We recently shot some video with Miroslav Volf about A Public Faith. Here is the first clip:
Archives for August 2011
To whom was this book written and what do you hope that they take away from their experience with it?
We live in an inescapably pluralistic world. In many countries, Christians are one among many religious communities. Positively, the purpose of the book is to suggest a way—an authentically Christian way—of being engaged in promoting human flourishing and the common good while seeing oneself as just one among many communities living “under a the same roof.” Negatively, my goal is to suggest a way to avoid the twin dangers of faith’s public “idleness” and “coerciveness.”
In your book, you argue that religious points of view should have a place in the political or public arena. In what ways do religious voices do this well? In what ways do they do this poorly?
Religious folks participate in public life poorly when they seek to impose their own “true vision of human flourishing and of the common good” on others. Now, believing that I know what makes for human flourishing and serves the public good is not a problem—provided I don’t claim infallibility and am willing to learn; indeed, such belief is a precondition of vigorous engagement in public life. Conversely, religious folks participate in public life well when, in addition to embracing the truth of their own position, they respect those who disagree with them (in obedience to the injunction in 1 Peter to “honor everyone”). Respect here means giving others space to articulate their position as well as willingness to learn from them.
How has the role of Christianity in the public life of the West changed in the last hundred years? Is this a positive or negative thing?
In many countries in the West, a century ago Christian churches were dominant cultural institutions. Today this is no longer so. Other religions have taken their own share of social space, and, even more importantly, secular institutions have gained in significance. Increasingly, Christian communities have become culturally marginal. Many Christians bemoan this development, fearing loss of power and influence. In contrast, I think that the former social dominance of the Christian churches and their proximity to political power have been more a curse than a blessing. Marginality is much more appropriate to people who worship the crucified Messiah. Does such marginality mean diminished influence? I am not sure it does. A good argument can be made that, close to political power, the Christian churches have historically less shaped the exercise of political power than been harnessed to serve the needs of political power.
How is Christianity’s view of the good life —or “human flourishing”—different from our Western culture’s?
In very broad strokes, I contrast “love of pleasure” and “pleasures of love.” Though with many exceptions, Western culture of today understands human flourishing as “experiential satisfaction” and is organized around love of pleasure. For many reasons, such a conception of human flourishing is deeply problematic and unsustainable. The Christian faith offers an alternative that I, as a committed Christian, find immensely compelling. We flourish when we love God with our whole being and neighbors as ourselves. For many—not just secularists—this is unacceptable. Today we need a vigorous discussion about human flourishing. That is the most important public debate of all.
In your book, you argue that Christians should embrace pluralism as a political project. What do you mean by this?
By pluralism as a political project I mean embrace of political institutions which are on the idea that our societies have become culturally (including religiously) pluralistic and which give “equal voice” to all people, irrespective of their cultural and religious identity. Each person can bring into public debate their own vision of human flourishing, vision derived from their own religious faith or non-religious perspective on life. Pluralism as a political project doesn’t imply that all perspectives are roughly equally true or beneficial; that’s a feature of what one might call “world-view pluralism” (or, in some versions, “relativism”). Pluralism as a political project is rather the idea that people advocating divergent perspectives have all equal right to shape the public space.
I wrote this book because, as a survivor of abuse, I wish something like it had been available for me to read when I began my own process of intentional healing. While there were a number of valuable therapeutic resources that did help me, I could not find any books that offered a healing and liberating interpretation of the Bible that was especially focused on the experiences, much less the wisdom, of survivors of sexual abuse. Nothing that I read suggested that survivors have a perspective on biblical interpretation that is sorely needed not just by other survivors, but by the entire church. Because no one told me I might have wisdom precisely because of my experience, I couldn’t properly honor my own story as a triumph of God’s power. It took so much longer to heal from the shame than it needed to! If I had been taught what is in this book, what a difference it would have made in coming into freedom and wholeness and in rejecting other forms of oppression in my life.
The evangelical books I read that addressed healing from sexual abuse seemed mostly oriented toward the brokenness of survivors, and survivors’ need to heal. Books focusing on sexuality in general tended to define sexual virtue in terms of chastity and lifelong monogamy with a heterosexual spouse. Conversely, sexual sin was defined as promiscuity, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, and divorce. I could not find any resources that named what I knew to be true: sexual abuse is not only a sexual sin, but is the worst sexual sin. I encountered the opposite problem in theologically liberal resources: a feminist critique of Scripture that rejected its authority because of its “unforgivable patriarchy.” For some of these books the Bible was nothing more than a religious artifact that contributed to the subjugation of women, children, and the earth.
My healing from abuse has been deeply embedded in my vocation as a theologian, pastor, and spiritual companion to others. Because I had the privilege of studying in diverse theological streams–evangelical, mainline Protestant, and Catholic–I gradually discovered many treasures from all these traditions that helped to open the Bible’s wealth of healing wisdom to me. Over the years, as I have served in ministry with other survivors, I have witnessed the healing power of the Bible in their lives, too.
This book is grounded in two commitments: first, the Bible can be a powerful source of healing for survivors of abuse. Second, survivors who are healing have essential theological wisdom that the whole church needs in order to be the people God has called us to be in this world.
With a prayer of trust that God is in the process of healing all wounds,
Elaine A. Heath