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.

 

Review: Strong and Weak

strong and weak

Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Explores two qualities that we often think opposed to one another and argues that strength and weakness are paradoxically related and that human beings flourish to the extent that they can appropriately exercise strength (authority) and weakness (vulnerability) together.

We often tend to think of strength and weakness, authority and vulnerability as mutually exclusive qualities or at opposite ends of a continuum. Yet the apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Andy Crouch, building on this idea argues that strength and weakness are paradoxically related and that excellence in leadership and human flourishing occur when both are present in one’s life together. Rather than being at opposite ends of a continuum, he sees them as the x and axes of a 2 by 2 grid:

2 by 2

Excerpted from press kit for this book

Crouch defines authority as “the capacity for meaningful action” and vulnerability as “exposure to meaningful risk.” He would contend that when we oscillate between quadrants II and IV, between strength and weakness, we are making a false choice. True flourishing occurs in quadrant I where we embrace both the capacity for meaningful action and exposure to meaningful risk. This leads to flourishing not only of the individuals who act in this way but of those around, as he describes in the instance of his sister’s daughter Angela, who has lived eleven years so far with Trisomy 13, a genetic disorder where a person has three copies of chromosome 13, which has meant that parents and other caregivers have exercised both capacity for meaningful action and been exposed to meaningful risk for Angela, who cannot care for herself.

In successive chapters, Crouch explores life in each quadrant. Those in the quadrant of suffering have exposure to meaningful risk without the capacity for meaningful action. Illness and poverty are places where this is experienced, yet even here, when the gospel is embraced, hope and dignity is restored and there is a kind of strength in weakness allowing persons to move to quadrant I. Conversely, those in quadrant IV exercise authority without vulnerability, where the protection of oneself and one’s position means the exploiting of others.

Quadrant III is the quadrant of withdrawal. It is the safety of one’s parents’ basement–no meaningful action in a world of video games, and no risk in the provision of food and shelter, sequestered away from the world. Crouch invites those who have withdrawn to take two steps–into the natural world of creation, and into the relational world of doing real things with real people!

Perhaps the most interesting chapter was one where he explored the challenge many leaders face of living with overt authority and hidden vulnerability. There is the President of the United States, who has such significant authority, that he receives a unique briefing of the dangers facing the U.S., a briefing he can discuss with few or any of those he meets in the remainder of the day. Similarly, many business leaders cannot speak of the vulnerabilities of their companies, but must take meaningful action to address them for their communities to flourish.

His concluding chapters talk about choosing of vulnerability, to literally be willing to put one’s life on the line in the pursuit of meaningful action with exposure to meaningful risk. This is transformative leadership, where one both experiences being truly alive, and where others are helped to flourish as they see our strength in weakness.

This is a much shorter work than either Culture Making or Playing God. It builds on the latter, which explores the use of the gift of power redemptively, but the length is appropriate to elaborating this single critical paradox of strength and weakness. One question the book raised for me is what is the hope for those in quadrant IV, the exploiters? Crouch warns of the judgment and the fall of those who choose this path. And perhaps those who are strong without being vulnerable are a version of the rich young man, for whom entry into the kingdom is so hard, yet not impossible (we have the counter-example of Zaccheus).

Since most of us will exercise some form of authority in some dimension of life, as parents, coaches, managers, leaders, committee chairs or in other forms of leadership that draw upon our capacities for meaningful action and expose us to meaningful risks, this is an important book for both our flourishing in such roles but for the flourishing of the broader communities we serve. It may be simpler to embrace one or neither of these two elements of the paradox, but this would be to sacrifice flourishing for a much smaller life for oneself and for those whose lives we touch. Living in the paradox seems more challenging, but somehow much richer. Clearly, Crouch has given us much to chew upon.

The Month in Reviews: March 2016

Gods that fail

My reading this month went from the Civil War to the civil engagement of how religious people relate to public life. Back to back, I reviewed a fairly unconventional view of church and then a mainstream treatment of church growth. There was a classic on holiness and a recent book on how we experience spiritual transformation.  There was a new edition of a book on the idols of our time as relevant as it was when first published twenty years ago. I finished the month with two works of fiction, one set in Anglo-Saxon England, the other in post-Independence India. Here’s the list with links to the full reviews.

Unkingdom of GodThe UNkingdom of God, Mark Van Steenwyk. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. The author advocates a kind of “Christian anarchism” consisting in a repentance from the ways Christianity has been entangled with worldly “empire”. Review.

Growing God's ChurchGrowing God’s Church, Gary L. McIntosh. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016. In light of the changing culture that has rendered classic approaches to evangelism less relevant, the author looks at how people in our contemporary culture are coming to faith while arguing for the continued priority of not only presence but proclamation and persuasion in our witness to the gospel. Review.

Christians and the Common GoodChristians and the Common GoodCharles E. Gutenson. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2011. Explores what the teaching of scripture says about God’s intentions for how we live together and the implications of this for public policy. Review.

Life Together in ChristLife Together in Christ, Ruth Haley Barton. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Using the account of the two disciples’ encounter with Jesus on the Emmaus road, Barton explores how we may experience life transformation through our encounter with Christ in the presence of others in Christian community. Review.

HolinessHoliness, J.C. Ryle. Chios Classics (electronic text), 2015 (originally published 1877). The classic collection by nineteenth century evangelical Anglican J.C. Ryle emphasizing that growth in Christ-like character (holiness) involves not only faith in Christ’s empowering work but effort in laying hold of that work and that this basic matter is far too often neglected in the church. Review.

Lee's LieutenantsLee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command (One Volume abridgement), Douglas Southall Freeman, abridged by Stephen W. Sears. New York: Scribner, 1998. Stephen Sears abridged version of Douglas Southall Freeman’s three volume study of the military leadership of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee. Review.

FlourishingFlourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, Miroslav Volf. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. Volf argues that the twin globalizing forces of international economics and world religions, problematic as they may be, may also be the source of rich and holistic flourishing for the human community. Review.

OnwardOnward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, Russell D. Moore. Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2015. Written by a leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, this book describes an agenda for a post-Moral Majority church, centered around both cultural engagement and gospel integrity. Review.

IncarnateIncarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement, Michael Frost. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. Frost explores what it means to be incarnational people in an “excarnational” world, one marked by increasing focus on disembodied, virtual experience, and disconnection from physical community. Review.

covenant and commandmentCovenant and Commandment, Bradley G. Green. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. In light of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith, Green considers the place of works, obedience and faithfulness in the Christian life. Review.

Making Neighborhoods WholeMaking Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development, Wayne Gordon & John M. Perkins, forward by Shane Claiborne. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. Two of the founders of the Christian Community Development Association recount the history of this movement, weaving a narrative of their own and others stories into a summary of the eight key principles that have defined this movement. Review.

Gods that failGods That Fail: Modern Idolatry and Christian Mission (revised edition), Vinoth Ramachandra. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2016. A consideration of how the false gods of late modernity both undermine human flourishing in a globalizing world and render ineffectual the witness of the church in that world, set in contrast with the biblical narratives of creation, the nature of evil, and the unique, transformative power of the cross. Review.

Last KingdomThe Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell. New York: Harper C0llins, 2006. This first of the Saxon tales tells the story of the invasion of England by the Danes and the fierce resistance led by Alfred the Great, all through the eyes of a boy turned warrior who at different times fights first for the Danes, then for Alfred. Review.

Midnight's ChildrenMidnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie. New York: Random House, 1981 (25th Anniversary Edition, 2006). Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight when India won its independence. He believes his life is “twinned” with the fate of the country, even as he is telepathically linked with the other “midnight children”, all of whom have unusual powers. Review.

Best of the Month: That is a tough choice! Freeman’s classic Lee’s Lieutenants sets the standard for Civil War history and studies in leadership, Miroslav Volf’s Flourishing is undoubtedly an important new work addressing positively the role religion can play in human flourishing. But I will give the nod to Gods that Fail not only because Ramachandra’s prose is a delight to read but his sweeping and incisive analysis exposes the hollowness of the idols of our time and challenges the church to recognize its own worship of false gods.

Quote of the Month: I was challenged by this statement about coming to terms with privilege in Sami DiPasquale’s contribution to Making Neighborhoods Whole:

“For people of privilege, reconciliation begins with sinking to our knees before God. We can choose to build relationships with those outside traditional power structures, with people who are ‘other.’ We can listen to their stories, paying careful attention especially when we hear a pattern emerging. We can put ourselves under the authority of someone from a different cultural heritage. We can choose to live in a setting where we are the minority. We can study history and theology from the perspectives of those who were not invited into the process of creating the standard textbooks–history can sound so different based on who is telling the story. We can grieve the tragedies that our forebears were a part of and try to figure out how they factor in to how we live today. We must ask God and others for forgiveness, and we must forgive ourselves. Finally, we must move forward, always listening, always striving to embrace voices from the outside with a resolve to confront the sin of injustice at every opportunity” (pp. 73-74).

Reviewing Soon: I’m thoroughly enjoying Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns on the Great Immigration of Blacks from the South to the North between 1915 and 1970. This changed both the South and the cities of the North. I am in the middle of Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch, and fascinated by the basic insight of the book–that living both strong and weak, with authority and vulnerability is to live well. I also discovered a pair of novels by management guru Peter Drucker. Sitting on my TBR pile is a book on fasting, Forty Days of Decrease, and Oliver Crisp’s new work on Jonathan Edwards, perhaps America’s greatest theologian.

Don’t want to miss any of it? Then follow Bob on Books for some good reading on good reading!

 

 

Review: Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power

17293092 (1)I think many of us have developed our understanding of power from Lord Acton’s axiom: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. For most of us, that is the end of story and this accounts, at least among many Christians I know, for a deep aversion to anything like the exercise of power.

Andy Crouch has a different take that is evident in the word play in his title Playing God. We often think “playing God” is the worst manifestation of abusing power. But Crouch would argue that as image bearers, people who reflect something of the nature of God, we “play” like God in using power, and that this was originally intended for the flourishing of fellow human beings, and the creation, for creating cultural goods and even good institutions.

Crouch explores the original gift to power and how it has been distorted through idolatry, which he defines as giving to some cultural artifact ultimate significance. And idolatry leads to injustice as idols demand allegiance that undermines the flourishing of human beings. Crouch argues that instead of idol-making, our calling is to be icons, literally those who are seen through, giving glimpses of the Creator who made us to be like Him.

In the next part of his book, he explores the nature of power. Power is often hidden and yet exists, even in characters like Michael Scott from The Office. He talks about the realities of force, violence, and coercion and what impressed me is the nuanced fashion in which he did so, recognizing these can be used for evil or good (an argument pacifists may not accept). Finally, he exposes the realities of privilege, the perquisites of power we often are not even aware we have, except when we see ourselves through those who do not have them.

For me the third part of the book was most interesting because he explores power in the context of institution-making. Again, we often see institutions in a negative light but Crouch argues that institutions can be gifts for good if we assume our responsibilities as trustees of these institutions.

Finally, he explores the end of power through the lenses of discipline, sabbath, and the consummation of power in the return and ever-lasting reign of Christ. True power is like the prodigal father who uses all he has to maintain and restore his relationships and the flourishing of both of his sons, the younger profligate one, and the older resentful one.

This is an important book. What I believe often happens in Christian communities is that we try to deny the existence of power and thus become less self-aware of how we may exercise it, both for ill and for good. This, to me, seems greater than the danger of the conscious exercise of power that is cognizant of how power may be abused but also how power might be used to serve others and to promote their flourishing. Furthermore, our aversion to admitting the gift of power we’ve been given is the denial of the gifts of God, both those inherent in our humanity, and those spiritually endowed among the redeemed people of God. My hope is that Crouch’s book is widely read, that a new way of using power is charted that neither makes it into an idol nor denies its existence but redeems this gift and uses it for good.

Review: The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective

The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective
The Life of the Mind: A Christian Perspective by Clifford Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Our danger has not been too much thinking, but not enough.”
–Nathan Hatch

The epigraph to Williams book gives us the purpose of this book in a sentence: to make the argument for the importance of thinking and the life of the mind. Williams originally did this in pamphlet form, which has now been expanded into this still concise little book that gives us the contours of an argument for thinking.

He begins by describing why those who like to think do so: to understand the way things are, to bring coherence to one’s beliefs, to grow in self-understanding, to apply serious thought to public issues, and to make sense and meaning of one’s life. He then proceeds to argue that thinking well is intrinsically important including this syllogism:

1. What God made is good.
2. It is intrinsically good to know about what is good.
3. Consequently, it is intrinsically good to know what God has made.

He then goes on to delineate positive effects of thinking in terms of enhancing human flourishing, supporting our faith and training in goodness.

His next chapter was perhaps both the most interesting and also the place where I felt the most additional work needed to be done. In it he explores the tensions between the life of the mind and Christian faith under the categories of inquisitiveness, imagination, arrogance, and the neglect of evangelism, compassion, justice, and devotion. While acknowledging the realities of these pitfalls, I felt he did not go far enough in identifying their roots in both hubris and neglect of our hearts. Equally, I would have valued more exploration, beyond the acknowledgement of these tensions and the possibility of living within them, of how one does so. This seems to be critical to the flourishing of thinking Christians in contexts that often challenge faith.

Subsequent chapters explore the tensions between the life of the (Christian) mind and the culture we find ourselves in, the value of thinking in community, and a concluding chapter that describes the life of the mind in terms of living in the tension between hermit and explorer (fascinating images!).

While couched in Christian terms, many of the arguments Williams make for the life of the mind make sense for anyone who considers ideas and careful thinking important. At the same time the book is directed to a Christian college audience (under the imprint RenewedMinds, an imprint of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities). It seems that one of the things that might be helpful if this work is revised and expanded would be to address more explicitly what the life of the Christian mind has in common with the life of the mind more generally, and what distinguishes this mind. Mark Noll has done the latter quite helpfully in his Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind.

In its present form, Williams has given us a helpful articulation of the intrinsic value of developing the life of the mind and some preliminary considerations of how one goes about this process. I could see this being very helpful to an undergraduate student considering a life of scholarship and equally to someone at mid-life asking questions about how one might move from simply an activist life of doing to going deeper in thinking about faith and the context of one’s life.

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