I get nervous about declarations that our current times are the “most” anything in human history. The most violent, the most divided, the most complicated (why is it always bad things?)
So I hesitate to say our current situation is the “most” critical time for sound judgment and engagement with contemporary issues in the church. But then again, our current time is all we have.
The many serious and complicated issues and conversations of our day are well documented. And while the church has rightly been accused of avoiding such divisive subjects in generations past, if seems to me that something has shifted. I get the feeling that many churches and people of faith are engaging and wrestling with issues such as race and sexuality — the ultimate taboos at different points in history — among many others, in a new way.
And it is no doubt making many within those congregations nervous. But I have to believe it is breathing new life and a renewed faith in the church into many, many more.
Despite regrettable historic practices of avoidance, and the many different conclusions people of faith will no doubt draw in any number of issues, I believe most Christians would claim that one’s faith should have some critical bearing on how we engage with the world, and that the church is called to be a force for change in the here and now and not simply for eternity.
The main question is how it, and we, should do so with integrity and conviction.
In their timely new book, Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity, Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz seek to provide a framework for people of faith to do just that.
A professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School, Volf is one of our best public theologians, having written compellingly on a host of contemporary moral and theological issues, including Christian-Muslim dialogue, globalization, and the nature and potential of work. This volume is a companion to a previous work on the “place and role of followers of Christ in pluralistic societies today.”
While acknowledging that some within the church have resisted the public or political nature of Christ’s life and ministry, Volf and McAnnally-Linz ultimately situate themselves squarely among those who view Christ’s life, ministry and death as “unmistakably public, even political.” “After all,” they write, “the core of Jesus’s preaching is that ‘the kingdom of God has come near.’ Whatever else it might be, kingdom is surely a political term.”
They write, “A basic commitment underlies this book: Christian faith has an inalienable public dimension. Christians aren’t Christ’s followers just in their private and communal lives; they are Christ’s followers in their public and political lives as well.”
But to what end?
In short, “the coming kingdom of God” which dominates Jesus’s preaching. A reality that Volf and McAnnally-Linz say will be defined by the capacity for “human beings and the entire creation to flourish.”
Here I’ll admit that I’m growing a little weary on the idea of “human flourishing,” which has surely been on academic-buzz word bingo cards for a few years now. But at least Volf and McAnnally-Linz provide us was with a definition. Flourishing, as they see it, has three formal aspects:
- Leading life well (how you conduct yourself in the world)
- Life going well (“that the circumstances of one’s life are genuinely good;” having good health, basic necessities and even a few luxuries)
- Life feeling good (that you are happy and feel positively about the shape of your life)
The Christian mission in engaging the world is to work toward these three elements for oneself and for one’s neighbors, near and far.
This is no doubt a helpful grounding from which to start, but what makes their work especially credible, and useful, is that they acknowledge “general features” of life that complicate things:
- The democratic ideal. Christians in American and in many places around the world are citizens of democracies that invite participation in government. Christians, like all citizens, have an opportunity (obligation?) to effect political change.
- Complex social systems. Much of current life hinges upon and is bound to “complex, relatively impersonal structures.” It is a challenge simply to understand how they work, let alone how best to function in them to live faithfully.
- Technological development. Advances in technology have presented a whole host of new questions and dilemmas that previous generations did not have to face. In addition, technology changes and evolves much faster than our capacity to understand and interpret its ethical dimensions.
From there the authors briefly apply their convictions to a number of contemporary issues. While they’re not afraid to make declarations that sadly may be too bold for some (for instance, siding with the overwhelming majority of scientists who argue climate change is real and human-induced), they never seek to close the issue, and in particularly divisive issues seemingly go to great lengths not to be so.
Instead, they invite and provide a framework for honest discussion, including specific questions to consider at the end of each chapter and a list of resources for further reading, both introductory and advanced.
The authors claim this book as “an invitation to conversation and to action,” noting that such honest dialogue so rarely happens, but is essential to our common life together, both within the church and in our wider communities.
“Through the Spirit,” they write in the afterword, “Christ is at work in the whole world, pulling and pushing and nudging and luring it into resemblance with the coming kingdom. Our own flourishing, no less than the flourishing of our ecclesial and civic communities, lies in responding to this call, aligning our lives with Christ’s, and participating in his work in the roll. Let’s seek to discern that work and join in it together.”
Amen. And on this point, I see no room for debate.