Review: For the Life of the World

for the life of the world

For the Life of the WorldMiroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019.

Summary: Contends that for theology to make a difference it must address what it means for human beings to flourish in the world “in light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.”

Miroslav Volf grew up in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Matthew Croasmun cut his teeth in ministry in planting a church. For both, a lived theology was vital, and remains so in their current work with the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Their contention in this book is that “the purpose of theology is to discern, articulate, and commend visions of flourishing life in light of God’s self revelation in Jesus Christ” (p. 11). They argue for an emphasis of the flourishing life as a fundamental human quest. In so doing they propose a tri-partite definition of the flourishing life: life led well (agential), life going well (circumstantial), and life feeling as it should (affective). Furthermore, they argue that this is a quest that has been neglected in the universities, in the church, and in the theological world.

Addressing this last, they make the case that theology, at least as it is done in the West, is in a state of crisis. It is facing a shrinking job market and a shrinking audience. Most theological books mainly are read by other theologians, and purchased by seminary libraries. It is also in crisis because of how it has conceived of itself, either as a “science” engaged in description (e.g.. religious studies) or as advocacy (either for historic orthodoxy or progressive causes) rather than engaged in “descriptive work in service of a normative vision of human flourishing” (p. 56).

But why human flourishing? Isn’t theology about God, or about God’s redemptive work in Christ? The authors do not dismiss these ideas but show how a theology of human flourishing encompasses these concerns. Yes, theology is about a God who created a world as his home where his creatures flourish, and who is working to consummate that purpose even though the world has been marred by sin and oppression. Redemption is vital in this process not as an end, but rather because it crucially begins the process that leads to the consummation of that process of God restoring a world where humanity flourishes in God’s home.

One of the challenges that a theology for the life of the world faces is that of universality. It is a vision for not only individuals but for the world. The authors admit this and that such a vision will be contest by other visions. However, they argue the perspective inherent in the Christian vision allows for peaceful coexistence, collaboration, and learning from those who advocate other visions. Finally, they argue for room for a variety of particularities, for a kind of bounded improvisation within a normative vision.

Perhaps the richest part of this work was a chapter co-written with Justin Crisp on the life of the theologian, arguing for a fundamental alignment between thought and life. This means the life of a pilgrim marked by prolepsis, a striving toward a goal not yet fully realized in one’s life, and ecstasis in the sense that the life they lead is in and through another, Christ, rather than belonging to them. The example of Luther is commended in a life lived in the tension of a theology of glory and a theology of the cross. The chapter concludes in naming the intellectual dispositions of a theologian: a love of knowledge, God, and the world; a love for our interlocutors; courage; gratitude and humility; and firmness–with a soft touch.

The authors conclude with their own vision of a flourishing life–not a full-fledged theology–but the contours one might look for. They focus on Paul’s statement about the kingdom in Romans 14:17: For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (NRSV). Harking back to their tripartite definition of human flourishing, they propose that righteousness (or love) characterizes the life well led; peace characterizes the life going well; and joy characterizes the life feeling as it should. This is the content of the life lived in an already/not yet kingdom–a life that calls and allows for improvisation. It is a life that affirms the created goodness of our life in the flesh, even while we long for the consummation of the resurrection and the new creation.

The authors address a concern I’ve long had that theology is for the world, and not meant to be confined to seminaries. I review many theological books that I hope people outside the seminary world will read. I believe good theology books help God’s people flourish in his world, not because they contain a highfalutin version of “how to have your best life now” but because we desperately need to understand the story, the reality in which we live. Sadly, some, not all, of it is written primarily for other academics, even though the ideas are often important for the church and the world. I applaud the authors for naming this challenge and describing the attributes of those who pursue the noble work of doing theology “for the life of the world.”

One concern I have about this work is that it doesn’t address the vital need for a theology for the life of the world to be done by the theologians of the world. The discussion of the well-lived life is grounded in Western philosophy and has an individualistic feel even though the authors draw communal and societal implications. It would be intriguing to explore what Asian, African, Latino, and other theologians of color might contribute to an articulation of the contours of a theology of human flourishing.

The authors also talk about the tremendous cost of theological education in terms of graduate education and faculty salaries, wondering if it is worth it. The answer seems to be, “yes,” if done for the world. But I wonder if this is possible given the structural factors that isolate the seminary both from the church and the rest of the academic world. Volf and Croasmun’s work at Yale bridges a divide between seminary and academy. A growing movement advocating the importance of “pastor theologians” bridges the seminary-church divide. But how might the three come together to do what might be called “public theology” on the order of what figures like Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr engaged in during the 1950’s?

The vision of flourishing life in God’s home has the potential to take theology out of esoteric discussions to talk about ordinary life in the world–work, family, society, the physical environment and its care, concerns for justice, political life. It allows Christians to engage in public discussions about shared concerns for flourishing, and the distinctive contribution of that faith. Most of all, this work offers a searching challenge to all engaged in “academic theology” to consider toward what end they are working, and whether in the end their work addresses the fundamental human quest.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

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