To reinforce what I said in my first post on this subject – Something is amiss in the way in which many Christians choose to engage the world in the public square. Before I outlined some of Volf’s basic “alternatives” to Religious Totalitarianism and Religious Irrelevance, I stated 3 concerns of mine that brought me to read Volf’s book in the first place. You can read the first post in this series to get the full explanation of these concerns, but this is the summary of my 3 concerns:
1.) That Christians are seduced into thinking that voting is the primary means by which we can shape the world rightly.
2.) That Christians resort to very un-Christlike methods when engaging the political process.
3.) That Christians have developed a very limited or narrow worldview.
I believe firmly that all 3 of these are examples of a malfunctioning Christian faith. However, prior to Volf’s book I was unable to do two things:
First, I was unable to explain WHY these were serious malfunctions of the Christian faith – at least not in a way that was both compassionate and persuasive. Second, I was unable to fully articulate a better alternative and steps move from a faith that malfunctions to a faith that works for the flourishing of all people. Volf’s book gives us the resources and language we need to set us on a better path in our public lives.
But the beginning is tough. We have some truth to own. We (Christians, generally in the West, and particularly in the South, and pointedly the Religious Right) have not always operated in the public debate with all graciousness and truth. To my mind, even when we have brought something like “truth” to the debate, we have either been unloving about it, or we have only brought part of the truth (i.e. Pro-life means anti-abortion when it could also include unjust practices of war, policy renewal in dangerous neighborhoods, and refusal to cut aid to the desperately ill and malnourished around the globe). Often we have been guilty of both.
In his book “A Public Faith” Volf names two major categories in which Christian faith malfunctions in the public square.
1.) Malfunctions of Ascent
2.) Malfunctions of Return
Using Moses, Muhammad, & Jesus as prototypes, Volf shows that the world’s 3 major religions are, by design, “prophetic religions.” They have at their core an agenda to reshape the world in the image of it’s creator. This requires, first, a true image of the creator and his creation. We cannot simply make god up. We have to, first, encounter god before we seek to transform the world (ourselves included). Therefore, some sort of “unitary experience” is required. Some form of worship whereby the person meets god. Moses, Muhammad and Jesus all had an “ascent experience” where they met the living god. But this was not an end in-and-of itself. They all return and set to working accomplishing god’s purposes for the world and the people in it.
As the examples of Moses, Jesus and Muhammad illustrate, for prophetic religions, both “ascent” and “return” are crucial. “Ascent” is the point at which, in the encounter with the divine, representatives of prophetic religions receive the message and their core identity is forged – whether through mystical union with God, through prophetic inspiration, or through deepened understanding of sacred texts. The ascent is the receptive moment. “Return” is the point at which, in interchange with the world, the message is spoken, enacted, built into liturgies or institutions, or embodied in laws. The return in the creative moment.
But it is not only important that representatives of particular faiths “ascend” and “return.” It also matters (perhaps, MOSTLY matters) HOW we return.
Volf names two “malfunctions of ascent” and two “malfunctions of return.” You will have to read the book for yourself to get a full understanding of Volf’s naming the ways in which faith (particularly Christian faith) malfunctions in the public square, but here is a brief outline of his malfunctions.
A.) Malfunctions of Ascent
1. Functional Reduction – Occurs when practitioners of prophetic religions lose faith in the significance of the encounter with God as God and employ religious language to promote perspectives and practices whose content and driving force do not come from or are not integrally related to the core of faith. (Volf, pg. 10)
2. Idolatric Substitution – Needing to engage the world in God’s name and yet finding it difficult, uncomfortable, or even contrary to their deep-seated convictions to properly identify God and discern God’s will, prophets sometimes transform God in their imagination into a caricature of the true divinity. (Volf, pg. 11)
B.) Malfunctions of Return
1. Idleness of Faith – A major purpose of the Christian faith is to shape the lives of persons and communities. Yet faith often idles in many spheres of life… if faith’s idleness were ever total, faith would soon be discarded, for the faith that does nothing means nothing. (Volf, pg. 13)
2. Coerciveness of Faith – In this case, faith is not idle but active – hyperactive, in fact – imposing itself oppressively upon the unwilling. In all such cases, faith malfunctions by becoming an instrument of oppression. (Volf, pg. 17-18).