Review: A Public Faith

Volf's book sketches an alternative between a single-religion society and a secular public square.

Appears in Fall 2011 Issue: The good society
September 1 st 2011

My agreeing to review Miroslav Volf's recent book, A Public Faith, has put me in a difficult spot. Reviewers typically do one or more of five things: they point out where, in their judgment, the author is confused or mistaken; they explain difficult passages; they elaborate some point that they think the author treated too briefly or superficially; they posit that something the author did not discuss should have been discussed; or they talk about something other than the book.

Yet nothing that Volf says seems to me confused or mistaken. There are no difficult passages that call for elucidation; the writing is lucid throughout. Though many of the points Volf makes could be delved into more deeply and discussed at greater length, the discussion throughout is at just the right depth and extent for the purposes at hand. There is no gap in the discussion that calls to be filled. And the book is too important to justify changing the subject.

So what's a reviewer to do when he finds himself in such a spot? What else can he do but present an outline of the book's argument in the hope that sufficiently stimulating the reader's curiosity as to how the argument gets fleshed out will encourage her to buy the book and read it for herself? So that's what I will do.

Christianity, says Volf, is like Judaism and Islam in that it is a prophetic religion. As such, it has both an "ascent" phase and a "return" phase. "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, prophetic inspiration, or deepened understanding of sacred texts. The ascent is the receptive phase. "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 is the creative moment. What Volf calls "malfunctions" can occur in both phases. After briefly describing malfunctions in the ascent phase, he concentrates his attention on malfunctions in the return phase.

"Return malfunctions" come primarily in two forms: idleness of faith and coerciveness of faith. Volf explains what he has in mind by "idleness" this way:

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, spinning in one place like the wheel of a car stuck in the snow. Granted, faith's idleness is never total—if it were total, faith would soon be discarded, for the faith that does nothing means nothing.

A number of things conspire to cause a person's faith to idle. The lure of temptation may lead to shady deals in business, infidelity in marriage, plagiarism in scholarship. The power of social systems over thought and action may lead one to do business as business is done, to practice law as law is practiced, to do politics as politics is done. Or the Christian faith itself may be misconstrued and treated as if it were nothing but a gospel for success or a balm for the weary.

In addition to these sources of idling, there were two powerful intellectual currents in the twentieth century which espoused the view that, in the modern world, faith is and should be privatized. One of these was the secularization thesis. This thesis holds that, as a society becomes modernized, the needs that religion once satisfied are now satisfied in other ways, with the result that the number of people who are religious declines and even those who remain religious confine their religion to their private lives. The other was the thesis, espoused most emphatically by John Rawls and other so-called public-reason liberals, that when debating and deciding political issues, citizens should not appeal to their religious and comprehensive philosophical perspectives but to an independent source of principles accessible and acceptable to all.

A bit later we will get to Volf's response to the second thesis. As to the secularization thesis, his book is predicated on the conviction that the thesis is false; if it were true, talk about a public faith would be an exercise in nostalgia. The secularization thesis has some plausibility for Western Europe, but it has no plausibility whatsoever for the rest of the world. In the rest of the world, religion has neither declined nor become privatized; over the past several decades it has, if anything, become increasingly public. Most sociologists have by now given up the secularization thesis; many are now exploring the phenomenon that has come to be called "multiple modernities."

As I mentioned earlier, idleness is one of the two major malfunctions of Christian faith that Volf discusses—the other is coerciveness. Volf opens his book with an example of what he calls "religious totalitarianism," namely, the thought of the Muslin writer, Sayyid Qutb, in his short but highly influential book Milestones. Qutb advocated, to quote Volf, "total saturation of public life with a single religion." Later, Volf says that "imposition of the rule of one God, as interpreted by the prophet Muhammad, on the whole world—this is the mission of political Islam as interpreted by Qutb. There can be religious freedom properly understood only within a political order that embodies the Muslim way of life. Political Islam is religious at its basis, and, unlike the mainstream of Islam, it is aggressively totalitarian in its character."

Volf introduces the thought of Qutb as a foil for his own vigorous defense of the thesis that authentic Christianity is not coercive. He does not shy away from admitting that Christians have often employed and fostered violence, nor does he shy away from admitting that "there are elements in the Christian faith that, when taken in isolation or when excessively foregrounded, can be used to legitimize violence." But to the charge, coming from a number of quarters, that monotheism in general, and Christianity in particular, are inherently violent, he points to the fact that at the heart of the Christian faith is the confession that God is love and the injunction to love our neighbors as ourselves. Christians will employ and foster violence and coercion only if they forget or ignore the heart of the Christian faith.

All this is preliminary to Volf's main topic. Suppose that the faith of Christians has been healed of both idleness and coerciveness. How then will they act in public? In an eloquent passage, Volf says that his aim in the book is

to reimagine the relation between the gospel and the multiple religious and nonreligious cultures in contemporary societies. My goal is to dispel the gloom and generate new hope for Christian communities at the beginning of the twenty-first century—both a more modest and a more robust hope than the churches in the West have had in recent times. To state my goal pointedly: I want to make Christian communities more comfortable with being just one of many players, so that from whatever place they find themselves— on the margins, at the center, or anywhere in between—they can promote human flourishing and the common good. Under different circumstances, they may then reacquire the vibrancy and confidence of the early churches.

As these words suggest, the overarching goal of Christian action is to advance human flourishing. But there is no general agreement on what constitutes human flourishing. Christianity offers its own distinct vision, this being the "most important contribution of the Christian faith to the common good."

The view of human flourishing most common in the West today is probably that flourishing consists of living a life that is experientially satisfying. A defining feature of this understanding is that it pays no attention to how flourishing "fits with the character of the world and of human beings." By contrast, "the great Christian saints, theologians, and lay leaders of the past [have all] believed that accounts of human flourishing had to cohere with ideas about God as the source and goal of all reality." Volf characterizes this "coherence" or "fit" by summarizing Augustine's thoughts on the matter:

First, [Augustine] believed that God is . . . a "person" who loves and can be loved in return. Second, to be human is to love; we can chose [sic] what to love but not whether to love. Third, we live well when we love both God and neighbor, aligning ourselves with the God who loves. Fourth, we will flourish and be truly happy when we discover joy in loving the infinite God and our neighbors in God.

And how should Christians seek to advance human flourishing, so understood? An indispensable component of what they will do is share the Christian faith with others—"share Christian wisdom," as Volf calls it. They will do this out of love for the neighbor and because they have been obligated by Christ to do so— but also because it belongs to the inherent character of Christianity, as a prophetic faith, to seek to share wisdom. This sharing has the character not of pointing to oneself as repository and paradigm of wisdom but of pointing away from oneself to Christ; sharing wisdom has the character of witness, and it will always honour the integrity and dignity of the receiver. By virtue of honouring the integrity and dignity of the receiver, it will be open to receiving wisdom while sharing wisdom. "As we share the wisdom of our religious tradition, we should keep in mind that the person to whom we offer wisdom is also a giver, not just a passive receiver. As givers, we respect receivers by seeing ourselves as potential receivers too."

Volf notes that a good many Christians will find this last point difficult to accept. "After all, they are already embracing what they likely believe is a—even the—true and salutary way of life." His reply is that "it isn't at all difficult to demonstrate that Christians have received wisdom from others in the past and that they continue to do so. Two examples from the distant past will suffice. The first is Christianity's appropriation of the spiritual resources of Judaism. . . . Second, Christianity's early encounter with Greek language and culture meant its inevitable . . . receiving of Greek wisdom." Of course, "any wisdom that Christians receive from others must resonate with the scriptural narratives about Christ."

In addition to sharing Christian wisdom with others and being open to receiving wisdom from them, Christians will engage in social and political activity with the aim of enhancing the common good. Here we come to the issue, currently much-discussed and debated, of the place of religious voices in the public arena. A given of Volf's discussion is that every state of the modern world contains a diversity of religions among its citizens, and that there is no prospect of this changing. Though there are, of course, some elements of commonality among these diverse religions, those elements are far from sufficient to serve as a basis for our social and political existence. So what to do then?

Volf discusses and rejects the proposal of public reason liberals: that we set our religions off to the side and base our political debates and decisions on some source of principles independent of all religious and philosophical perspectives that is accessible and acceptable to all citizens. There is no such independent source. What Volf advocates instead is what I have called, in some of my writing, the "equal voice" position: all adult citizens have the right to speak on political issues and the right to do so in their own voice, religious or non-religious, along with the right to a vote in which all votes carry equal weight.

In conclusion:

The prophetic role of Christian communities— their engagement to mend the world, to foster human flourishing, and to serve the common good—is nothing but their identity projecting itself outward in word and deed. Two consequences follow. First, the followers of Christ are engaged in the world with their whole being. Engagement is not a matter of either speaking or doing . . . The whole person in all aspects of her life is engaged in fostering human flourishing and serving the common good . . . Second, Christian engagement concerns all dimensions of a culture.

Yet it does not "aim to transform any of them totally. Instead, in all of them it also seeks and finds goods to be preserved and strengthened. It is total in scope but limited in extent."

Authentic Christian engagement seeks neither to abandon society nor to dominate it; it seeks rather to make a difference, saying "No" where no must be said and "Yes" where yes must be said, sharing Christian wisdom while being open to the wisdom of others, seeking the common good by working with others for the common good, acting always out of love for God and neighbour.

This is my bare-bones presentation of Volf's argument. My presentation gives no indication of the richness of the discussion. I trust, however, that it does indicate that Volf has a gift for asking the right questions and for introducing helpful categories, and that he is never satisfied with simplistic answers to his questions. I trust that my quotations indicate how accessible his discussion is to the general reader. Volf describes his book as "a sketch of an alternative to totalitarian saturation of public life with a single religion as well as to secular exclusion of all religions from public life." It's a guide for the perplexed who seek to live in the open space between those two unacceptable alternatives.


Nicholas Wolterstorff received his A.B. from Calvin College in 1953, and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1956. After teaching philosophy for two years at Yale, he returned to the philosophy department at his alma mater in 1959. He returned to Yale in 1989, where he was on the faculty of the Divinity School and associate faculty of the Philosophy Department and the Religious Studies Department. He has taught, during leaves of absence, at Haverford College, the University of Michigan, Princeton University, the University of Texas, Notre Dame University, and the Free University of Amsterdam. He retired from teaching at the end of 2001, and is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology, Yale University. Currently he is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.