A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good

Written by Miroslav Volf Reviewed By Stuart Weir

This clearly written book attempts to flesh out a political theology. Such a task, Volf believes, will have to navigate the temptation of creating a “totalitarian saturation of public life with a single religion as well as to secular exclusion of all religions from public life.” Seeking to provide a third way between the aforementioned extremes must also offer “a vision of the role of the followers of Jesus Christ in public life” (p. xiv), otherwise this is not a specific Christian offering. Put differently, Volf is seeking to outline a public way of life that is undoubtedly Christian while maintaining a political pluralism so as to avoid the impulse to take up arms against those who are different from us.

A Public Faith tellingly succeeds Volf's earlier 2011 publication of Allah: A Christian Response—an attempt to find a constructive way past the “us” and “them” mentality of Christian/Muslim relations—while also building upon his early book Work in the Spirit: Toward a Theology of Work in significant ways. Volf's claim is that there is no unique path in which the Christian faith does or should relate to culture. A Christian political theology should be far more sophisticated than that. Volf may be criticised for not providing enough detail for his proposal. However, such criticism falls down because he rightly explains the need for a framework that allows room for adaptation into every unique context.

There are two parts to Volf's proposal in this book. Part I attempts to identify and interrogate two “malfunctions” that faith traditions can succumb to by attempting to serve the common good. The first of these is “Idleness” (ch. 2). Their faith is too overwhelming, and so they adopt an infantile smorgasbord approach to faith, which typically avoids dealing with fundamental matters. These Christians find themselves constrained by the narrow systems they work with and assimilate these without attempting to adhere to the imperatives of their faith, sometimes disabling the ability to engage contemporary issues, rendering their faith somewhat redundant.

The second malfunction is “Coerciveness” (ch. 3). Volf discusses the desire for some faith traditions to impose their faith globally and how this will eventually necessitate violence. Likewise, secularists wish to exclude religious opinion from the public realm, which in Volf's mind will inevitably demand violence also. Instead, by employing a “thick” practice of faith, a peaceable life of faith can be lived. This “thickness” is a high quality of faith that outshines nominalism. A “thick” faith will always resist resorting to violence, claims Volf.

The last aspect of Part I is a constructive suggestion for Christians to work towards “Human Flourishing” (ch. 4). Unsurprisingly, Volf undergirds this suggestion with the Christian concept of “hope,” following Jürgen Moltmann's eschatology. “The expectation of good things that come as a gift from God—that is hope” (p. 56). In light of the coming hope in the person of Jesus, Christians must not be duped into thinking that this should be equated with contemporary Western notions of “satisfaction.” Rather, Volf urges, “love God and neighbor rightly so that we may both avoid malfunctions of faith and relate God positively to human flourishing” (p. 73).

Part II develops a notion of “Engaged Faith.” To do this Volf draws upon his best scholarship to date on “identity” and “difference” (ch. 5) from Exclusion and Embrace and The End of Memory, all framed within a post-Christendom context. His intention is to “dispel the gloom” of Christians in a complex age and “generate new hope” in light of new challenges (p. 79). This is reminiscent of the work of British missiologist David Smith in Mission after Christendom and Moving Towards Emmaus.

Moreover, Volf makes similar moves to evangelical Darrell Cosden's The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work with his masterful excursus on “exert[ing] influence in contemporary societies mainly from within” (p. 83). With his vigorous critique of the Liberal programme of “Accomodation,” the Post-Liberal programme of “Conformation”, and the “Separatist” programme, Volf calls readers to be an “internal difference” in the world.

In order to give his claim further grist, Volf provides chapters on witness to non-Christians (ch. 6) and participation in political life (ch. 7). Evangelicals will be greatly encouraged by chapter 6 and deeply challenged by chapter 7. This accessible political theology should be viewed as a significant revision of Richard Mouw's Pluralisms and Horizons. Moreover, it is not inconsequential that Volf constructs much of his proposal employing David Ford's compelling model of Scriptural Reasoning and Nicholas Wolterstorff's Christian philosophy, which wholeheartedly subscribes to a political pluralism. Read behind this whole text, once again, is Volf's personal history and struggle against the political coerciveness of communist Yugoslavia and the genocide that took place between Christians and Muslims from Serbia, Bosnia, and his native Croatia. A worthy read!

Stuart Weir

Stuart Weir
New College, University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

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