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.

7 thoughts on “Running in (or from?) Iowa

  1. I am a fan of both authors and have read both the books you have cited, but i felt that volf was a bad unfair with neibuhr. As a neo-ana-baptist I feel that volf can be a little light in “resist the powers”, though he is attacked more in the area of eventual judgment, perhaps they are two sides of the same coin. They represent a sometimes more jaundiced view of fulfilling your (1) and (2), though maybe I’m not sure what a matter of faith is.

    It is interesting seeing the Chinese students that come to the US and their moral purity, it says something that their State has draconian laws on getting a girl pregnant (goto prison) or removing “reality” television (this week). Are moral virtues a matter of faith? vs say democracy?

    ..and yet, David Goldstein’s Book “How Civilizations Die, (And Why Islam Is Dying Too)” points out demographically that only the US and Israel as industrial powers actually have a birthrate that is above 2 (Iran is about 1.2, and Turkey is about 1.05 by comparison), he posits that this is a spiritual issue

    “individual human existence looks forward to the continuation of the culture that nurtures, sustains, and transmits our contribution to future generations. Culture is the stuff out of which we weave the hope of immortality—not merely through genetic transmission but through inter-generational communication.”

    He further points out that in the US, practicing Christians and Jews have children and atheists/agnostics by comparison do not.

    I agree with Volf on human flourishing, but i’d abstract it in the manner that it is done in 2 Peter, if there is no Coming/Resurrection/immortality then there is only me in the here and now, and I rather have a porche then a kid (who will cost me $220,000 according to the Dept of Commerce through age 17). This immortality/judgment extends beyond Christiandom, into Judaism and Hinduism and the male half of Islam (the women are sex toys in eternity).

    This is Volf’s limitation, and as much as I love him as well, his mentor Moltmann. Flourishing must integrate “resist” and “judgment”.

    • I would have liked a more indepth critique of Niebuhr than what Volf offers.

      His prophetic side might answer some of the short-comings you sight; but I agree that the judgment issue is absent. One might argue, however, that his point is not that this the vision for human flourshing becomes the Christian message; he puts forth the smaller claim that, given what the message is, this is how we should conduct ourselves and contribute toward the good in a pluralist situation.

      • I was unfair. It has been awhile since i read the book, prompted I now remember, it was set i plurality. But it prompts my next question, how does one then get to the point of knowing that this is the model (or best) form for human flourishing? [Oden like, I am going to sidestep exclusivity with respect to Judaism for the moment]

        You had mentioned preaching in your original posting, and you know how much I question this, last week Pastor Vern and I were discussing preaching, and my point was that the preaching integrated signs and symbols, it did not stand alone. Going beyond the miraculous for this discussion, Paul created a sign by mending tents, the death of the Apostles was testimony/symbol as well.

        What would be a sign or symbol that we have the best meta narrative?

  2. I think a significant sign or symbol that we have the best metanarrative would be, quite simply, healthy lives lived in healthy communities grounded in faith, hope, and love. If we walked the walk as much as we try to talk the talk, more people might believe us, because they believe what they see. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the “sign of the kingdom” that we as the Church don’t manage to perform for a watching world.

    • That is Volf’s contention–that we offer the most compelling vision of the good life, not necessarily the “best” narrative. One might reject the narrative, especially in a pluralist context, but the vision of flourishing should commend itself. It is then the task of more traditionally conceived evangelism/apologetics to move interested persons to the saving narrative. We have too easily attempted the latter detached from the former.

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