Public Faith in Action (Miroslav Volf & Ryan McAnnally-Linz) -- A Review

PUBLIC FAITH IN ACTION: How to Think Carefully, Engage Widely, and vote with Integrity. By Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. Xiii + 233 pages.

                In the United States we talk about separation of church and state. That means that the state has not and cannot establish any particular religion. There is no religious test to hold office, either. These principles are enshrined in one form or another in the US Constitution. This doesn’t mean, however, that people of faith don’t bring that faith into the public realm. Assuming that one’s faith is meaningful, then it will guide our actions in the public square. It will influence our thinking about matters of great importance, hopefully offering wisdom, and providing a foundation for voting and acting in public with integrity. Public Faith in Action is a companion, a further exploration, to a book published in 2011 titled A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. In that book Volf spoke to how Christians might pursue the common good while respecting the pluralistic context in which they would be acting. In Public Faith in Action, Volf along with his co-author and former student Ryan McAnnally-Linz offer their insight into how we can take on important issues in public with integrity.

                Volf is a professor of theology at Yale and a well-regarded author, who was a student of J├╝rgen Moltmann. McAnnally was Volf’s Ph.D. student at Yale and is now an associate research fellow at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, which Volf directs.  Public Faith in Action is Volf’s second book of the year. This book follows upon Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, (Yale). Both books, along with A Public Faith, (Brazos Press), are in my estimation must reads for those who wish to understand how faith impacts and influences the world in which we live. As one who agrees with Volf that Christians need to be engaged in the world, I value his wisdom when it comes to pursuing the common good with integrity.

                In Public Faith in Action, the authors build on the earlier call to pursue the common good within the context of a pluralistic world, with guidelines as to how to do this. It is a book not only about public faith, but about action. To speak of the public is to speak of that dimension of human life "that involves issues and institutions concerning the good of all, the common good" (p. x). When we speak of the public domain we’re speaking of an arena in which we all live. Everyone is, whether we realize it or not, engaged in contributing to the commons. What Volf and McAnnally-Linz want to do is help us be more intentional about engaging in a “responsible shaping of our common life and common world" (p. x). We may want to withdraw from public life, but as they remind us, even that is a public act. They write:
If today you decided to give up on “politics” —to stop voting, to quit reading the headlines, to studiously avoid conversations about taxes and health care, to hunker down and just go about your business as best you could—you wouldn’t be entirely escaping from public life, a limited, largely passive, and likely irresponsible public life, but a public life nonetheless (p. xi)
What they recommend, then is a more responsible, more intentional, more active engagement with the public realm. But it’s not just any form of engagement that they recommend. It is, instead, an engagement that is centered in Christ and his values as expressed in his life and ministry. That’s not an easy task, as history and contemporary life can attest.

                The authors divide the book into three parts—commitments, convictions, and character (virtues). In the course of reading the book one is engaged by the authors to consider how to be involved in public life in a way that recognizes our diversity, including religious diversity, while at the same time being true to our Christian commitment to follow Jesus.

                In Part One, Commitments, the authors set up the big picture. They lay the foundation for what is to come. They help us not only confess that Christ is our center and norm, but they offer us a way of discerning what that means. Whatever we do in the public arena needs to be guided by Jesus and the way in which he comported himself and revealed God's kingdom to us. In essence this is book explores how the kingdom is unfolding and how we are engaged in that work. While the church plays an important role in this, the authors do not assume that God is limited to the church. Indeed, the Spirit is not limited to the church. It is not that the kingdom will be fully realized, but the work done in public can anticipate what the kingdom might look like. That is, there is the now/not yet dimension that needs to be understood. The goal of the Spirit is creation's flourishing. This occurs in three ways: "leading life well" (how we conduct ourselves), "life going well" (circumstances of life are good), "life feeling good" (experiencing joy at life in this world). To understand normative nature of Jesus, we need to read his life and ministry in its appropriate contexts -- the canonical one, and the contemporary one. We need to understand the context Jesus walked the earth and then our own, connecting the two.

                With this foundation in place, we turn to part two, Convictions, which is the longest portion of the book (seventeen chapters). In these chapters the authors explore how one engages actively the world—in terms of wealth, the environment, education, work and rest, poverty, borrowing and lending, marriage and family, new life, health and sickness, aging, end of life, migration, policing, punishment, war, torture, and religious freedom. There is not much that's left uncovered, at least in terms of public life. These are insightful and challenging chapters. The authors seek to bring a balanced picture, noting where there are disagreements but also where there are distortions. Sometimes, as with torture, there is really very little room for disagreement. We might quibble at the edges, but not whether torture is acceptable from a Christian perspective. That’s a good reminder to the many Christians in America who have chosen to support the use of such devices as water-boarding in pursuit of security. Why is torture off-limits? We are to remember our norm, for Christ himself suffered torture. There is in these chapters many riches. Because there is so much more to known and understand, each chapter ends with a set of recommended readings for follow up.

                Finally, in part three, titled "Character," the authors speak of five virtues that are essential to being engaged in public: courage, humility, justice, respect, and compassion. Each virtue is essential, and each can be misunderstood and distorted. There is, therefore, need for clear definitions. For example, regarding respect -- there are two types of respect -- appraisal and recognition. It is the latter that is essential. We may not appraise someone being of value in terms of contribution, but we must recognize and thus respect their humanity.  

                There is, as the authors note, room for disagreement and debate. When it comes to politics and voting, it’s important to remember that in a democracy politics involves compromise. Politics is about the art of the possible. None of us is beyond reproach. We’ll have to make difficult choices at times, but those are choices that must be made in the context in which we live. But, if we are to engage the public square, we need to keep front and center those values that are centered in Christ.  

                This is, in my opinion, another must read book. This is especially true if you believe, as I do, that it is incumbent upon us as Christians to contribute to the common good. In my view there is no opt out. To remain silent in the face of injustice is to let injustice rule. We may live in a different world than Jesus. We may no longer live within Christendom. But we do live in communities that need for us to be present. The question is, how should we do this with integrity? Even if you’re not in complete agreement with the premise of the book, I still encourage that Christians read it and ponder the message of living in public pursuing the common good guided by Jesus and empowered by the Spirit so that Creation might flourish as God intends. 


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