical union with God, the act of making converts or the future hope of heaven.  We have the message of the prophets but we keep it to ourselves, perhaps lacking confidence in its effectiveness.

Coercion is, of course, the practice of trying to forcibly impose our prophetic vision on the wider society.  We convert our religion into a political movement dedicated to suppressing alternative viewpoints and ways of life while enforcing our own.  This is most graphically illustrated in our time by Islamic extremism but also has a long history in Christianity both before and after the Reformation.

If these extremes are to be avoided, what is the golden mean Volf would like us to follow?  He takes us into this by exploring different ideas of human flourishing.  For Augustine, humans ultimately find their wellbeing in the love of God and in loving what God defines as good.  Christians seek this not just for themselves but for those around them, whether Christian or not.  The recent history of Western civilisation has seen this view of flourishing progressively reduced, firstly through the enlightenment view of universal brotherhood and love of humanity without God, and more recently through an atomised focus on individual, experiential satisfaction.

The role of prophetic religion, then, is to call humanity back to this full, divinely centred view of human flourishing.  He sees our current focus on experiential satisfaction as self-defeating - our society's shallow, self-centred view of what satisfaction entails means that if we get what we seek we will still be discontented.  Our mission is to share and enact a deeper, more complete view of what it means to be human.

We are to build and promote things which allow and encourage this full form of flourishing, and to resist those which interfere with it.  This social engagement need not be exclusively Christian - many things which promote this kind of flourishing may be initiated or supported by those of other faiths or none, and Volf sees Christians as collaborating with whoever will support such initiatives, without abandoning or compromising our distinctive faith.

Volf is very confident of the value of the Christian message and sees it is having a unique contribution to make to society.  Hence, he is outwardly focused, wanting to share the particular wisdom of Christianity with the wider world and use it to promote the wellbeing of all.  He sees this as part of Christ's call to love our neighbours and even our enemies.  His is an open, engaged faith, neither defensively closed nor belligerently assertive.  He also seems to be quite optimistic - it is possible to really improve human life, to make our societies more just and humane.

If this book has a limitation it is that it is short on specifics.  If you are looking for guidance on how to respond to specific situations, for a political or activist program, you will have to look elsewhere. This book could be cited by conservatives and progressives, capitalists and socialists with equal confidence. However, what he does provide is a jumping off point - Christians should be seeking the flourishing of those around them.  And there are plenty of others who can supply what he lacks, as we will see.

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