For the Life of the World (Miroslav Volf & Matthew Croasmun) -- A Review
FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD: Theology that Makes a Difference. By Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019. 196 pages.
I understand that many Christians, let alone people outside the faith, consider theology to be irrelevant to real life. In fact, many clergy believe this to be true. It seems to be an esoteric exercise with no real-world application. As one who is trained as a theologian (historical theology), I would beg to differ. Despite my protests, I expect that I would not convince the skeptic of the value of theology. Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun, both of whom teach at Yale Divinity School, have heard the same critique of theology, and in For the Life of the World, offer their response.
Volf and Croasmun are not naïve. They acknowledge that the study of theology is at this moment in the midst of a deep crisis. For one thing, seminaries are in decline, which makes it difficult for academically trained theologians to get teaching positions. Seminaries are in decline in large part due to the decline in churches, which makes for declining numbers of seminarians. With the turn to the practical and the pragmatic, seminaries are cutting back on the traditional theological core (Biblical Studies, Systematic Theology, and Historical Theology/Church History). While all of this is true, it does not mean theology is irrelevant to the life of the church or even more broadly to the life of the world.
You might say that the two authors of this powerful book (in my estimation) are not going to take this situation lying down. They acknowledge the problem, but they’re not going to simply wish things would go back to the way they were in a previous age. Instead, they have written For the Life of the World, borrowing the title of Alexander Schmemann’s book, as a manifesto in which they argue that theology can and should make a different in the world. Regarding Schmemann’s book, they note that they borrowed the title “because, in our own way, we share both Schmemann’s sacramental vision of the world as the site of communion with God and his opposition to either seeking refuge from the world in God alone or to employing God as a tool to improve the world according to our own preset plan” (p. 190).
Volf and Croasmun affirm the premise that at one level theology is about God, and that the work of theology is engaged in for the sake of God. However, they do not believe that theology is done for God’s benefit, as if God needs us to do theology. Instead, we do theology, for God’s sake, in the pursuit of the flourishing life. In other words, this is an extension of Volf's earlier work Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World (Yale, 2015). This new book isn't a popularization of the earlier book, but the two are related. In the earlier book, he argues that religion has an important role to play in a globalized world. In this book he steps back a bit to focus on Christian theology and its contribution to the flourishing of the world, that is, theology’s contribution to the life lived well.
We begin this conversation in chapter 1 with a conversation about why "Christian theology has lost its way because it has neglected its purpose." They argue up front that the purpose of theology is "to discern, articulate, and commend visions of flourishing life in the light of God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ" (p. 11). This God's primary concern, which should make it the primary concern of theologians. After all, the "human quest" is the search for the flourishing life. That is, the pursuit of abundant life or the good life, which is a life that is worth living. Theology done right, they believe, helps orient us toward that form of life as it is understood in the light of the life and teachings of Jesus, including his death and resurrection. This is something the church could engage in, they believe, but rarely does. Their belief is that theologians have misunderstood their calling.
Because theologians have misunderstood the purpose of theology, a crisis in theology has emerged, which is the subject of chapter 2. The crisis is related to the way in which theology is pursued, largely in academic contexts. One contributing cause of this crisis is that theologians essentially write for their colleagues. When Volf and Croasmun speak of theologians, they have in mind the broader theological faculty, which includes biblical studies, church history, ethics, and ministerial arts; not just systematics theology. One reason for this focus is the shrinking job market. Those who have positions must produce research that will lead to tenure, while those who lack jobs must focus on gaining credentials to get that job. While they do not discount the value of scholarly research, they are concerned that there is little incentive to also write for a broader audience (including clergy). Shrinking churches lead to shrinking seminaries, which leads to fewer jobs. I understand all of this well, having trained for the academy, I found few available jobs. Thus, like many others who followed a similar path, I have spent my life in the church (not that I'm complaining, but it wasn't my original intention). There is little current reward in congregations for advanced theological training. While all of this is an external crisis, there is the internal one, the loss of vision and forgotten purpose. The authors go into some detail as to the reasons for this, which I found compelling and worth looking at closely. So, considering the cost that goes into training and employing theologians, why bother? Who really cares whether clergy have theological training?
This is the challenge that the authors have taken up. Remember this is a manifesto, in which they call for the renewal of theology, through rediscovering the purpose of theology, which is move into the flourishing life in God. They make a bold declaration, which will get pushback. That is, "Christian theology shouldn't be mainly about God because the mission of God isn't mainly about God" (p. 64). It's not primarily about redemption either, whether we mean forgiveness of sins or freedom from oppression. Those might be central to the quest, but they are not the goal. You might say that the goal is the realm or kingdom of God, which involves finding our home in God. Or, as Augustine suggests, we are restless until we find rest in God.
If the work of theology is to understand and live a life that is flourishing, which is fully rooted in our relationship with God as revealed in Christ Jesus, what about other faith traditions? Where do they fit? This is the issue taken up in chapter four, which carries the title "The Challenge of Universality." If we affirm the premise that there is one God, who is revealed in the incarnation, then what of other faith traditions? It's not so much a matter here of exclusivism, as it is of inclusivism. What they note in this chapter is that universalisms are contested visions. If we understand this premise, that universality is contested, then we can begin to advocate for the Christian vision while peacefully coexisting and working with those having different visions of the divine reality. I found this to be an important chapter, because it helped me think through how I as a committed Christian and follower of Jesus can engage with partners in my life's work, which I envision to be bridge-building, who come from other faith traditions. Central here is the recognition, as the authors note, that there can be no absoluteness in our claims. The particularities of our claims rule out such absolutes. Theology, therefore, if it is to contribute to the quest for the flourishing life, must take into consideration the pluralism of our realities.
Again, we must remember that the authors are writing a manifesto calling for the renewal of theology. We do this by reengaging with the purpose of theology, which is more than an academic exercise or institution. Theology, in the minds of the authors, must be connected to life. It is a way of living that involves faith seeking understanding, and yet it goes beyond simply understanding what we believe. They put this task this way: the “execution of the central theological task requires a certain kind of affinity between the life the theologian seeks to articulate, and the life of the prophet seeks to lead" (p. 118). In other words, theology needs to be embodied.
The final chapter offers a "vision of flourishing life." That vision involves finding our home in Christ, who is the dwelling place of God, so that we might be part of the church which is the temple of the Holy Spirit. They speak of form and content, and they do so in conversation with Paul. The focus here is on the teleios, or the “perfect” as it is often translated in 1 Corinthians 13. The kingdom is the form, while the content is defined in terms of love, peace, and joy, or in terms of the "life led well" (righteousness, which is love); the "life going well" (peace—right relationships), and finally "life feeling as it should (joy). Peace and joy are not fully experienced in this life, but love is always to be pursued as the foundation of peace and joy. All are understood to be the gift of the Holy Spirit. If we can take hold of this vision, this sense of purpose, which is deeply theological, we may find our path to the life that is good.
As a theologian, I find this manifesto to be compelling and encouraging. The crisis we find ourselves in won't end soon. The traditional centers of theology will continue to struggle. But if we will take hold of this vision, we might begin the process of reclaiming theology for the life of the world. We might recognize that the world itself, because it is the creation of God, is sacred. Theology in other words is more than a science or a means of study; it is a vision of flourishing. That is a cause worth engaging in.
As for the book itself, For the Life of the World is both accessible and challenging. This is not popular religion. This is deep theology, but it is written not for colleagues alone, but for the Christian community. I would highly recommend it to fellow clergy, especially those among my colleagues who find theology to be irrelevant to their vocation. This isn’t a book that explores how many angels can be found on the head of a pin. This is a call to engage the world through Christ, for as they note regarding Schmemann’s book, the world is the place where we find communion with God. Take and read. You will be rewarded.