In A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good Miroslav Volf explores the role of religion and public engagement within the pluralistic society of today. Volf leads his reader on a journey to find out if and in what way followers of Jesus can bring their religious faith to the table of public discourse. On this journey Volf winds his way between the extremes of “total exclusion of all religions from public life and… the total saturation of public life with a single religion” (APF, xi). In making his argument for an alternative to both religious exclusion and religious totalitarianism Volf seeks to find a way for Christianity to engage in public discussion that is not predicated on coercion nor on “attenuating Christian convictions but (rather) on affirming (those convictions) robustly and living them out joyously” (APF, xvii).
In chapters 1-3, Volf examines various conceivable malfunctions of Christianity as a prophetic religion. According to Volf, a prophetic religion has two aspects: 1) Ascent, whereby an individual ascends to God and obtains revelation, and 2) return, whereby an individual returns from the ascent with the goal of shaping the world according to the revelation obtained during the ascent. The Christian faith can break down at either the ascent or return causing, according to Volf, either the malfunction of idleness or of coerciveness—either of which will cause Christianity to fail as a prophetic religion.
Volf maintains that idleness causes Christianity to fail as a prophetic religion due to its neglect of the purpose of the Christian faith, which is to “shape the lives of persons and communities” (APF, 13). Whether faith fails in this way due to the lure of temptation, the power of contemporary political systems, or the perceived irrelevance of faith for contemporary issues, idleness neglects the basic call of Christianity as a prophetic religion (APF, 23). In a similar way, the malfunction of coerciveness also destroys the Christian prophetic witness within the public sphere. In chapter 3, Volf acknowledges the historical tendency of religion to act through violence and coercion. However, throughout his discussion, Volf concludes that the answer to the coercive proclivity of religion is not less religion—which leads to idleness—but a deeper religion that has at its center the concept of human flourishing and love of neighbor.
Indeed, it is this understanding of human flourishing, as the supreme goal of religion, that Volf develops in chapter 4. Against the common Western understanding of human flourishing as personal satisfaction, Volf elaborates a Christian understanding of human flourishing that centers on Jesus’ command to love God and to love your neighbor (APF, 72-74). Indeed it is this concept of human flourishing that shapes Volf’s understanding of the malfunctions of religion. That is, “most malfunctions of faith are rooted in a failure to love the God of love or a failure to love the neighbor (APF, 72). The centrality of human flourishing, then, is fundamental if Christianity is to be a successful prophetic religion within the pluralistic world of today.
Volf argues, in chapter 5, that for Christianity to maintain its prophetic witness within the public sphere, it must learn to balance the tension between separation from the world and the accommodation with culture (APF, 84-88). The answer to how Christians should engage the world is neither total separation nor is it through absolute accommodation, but rather through, what Volf calls, an “internal difference” (APF, 89). Christians should work from in their particular culture striving to find a way to alter it from within. In Volf’s words, “to live as a Christian means to keep inserting a difference into a given culture without ever stepping outside that culture to do so” (APF, 93). The key, then, is neither total transformation of a culture nor complete accommodation, but an active Christian engagement within a particular culture.
In chapter 6 Volf contemplates Christianity’s engagement with culture as a form of “wisdom sharing”. Volf brings to light three characteristics of wisdom—faith as a way of life, concrete pieces of advice about how to flourish, and Jesus himself—in order to highlight the Christian obligation to share wisdom with its neighbors (APF, 104). While these three aspects of wisdom are important, Volf notes that the manner in which wisdom is shared is just as important—if not more so—than the content of the wisdom. The Christian, Volf argues, must not view wisdom as a commodity, but rather as a gift that is freely given.
In a similar manner, the Christian, if he or she is going to embody Volf’s vision for Christian public engagement, must view themselves as not only givers of wisdom but also as recipients of other’s wisdom. By viewing the self as a recipient of other’s wisdom, the Christian is able to engage in respectful public discussion with those of other religious views. Volf notes, “for neighborly love to define how wisdom should be shared means that the act of sharing wisdom harmonizes with the content of what is shared” (APF, 113).
In chapter 7 and the conclusion, Volf contends that the Christian voice should be one of many religious voices within the public sphere. To silence all religious voices is to create a vacuum that will be filled by secularism, while promoting one religious voice over another causes a form of religious totalitarianism—both of which are extremes that Volf vehemently rejects. Christianity, Volf concludes, needs to support pluralism as a political project if it is going to maintain its prophetic voice in the world today (APF, 142). By maintaining a stance of humility and embracing plurality in public discourse, Christians, “can insert themselves as one voice among many into public life to promote their own vision of human flourishing and serve the common good” (APF, 145). In essence, Volf argues that promoting plurality within the public sphere is the only way for Christianity to maintain its prophetic voice within the world today.
Volf notes that his work deals with the problem of faith’s coerciveness “at the level of theory… not at the level of practice” (APF, 145). Although this is necessary, Volf’s argument lacks in praxis and leaves the reader wondering if his theory can prove successful in the public arena given the seriousness of sin within the world. Glen Stassen, in his work A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age, discusses the need, within ethics to have a sort of Niebuhrian realism with regard to sin. That is to say, we need to take very seriously the reality of sin and factor it into every aspect of our ethical reflection. It is in this area that I feel that Volf is lacking.
Volf exudes optimism that multiple religions can function together in a way that both respects differences and promotes human flourishing. While this may be true, Volf’s argument would have been made exponentially stronger had he included a section on the reality and seriousness of sin within the world. In this section, Volf could have dealt with issues as to how Christians should respond when their prophetic voice is met with a reaction of violence. What should the Christian do when others do not reciprocate their desire for religious plurality?
Overall I appreciated Volf’s argument and the centrality of Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself within his thought. The love of neighbor often gets forgotten especially as one enters into discussions within the political sphere. Volf is correct; any form of Christian discourse that does not keep the love of the other at its core is a serious malfunction of the Christian religion. However, I feel that Volf’s discussion could have included more ethical praxis to support his theoretical claims.