Miroslav Volf spoke at Karam Forum 2019 on the urgency of
Christians working for flourishing in a pluralistic world. This talk distills
insights from an important ongoing conversation in the church, and also
includes some provocative new ideas for consideration. Volf particularly points
to the importance of educational institutions in carrying the faith forward
into the changing world of the coming generation.
Against Merely Natural Flourishing
The day before Karam Forum, in a talk on “the crisis of theology” at the 2019 Oikonomia Network faculty retreat, Volf had spoken about a vision of human flourishing as the proper purpose of the theological disciplines. At Karam Forum, Volf spoke to why a pluralistic world so desperately needs the church to articulate and commend a vision of flourishing. He also discussed how we can live out a vision of flourishing amid many “contending particular universalisms” that each claim to be the true account of the world.
Volf began his talk by observing that working in the economy is what people do with most of their time. Their daily work will be shaped by some understanding of human flourishing.
“I find in the writings of the apostle Paul something like a definition of human flourishing,” he said, pointing to Romans 14:17: “The kingdom of God is not food and drink; the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Both parts of this definition, the negative and the positive, play an important role.
Negatively, Paul is not condemning a concern for food and drink and our other natural needs, because God does care about material well-being. He is saying that the kingdom of God is “not in food and drink as such.” Considering this negation, it is helpful to recall Charles Taylor’s discussion of what he calls “natural modes of flourishing.” These are the conceptions of human flourishing that dominated cultures under the influence of the “primary religions” (polytheistic and ritualistic) before the rise of the more spiritually developed “Axial religions” that dominate today. Health, wealth, fertility and longevity are the central goals in these natural modes of flourishing. Axial religions, including Christianity, developed out of a sense that natural modes of flourishing were insufficient.
In advanced modernity, we are embracing the natural modes again. Health, wealth and longevity are rising back to the top of our priorities. “Fertility” as such, in terms of reproduction, may not be doing so; however, more broadly, sexual expression and satisfaction has certainly become much more central than it was. Meanwhile, the higher ends we used to prioritize are becoming marginal, or even suspect.
Flourishing as Righteousness, Peace and Joy
It is against this negation of merely natural modes of flourishing that Paul’s positive commendation of righteousness, peace and joy emerges. Volf says:
Righteousness is really “right living.” I think in Paul’s writings it is “following the law of love.” Peace is broadly construed as shalom. a set of circumstances in which we find ourselves, from political stability to economic predictability to friendship to proper functioning of our bodies; that all belongs to shalom, and let’s not forget the environment as well. And then there is this emotional side of the flourishing life, and that is summed up in many places in the New Testament under the category of joy.
Volf pointed out how often joy comes up in both testaments, and throughout the Christian tradition. Joy is “fundamental to a Christian vision of the flourishing life.”
Also important to our vision of flourishing is to remember that we live “between the times.” We pursue a penultimate flourishing, while we sojourn on the road to ultimate flourishing when Jesus returns. Borrowing a phrase from philosophy, Volf says we must “live the true life within the false life” – that is, the false life of the unrestored world in which we find ourselves.
The key challenge for those thinking about how Christianity intersects with economic and political life is “to think through what it means to place our economic activity or political activity, our modes of public activity, into the frame of that notion of flourishing. What does Romans 14:17 mean for how we do our daily work, how we live in the world?”
This involves two primary things. One is the purpose of the activity. How does what we are doing (whatever it is) serve the flourishing of all creation? The other is for the activity to be an enactment of our own flourishing as we do it. The individual who works for flourishing must flourish, not just serve as a means for others’ flourishing.
Christian Visions of Flourishing as Universal
This task is complicated by the pluralism of the advanced modern world. Volf reminds us that all Christian accounts of flourishing – Romans 14:17 as well as other focal points in the Bible – are what he calls “universal.” By this he does not mean soteriological universalism, but the idea that Christian accounts of flourishing “claim to be universally valid.” They are not just accounts of how one given Christian flourishes, or even of how all Christians flourish, but of how all people flourish – or fail to. These accounts allow for much internal diversity, because we are many members in one body and we each have distinct identities and callings. But Christian accounts of flourishing do rest upon a set of general claims that, according to the faith, apply to all people.
Christian visions of flourishing are universal in another sense as well. In addition to making claims that apply to all individuals, Christianity also claims there is an interconnectedness to all human life. This is a claim about community, saying that people need a “home” (oikos, from which we get “economics”). This connectivity is something universal. As Volf puts it:
For one person to truly flourish, the entire world must flourish; for the entire world to truly flourish, every person in it must flourish – and every person and the entire world flourish each in their own way, and all together must live in the presence of God.
The universality of Christian visions of flourishing is rooted in the oneness of God, Volf said. God is one, so the flourishing of his creation is one. We remain diverse, but come together in community and communion.
This implies an all-encompassing inclusivity, but it also implies a kind of exclusivity. Both testaments and all three great monotheistic religions formulate monotheism “in negative terms,” Volf says. They reject false gods, alongside the positive terms of inclusion they offer.
The Scandal of Universal Claims in a Pluralistic World
This element of exclusivity is, obviously, a scandal in a pluralistic world. People reject it because they take it to be an imperial power claim over them, but not only for that reason. They also reject even the idea that it is possible for one religion (especially one that was formulated so long ago) to actually fit all people. A Christian vision of flourishing doesn’t feel to them like it fits their natural and authentic selves.
This is where Contending Particular Universalisms (CPUs) come in. Other religions and philosophical systems (Volf mentions secular humanism, Marxism and Nietzsche) make universal claims. Even “the soft relativism of ‘anything goes’ has universal underpinnings.”
Each of these “universalisms” is “particular” as contrasted with “absolute.” That is, it is not equally accessible to all people in all times and places throughout global history. To those who may resist the assertion that Christianity is particular rather than absolute, Volf pointed out that the church of the Nativity in Israel has an inscription: “The Word became flesh here.” Both “flesh” and “here” refer to particular physical things with specific locations in time and space. The Triune God is not particular in this sense; but Christ, having taken on flesh, is.
All the more, our own transmission and interpretation of the Christian message is particular. Christianity as a religion is a human expression (however divinely guided) and is thus particular rather than absolute. People who claim that Christianity is absolute really mean that God is absolute – and so he is! But we are not God.
Where there are multiple particular universalisms, Volf reasons, they become contending particular universalisms. Belief systems aren’t sitting peacefully next to each other “like flavors in an ice cream shop,” from which we could take a scoop of this and a scoop of that, customizing the perfect sundae for our own individual taste. We often do treat the belief systems this way, of course. But the belief systems themselves claim we shouldn’t do so. The contention between them is itself a key part of the visions of flourishing they offer us. Moreover, we can only treat them as customizable options if we embrace an underlying “soft relativism” which is itself one of the CPUs; thus the act of picking and choosing at will among CPUs begins with choosing soft relativism as our real, controlling CPU.
Rather than attempt to eliminate the contention between them, the question for us is how that contention is to be carried out. Volf asks: Do the visions of flourishing have “internal resources to contend in a peaceful way?”
Educational institutions are critical to this question. They must “foster a culture of robust claims to truth that are at the same time not modes of violent self-imposition upon others.” The political problem is particularly difficult; we have not yet figured out, Volf contends, how to manage a political system in a pluralistic society. Nonetheless, Christianity provides deep resources for building pluralistic democracy – especially in its historically persecuted traditions, like the Baptists.
The talk was followed by a panel discussion with Vincent Bacote, Gerry Breshears, Michael Thigpen and session host Charlie Self. Among many other themes, the panel discussed how “joy and hospitality” could serve as more comprehensive frames for thinking about charitable engagement than the more limited concept of “civility.”
Check out this important discussion – and register today for more insights at Karam Forum 2020!