Politics and Purpose: An Interview with Miroslav Volf

For several years now, Yale theologian Miroslav Volf has pondered how Christianity (and religions broadly) can contribute to healthy political life. Much is at stake. Religion can be – needs to be – a reliable partner in nurturing political pluralism and the prospects of peace, he says. The likely alternatives are extreme – either religion plays a dominating, oppressive role in political culture, or it is banished entirely in a secular state.

In his new book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World (Yale, 2016), Volf examines the ways religion humanizes contemporary politics and global economics. Religion adds a crucial dimension of moral purpose, joy, and transcendent connection to human life that globalization cannot supply.

Further, particular public values issue forth from religious traditions, values that are essential to political sanity – freedom of religion, the equal moral value of all citizens, the separation of religion and rule, the impartiality of the state – and people of faith should be defending them.

Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at YDS and the founding director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. His books include A Public Faith (Brazos, 2011) and Allah: A Christian Response (HarperOne, 2011). He spoke to Reflections earlier this year.

REFLECTIONS: Globally, religious belief is on the rise as the world becomes more pluralistic and diverse. How are religions adjusting to this pluralistic condition?

MIROSLAV VOLF: In Flourishing I try to say that the great religions are repositories for the world’s most significant visions for human flourishing. They take seriously the transcendent longings of human beings. The problem is, the religions are in tension. Adherents are increasing numerically (in absolute and relative terms) and becoming publicly assertive. We live in a pluralistic world of contending particular universalisms. Each believes its universal vision is meant for all humanity, but each was created in a particular phase of history, and they often contradict each other, or are in tension with each other. The challenge is to help people of diverse religions live in peace while they engage in vigorous debate about the nature of the good life and the global common good. The challenge is to keep the “malfunctions” of religion – the hypocrisies, distortions of teaching, the violent misbehavior and coercion – at bay.

REFLECTIONS: You argue that religion should embrace pluralism as a political project, for the health of religion and of politics. What’s been the American experience?

VOLF: There are various ways to respond to the presence of religion in political society. One is to suppress all religion and maintain a thoroughly secular state. Another is to impose a single religion on the entire society. Then there’s a third way: It’s possible for believers to maintain their particular beliefs while embracing pluralism as a political project. It’s not only possible but de facto the case: Despite the rhetoric we hear, in fact we in America have formulated a vision for such a political project.

In America, there are two models from its early history, two contrasting options – 1) a political order that demands religious submission, which is associated with John Winthrop, and 2) a political order that demands religious freedom, associated with Roger Williams. American history has rejected the first and embraced the second.

REFLECTIONS: But is it realistic to expect religious exclusivists, here or elsewhere, to embrace political pluralism? Can they become agents of reconciliation without abandoning their own sense of identity or purpose?

VOLF: I will grant that many religious exclusivists are political exclusivists as well; they want to impose their religion on everyone. But it is also possible, as the case of Roger Williams and many believers since him show, to embrace political pluralism as an exclusivist. Both Winthrop and Williams were religious exclusivist; the difference between them was in the content of their beliefs: the one believed exclusivistically that faith must be imposed and the other believed equally exclusivistically that faith must be freely chosen. Content of the faith and not the way we hold onto it is what matters most. The same is true when it comes to reconciliation. If I am a religious exclusivist and believe that God commands me to love my enemies, I’ll be a reconciler.

REFLECTIONS: Is respect for pluralism – even the seed of pluralism – embedded in Christian belief?

VOLF: I believe so. St. Paul, for instance, believed that all people are equal before God, and he embraced religious freedom, because he insisted that it is with the heart that we believe. I cannot be coerced into belief. Moreover, like Jesus who talked about rendering unto Caesar, Paul distinguished the political and the religious. Once you affirm these three things – equality of all people, religious freedom, and distinction of faith and politics – then you are well on your way to being a political pluralist. This is what I argue in Flourishing.

In the pluralistic project, religion doesn’t retreat but bears witness in the political order. A commitment to freedom of religion gives everyone this right to bear witness and make their case for the good life. Faith must be embraced freely. It is offered to people as a gift, not imposed as a law. Any form of imposition of a social system or legislation allegedly based on God’s revelation must be rejected.

Christians who don’t want to give political space to someone else’s religion don’t treat others as they want to be treated themselves; they forget that they themselves were beneficiaries of freedom of religion in order to arrive at belief in what they believe.