Running in (or from?) Iowa

We’ve all observed the phenomenon of earlier and earlier presidential campaigns, including the rush to be the first state in which the selection process formally begins. Some smaller states, hoping to avoid virtual irrelevance in the candidate selection process, continue to push the calendar to the brink. Can New Year’s Day primaries be far away?

I share with many other people a disdain for the manner in which we choose our candidates. The media continues to sell us the idea that money wins elections. Of course they sell that idea; the largest recipient of all that campaign money is the media industry itself. It has no interest in a shorter, more rational process. But that’s not the only source of my dissatisfaction. Nor is the proliferation of negative ads of dubious credibility. What is lacking, in spite of all the time available for the campaigns, is a vision of the public good, clearly articulated. I know where to find positions on issues (not that they will not change according to the perception of what a given audience wants to hear); but where is the vision of what a society, ours in particular, should look like?

Equally distressing, and perhaps more so, is the silence of the Christian community to speak meaningfully on this subject. This condition of silence has prompted a few theologians to venture into the subject in ways that go beyond phrases such as “right to life” or “equal opportunity” or “a share in the American dream.” The reality is that Christians of different political opinions usually take their cues, carry their banners, and shout their disdain for opponents in concert with a political party, rather than from a vision of what is in sync with God’s intentions for human life in community. One voice in this political wilderness is that of Miroslav Volf, whose recent book A Public Faith argues that the single greatest offering Christians should make to the public good is a vision of human flourishing.

Volf claims that the relationship between faith and culture is far too complex to be reduced to a timeless formula (those familiar with the classic categories from H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture will recall Christian attempts in this direction). Faith’s view of culture changes according to the particular shape of culture at a given time and place. One requirement for any Christian vision is that it be centered in the center of the faith itself, or as Volf puts it, “by its relation to Christ as the divine Word incarnate and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” This leads to immediate conclusions which drive his discussions in the book:

1. Christ is God’s Word and God’s Lamb, come into the world for the good of all people, who are all loved by God. A faith that does not seek to mend the world, or is not “prophetic” therefore, is a seriously malfunctioning faith. Faith in this Word and Lamb should be active in all spheres of life.

2. Christ came to redeem the world by preaching, actively helping people, and dying a criminal’s death on behalf of the ungodly; he was a “bringer of grace.” This makes coercion in matters of faith another serious malfunction.

Navigating between the respective malfunctions of faith is the business of Christian faithfulness in the world, with the goal of bearing witness to Christ who embodies the good life.

This brief introduction to Volf’s thesis cannot do justice to his overall project. But my intent here on the day of the Iowa caucuses and the process they signal is for Christians to think as Christians–as people of the story of God–as they participate in the peculiar process of American politics. To do so we must know our own Christ–his heart, his loves, his desires, his ways–better than we have known these before. So that we, like the Father and the Son, might properly love the world.