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Friday, May 10, 2013

"A Public Faith" (Miroslav Volf)

TITLE: Public Faith, A: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good
AUTHOR: Miroslav Volf
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011, (176 pages).

Religions have received quite a bad rap these days. In the West, it is common to read negative press on both Islam and Christianity, especially with the growing influence of the new atheists and secularism. This begs the question of why these religions with a sizeable following, that claim to be for the greater good of the world, receiving the largely bad reviews? How can Christians build deeper relationships and better trust with the public? What kind of a role can religions play in a largely secular world? For a Church that claims to be a light to the world, why is the world still in darkness? Well known Yale Professor, Miroslav Volf, tackles these questions from two creative angles. Firstly, he tries to identify the sources of "malfunctions of faith" and looks back two ascent malfunctions and two return malfunctions. Ascent malfunction is a kind of spiritual encounter that a believer receives, but never really comes back down to earth. The believer stays at that abyss without any interest in sharing that with the world. Return malfunction is basically about the missed opportunities of shaping culture and to be a creative force for good. Volf maintains that both ascent and return aspects of religion must be creatively lived out for the benefit of others. As volf probes deeper, he raises up three major impediments to this creative and prophetic role of ascent-return.

  1. Idleness and Misdirected busyness. The former does nothing to bring about good to the world. The latter is overly busy with things that ultimately do not matter. The way forward is to see work in four ways: Through God's blessings, we succeed in our work; Through God's deliverance, we continue to climb back up amid failures and discouragement; Through God's direction, we live moral good and responsible lives; Through God's meaning, we find significance in what we do.
  2. Coerciveness:  True faith is never coercive. The way forward is not to despise or be separate from the rest of the world, but to keep the vision of God's kingdom and link that to the vision of the human race becoming the best version of themselves.
  3. Human Flourishing: Erroneous understanding of human advancement as one that is without God. Christians must overcome this, and to live in a way that the world will know that God is love.
Secondly, he works on providing a way forward to help believers gain trust and goodwill through positive engagement and cooperation, called "a public faith." He argues for the Christian to be engaged with their whole being, and to engage all dimensions of a culture. He points out the need for the vision of good from God's perspective. Volf then deals with how to engage non-believers as well as engaging in political life. I appreciate Volf's insights on how to witness meaningfully to non-Christians.

  • One shares wisdom of God not by coercive words, or imposing authority, but through pointing to the crucified Christ;
  • Being a witness is not about selling Christianity to people. It is freely given.
  • Being a witness is not about mere words, but also behaviour, actions, and wise words.
  • Being a witness is not playing the middle man, or the midwife. It is direct attention to Christ, that all wisdom comes from Christ.
Volf's method is consistent. Share Christ intentionally but also respectfully. Witness in wisdom. Resist any forms of imposition one's views. When in doubt, love. Resist total religious domination from any group. Uphold the political project of pluralism without fear of one's religion being diminished in any way. 

My Thoughts

Volf continues to impress me with his depth of insights. He does this while actively engaging from different angles from multiple perspectives. From religions to political platforms, he respectfully highlights the similarities of all the three major monotheistic religions, and at the same time, allowing each of them to retain their distinctive identity. He practices what he writes. The mood is tender. The thrust is clear. The goal is wide and far-ranging. If anyone likes a good guide on how to engage non-Christians, the secular culture, amid a climate of distrust of religions, this book is a must read. Let me close with this powerful quote.

"The more we reduce faith to vague religiosity that serves primarily to energize, heal, and give meaning to the business of life whose course is shaped by factors other than faith (such as national or economic interests), the worse off we will be. Inversely, the more the Christian faith matters to its adherents as faith that maps a way of life, and the more they practice it as an ongoing tradition with strong ties to its origins and history, and with clear cognitive and moral content, the better off we will be." (Miroslav Volf, 40) 

Briefly, what this means is that Christians who want to engage the rest of the world, must NOT do so on the basis of shedding their Christian values or identity in order to make themselves more tolerable to the rest. Instead, they must keep wearing the Cross of Christ, to be faithful in all the tenets of the faith, to offer to the world a powerful alternative, that indeed, the Hope of the World is much much bigger and better than anything the secular world can offer.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


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