Each election year comes with a question that affects the lives of Christians and their interaction with government and political authority.
What is the best way for Christians to be heard in the public arena?
Granted, election years are not the only time this question is raised, but it is an important question and one with several possible answers. Some argue Christians should be supportive of political causes in response to their faith. Others believe the government, especially in the United States, should only adhere to Judeo-Christian ethics and any other religions should not be heard. In response to our global world, there are also those who believe religious world views should not be heard in the public square, because they can create violence and try to impose their views on others.
The latter is a basic principle held by supporters of secularism. This viewpoint argues society is at its best when it is not influenced by religious convictions. But, does this not limit the ability of religious people to speak? Yale Divinity Professor Miroslav Volf argues that it does. In his recent book, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good Volf argues that the desire for religious tolerance and separation of church and state comes at a cost to religious people, especially members of the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Christians, and other religious people, have a right for their voices and concerns to be heard in the public square. To limit a group’s voice, because it is religious, is the essence of intolerance.
How then should Christians engage the public square? Volf’s attempts to answer this question by arguing for social pluralism which seeks the common good. His entire book lays the case for this argument. Volf says people of faith should “insert themselves as one voice among many into public life to promote their own vision of human flourishing and serve the common good.” Religious people are one of many voices and their faith can be used to serve the common good of others. This is a supportable position and one Christians should not be afraid to accept.
This is counter to how many Christians have engaged the public arena. Public engagement is often with the “I’m right and you’re wrong” message that is typical of our political partisanship. When Christians embrace a partisanship mentality in engagement, we become not the witness of a loving and merciful God, but a reflection of a culture devoid of love and respect of the other.
Volf appears to recognize this when he takes an honest assessment of Christianity’s engagement in the public arena. He says Christians have been misguided in their public engagements. This is not a case of the right is wrong and the left is right or vice versa, but a case of the greater purpose of faith in Christ being ignored by most of our public engagements. As Volf states, the Christian faith has “failed to live up to its own standards as a prophetic religion.” That is a challenging and truthful statement. It is hit home with this additional comment:
Too often, it neither mends the world nor helps human beings thrive. To the contrary, it seems to shatter things into pieces, to choke up what is new and beautiful before it has a chance to take root, to trample underfoot what is good and true.
This happens when faith is used to “fit our desires and our capacity to live in a given situation.” Volf points this out relating to several issues, most appropriately with human flourishing and what it means to be satisfied. When the Christian faith stops being a life-changing reality, it becomes a tool to be used to and to be put away. Christianity then becomes a “self-help” guide void of the truly transformative nature that comes from faith in Jesus Christ. If we truly desire to be prophetic in the public arena, then our engagement and faith must be authentic.
Volf gives Christians guidance about how we should properly engage the public arena. That is by a principle of internal difference. He suggests that Christian difference, the idea that there is something unique about the Christian faith, should be internal to a “given cultural world.” In other words, Christian engagement should be contextualized and true to the faith. Volf suggests that Christian involvement should not seek total transformation or accommodation, but engagement. To engage, a Christian must be willing to be fully engage with his or her entire being. We are unable to engage if we limit one aspect of our self. He also says engagement includes all aspects of a certain culture. There is no place where Christian engagement is limited. In other words, out faith must be both public and private. We are not seeking to transform, but, instead, promote the common good as it relates to belief in Jesus Christ.
Volf takes time to address what proper engagement looks like in different situations. Each of these points back to his desire for faith to seek the common good. The one area of note is in his discussion of public engagement. He writes:
To speak in one’s own religious voice is to speak out of the center of one’s faith. To speak in a Christian voice is to speak out of these two fundamental convictions: that God loves all people, including the transgressors, and that religious identity is circumscribed by permeable boundaries.
What does Volf mean by this statement? Christians should engage based on their idea of truth or wisdom. This affects how we see the world, but also how we claim what the common good looks like. Our basic engagement should be centered on God’s love and the call to seek the good in all people. To speak in any other voice, such as our desire for political power, weakens the message of the cross.
In conclusion, Volf writes a challenging book at a challenging time in the United States. His desire for Christians to engage and seek pluralism is admirable. We can seek the ability of all religions having a voice at the table without denying our faith. In a time when we are caught in culture wars, however, this can be difficult to do. Volf speaks to this and calls Christians to take the higher road of loving God, loving our neighbor, and seeking the common good. This is a goal we should all desire, and we can applaud Volf for giving us this desire.