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.