This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2013 vol. 170 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common GoodBrazos Press, Grand Rapids August 1, 2011
Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale University Divinity School and the founding director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, which focuses on the expression of Christian faith in the public square. A native of Croatia and Pentecostal in background, he is a member of both the United States Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Church of Croatia. Volf leads in international interfaith and ecumenical dialogue while also defending Trinitarian orthodoxy and has authored or edited over fifteen books.
In A Public Faith Volf draws together his lifelong focus of relating theology and culture in a pluralistic world. “My goal is to offer an alternative both to secular exclusion of religion from the public sphere and to all forms of ‘religious totalitarianism’—an alternative predicated not on attenuating Christian convictions but on affirming them robustly and living them out joyously” (p. xvii). He seeks to answer the question, How does the committed Christian engage with and contribute to a pluralistic society?
Part I, “Countering Faith’s Malfunctions,” begins by defining the misfires of faith. As a prophetic religion, Christianity’s purpose involves having an encounter with God (which Volf labels “ascent”) and teaching others the truth learned through that encounter (Volf calls this the “return”). Christian faith can malfunction at various points during the “ascent-return” cycle, resulting in either an idle faith or a coercive faith. Chapters 2–3 offer meaningful help in combating these malfunctions. In a world where every religion claims to hold the key to human flourishing, Christians sometimes feel as though their voice is just one of many. This religious diversity leaves Christians uneasy. Volf argues that this fear motivates believers to act in one of two ways. They either become idle in their faith, shying away from asserting their beliefs and limiting themselves to a narrow sphere of influence. Or they become coercive, imposing their faith and demanding that others accept their Christian values. To combat this fear, Volf urges Christians to interact publicly not with less faith but deeper faith. Having a deeper faith, the author claims, will lead Christians to welcome those of other religions into the public arena.
Chapter 4 focuses on the definition of “human flourishing.” Volf argues that each religion has its own definition of “living well.” This concept transcends mere physical satisfaction; it is the crux of the religion’s teachings. Whether it be eradicating suffering (Buddhism), ending the cycle of reincarnation (Hinduism), or becoming more like Christ (Christianity), all religions have their own definition of human flourishing. The author summarizes the Christian faith with Luke 10:27, “Love God and neighbor rightly so that we may both avoid malfunctions of faith and relate God positively to human flourishing” (p. 73). The Golden Rule is basic to Volf’s public theology.
In part II, “Engaged Faith,” chapter 5 discusses the need for Christians to have a distinctly Christian identity, not one that simply echoes secularism but with Christian scruples. Believers must maintain the tension between accommodating the world and separating themselves from the world (pp. 84–88). Volf argues that the most effective way of changing the world is by an “internal difference.” Christians must work within culture, adopting what is acceptable and rejecting what violates biblical standards (pp. 89–93). Christians hope for the best, but they understand that their influence will always be limited by certain people’s resistance, social systems, and society as a whole (p. 97).
Chapter 6 instructs Christians on three aspects of wisdom: the Christian way of life, “practical advice” for good living, and Jesus Christ Himself (pp. 101–3). Believers in Jesus Christ are commanded to share the wisdom of their faith (John 20:21). During the ascent-return cycle, Christians acquire wisdom and desire to share it with humanity “because the wisdom dwelling in them seeks to impart itself through them to others” (p. 104). When Christians share wisdom, they enter a conversation with other religions. Volf challenges Christians to be willing to learn from other religions during this conversation. “All light, wherever encountered, is the light of the Word and therefore Christ’s light; all wisdom, whoever speaks it, is Christ’s wisdom” (p. 112).
In chapter 7 and the conclusion, Volf challenges Christians to remain active in all areas of life and to allow other religions to have an active voice as well. All too often religious adherents want only their religion’s voice to be heard in the public square, but Christians must allow and even desire that all religions have a representative, respected voice in government. To live under the same government, believers must support pluralism as a political project (p. 142). When religious voices leave the public square, they create a void filled by secularism, which in turn becomes the only respected voice. Political pluralism, Volf claims, preserves Christian freedom (hence orthodoxy) and allows for religious involvement in public life. When all peoples are allowed to preach the ideals of their religions, society can flourish.
A Public Faith is a constructive work. Volf seeks to balance public pluralism and religious exclusivist belief. As a Christian he does not back down before competing worldviews; yet he rejects simplistic categories in defining how the church should relate to other religions. In short, the author argues that the religious freedom Christians desire should be extended to those of other faiths. He admits that this process will take time, will cause friction, and will anger some. But he claims that this is the only way to avoid secular exclusion of religion from public discourse and to avoid religious totalitarianism. Implicitly Volf is defending religious expression not only in North America but also in Muslim-, Hindu-, and Buddhist-dominated nations.
Volf admits that A Public Faith is focused on theory rather than praxis (p. 145). While theory must be believed before it is acted upon, a chapter or two on how this could be lived out would have been helpful. The author states, “We need to explicate God’s relation to human flourishing with regard to many concrete issues we are facing today—from poverty to environmental degradation, from bioethical issues to international relations, from sex to governing” (p. 73). Yet these practical directives remain unspoken. Moreover, some readers will question the grounds for Volf’s apparent optimism regarding human nature and the potential for human flourishing today. On the one hand in light of the Bible’s description of human sinfulness it seems naïve to suggest an idyllic harmony of the world religions. On the other hand when striving for human equality and freedom, believers display hope for a better future and follow the Christian admonition to do good to all mankind.
This work calls for a close reading but is not out of reach of most readers. As he envisions a harmonious world, or the need to strive for one, Volf emerges as a majestic thinker and architect for how public Christian expression can function. With careful reading A Public Faith will benefit anyone interested in the intersection of Christianity and other religions.
—Sarita Fowler with J. Scott Horrell