It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
In nothing has the Church so lost her hold on reality as in her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as a result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion
In a lovely little book I recently read (see my review here), Miroslav Volf highlights the importance of the concept of human flourishing. Every individual wants to live the best life possible. We don’t just want to exist; we want to thrive. We want to flourish. But what exactly is it to flourish? There are different views: the author identifies three, but I’ll contrast only two.
According to Miroslav Volf, the prevalent view today in the Western world is that of Experiential Satisfaction. This way of thinking, however, extends beyond the west. It is a result of fallen human nature. According to this view, we flourish when we live a life in which we experience pleasure. It doesn’t matter what the source of the pleasure is: It could be the excitement of listening to beautiful music or keeping up with the latest fashion. It could be the love of sports or absorption in religion. What counts is that something gives us pleasure, and when we experience this we flourish.
It is a mistake to seek fulfillment in pleasure. For one, all pleasure, whatever the source, never satisfies. It has to be constantly renewed. Each pleasure enjoyed only leaves us with a hunger for more. Also, we face this emptiness in our pursuit of pleasure because everything that is enjoyed has a true meaning beyond itself. Only when we reach beyond the pleasures of sex, music, food, knowledge, etc, and ascend to the God who created them can we be truly satisfied. As Miroslav Volf wrote:
“Whatever we have, we want more and different things, and when we have climbed to the top, a sense of disappointment clouds the triumph. Our striving can therefore find proper rest only when we find joy in something infinte.” (A Public Faith, p. 62)
The Christian view of Human flourishing, however, holds that we truly prosper when we live a life centred on loving God and our neighbour. This outlook can be summarized in the following points:
• God is a person who loves and can be loved in return.
• The human person must necessarily love something – this could be God, others or himself. To be human is to love.
• We live well when we love both God and our neighbour.
• We are truly happy only when we derive joy from loving God and our neighbours in God.
In other words, to flourish, God must be at the centre of all our thinking and acting. Several centuries ago, Augustine wrote in his autobiography, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till they find rest in you”. We were made for communion with God, and until we live in this loving and intimate interaction with Him, our lives remain empty.
Originally posted on 4thaluv:
The basis of feminism is a good one to embrace, one that most everybody agrees on: Equality. Hard to go wrong with equality. One argues about whether it’s a flower of Christianity or a flower of the Enlightenment but there is not much argument about whether or not it’s a good thing to uphold, a good thing to strive after.
The 20th century and the beginning of the 21st are replete with examples of political and non-political forces chasing this imperative, some reactionary, some ecumenical. Feminism is just one of many. What then is there to critique about one movement backed by such a unanimous moral fiat?
Feminism’s main problem is that although its central tenant is rock solid, its outworking of equality sometimes leaves more to be desired. It is too singularly focused on one point and can, and I would argue does, get carried away on…
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Less than 2 weeks into the new year, terrorists attacked a French publishing company, killing 12 people. We hear reports of the atrocities by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. And here in Nigeria, we are fed stories of the latest Boko Haram abduction or massacre. Lest it seem like the acts of radicals are within a single religion, we are reminded of the crusades centuries ago in Europe, the fierce battles between European Protestants and Catholics, the religious conflicts in Northern Ireland, India, Nigeria, Sudan, etc. And it seems like the world would be a better place if only all religious beliefs were either abandoned or entirely privatized within individual hearts and homes. This has been the Western ‘wisdom’ for several generations, but it is a wisdom that has been exposed for the futility and emptiness that it is. The 21st century world understands that Religion is no small matter. It really is a big deal, and it can hardly be locked up in churches, mosques, and homes. It will always struggle to be expressed and lived publicly.
In a globalized world where traditional geographical and cultural boundaries are being broken down and people and ideas freely travel across the globe, how can the collision of faiths be kept peaceful?
How can society eliminate the threat of imposition (i.e., that the principles of a particular faith would not be foisted on the rest, as the agenda of radical Islamists is)? Specifically, how should the Christian community respond to this trend?
This is what this book seeks to address. It is written by Miroslav Volf, the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale University, and Founding Director, Yale Center for Faith & Culture.
He advocates a project of political pluralism. This is proposed as an alternative to both religious totalitarianism (such as we find in the rise of militant or radical Islam that has emerged in recent years) and a secularism that disallows all religious views from public discussions and interactions (the dominant outlook in the Western world since the Enlightenment). He suggests that our response as the Church would involve embracing and living out the following points:
• Christ is God’s word who has come into the world for the good of all peoples. Our faith is therefore a ‘prophetic’ faith that seeks to mend the world. When it fails to do this, it malfunctions.
• Christ came to redeem the world through his death. His instrument was preaching, not coercion. When a faith resorts to coercion, it also malfunctions.
• To follow Christ in the world is to care for others and work towards their flourishing. Dr Volf states here that, “a vision of human flourishing and the common good is the main thing that the Christian faith brings into the public debate.”
• Since the world is God’s creation, we cannot adopt a hostile stance towards it. We must adopt a pattern of appropriating what is true and rejecting what is false within it.
• We are called to be witnesses to Christ. This is how we are to help society flourish.
• No single political arrangement is legitimized by Christ; various forms are compatible with the Christian faith. However, we should, after the instruction of Christ, do to others as we desire from them by granting them the same freedoms we claim for ourselves.
This proposal is essential because our beliefs must be active in society without being oppressive. When we fail to do this, our faith malfunctions, either by being idle or by being coercive.
A faith that makes a difference authentically is a faith that guides what we do in the world and that shapes how we understand the world and our place in it. (p. 30)
Faith is made idle when it is emptied of its power to define one’s purpose and provide direction for life. We can fall into this error when we pick and choose elements of the faith that soothe or please us, while abandoning the rest. We can also make our faith idle by submitting to the established systems that govern various aspects of our lives such as work or education, rather than following the demands of our faith concerning those areas. Thirdly, faith can be made idle when we fail to apply it to contemporary challenges and situations. When this happens, the character of that faith is distorted. An important area in which this idleness of faith has severe consequences is in our work. Faith provides direction and guidance for our lives. But where our work is disconnected from that faith, it becomes distorted and is eventually turned into an idol. As the author notes on page 34, ‘Our work can find its ultimate meaning when, in working for ourselves and for community, we work for God.’
A second way that faith malfunctions is when adherents impose that faith oppressively on others. Many religions have at one time or the other been guilty of coercion. However, the author believes it is not an inherent aspect of any major religion, particularly the Christian faith. Our faith calls us to save the world by bearing witness to Christ, the Redeemer. When violence is adopted, faith malfunctions.
Miroslav repeatedly (and rightly!) debunks the notion that religious views are an add-on to a person’s basic self-awareness and so can be discarded at will in order to live with others on ‘secular’ grounds. Religion gives one an identity, and cannot be removed as one undresses at night.
‘When religion leaves the public square – or is driven from it – the public square doesn’t remain empty. Instead, it becomes filled with a diffuse phenomenon called secularism.’
When the Christian faith is properly embraced, it leads to true human flourishing. Over the years, a different view of human flourishing – a search for personal experiential satisfaction – has become prominent. But he show how deeply flawed this view is as he leads us to see that humans flourish only when their lives are in harmony with God:
‘… human beings flourish and are truly happy when they center their lives on God, the source of everything that is true, good and beautiful.’ (p.58)
I personally found his discussion of human flourishing very enlightening. And It is rather surprising that even though I believe God has called me to help humanity flourish through my teaching, I have never seriously considered what exactly it means for humanity to flourish. That was until I read this book. He clearly helps us see that the pursuit of personal satisfaction and pleasure is a dead end.
We lead our lives well when we love God with our whole being and when we love our neighbors as we (properly) love ourselves. (p.72)
In this task of seeking human flourishing, we interact with other faiths. And ‘a central challenge for all religions in a pluralistic world is to help people grow out of their petty hopes so as to live meaningful lives, and to help them resolve their grand conflicts and live in communion with others.’ (p. 100) Given this understanding, it becomes necessary for religious people to share wisdom among one another. For the Christian, this is the task of bearing witness to Christ, who is the Wisdom of God. And he concludes by urging all faith traditions to commune together, sharing wisdom from their sacred texts, as they seek truth and mutual understanding.
This is an excellent book that will help believers to think deeply about how our faith applies to public culture. One the one hand, we have to recover a vibrant, thick and robust faith that will be humbly but creatively lived out in the daily world. On the other hand, we share our wisdom with the rest of the world without imposing ‘truth’ on them. Our tool, as witness bearers, is persuasion.
However, I search in vain for a hint that the world might not continue to exist as a multitude of faiths. I find no hope of the worldwide triumph of the gospel, such that the knowledge of Christ shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. He does not consider that the project of political pluralism might only be temporary. This is not unique to the author; I think it is a weakness of the larger body of Christ today. While this does not detract from the usefulness of the book, the hope should be kept alive so it can motivate believers to greater faithfulness. The Bible leads us to expect the onward spread of the gospel across the nations (Zech. 9:10; Acts 13:47; 15:16-17; Isa. 2:2; Joel 2:28; Psalm 2:8). God is at work in his world, drawing all men to himself. We do not need to believe that the current global state of affairs will continue indefinitely. God’s word leads us to look for a time when our whole world would have embraced the truth of the gospel.
No religion, including Christianity, is content with being just one among many. Every religion is exclusive: it regards itself as the truth. All other religions are false, even though they may contain bits and strands of truth. While they may accept political pluralism as a means of coexisting in a globalized world, each seeks global dominance. None will stop until it can get the entire world to come under its tabernacle. This has also been the vision of the Church for centuries. The challenge for the Church (and for all other religions) is not to seek this reality through Coercion, but through Persuasion. From a Christian perspective, every other religion is a distortion of God’s revealed truth in nature. While we would respect and love their adherents as fellow creatures of God, we must not fail to see that the existence of other religions is a spiritual blindness which God is wiping out through the gospel.
In all, this is an amazing book and it deserves to be read by every Christian as we seek to live faithfully in these challenging times.
Rafael Ramos, one of the murdered officers, was a Christian. A member of Christ Tabernacle Church in Queens, New York for 14 years, he was a committed believer. According to his pastor, Rev. Adam Durso, he served as an usher and was active in the church’s marriage and life group ministries.
What was most striking about Rafael Ramos, however, was his approach to his work as a police officer. For Ramos, policing the streets and keeping people safe was a ministry. He was so close to ordination as a lay chaplain when he was murdered – just some hours away. In the words of Marcos Miranda, president of the New York State Chaplain Task Force*, “He felt he was doing God’s work. He felt he was protecting and serving the community and that was sort of a ministry for him.”
Work is more than just a job. God himself instituted it just after creating the universe:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it (Gen 2:15).
Through it mankind would fulfill the mandate given to him by God to subdue the earth (cf. Gen. 1:28). Humanity is to serve God through their various callings. Paul’s encouragement is for us to do everything heartily as to the Lord (Col. 3:23,24), be it law enforcement, sales or agriculture. All are ways in which we bring Him glory.
‘I say to you, this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. You may be thirty-eight years old, as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house. So you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at thirty-eight as you would be at ninety. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You died when you refused to stand up for justice.’