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.