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Public Faith, A: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good Hardcover – August 1, 2011
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From the Inside Flap
Debates rage today about the role of religion in public life. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, various religions come to inhabit the same space. But how do they live together, especially when each wants to shape the public realm according to the dictates of its own sacred texts and traditions? How does the Christian faith relate in the religious pluralism of contemporary public life?
Renowned theologian Miroslav Volf argues that there is no single way Christian faith relates to culture as a whole. He explores major issues on the frontlines of faith today, addressing questions such as:
• In what way does the Christian faith come to malfunction in the contemporary world, and how should we counter these malfunctions?
• What should a Christian's main concern be when it comes to living well in the world today?
• How should we go about realizing a vision for human flourishing in relation to other faiths and under the roof of a single state?
Covering such timely issues as witness in a multifaith society and political engagement in a pluralistic world, this compelling book highlights things Christians can do to serve the common good.
From the Back Cover
Named One of the Top 100 Books and One of the Top 10 Religion Books of 2011 by Publishers Weekly
Serving the Common Good in Public Life
"Why should Christians use the resources of their faith to speak to and to serve the common good rather than reducing the faith to a message that soothes individuals or energizes them to pursue success? And how can they do that without coercing those who are not Christians? In A Public Faith, Miroslav Volf sets for himself the daunting task of addressing these two deep and urgent questions in a way that is both widely accessible and that takes account of the scholarly literature. He succeeds on all counts. It is a wonderful guide for the perplexed in our times."
--Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology, Yale University; senior fellow, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, University of Virginia
"Our efforts as people of faith to bring our religious convictions into the public arena have clearly malfunctioned in recent years. But Miroslav Volf does not want us to retreat to a 'private faith' mentality. Instead he offers profound counsel about how faith-based public advocacy can promote the common good in our increasingly pluralistic world. This important book is packed with wisdom!"
--Richard J. Mouw, president and professor of Christian philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary
"Firmly rooted within his own tradition of Christianity, Miroslav Volf has produced an indispensable guide for voices of faith within the arena of public discourse. A Public Faith is arguably the most important book on the topic since H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture."
--Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history, Columbia University
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Top Customer Reviews
Volf relates the sum of the premise for this volume in his introduction stating; "My contention in this book is that there is no single way in which Christian faith relates and ought to relate to culture as a whole. The relation between faith and culture is too complex for that. Faith stands in opposition to some elements of culture and is detached from others. In some aspects faith is identical with elements of culture, and it seeks to transform in diverse ways yet many more. Moreover, faith's stance toward culture changes over time as culture changes. How, then, is the stance of faith toward culture defined? It is--or it ought to be--defined by the center of the faith itself, by its relation to Christ as the divine Word incarnate in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." It is with this contention that Volf seeks to explore three questions he poses within the pages of A Public Faith. The questions follow:
1. In what ways does the Christian faith malfunction in the contemporary world, and how should we counter these malfunctions (chapter1-3)?
2. What should be the main concern of Christ's followers when it comes to living well in the world today (chapter 4)?
3. How should Christ's followers go about realizing their vision of living well in today's world in relation to other faiths and together with diverse people with whom they live under the roof of a single state (chapters 5-7)?
Personally, I found chapter one, Malfunctions of Faith, fascinating. Volf frames this piece in a framework he calls "ascent and return" malfunctions and bases the discussion on the prophetic illustrations of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. To quote Volf's definition of these points, he describes ascent malfunctions as "the result from breakdowns in the prophet's encounter with the divine and reception of the message." He goes on to say, "Every ascent malfunction is at the same time a return malfunction." If my paraphrase is correct, the return malfunction further compromises the message or word of God by transforming it in their own name or in the name of some alien god... or god of their own making. This chapter is full of brilliant thinking I had previously been unexposed to; for instance, he describes the concept of idolatric substitution as one of the ascent malfunctions using the golden calf story from the Exodus narrative. It is introduction to some of these (for me) new concepts using stories I understand or am familiar with that was helpful in preparing me for the next chapters of the book. I will say again, this first chapter was fascinating to me.
Chapter two continue with greater detail and explanation describing practical malfunctions of faith. Specifically, chapter two addresses the malfunction of idleness as it regards faith. Volf shares three main reasons for faith's idling: (1) for some people, the faith they embrace demands too much, so they pick and choose, as in a cafeteria, filling up their tray with sweets but leaving aside the broccoli and fish. (2) Believers find themselves constrained by large and small systems in which they live and work; to thrive, or even to survive, they feel that they must obey the logic of those systems, not the demands of faith they embrace. (3) Concerning the faith itself, the faith either is not applied to new circumstances or does not seem relevant to contemporary issues. Volf goes on to provide counters to idleness with suggestions on how we might understand and practice an active faith through blessing, deliverance, guidance, and meaning.
I must admit I got a little bit bogged down in chapters three and four having to stop several times, put the book down, and really thing through what I was reading. I was relieved when Volf neared the end of chapter four with this summary recap of part one of the book:
"Most malfunctions of faith are rooted in a failure to love the God of love or a failure to love the neighbor. Ascent malfunctions happen when we don't love God as we should. We either love our interests, purposes, and projects, and then employ language about God to realize them (we may call this "functional reduction"), or we love the wrong God (we may call this "idolatric substitution"). Return malfunctions happen when we love enither our neighbor nor ourselves properly--when faith either merely energizes or heals us but does not shape our lives so that we live them to our own and our neighbors' benefit, or when we impose our faith on our neighbors irrespective of their wishes.
The challenge facing Christians is ultimately very simple: love God and neighbor rightly so that we may both avoid malfunctions of faith and relate God positively to human flourishing. And yet, the challenge is also complex and difficult..." (p.73)
Amen. Complex and difficult indeed.
Chapters five and six are two more extraordinary discourses on very practical applications of living the Christian faith in a pluralistic society. Chapter five, Identity and Difference, addresses the identity of the Christian within the context of a society or community. The context being realized as having an identity that is different from the mainstream of the community...remaining unique, being seen as different, but not being separate... able to contribute without being completely absorbed: This is my paraphrase. Volf summarizes his thoughts as follows; "To become a Christian means to divert without leaving. To live as a Christian means to keep inserting a difference into a given culture without ever stepping outside that culture to do so."
Chapter six is titled Sharing Wisdom and also ranks as one of my favorite chapters of the book. Volf's ideas about sharing wisdom was affirming and convicting at the same time for me. The past few years has taught me much in the vein of what is shared in this chapter. I continue to be stretched in my faith and my learning to be Christ-like with teaching like I have found in this chapter. I think anyone reading this book will be stretched similarly if they can maintain an openness to hear what is shared in it.
I think this is an important book; timely in nature, sobering and challenging in its message, and hopeful with its suggestions for correction. I pray it falls into right hands, leaders who are humble, intelligent, vocal, and confident about what God is doing in the world. I'll close my review with a final quote from Volf on "sharing wisdom."
"Sharing religious wisdom makes sense only if that wisdom is allowed to counter the multiple manifestations of self-absorption by givers and receivers alike and to connect them with what ultimately matters--God, whom we should love with all our being, and neighbors, whom we should love as ourselves." (p.117)
A great book; it may not appeal to a broad demographic, but for those who are willing to endure the challenges it presents, there is "much gold to be mined."
Throughout the book, I was always surprised by the depth of philosophical insight Volf possesses. Even seemingly ordinary discussions of everyday life are packed with extraordinary perceptions about culture. The first part of the book aims to counter the various “malfunctions of faith.” As everyone reading this would likely agree, Christians have not always done a good job in bringing their faith to the arena of public discourse. The two errors he discusses extensively are that of idleness, when one’s faith refuses to get involved, and coerciveness, when one’s faith doesn’t respect the integrity of others by forcing their conversion. Idleness happens as believers think their faith is not relevant to their everyday lives or think its moral requirements are too difficult. On the other hand, coerciveness occurs when Christians want political power or worldly success in the place of a desire to love their neighbor as themselves. It could also happen as a result of that faith’s dwindling influence, and manifest itself as the attempt to force its observance upon others. As I mentioned in my previous post on culture, Volf too argues for a middle ground in which Christians recognize the unique contributions of their faith and utilize them for the good of the world.
Volf criticizes the modern idea that the good life can be summed up by personal experiences of satisfaction while returning to St. Augustine’s theology of God as the object of real human desire. As Christians, we believe that our way of life provides the best way for individuals of the world to live. Contrary to idleness or coerciveness, he advises Christians to understand their faith’s role within public life, whether at work, school, or play.
The second half of the book deals with the theory of a lived-out faith engaging the world. Volf, coming off his most recent researches into globalization, communicates this through the perspective of a pluralistic world. Because there are many religions and many ideologies vying for influence and more adherents, love must be our central guide. This means that we give our faith tradition to others while at the same time being willing to accept the good that comes from others. Many times, Christians view their own truth pursuit as over because they have Christ. But this is to neglect the necessity of openness in public dialogue to the wisdom others may offer. Toward the end, Volf suggests that religious people should bring their faith into everyday life not by declaring its differences from others nor its similarities with others’ social programs, but by being itself. In other words, it is a call for authentic Christianity to be presented to the world in the hopes that the lifestyle and message of Christians be successful in making the world a better place.
Overall, Volf’s voice is very welcome to the discussion of religion’s role within public life.
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This covers the same sort of ground that Niebuhr did last century.Read more