A Public Faith: Part 1, Two Problems & An Alternative

I am reading Miroslav Volf’s “A Public Faith.” I thought I would blog a few times about some interesting ideas he shares in that book that I find to be more than a little important for American Christians. I have been searching for a while now for a resource that helps me name what is wrong with the ways in which most of us Christians engage current public and political issues. Before I share with you what Volf says about all of this, allow me to outline a few concerns I have about current American Christian discourse and engagement with public/political issuses:

1.) Christians are seduced into thinking that the primary way that we can affect, change, or reconcile our world/nation/culture is through voting. Of course, this is very problematic considering that Jesus himself remains fairly ambivalent about engaging the politics of his world/nation/culture on the terms set by those in power. It also hamstrings real action. The logic goes that as long as I vote this or that way then I am doing God’s will in shaping culture. Of course, voting only occurs one day out of every other year. We are aware that this is not enough, but since voting becomes the end or the primary means by which we shape culture, then everything else points toward that – in other words, we campaign so that others will vote the way we do. The result is that our energies that would otherwise be spent on serving our neighbors and enemies, loving in action, and being salt and light gets expended on campaigning and voting – an action that has proved to bear very little if any fruit.

2.) Public/Political involvement as it currently stands in American Christian culture is largely negative (and sometimes downright hate-filled). I contend that if you have a political stance based on a faith conviction, and in taking that stance public you trample/slander/defame your political opponent, then you deny the gospel. Politics and Public life are not exemptions from the commandment to love your enemies.

3.) Public/Political involvement as it currently stands in American Christian culture often leads to a narrow worldview (and sometimes idolatry). America is not God and God is not limited to working only within American policy. In fact, something closer to the opposite may be true. God works through the humble, poor, meek, and weak. He has revealed power as inept to shape the world in his image, and he has revealed this ineptness through the powerlessness of the cross of Christ (see I Cor. 1). A more biblical stance would be something like “Let the state be the state and let the church be the church.” Romans 12 & 13 are good examples. The state does what the state does while the church is busy being salt and light to a broken world. The state maintains order and justice while the body of Christ sets to reconciling that world to God through serving the world. I also worry that this narrow worldview leads to a narrow list of issues. It seems to me (at least in the region where I do ministry) that Christians limit God’s concern to 2 or 3 issues while neglecting about 5,000 other issues that Scripture clearly contends for. When you narrow your worldview, you narrow your influence and thus your witness.

Now on to Volf’s book: “A Public Faith”

In the introduction to his book Volf sets out to state two problems: 1.) Religious Totalitarianism 2.) Religious Irrelevance. Volf quickly dismisses the idea/claim that religion should not have a voice in the shaping of public life – what he calls Religious Idleness or Religious Irrelevance. A religion that is relegated to merely private life and cloistered prayer is not true to its calling. God (in all three major religions – not only Christianity) has called his people to an active faith that shapes the world in His likeness. But “shaping” is distinct from “control.” Christians, in particular, despite the variety of interpretations that dispute this point, are not called to rule or manage the world in God’s name – religious totalitarianism.

So what are we called to? Is there an alternative? H. Reinhold Niebuhr outlined 5 ways in which Christians engage culture in his famous work “Christ and Culture” Very much a product of the modern world, Niebuhr gave five options – Christ against culture, Christ above culture, the Christ of culture, Christ and culture in paradox, Christ transforming culture. If we use Niebhur’s categories we could say that most American Christians have advanced a combination of the sectarian “Christ against culture” and the politically activist “Christ transforming culture.” This stance has 3 pragmatic problems: 1.) It isn’t Christ-like. 2.) It leads to malice, discord and violence. 3.) It has failed as a project entirely.

That is not to say, however, that Christians are not called to one of these categories. In fact, Volf rightly calls for a more complex view with the awareness that at any given point we might be called to any of these. But regardless of which of these categories we are called to, the important question would be, not in which one, rather “How will we carry them out?”

I will be blogging about Volf’s outlook on all this in his book over the next few weeks, but he does give us a map of where he is going in the introduction. The following six points are Volf’s “high points” of a proposed alternative to Religious Totalitarianism and Religious Irrelevance:

The center of Christian faith suggests a relation to the broader culture that can be roughly described in the following six points:

1.) Christ is God’s Word and God’s Lamb, come into the world for the good of all people, who are all God’s creatures and loved by God. Christian faith is therefore a “prophetic” faith that seeks to mend the world. An idle or redundant faith – a faith that does not seek to mend the world – is a seriously malfunctioning faith. Faith should be active in all spheres of life: education and arts, business and politics, communication and entertainment, and more.

2.) Christ came to redeem the world by preaching, actively helping people, and dying a criminal’s death on behalf of the ungodly. In all aspects of his work, he was a bringer of grace. A coercive faith – a faith that seeks to impose itself and its way of life on others through any form of coercion – is a seriously malfunctioning faith.

3.) When it comes to life in the world, to follow Christ means to care for others (as well as for oneself) and work toward their flourishing, so that life would go well for all and so that all would learn how to lead their lives well. A vision of human flourishing and the common good is the main thing the Christian faith brings into the public debate.

4.) Since the world is God’s creation and since the Word came to his own even if his own did not accept him, the proper stance of Christians toward the larger culture cannot be that of unmitigated opposition or whole-scale transformation. A much more complex attitude is required – that of accepting, rejecting, learning from, transforming, and subverting or putting to better uses various elements of and internally differentiated and rapidly changing culture.

5.) Jesus Christ is described in the New Testament as a “faithful witness” and his followers understood themselves as witnesses. The way Christians work toward human flourishing is not by imposing on others their vision of human flourishing and the common good but by bearing witness to Christ, who embodies the good life.

6.) Christ has not come with a blueprint for political arrangements; many kinds of political arrangements are compatible with the Christian faith, from monarchy to democracy. But in a pluralistic context, Christ’s command “in everything do to others as you would have them do to you” entails that Christians grant to other religious communities the same religious and political freedoms that they claim for themselves. Put differently, Christians, even those who in their own religious views are exclusivists, ought to embrace pluralism as a political project.


  1. Pingback: The Weekly Hit List: March 30, 2012

  2. Pingback: A Public Faith: Part 2, Faith Malfunctioning | Ends & Means

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