Between the Lines: A Conversation with Miroslav Volf

We recently got the chance to talk with Miroslav about this new book.

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.