An engaged faith

A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Shape the Common Good by Miroslav Volf. Brazos, 2011, 192pp.

Should religion be monitored in our politics through a separation between the public and private sphere? Is such a division even possible? Do liberal constitutional democracies depend on this division? In A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Shape the Common Good Miroslav Volf addresses these and related questions, challenging the idea that religion should retreat or be restricted to the private sphere, diagnosing where religion malfunctions when it does, and outlining what an engaged public faith might look like for and from a Christian perspective.

First, Volf rejects the neat and tidy separation of faith into public and private spheres. Take the example of Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise(1779). Lessing’s story suggests that once you strip away all the accidents of human nature you can get at the true essence of human love. Volf retorts by saying there is no such thing as the generic human being, and no such thing as generic love. Likewise, when we enter the public sphere, we can no more separate out our faith than we can separate the embodied practices which constitute love from love itself. Thus we enter the public sphere with all the particularities which make us a person. Political pluralism, Volf contends, is the background against which a discussion of Christian faith and its relationship to politics must take place.

Characterizing Christianity through the reception of a divine message and the creation of a practical plan for change, Volf identifies “faith malfunctions” in relation to either of these features: when religious language is used to promote practices that do not derive from the “core of the faith,” when a religious vision actually occludes the vision of God, when faith “idles” and treats religion as a crutch, or when faith becomes “hyperactive” and attempts an oppressive, total transformation of the world.

How should Christians avoid such malfunctions? Neither the elimination nor the quantitative increase of faith in public will do. Instead, Volf contends that we need a better faith, a “thick faith” that matters to its adherents and “maps a way of life:” “the more they practice it as an ongoing tradition with strong ties to its origins and history,” “with clear cognitive and moral content, the better off we will be.” But the practice of “thick faith” entails a few admissions. First, that Christians have been perpetrators of violence and oppression in the past to a degree equal to that of other faiths. Second, that Christians are not the only ones practising “thick faith.” Finally, that “thick faith” is not a rigid blueprint, it does not pretend that there is only one possible solution to what a Christian should be or do. Nor do these admissions mean that Christians are left rudderless in the sea of contemporary culture. Some elements of culture, Volf argues, can be adopted, others can be creatively put to new uses, and some elements must be rejected—i.e. how the early church acted in its milieu.

“Thick faith,” then, is a practice informed by a clear moral content within the context of its tradition. Volf suggests envisioning ourselves in public debating the common good, sharing wisdom as one plays a piece of music for a friend, a good possessed by the giver and the receiver in full and which cannot be depleted. For Christians sharing this wisdom means sharing a Word and a Person who is the incarnation of that wisdom. But sharing a gift, Volf quickly reminds us, means being willing to receive. As Christians we are a community of listeners “called out” by a proclamation that binds us together in place and time. We should be acutely aware of our dependence upon that Word, with which we had no part in bringing about, and to whom, when we stand as witnesses, all the power of transformation belongs—we cannot “help” such a power along, and certainly not by force. The wisdom to which we attest has been received by us as a gift, and it is this receptivity, this openness to a gift given to us, which should correct all our prideful presumptions that we alone, as Christians, are the dispensers of wisdom. We must, then, be as hospitable as listeners as we are as sharers. And we must be prudent about when to share and when to listen—as shrewd as snakes, we remember, and as innocent as doves.

All of this can be said before reaching Volf’s own argument for the common good as human flourishing. This is an account which runs back to Augustine and the Christian gloss on Greek virtue. It is not altogether clear to me that a more dynamic account of faith in public solely relies on virtue ethics. And while due allowance must be made for riding roughshod over the complexity of the issues to which the grand themes of ethics give rise in so small a book, there remain some important questions. Can we really shift so easily from a conception of human good as flourishing in the Christian tradition to a swift condemnation of that seemingly ever-present bête noir of cultural malaise, hedonism? Is it really just a matter of Christian Platonism versus Stoicism and Epicureanism (hedonism) in twenty-first century garb? This may have a certain heuristic value in a book trying to reach a wide audience at an important political moment in America, but it is unclear just how accurate or applicable this is to the rival conceptions or practices of human flourishing on offer today.

In spite of these and other possible objections, Volf offers an important argument for how difference and disagreement in public, including those of an “engaged faith,” can be productive for our democratic politics. Given that public life necessarily involves disagreement, particularly in polities which hold to the conviction, as we do in liberal constitutional democracies, that the common human good is best realized in free and equal societies, reasons of faith need not cause any more alarm than other reasons. Difference within the context of liberty, equality and the mutual respect premised on shared human dignity, is not as easily brushed aside as mere error today. Difference may represent a viable human alternative. Christians practising a “thick faith,” open as they necessarily are to sharing and receiving wisdom, will be as capable as anyone of participating in public life for the common good through diversity, so long as diversity is seen as a means by which political purposes might be achieved rather than as an obstacle to be overcome.

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