In his latest volume, Yale theologian Miroslav Volf puts his finger on one of the most relevant and hotly contested subjects in our world today -- the role of faith in public life. In particular, he seeks to chart a course between what he sees as two equally unhelpful extremes -- "totalitarian saturation of public life with a single religion" and "secular exclusion of all religion from public life" (xiv).
What guides Volf's approach is the conviction that the main contribution Christianity brings to the public arena is a vision of the common good, or human flourishing, as he puts it. The primary way that Christians are called to work toward this objective is not by imposing its vision on the world but by bearing witness to Christ who first shapes our lives.
One of the most compelling and original contributions of this book is found in the opening chapter, where Volf details the two primary malfunctions of faith as it seeks to engage with the world: idleness and coercion. While coercive faith is a bit easier to identify as a malfunction, idleness seems like virtue in today's world. Having reduced faith to the private realm, modernity has no room for the public embrace of religion at all. A publicly idle faith seems ideal according to our spirit of the age.
The problem with an idle faith, or a merely private faith that has no bearing on how people live in the world, says Volf, is that it serves to energize a way of life untouched by the values of the faith itself. It is all power and no direction. Instead, he argues that "prophetic faiths should be a way of life, not just a 'religious' resource for a way of life whose content is shaped by factors outside of that faith itself (such as national security, economic prosperity, or our thirst for pleasure, power and glory)" (29). Evidence of this kind of "thin" faith is evident all around us, on the right and the left. In this way, religion can be an extremely destructive force. Even so, it is still jarring to read the author's suggestion that what we need in a world torn by religious violence is not less faith, but more faith.
A central challenge for all religions in a pluralistic world is to help people grow out of their petty hopes so as to live meaningful lives, and to help them resolve their grand conflicts and life in communion with others [emphasis in original] (100).
This is easier said than done. When people start taking their faith commitments and living them publicly in a pluralistic world they are bound to encounter others who, equally convicted, are living out their faith. This is at the root of so much violence in our world. For Christians however, Volf is adamant that our role is not accommodation to the culture (idle faith) or the total transformation of the culture (coercive faith), but creative engagement with the world.
For the author's vision to be a reality, faith must, of course, be understood thoughtfully and practiced with integrity, in community. That is the purpose of his book -- to commend this particular public faith. This will be difficult work. There is no shortage of religious hucksters and opportunistic pundits and politicians wanting to exploit religious fervor for objectives completely outside the Christian vision. This book will be an invaluable resource to Christian communities who are working out for themselves what this creative engagement with the world looks like in their context.