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: Flourishing

Flourishing

Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, Miroslav Volf. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

Summary: 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.

There has been a compelling argument by Thomas Friedman and others that the global forces of economic development actually create significant incentives for international co-operation, which facilitates economic development for all concerned. At the same time, others have argued that the major global religions may undermine international co-operation and mutual efforts toward human flourishing because of their exclusivistic truth claims. In this book, which Miroslav Volf describes as a “programmatic essay”, the contention is advanced that there is a way to conceive of the intersection of these often overlapping or competing visions, that may more profoundly promote human flourishing in all its dimensions.

Volf’s argument proceeds as follows (corresponding to the chapters in the book):

  1. Economic globalization alone often reduces human beings to their material concerns alone whereas the world religions bring to bear a “transcendent” focus that provides purpose, moral underpinnings, and cultural richness to the idea of human flourishing, that are lost in purely economic accounts of globalization.
  2. At the same time, economic globalization challenges religious communities to transcend violence, which often arises from particular political identifications, and helps make possible efforts at uniting humanity and addressing global goals (health, education, meaningful work) that promote values consonant with religious ideas of human flourishing.
  3. The most deeply held principles of each religious system uphold freedom of conscience, tolerance, and genuine respect for people of other faiths or no faith at all. Between the privileging of one religion in public life, and the barring of all religious discussion from the public square, Volf, like Os Guinness, argues for a “principled pluralism” that protects religious freedom, recognizes equally the moral value and moral arguments of all its citizens, separates religion and rule, and maintains an impartial state.
  4. On the basis of these ideas, Volf argues, against the contentions of many, that it is possible to be religiously exclusivistic (and he would argue that each of the major faiths, when true to their core ideas are in fact so), and yet politically pluralistic, and that this pluralism is in fact may be informed by the highest principles of each faith.
  5. Lastly, he deals with why religions become violent, which has less to do with core religious teachings and more as a result of the consequences of close entanglement with political identities, which actually is contrary both to the global convictions of each faith (which denies us vs. them), and the fundamental commitment of each to freedom of conscience–that belief may not be compelled by others.

Volf concludes the book with a discussion of the dichotomy of meaning and pleasure and argues that the religious perspective (and Volf’s Christian perspective shows through here), when most true to itself, unites these two in the God who is love and provides a compelling account of human flourishing that unites desire and purpose.

I find Volf’s program both elegantly stated and quite persuasive. His argument protects both private and public religious expression for all faiths while rendering an account of how both economic forces and interreligious understanding may circumvent the “clash of civilizations” Samuel Huntington and others have predicted. It seems to me that two crucial questions raised by Volf’s “program” are:

  1. What process does Volf envision for gaining a sufficient global consensus on these principles to allow them to be enacted in international public and economic life? Or does he believe such consensus already exists, which seems disputable?
  2. If there is a sufficient global consensus, what process does Volf envision for dealing with outliers, those instances where political and religious identities have coalesced around violence?

It also seemed to me that the focus of the book shifted from economic to political concerns. Granted, a regime for how different religious influences engage in public life is necessary for economic flourishing, but how differing global religions engage with the global economic marketplace seems to me to need further treatment.

That said, such an undertaking is probably far beyond the scope of a “programmatic essay” of 206 pages and may require the expertise of others. I hope Volf and those he is engaged with will press forward this project in a global context where it seems we are on the razor’s edge between great danger and great opportunity.

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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. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Snowbound

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A past snowstorm in Columbus, January 25, 2014

A number of my friends spent this past weekend “sheltering in place” as Winter Storm Jonas (what a cool idea to name snowstorms!) blew through the Ohio Valley and up the east coast. This one missed us by less than 50 miles. We had flurries but no accumulations in beautiful Columbus.

One of the delicious things about being snowbound is the thought of some extended time to curl up with some good books and a warm drink while the snow flies outside (at least as long as the power stays on!). Digging out comes soon enough. Time now to savor that delicious thought of what to read during those extended hours.

So I was thinking, what books would I like to be stuck with in a snow storm? In this case, I decided to answer the question by looking through my TBR stack and picking some that looked most interesting. Here are five I wouldn’t mind being stuck with for a few days:

Last LionFlourishingNine TailorsFools TalkGreater journey

The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, by William Manchester and Paul Reid. I’ve waited for years for the final volume of Manchester’s biography of Churchill, covering World War 2 and the years following. Hopefully Reid preserved Manchester’s magnificent style.

Flourishing, by Miroslav Volf. He explores the importance of religion in a globalized world. I like the idea that someone doesn’t see religion as a problem and I’ve appreciated the other books he’s written even when we don’t agree.

The Nine Tailors, by Dorothy Sayers. One of the few mysteries of Sayers I haven’t read!

Fool’s Talkby Os Guinness. I’ve appreciated Guinness’s work since I read The Dust of Death during my student days forty years ago. This was a 2016 Christianity Today award winner and explores the question of how one might speak persuasively in the best sense of the word with regard to matters of faith. And yes, he is from that Guinness family. Now there is a thought, Guinness and Guinness!

The Greater Journey, by David McCullough. I have loved everything McCullough has written and I suspect this book about “Americans in Paris” will be no exception.

It would have to be some snow storm to finish all these books, particularly the Churchill book. The thought of getting started in each of these books is fun though. And truth is, you might see these in my reviews sometime this year anyway, snow storm or not!

OK, so my tastes may be different from yours. What books would you like to have with you if you were snowbound?

Books I Wish I Had Read Sooner

Recently I wrote a post titled “Books I Read Too Soon“. Today I was wondering whether there were some books that I wish I had read sooner. So I perused through the books that I’ve reviewed over the past few years and came up with a list of some I wish I had come across or read earlier in life. It is not that I did not benefit from these books when I did read them. Rather, I just wish I had enjoyed the benefit of discovering their riches sooner. In some cases, this would just not have been possible because they were written in the last few years. What I would say is, if you agree with my reasoning about each book and you are younger than I am, don’t wait until your fifties or sixties to read them!

GoblinCurdieThe Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald. I even wrote in my review of the former of these two that I wondered why I hadn’t read this sooner. Both are stories that work on multiple levels that only get richer with each reading. Of The Princess and the Goblin, G.K. Chesterton said it “made a difference to my whole existence.”

QuietQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talkingby Susan Cain. I think both my wife and I wish this book had been written years sooner. Introverts often feel they should try to be extroverts, which it seems society prefers. Susan Cain’s book, without being whiny, suggests that introverts bring a unique gift to the world. Wish I’d read this one in high school!

CanticleA Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. This was a sci-fi book I passed up reading as a kid because I thought “Canticle” seemed too highbrow. Read it a few years ago for the first time and was struck with both the memory of living under a nuclear cloud in the sixties, and the fascinating project of this book of preserving learning in a post-nuclear holocaust world.

Critical journeyThe Critical Journey, Stages in the Life of Faithby Janet O Hagberg and Robert A. Guelich. I wish I had understood in my thirties that faith was a journey rather than a static reality. It took hitting the wall that Hagberg and Guelich talk about in this book during mid-life to wonder if there are greater depths to the life of faith than what I was taught as a young adult.

Daring GreatlyDaring Greatly by Brene’ Brown.  This is a book I wish I had read as a young leader. Brene’ Brown talks about the strength to be found in vulnerability, not something most men do well, including me. Her explorations of the way we avoid vulnerability through perfectionism and through numbing and through thinking we cannot allow ourselves joy described the strategies I’ve too often used to “maintain control” and not risk.

Exclusion & EmbraceExclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf. I think we (and I include myself here) spend too much time dividing the world into “us” and “them” and I spent too many years thinking in these terms. Yet the real question is how do we embrace the “other” who really is different in important ways from us. Volf’s “drama of embrace”  and the practice of “double vision” gave me new ways of thinking about how we love across our differences and have genuine and deep encounters with the “other”.

to change the worldTo Change the World by James Davison Hunter. I’ve used “world-changing” rhetoric in my work during most of my life but my ideas of what real culture change looked like were naive and simplistic. Hunter challenges both our superficial engagements with the culture and the naive hopes we often have put in politics to change the world and calls for the “long obedience” of “faithful presence” in society.

I think I could have profited by reading each of these books earlier in life. Nevertheless, I’m glad I read them when I did because each of these were works of worth that have served me well since. I was also struck when I perused my reviews of how many books I did not necessarily wish I had read sooner. They seemed fine for this time and this group of books was in the vast majority. I’m really not overly troubled by this. But if the books I’ve mentioned encourage someone twenty or thirty or more years younger than I to read them and that person profits from the reading–then that will be a good thing.

Are there books you wish you had read sooner?