Miroslav Volf No. 3: Engaging the Public Square

This is the final blog dealing with the public theology of Miroslav Volf, a professor at Yale Divinity School. His book, “A Public Faith, is one every pastor and interested layperson should read. [1]. I am not capable of giving the book the complete review it deserves. I may quibble at points, but the theme and thesis of the book are right on point for where we are today in American and Western society.

Petty Hopes and Great Conflicts

Volf begins his discussion of sharing wisdom in public life with a sentence that describes perfectly contemporary American society.: “We live in an age of great conflicts and petty hopes.”  Volf has already analyzed the reduction of meaning in human life to the achievement of personal satisfaction. Personal satisfaction constitutes the hope of late modern America. Human flourishing has been reduced to the personal selfish achievement of personal power, possessions, religious experience, sexual pleasure, gourmet food, recreational drugs, and whatever individual immediate desire a human might occasionally choose. [2] These are just a few of our petty hopes.

On the other hand, the decline of traditional societies, the emergence of a worldwide, Western-induced, materialistic philosophy of everyday life, and the messianic hopes of radical groups have created a world of great conflict. All over the world, the phenomena of misplaced moral utopianism, secular and religious, have caused and continue to cause foolish revolutionary conflict and violence. During the so-called war on terror, the great conflict was between the secular humanist West and radical Islam. [3]

There are, however, many other conflicts. On the Indian subcontinent, the conflict is often been between Hinduism and Islam. Within Western societies, conflicts have often been between different fundamental ideas concerning the requirements for human flourishing and the proper structure of human society. As I write, Israel has considerable social unrest over a proposal to adjust the judicial system. These significant conflicts threaten the peace and stability of nearly every democratic society and seldom lead to wise and careful policymaking.

Volf believes that a critical challenge for all religions in a pluralistic and troubled world is to help people grow out of their petty hopes to live meaningful lives and help people peacefully resolve more significant conflicts within their society to live in community with others.  I would add helping people grow out of their narrow ideologies to live in community with others. This requires that the world’s religions make available to members of their societies the fullness of the wisdom contained in the traditions they represent.

In the West, Christianity and the Judeo-Christian tradition historically provided an overarching story of the redeeming love of God, concrete, practical advice concerning how people should treat one another, and the representative, personal wisdom of the Old and the New Testament. For Christians, the figure of Jesus Christ embodies the wisdom and love of God in a personal way, reflecting the personal wisdom of a personal God. [4]

Why Share Christian Wisdom?

The Bible is not neutral about whether Christians should share their faith and its implications with others, including secular others. The Great Commission and many related passages, including “So let your light shine before men that they might your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16) speak to the need for religious faith to speak to a disbelieving world. Part of “letting your light shine” is letting the brilliant illumination of the Word of God revealed in self-giving love shine into society.

Christians are requested to share the self-giving love of God with others. Love is essentially social and communicative. Humans will speak to our children about important things if we love them. In the same way, if we truly love our neighbors and fellow citizens, we will kindly share with them if it seems that they are on a self-destructive path. The dual duties to share wisdom and to love do, however, limit how Christians are called to interact in society.

  • First, love and violence are antithetical, and no violence can be employed in sharing the love and wisdom of God.
  • Second, the purpose of any communication is to help our society in a loving way. This indicates that hard-selling sales pitches, mischaracterizing our opponents, violent demonstrations, harsh language in social media, and other techniques standard in our society are forbidden to Christians.
  • Third, Christians should refrain from speaking unless they embody in their Way of Life the wisdom they encourage others to adopt. Hypocrisy is not a helpful Christian strategy for social change.
  • Fourth, Christians are not witnesses of their personal, selfish opinions or views but witness to Christ in all things, and our advice has to be given accordingly.

As I was preparing this list, it occurred to me that it is generally (though not always) true that Christians do not give wisdom in the form of a suggested result but as a help to how society makes decisions. To give what I hope is a non-inflammatory illustration, Biblical Wisdom warns against excessive debt. Christians may want to share this wisdom with society. The precise means chosen (reducing spending, increasing taxes, etc.) are not determined within the boundaries of strictly religious knowledge and are matters of practical application.

Christian Faith and Public Engagement

Christians in America live and engage in public life in a society vastly different than those who founded the nation, fought a terrible civil war to eliminate slavery, built its basic industrial infrastructure during the 19th Century, and fought and won two world wars in the 20th century while creating a “post-industrial economy. The United States was the “first modern nation” profoundly impacted by the Enlightenment, the evolution of the modern world, and the growth of an industrial and technological society. During much of this period, secularists felt religion would disappear from public life as people adopted a modern, materialistic worldview.

This is not what happened. Recently, there has been much evidence that the reverse might be happening—and this has caused a predictable rise in concern among secularists about the dangers of religion. Most importantly, beginning with the philosophical work of Nietzsche, the psychoanalytic work of Freud and others, and the rise of post-modern physics, the intellectual foundations of the Enlightenment and the materialistic worldview it engendered began to crumble or at least require serious revision. We sit at the beginning of a new era, and societies are in uncharted waters. Where we are headed in not completely clear. What is clear is that the future will not be exactly the same as the past or as many of the loudest voices in our society desire.

Importantly, human beings now live in a religiously diverse world that will not get any less diverse any time soon. Part of the results of recent social changes is a vast increase in the inevitable interactions among religious groups.  The challenge for Christians, and every member of Western society, is how to live peacefully and productively in a religiously diverse environment. As for secular people, it is clear that no single secular form of modernity can peacefully dominate the world and create a secular “world culture.” There are currently several secular ideologies with substantial followings. Wolf calls this an era of “multiple modernities.” As a result, there will not be one single form of society or one single world culture. It is more likely that multiple world cultures will incorporate parts of what we refer to as the modern worldview.[5]

For example, it is unlikely that Western Europe and North America, with their Judeo-Christian heritage, will look like India, with its Hindu and Buddhist heritage, China, with its Taoist and Confucian heritage, or the Middle East and large parts of the world, with their Muslim heritage. The challenge is finding a modus operendi that will allow all these religious groups and all these modernities to live and work together productively to promote human flourishing, or what might traditionally have been called “the common good.”

Basic Outline of the Political Pluralist Proposal

Volf believes that the Christian faith, with its emphasis on wisdom and love as foundational to the Christian life, supports a form of political pluralism that can help heal the divisions of our culture and allow various religious groups to participate fully in society and public life. Other world religions also incorporate basic ideas similar to those that motivate a Christian response to cultural pluralism. A basic outline of such a view is as follows: [6]

  1. God commands love of neighbor and encourages humans to treat others as we would like to be treated. The Golden Rule is a feature of many societies. [7]
  2. The ultimate authority of God over the universe allows room for the creatures created in his image to manage their societies. While it is true that believers must obey their God, it is not true that believers are not subject to legitimate secular authorities.
  3. While the fundamental texts of every religion guide life, that guidance is usually general and spiritual or moral. There is plenty of room for legal, social, and cultural diversity and innovation within a shared commitment to an ultimate ground of truth, beauty, and goodness.
  4. No single religion or culture has a monopoly on the proper way human societies should function. Specific laws, manners, ideas, concepts, rules, regulations, values, and criteria that shape distinct cultures need only be generally compatible with a shared commitment to fundamental values and religious ideals.
  5. Religious people are called to live within their home cultures as followers of their religious views. They should not regard their own specific religious beliefs as essential to the culture in which they live.
  6. Although religious believers believe that the moral law has universal validity, believers should not impose on secular culture-specific elements of their views except as a result of a democratic process that permits it and grants others the maximum amount of religious and philosophical freedom to pursue their aims peacefully.
  7. Neither Christians nor any other religious group members have a duty to impose their views upon others in society. This is particularly true of those religions for whom peacefulness, love, and voluntary acceptance of religious opinions are fundamental.
  8. A decision to adopt a particular faith must be accepted by people freely and offered to them, not as a command but as a gift. Any legal or other imposition of a religious belief, particular social system, or legislation based on religious views is rejected in principle.


Ultimately, Volf’s proposal is a practical political application of the Golden Rule. Former President Obama, who features in a significant way in his important “Cairo Speech,” believed that a pluralistic international order could be achieved based on the widely shared principle of treating others as we would like to be treated under similar circumstances. [8] If Volf is correct, human societies are not doomed to a “Clash of Civilizations.” [9] The various cultures and religions of the world can live in harmony if they abandon violence to achieve religious results and bring to bear their best wisdom on issues of public importance. This requires a certain confidence that whatever is best in the tradition I happen to subscribe to will, in some way, be reflected in what ultimately is determined to be true. Violence is always a last resort, and often the last resort of those who secretly fear that their views are, in fact, wrong.

A Public Faith is a fine book. It is one I intend to read over and over again.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011),

[2] Id, at 99.

[3] Id, at 100.

[4] Id, at 102-103. I have reflected upon the role of wisdom in Christian thinking and practice in Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, WA: Wipf & Stock, 2014) and Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love (Memphis, TN: BookSurge, 2009, 2016).

[5] Id, at 120.

[6] Id, at 142-144.

[7] Something like a universal law of love is found in many cultures. In its classic form, it urges people to treat others as they wish to be treated. The Biblical precept “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” is understood in Jewish and Christian circles as universal, a transcendent principle encompassing the whole meaning and purpose of the law.

In Christianity, it is called the Golden Rule.

[8] Id, at 141.

[9] Id.

Disciple Makers Tool Box

One of the great pleasures of my life was meeting Jack Dannemiller. I vividly remember our first meeting. It was one of my first few days as a pastor in Bay Village, Ohio—a crisp, bright, lovely late October day. Jack came by my office to welcome me to town and brought a few copies of Answers to Life’s Greatest Questions, a pamphlet he published under Living Dialogue Ministries’ imprint. Jack wanted to meet me and discuss the challenges facing youth in Cleveland and Fort Myers, Florida, where Jack lives part of each year. Our visit began a friendship of several years and a partnership in the Gospel in Cleveland and beyond. Answers to Life’s Greatest Questions and several Bible Studies he has published have been successfully translated into Spanish (and other languages) and used by mission partners in Mexico and other places. Others of his books have been useful in congregations in which Kathy and I have participated or have contacts.

Who is Jack Dannemiller?

The answer is, “Jack Dannemiller is a committed Christian layman.” Jack got his first degree from the Case Institute of Technology and then from the Case Western Weatherhead School of Business. His successful business career culminated in his work as the Chairman and CEO of a New York Stock Exchange Company. Currently, he is the Chairman of Living Dialogue Ministries. He has written several books and participated in the preparation of others. He is the Author of “Answers to Your Greatest Questions” and “Reasons for Faith: A Journey into Apologetics.” At an age when many men “slow down,” Jack finds time to be a father and grandfather and serve to cause of Christ in two different cities and beyond.

Jack has been honored by his Alma Mater, which describes Jack’s accomplishments as follows:

Jack Dannemiller’s adage for life and work has served him well: “Discovery is seeing what everyone else is seeing but thinking what no one else thinks.”

For his MBA thesis at what’s now Case Western Reserve University, Dannemiller created the Professional Selling Skills training program that’s been used in a range of industries for more than 50 years.

As chairman and CEO of Applied Industrial Technologies, he brought innovative practices to the Cleveland-based distributor of industrial, motion and control technologies that led to tripling the company’s product types and expanding its global reach. [1]

I did not know Jack during those exciting years of his business career—but I know folks who did, and they all love and admire the man as a wonderful human being. Jack is a guy worth listening to and learning from in many areas of life.

The Disciple Makers Tool Box

Jack’s latest effort is called “The Disciple Makers Tool Box: Instruction Manual: Your Guide to Becoming a Disciple Maker.” [2] This short little book of under 100 pages is precisely what it purports to be—a toolbox for people who wish to be or become disciple-makers. Each chapter contains short, practical, hands-on advice and help concerning how to make disciples for Jesus Christ. It deals with the most basic questions skeptics and secular folks have, the primary barriers to the faith they experience, and the fundamental tools one needs to share your faith with others and help others begin their walk of faith. For example, Jack provides several easily reproducible aids to disciple-making.

Jack answers basic questions not as a pastor or theologian but as a layperson who has a heart for God and wants to know more about how to share their faith. The book is deliberately written in an approachable style. It does not deal with complex issues in depth but instead gives simple, straightforward responses to the kinds of questions people have and the barriers to faith in Christ. The emphasis is on readability by the average person, yet the matters covered can be complex.

Here is a brief outline of the contents of The Disciple Makers Tool Box:

  • Disciple-making dialogue techniques
  • Discerning questions for dialogue
  • Questions and answers for dealing with seekers and skeptics
  • How to explain the real meaning of faith
  • Charts, Illustrations, and Handouts
  • A proven method for studying the Bible
  • Resource references for finding Evidence & Answers
  • A simple course outline on basic Christian Apologetics

Dialogue as a Skill for Disciple Makers

As some readers know, last year I published a book called “Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making.” Jack and I were each working on our books at the same time, and I profited greatly from his advice, comments, and wisdom. I had the opportunity to read his manuscript as it developed. He was already Chairman of Living Dialogue Ministries, and I had already been interested in dialogue in various human contexts, including Church leadership and disciple-making. [3] In Crisis of Discipleship, I went into more theoretical detail about why dialogue is important in reaching our culture. Disciple Makers Tool Box has the same emphasis, and dialogue remains a common theme in our work. All the books in the Living Dialogue series have as one goal providing ways for people to have meaningful and helpful conversations with believers and seekers alike.

This emphasis on dialogue is especially important in our divided society, where many people refuse to engage in a loving exchange with those with whom they disagree, especially where politics and religion are involved. One of the most important things Christians can learn to do is communicate effectively into the lives of people in our society. Jack’s emphasis on dialogue is important in this regard.


No book can be perfect, and no short book can cover everything a reviewer or critic might wish were covered in detail. Disciple Makers Tool Box has to be judged by what it is and set out to accomplish—and on that basis, it is a great success. I recommend pastors, small group leaders, disciple-makers, and others read this book and get copies to give away. As I mentioned near the beginning, Kathy and I have used Living Dialogue Ministry Bible studies and materials in small groups we have led, and some of our young mission partners in Mexico have shared the Spanish versions there. The results have been encouraging.

The books published by Living Dialogue Ministries are generally written for an evangelical audience. For readers and friends who would not fit in that category, I emphasize the practical nature of the materials. Because of the straightforward nature of the language, some may feel that the books are too simplistic for their congregation. I urge such readers to resist the temptation to feel this way and allow their congregations and groups to learn from Jack and Living Dialogue Ministries. You will not regret the decision. For those in evangelical congregations, the book will fit easily into the training curriculum for your congregation.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Case Western Reserve University Alumni Association at https://case.edu/alumni/alumni-awards/2022-dannemiller 9downloaded August 21, 2023).

[2] Jack Dannemiller, The Disciple Makers Tool Box: Instruction Manual: Your Guide to Becoming a Disciple Maker (Richmond, VA: Living Dialogue Ministries, 2023). This book and all the others in the Living Dialogue series are available through the ministry’s website at https://livingdialog.org/

[3] I cannot make this a complete review of Jack and his friends, but one of his colleagues, Irving Stubs, is essential. Irving has been a pastor and a consultant specializing in dialogue. He lives in Richmond, Virginia, in retirement and has been influential in encouraging dialogue in business and religion. Irving R. Stubbs is the author of Dialogue: A Way to Live Revised Edition (Richmond VA: Living Dialogue Ministries, 2020).

Miroslav Volf 2: A Public Faith

A Public Faith has two distinct parts. Last week, we dealt with Part I, in which the author outlines the “malfunctions of faith,” i.e., the constant temptation to either attempt to dominate the public square through violence or withdraw entirely from engagement with public life. Volf believes that both these approaches are ultimately flawed and, from a Christian perspective, unfaithful to the gospel. This week, we begin a review of Part II, which Volf entitles “Engaged Faith.” The fundamental point of Christian engagement is to participate in public life so that a witness is made to the wisdom and love of God revealed in Christ. In different societies, this engagement will occur in different ways. Volf aims to sketch out a way of engagement helpful to modern pluralistic, secular societies.

The Constantinian Settlement and Religious Voices in Politics

In the West, Christian engagement with politics and appropriately addressing the public square is complicated by the centuries-long connection between the churches of Europe and its governments. Due to the legacy of the “Constantinian settlement,” and the fact that Christianity was the established religion in much of Europe, Christians in the West became used to being in positions of honor and social influence in society. The loss of this position and the attempts to maintain a privileged position in Western society are, Volf believes, a hindrance to the proper functioning of Christian faith in the Public Square.

Volf gives one example, and I will provide another in the interests of fairness. Volf focuses on the Christian Right that emerged in the 1970s. Jerry Falwell and his short-lived Moral Majority movement attempted to “restore America” to its status as a “Christian nation” by active engagement in politics. On the other hand, we have the example of Faith in Public Life and other left-wing social action groups affiliated with the American left—a group powerful in the Democratic Party. Each of these groups, and many others on all sides of the political spectrum, represent a sense that certain religious voices have been marginalized and need to be heard at the table of public debate. The involvement of some indicates an unwillingness for the views they represent to lose the privileged position to which they are accustomed.

One description of the Christian left reads: “Liberal theology has roots in Enlightenment philosophy, which suggested a rational and contextual reading of the Bible. The Liberation Theology of the 1960s cemented liberal Christians’ stance on active participation in social justice work.” [1] Readers of this blog will understand that the Christian left is not a child of the 1960s but has a long history in America from the Social Gospel movement forward. The Christian right, on the other hand, has a different history. Evangelicalism had little political voice or interest until the 1970s, when the issue of abortion began to trouble American life. At that point, traditional Christians, catholic and Protestant, began to enter public life and seek a place at the table.

My point in this section is to underscore that Volf is correct in his analysis—but he does not necessarily fairly describe the situation. The quote above focuses on what I think is the most critical factor in the current situation: the Enlightenment’s antagonism towards orthodox Christianity and its attempts to silence religious voices. This endeavor continues to the present time in an increasingly militant manner.

The Marginalized History of Christian Faith

Volf believes that there is something odd about this situation. The early Christians did not sit at the center of power but at the margins. Christianity was a small, despised, and persecuted faith in the first few centuries. The primary issue of public theology was whether or not Cesar was to be obeyed, with the apostolic leadership urging obedience to civil authorities, even though they frequently persecuted the young church. [2] Opposition meant certain martyrdom. The early Christians worshiped the God of Israel and the Messiah Jesus of Nazareth in whose footsteps they attempted to walk. [3] For the most part, they ignored and did not participate in the public life of the Empire.

Volf’s goal in writing a public theology is to look toward the future in which the church is once again at the margins of society and yet dispel the inevitable gloom that some feel and generate hope for Christian and other religious communities at the beginning of the 21st century. He wants to make the Christian community comfortable with being just one of many players in a secular society, or what he would call a “religiously plural” society. He wants to articulate a public theology allowing Christians and others, whether at the margins or the center of power, to promote the common good in their own way. [4] This is a noble goal.

Church and Sect

One of the most interesting parts of A Public Faith is his analysis of the distinction between “church” and “cult” as it impacted the work of Earnest Troeltsch and Max Weber. Only a European familiar with the state church concepts prominent in European society can fully appreciate its distinction, history, and inapplicability to contemporary politics. According to Troeltsch, the church is an institution of society and sits at its center, or as a sect, is set apart from society and generally opposes it. The church is an established institution, part of the social order; a sect is a marginalized group. The state recognizes a church; a sect is tolerated. [5]

I remember years ago being surprised to learn that the Assemblies of God and Pentecostal groups were considered “sects” in a particular European country and not entitled to the certain protections afforded to the state churches. To an American, this seemed utterly illogical. However, the distinction is a part of the fact that, in most European countries, there was an established church. It might be the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, a Lutheran, or a Reformed Church. The state recognized and funded these institutions, and their pastors, were semi-official state representatives.

On the other hand, sects, such as the Assemblies of God or perhaps the Brethren, are not so recognized. Volf grew up as a Pentecostal in Yugoslavia, a member of what would have been seen as a sect. In many European countries, there was no such thing as “religious freedom.” One was expected to be a member of the state church. One was, by birth, such a member.

Americans have a hard time understanding the religious history of Europe and how religious freedom developed in Europe. In Europe, after the religious wars in Europe (1517-1648), religious tolerance gradually developed, and state religions lost their monopoly on faith. [6] From the very beginning, immigrants from various countries inhabited North America. Many had left in search of the religious freedom they did not enjoy in Europe. Almost immediately, America developed a kind of religious pluralism that would take years to develop in Europe.

By the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, another kind of pluralism began to develop in Europe and the United States. No longer were the religious distinctions between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews central, but various other groups started to have substantial followings, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and others. This was also true in Europe, especially in those nations with significant Muslim populations. As a result, the old distinction between sects and churches has no meaning. [7] Today, to talk of religious freedom in America is to recognize that many religions and groups are entitled to such freedom.

Accommodation or Entrenchment

Religious groups have taken different tactics in responding to religious pluralism and the decline of their influence in society. This is an oversimplification; generally, the more liberal tendency has been to accommodate contemporary Enlightenment social voices and try to find a way of expressing faith that fundamentally secular people can understand. The efforts of Fredrich Schleiermacher come to mind. [8] To the extent these groups participate in public life, they tend to adopt the political views of the political left as a part of their accommodation.

On the other side of the political spectrum, in the “post-liberal” program, there is an attempt to maintain the primacy of religious grammar in transmitting faith. Instead of translating religious faith into secular conceptualizations, post-liberalism attempts to describe a secular society in religious terms and maintain its sacred language and beliefs intact. This cultural-linguistic” approach is attractive to both moderate, traditional, and conservative religious people and those impacted by what used to be called the “Yale school” and its narrative/ linguistic approach to Christian theology. [9]

External Mission or Internal Difference

Volf moves from his analysis of church and sect to a distinction between a “separatist view” and a view he calls “internal difference.” Volf uses Bonhoeffer as a proponent of a kind of separatist view based upon a passage from Cost of Discipleship in which he speaks of Christians as amid the world but ready to be called out of the world at any moment. [10] I think that his use of Bonhoeffer in this regard was unwise.

The Greek word we translate as “church,” “ekklesia,” means “those called out.” From the beginning of the Christin church, there has been a sense in which the church is always something outside of society, and its members are sojourners, pilgrims on earth awaiting a better land (Philippians 3:20; I Peter 2:11-12; Hebrews 11:9-10, 13, 16). Any public theology must take seriously the notion that in some sense, even while being in the world, Christians are also those who have been called out of the world into the fellowship of Christ. The “separatist view” has Biblical support and a call on Christians in matters of public life.

Against the idea that the church is separated from the world, called into a kind of sectarian isolation, Volf defends the view that the church is internal to the world but different, a view he calls “internal difference.” It is hard to disagree with this move. As physical beings and institutions, Christians and churches are inevitably in the world and part of that world. Therefore, insofar as Christians participate in public life, they must participate within society and as a part of it.

Subversion or Self-Giving Love

Unfortunately in my view, Volf puts forward the idea that, in some way, the church is to be a “subversive institution,” by which he means an institution that lives by different rules and thus challenges or subverts the notions of power, position, and the like. He uses the example of Indians and other oppressed people. Although I appreciate Volf’s intention, I am not certain that the notion of “subversion” can be squared with either scripture or tradition. In scripture, there is the constant refrain from the apostolic witness that Christians are to live peacefully within society and respect its rulers. [11] I doubt the postmodern notion of subversion was in the mind of Peter, Paul, or any other apostles.

Instead of subversion, Christians are called to something more challenging—self-giving love. [12] While there can be no doubt that Christians must seek to overturn structures of society that prohibit human flourishing (to use Volf’s word), this is always a result of love. For example, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer left New York and returned to Germany in 1939, he did not give as his intent the subversion of the Nazi regime. He intended to share in the sufferings of the German people. [13] Shortly after arriving in America, Bonhoeffer seems to have had a moment of clarity, realizing that he must return to Germany and share the suffering of the German people. Explaining his decision, he wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, who had helped create a place of safety for him:

“I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.” [14]

I think Bonhoeffer did not return to Germany to become a subversive but to share the suffering of the people he loved. After returning, he did not immediately join the resistance. When entering the resistance to Hitler, Bonhoeffer knew that his action was morally ambiguous (and held the danger of the death he ultimately suffered). Bonhoeffer was forced to consider his calling to resist the evil of the Nazi regime (an act of loyalty, not subversion), even if it meant stepping away from his commitment to pacifism and non-violence. When challenged by a student in one of his lectures, Bonhoeffer let the student know that he understood the moral demands that were becoming more evident daily in Nazi Germany. [15] He was also aware that the admonition, “He who lives by the sword,” dies by the sword, applied to himself and others who opposed Hitler just as much as did Hitler and his Nazi cohorts. [16] This comment is essential to understanding Bonhoeffer’s theological and moral rationale for his activities. He understood that his decisions and activities were morally and theologically ambiguous, though he felt he was acting in faith. I believe that a love of God and his fellow Germans put Bonhoeffer on the road to his martyrdom, not a calling to subversion.


I need to make one more week of this fine book. It may seem that I have been critical in this blog, but I agree with A Public Faith‘s major points. Sometimes, I would choose a different phrase or terminology, but the point is the same or close to the same. One might call the differences, a “point of emphasis.” I think Volf would agree with what I have said in this blog and critique my critique by pointing out this commitment to the Law of Love, which is a part of the thesis of the entire book.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Ruth Terry, “The Christian Right and Left Share the Same Faith But Couldn’t Be More Different” Yes! Solutions Journal (December 24, 2019) https://www.yesmagazine.org/social-justice/2019/12/24/political-christian-belief Downloaded August 9, 2023).

[2] See for example, Acts 4:18-20; Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17; Titus 3:1-2; I Timothy 2:1-15.

[3] Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011), 78.

[4] Id, at 79.

[5] Id. This discussion is found at 81ff.

[6] The Peace of Westphalia (1648) brought to an end an eighty-year war between Spain and Holland and the thirty years war as it involved Germany. The peace was negotiated, in the Westphalian towns of Munster and Osnabruck, hence the name. Many scholars date the emergence of the modern secular state and the emergence of a preference for religious freedom from this event.

[7] A Public Faith, 81ff.  In all likelihood, for the purposes of analysis, we ought to dispense with the term “Church” and speak of “Religious Fellowships” when describing the current pluralist situation in the West. Christian Churches are simply one of the many forms of Religious Fellowships people belong to.

[8]  See, Fredrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, trans. & ed Richard Crouter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). This is one of his most quoted books and serves as an introduction to his thought. This is also not the place to discuss Schleiermacher and his considerable impact on Western thought in various areas, philosophical, theological, and otherwise.

[9] See George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Philidelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1984). This book made Lindbeck and his former colleague Hans Frei, prominent leaders of post-liberalism or the so-called “New Yale School” of theology.

[10] Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship ed. Gefferey B. Kelly & John D. Godsey tr. Barbara Green & Reinhard Krauss (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2001), 250-251.

[11] See footnote 2 above for citations. One cannot make a biblical case for the idea of subversion without turning into something like “Critical Love.”

[12] I am certain that VOlf would agree with this—and all he means by “subversion” is that kind of subversion that love would inevitably cause in a society ruled by the love of power.

[13] Most of this comes from a blog I did some time ago. See, G.Christopher Scruggs, “Bonhoeffer 5: Political Resistance 1839-19423”(October 10, 2022) found at https://gchristopherscruggs.com/?p=3157 (downloaded August 11, 2023).

[14] This letter is often quoted. I am using the quote as recorded by Learn Religious, “Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Theologian, and Martyr” at https://www.learnreligions.com/dietrich-bonhoeffer-4771872 (downloaded August 25, 2022)

[15] Mary Bosaquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1968), 199-200.

[16] Id, at 205.

Miroslav Volf No. 1: A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good

This week, we are looking at A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. [1] The author, Miroslav Volf, is a Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and founder and leading force of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. He was educated in his native Croatia, the United States, and Germany, earning doctoral and post-doctoral degrees from the University of Tübingen, Germany. He has written or edited over 20 books and many 100 scholarly and general publications. [2]

Volf was raised a Pentecostal. His master’s degree was from Fuller Theological Seminary, an independent seminary very much connected to the Reformed movement. He studied and wrote his dissertation under Jurgen Moltmann, a German Reformed theologian, in Tubingen, Germany. He attempts to find a mediating position in his work and respects Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox views.

Roots of Volf’s Interest in Public Theology

Volf grew up in Croatia (the former Yugoslavia) as a Protestant in a secular Communist society. [3] Yugoslavia was constantly threatened by religious violence because of the existence of Roman Catholics, Serbian Orthodox, and Muslim subcultures. After the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, tribal violence erupted. As Volf notes in an interview:

The wars in the former Yugoslavia were waged partly in the name of pure identity: with Muslims, especially in Kosovo, Serbs and Croatians alike insisted on the purity of their respective soil, blood, and culture. So I was also looking at the Christian tradition for resources to help me think about identity. [4]

In A Public Faith, Volf is additionally motivated to respond to current issues that trouble American Christianity. In the book, he is mainly concerned with defending the Christian faith and participation in politics from those secular humanists who believe that the Christian faith should be suppressed, particularly in the public square. Finally, since “9-11,” Volf has engaged in interfaith dialogue concerning religious violence. A Public Faith is designed to address violence as a malfunction of religious faith. In particular, Volf addresses Christians regarding our history of violence, evident not just in the distant past but in contemporary events in places like Ireland, Croatia, etc.

Volf believes the issue of a proper relationship between religion and politics is critical in the modern world because contemporary societies have been impacted by the unwillingness of religious people of many faiths and cultures to keep their religious views private and because, in a multicultural world, it is practically impossible to avoid the issues raised by religious groups. [5] In an increasingly interconnected world, it is essential for all religious groups to consider their public behavior carefully.

Malfunctions of Religious Faith in Public Life

 Volf believes there are two fundamental ways in which faith groups can malfunction in public life:

  1. First, by completely withdrawing from public life, leaving faith “idling” in all spheres outside their private and church lives; or
  2. Second, by engaging in public life coercively, assuming that one’s faith is the exclusive form of religious truth. This danger is not limited to religious people; secularists can sometimes fall into this flawed view. [6]

In A Public Faith, Volf argues against these two extremes. Against the distorted ideas of secular exclusivists and religious totalitarians, Volf contends that, in a society and world in which there are many conflicting faiths, freedom of religion and tolerance should be relied upon to prevent religious or antireligious violence. Naturally, there is no “right” to engage in violent or coercive behavior or to claim the right to persecute other groups.

As a point of departure, Volf acknowledges that Christians and other groups have \condoned violence from religious motives. However, he believes that when Christians (or adherents of any religion, sacred or secular) invoke violence to advance their cause, what he calls “a religious malfunction” occurs. [7] Those who use violence, especially Christians, either do not understand the full implications of the Christian faith and the commandment of love or mistakenly do not think it applies to the actions they are advocating.

Religious Political Pluralism

Volf opposes any religious or secular monistic monopoly in the public arena.  In A Public Faith, he outlines a position he describes as “religious, political pluralism.”  This view holds that society should encourage the full participation of the views of all groups, including all religious groups, in public life. The secular and Christian ideals of freedom of thought, speech, and opinion support this idea.

Since the religious wars fulminated by the Reformation, and increasingly since the Enlightenment and the rise of Marxism, there have been those who believed that the best social policy is to remove religion from public life. Increasingly, in the West, militant secularism has emerged that is opposed to religion, believes it harmful, and desires to see it suppressed.  The recent “War Against Terrorism” resulted in greater fear of the danger of religious extremism. Against this, Volf argues that religion is deeply seated in humankind and cannot be suppressed without a loss of freedom and individual choice. Therefore, he seeks a “religious political pluralism” that secures Christians and other religious groups a place at the table without giving up their distinctive beliefs.

Christian Engagement

As to Christian engagement in public life, Volf believes there is no single Christian way to connect to the broader culture and participate in public life. Volf does not think it wise for Christians to embrace a particular response to culture (in Niebuhrian terms, “of, against, or transforming”).  Instead, while remaining true to the specific convictions of their faith, Christians should approach involvement in public life in an ad-hoc manner, accepting, rejecting, or partly changing some aspects of culture, possibly completely withdrawing from others, and cheerfully celebrating others. This is a non-ideological approach to cultural engagement. In each case, Christian involvement must be guided by and embody the commandment of love at the center of Christian life and teaching.

Human Flourishing and Cultural Engagement

Volf uses as his fundamental category for guiding Christian involvement in politics the notion of “flourishing.” The idea is that Christians believe that faith in Christ and adopting the lifestyle of Christ leads to the healthiest form of human development and health, personal and social. Using the idea of “flourishing” also provides Volf with a non-religious word that can act as a bridge for discussion between various religions and secular people, all of whom presumably support and believe in human flourishing.

Volf believes that the modern contemporary idea of flourishing is irreducibly experiential and requires the continual experience of satisfaction of the desire for pleasurable experiences, personal, social, economic, etc. Unfortunately, people who believe that American experiential happiness is doomed to continual disappointment. Because human beings are inherently capable of transcending, the immediate, any immediate satisfaction is bound to be followed by another desire to be satisfied. This is an endless sequence demonstrated daily in modern care society.

Volf submits this form of experiential satisfaction to an Augustinian critique. Augustine would agree that human beings seek a kind of happiness that involves pleasure. However, Augustine also believes that human beings suffer from disordered loves and often seek a distorted and incomplete happiness, thus dooming themselves to failure in achieving human flourishing. [8]

Historically, Christians have believed that human flourishing and social harmony could only be achieved as humans loved God and one another. With the Enlightenment, most Western societies gave up thinking that the first part of the Great Commandment was necessary or desirable for human flourishing. In addition, the second component, love of neighbor, was deprived of any ultimate warrant and became a source of conflict between differing visions of what love of neighbor required. The result is the ideological politics of the late 20th and 21st centuries. In the current situation, love and hope both disappear as cultural realities. This is precisely what has happened in early 21st-century America.

Volf compares Augustine’s critique to the solutions offered by the Stoics (life lived by universal reason) and Nietzsche (life lived according to human willpower: Augustine believed that”

  1. God is not an impersonal reason distributed throughout the world but a person who loves and can be loved in return.
  2. Human beings made in the image of God are made for love and relationships.
  3. People live best and with the greatest happiness when they love God, a neighbor.
  4. Human flourishing requires the love of God and neighbor.

For Augustine and Christians, this notion of human flourishing fits a rational view of the universe. Unfortunately, many people in contemporary society cannot see this as a possibility, so captured are they by a fundamentally hedonistic and Nietzschean view of life. Returning to Volf notion of religious malfunction, whenever religion fails to love and concentrate on the development of human relationships with God and others, it malfunctions. Thus, any resort to force a connection with political behavior is a malfunction. This is the ground of the feeling that Wolfe has that many religions, currently and in the past, have malfunctioned.


Dividing this analysis of A Public Life into more than a single blog is necessary. This work is so dense that it is impossible to cover it adequately in one review. The simplest way to summarize this week is to see that love does sit at the center of a healthy polity. For Christians, this means that the great commandment to love God and others is a commandment that must be taken into public life in such a way as to promote human flourishing peacefully. The commandment of love also forbids Christians to use any form of violence to achieve their ends in public life.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2011.

[2] Yale Center for Religion and Culture https://faith.yale.edu/people/miroslav-volf (downloaded August 1, 2023).

[3] Six republics made up the former Yugoslavia: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia (including the regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina), and Slovenia. Following the fall of communism in Yugoslavia, it split into separate areas.  Yugoslavia was a mix of ethnic groups and religions, with Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, and Islam being the primary religions. In the ensuing conflict, there was a great deal of violence and even genocide.

[4] Miroslav Volf, “Faith and Reconciliation: A Personal Journey”  and interview with Rupert Shortt, found at  www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/articles/miroslav-volf-faith-and-reconciliation-a-personal-journey/ (downloaded August 1, 2023).

[5] A Public Faith, ix-x.

[6] This is a difficult area to address, but “Secular Humanism” is a kind of secular faith and should be subject to the same duties in participating in public life as are religious groups. This is particularly true of what might be called “militant secularists” who are motivated to eliminate religious participation in public life.

[7] Id, at 4.

[8] Id, 58-59.