Interview highlight: Q & A with Miroslav Volf
[In anticipation of my conversation later this week with Miroslav Volf, I wanted to re-up this interview I did with him in 2016 and the audio from another conversation in 2017. Enjoy!]
Miroslav Volf is a well-known theologian, leader and author to talk with us about how Christians can live out their faith in our pluralistic and politically-charged culture. He is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale. He is also the founding director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Miroslav joined us last week for a discussion on his new book Public Faith in Action, and how our faith influences our public responsibilities. Listen to our conversation here.
Carmen LaBerge: At the very most basic level let’s start with what it means for citizens of a representative republic to steward their influence in public life.
Miroslav Volf: I don’t think we have simply responsibility. I think our faith mandates us or gives us the responsibility to care not just for our private lives, family lives, church lives, but to care for our common life, our common life being God’s creation and therefore, ought to be aligned in the appropriate ways to the purposes of God with creation. So we have a public responsibility.
Carmen: This book is really what I will consider an ethic’s primmer. You will appreciate the conversation I had in the car this morning on the way to school with a 13-year-old, who after we listened to some things that other people may not be listening to, podcasts and things like that on the way to school. At the end of listening to one of those she turned to me and she said, “Ok, so what does exactly ethics mean?” and I thought to myself, “Well, there you go. Now we have been listening to something and now I am going to have to translate for her a word that I assume people know what it means.”
As a professor here, here how did I do? I fumbled around with a combination of it’s the way we think about right and wrong. I referred to a moral compass, our conscience, the way our life is guided from the inside out, but what should I have said? Let’s define the concept of ethics, not just personally but collectively for we the people.
Miroslav: I think what you said was exactly right. What I would simply just add almost like a footnote but an important one would be ethics helps us to find good ways of deliberating about what we should do. The end result is our commitments are clarified and do we know what we ought to do? It simply tells us what ought to be done and helps us to find out what we ought to do because that’s sometimes not completely clear.
There are many situations in which we know exactly how we ought to act, but there are many situations, especially in our complicated world and in the world that has become very different also from the world in which the sources of our moral thinking, namely the Bible and Jesus Christ, have lived and have been written, it’s very different in that world. Then we need to find ways in which to connect that which gives us moral obligation to the situations, many different situations in which we find ourselves.
Carmen: You used some phrases in there I think I am going to pull out and invite you to talk more about. One of them is this concept of “good means of deliberation.” I think oftentimes we simply just defend whatever position we think we should be holding, whatever it is based on as you say a source that may or may not be just immediately applicable in the current situation and scenario, but because we know that is what that source says we will bring it up and we will refer to it and we will keep referring to it and we are defending it. We are really not engaged in this “good deliberation.” Talk with us about how we engage in this “good deliberation” with one another amidst these very, very complex conversations we are having today in our culture.
Miroslav: Sometimes what we do, we pull out our favorite verse and we think that favorite verse from the Bible defines the entirety of obligation in a particular situation. Then when the way to deliberate about it might be well what other verses might bear upon situation? How they might inform and influence what we are stating? Then I think also very importantly how is that which we are asked to do in particular, maybe verses and situations, related to the entirety of the life of Christ?
Jesus Christ for us as Christians, is the incarnation of God, is God incarnate and as God incarnate, he stands for what we ought to be doing. He is the key to our humanity. Therefore, everything we do and think ought to be aligned with the life of Jesus Christ. Now how that alignment ought to take place that often is a question that we need to ask.
For instance, we live in what is described as a liberal democracy and Jesus lived under occupation of Roman power in a very small corner of the world with very little power itself. Israel at that time was occupied. Now what Jesus instructed folks in that situation might not exactly translate one on one with what Jesus might want us in a very different situation to do. Then also there are such things as very novel kinds of questions. For instance, everything that concerns how we use modern media, much of what concerns how we apply modern medicine might not be directly derivable from the Bible and from the life of Jesus, so we have to think carefully about it.
Carmen: We have to think carefully about it and then we have to find those biblical principles that even though the answer might not be specifically derived from a particular verse, the principle is easily derived from what Scripture as a whole has to say. Would that be accurate?
Carmen: Let’s talk if it’s OK with you about some specific things that are happening in the culture now and then allow you to lift up things either directly from the book, which is fantastic, or just in general how folks can bring their Christian faith to bear on these particular issues. The first one would be is we have two candidates for president who are not well-like and not trusted. What does it mean for me internally in terms of the conflict that that creates in my conscience to be asked to make a choice between two people who I neither like nor trust?
Miroslav: Obviously, that presents if one reads the situation in this way and obviously many Americans do right now that we have two candidates with whom a great percentage of people are displeased and often they flee to one not because they are attached to one and like one but because they dislike the other. It creates a difficult I think situation in some sense.
I think what we might need to do in this situation, as I think as in most other situations, we should not so much make our judgments as many of us do on the basis of how much we like a person. Presidential debates for instance are often about how liked the candidates are going to be, not about substantive issues.
I think we as Christians, we need to step back, not only listen to what substantively is being said, what the candidate’s policies are going to be, what the candidates not just says they will do but what they have a track record of having done and then take this substantive information about the candidate and compare it to what we find in biblical text and then make our judgment.
Make our judgment I would say not simply around a single issue but around a cluster of very important issues and one can rattle off a series of issues that need to be considered and all of them somehow contribute to the sense of whether this candidate would be more likely to foster the kind of life that would be pleasing to God.
Carmen: Which candidate would be more likely to foster the kind of decisions and therefore policies and programs that would bring honor to God? That is an excellent way of helping me evaluate how it is that I am going to approach voting in this election cycle. I’m wondering … Yes, go ahead.
Miroslav: The way we know what honors God is that which reflects the character of Jesus Christ.
Carmen: Amen, I am wondering if you had known then what you know now about this election cycle, is there anything you would have added to the book that is not in there now or maybe something you have approached differently? I’m just curious.
Miroslav: I am not sure. Obviously, one could always address a particular election. One of the things we decided, my co-author and I when we were writing this book is not to make this a book about a single election, but to make it a book about how we should school our judgment and our thinking so that we can assess not only elections for highest office, but for a variety of levels. How we can assess local governments from towns to states to the national scene.
I think in the book what I find important in this present debate is one, we have a strong emphasis on character, character both of the person of the electorate who is making judgments about candidates but also character of the candidates themselves. What we try to also do is to lay basic foundational work that would then even in new situations that come up would be of help.
One of the things, for instance, I would have loved that we had time to include in the book is something about privacy, why privacy matters, how we should treat privacy and what light does biblical faith shed on the issues of privacy.
Carmen: I would suppose in our current context how much privacy am I as an individual willing to yield in terms of security, in terms of the guarantee or a higher sense of being secure?
Miroslav: Right and exactly. What do I, what do we, each of us in particular gain from having this sphere of privacy? What do we lose when we give up the privacy? To whom can privacy be lost and why? All these questions I think are very important and it’s important for us not to think of them simply as related to a particular issue that we are facing. Obviously, a big issue for us is now terrorism. We worry about how do we prevent future attacks.
There is a larger issue of what privacy means not simply for our security at this moment, but what it means for our ability to mature, for instance, as individuals? I was talking to my wife about this and she is a writer. We were talking about privacy and she said, “I don’t like to have people see the drafts of my writing. People not seeing me having a private space is my possibility to grow into something that I want to be for myself and also in public.” I think that is a very important aspect of our privacy, ability to grow in private so that we become those who we want to become.
Carmen: In the whole notion of growing up in every way into Christ, who is the head, there are many aspects of my life where … I think my growth is always uneven across different parts of my spiritual maturity and my development. I understand her concern that folks might see into a part of me that is still in need of serious maturation, points of my own personal life where I am not quite as mature as maybe I am in other areas of my life.
In particular, I thought the chapter about euthanasia was very, very powerful. I think one of the areas that Christians lag behind terribly, lag behind the culture is when we are talking about advancements in technology and particularly in advancements related to technology and medicine. I am wondering if there is a way to help people understand what the principles are that Christians need to adopt and use when we are in conversations and considerations about life and death?
Miroslav: I think we have organized this chapter around the twofold idea that on the one hand life is sacred. Life is sacred from the beginning to its end and it is in God’s hands. But on the other hand, life is not the highest good. If life were the highest good Jesus would not have been crucified, if life was the highest good we would not have Christian martyrs. Something else might be more important for us than our own very life if we are ready to give our lives for Christ.
If you take these two basic principles, life is sacred, I cannot take anybody’s life including my own, but life is not at the highest good, which means especially in the situation where we can spend a great deal of money, a great deal of resources in order to protect and to preserve a particular single life, we need to ask ourselves how long and how much do we ought to invest in prolongation of life when life as such is not the ultimate good?
Different people might make different decisions around this and that’s the part of deliberation. I think these two principles in my judgment they stay firm. Once we affirm these two principles, then the interesting discussion can begin. I think it would lead us to the point where we will say, “We will not spend inordinate amounts of life to keep somebody alive, but we will do nothing in order to terminate somebody’s life.”
Carmen: Which is completely dependent on my worldview, which believes that this physical world and this portion of time is not all that there is. That not only did I have a personal beginning, but that there is a personal God to whom I am going beyond this life. I think that the worldview conversation for the average person, they may hear what you are saying and absolutely 100% agree and then realize their neighbor does not agree and would go to absolutely any length to preserve this physical life and that’s because their neighbor does not know there is any reality beyond this. Their reality is completely confined to this the senses, to what the sensory experience is.
Miroslav: Or the other side of it is, as we see in a number of European states but also in some states in the US, we think sometimes that our lives are in our hands and therefore, that we can have physician-assisted suicide, so that I decide when my life should end. Life to me is a gift from God and as a gift from God, I will have it until this gift has been taken back to God. God is the Lord of life.
Carmen: Well, Miroslav Volf, I’m so glad that your life is one that God has given and I am so glad that you have given that life back to him in a way that is equipping the rest of us to think faithfully and seriously about the issues we confront in our world and to equip us to be better able to deliberate well.