Thursday, June 5, 2014

Seek the welfare of the city

What should the role and responsibilities of Christians be in the public square?
How can secular democracies function when many citizens are religious?

This past month at my theology book discussion group we read and discussed Miroslav Volf's book, A Public Faith: How followers of Christ should serve the common good

My first problem with this book was that my expectations were too high. Volf's earlier book Exclusion and Embrace, is a hard act to follow. It is highly original and challenging, particularly in its engagement with postmodern literature.

I mainly recommend it because it wrestles with important issues that need to be addressed by both Christians and non-Christians.

What is the "common good"? It is "human flourishing". Christians can serve others. They can also question things in society that are preventing people from flourishing. An example is how Western secular society has degenerated into a focus on "experiential satisfaction." This follows the change in the USA from a focus on God to Nation to self, as described by Andrew Delbanco in The Real American Dream.

I think Volf may be a little weak in his view of the prophetic role of Christians. He seems so keen to find common ground and get a "seat at the table" that he is reluctant to be marginalised by them calling on society to repent and to right injustices.

I feel the book may be too controlled by responding to extremist agendas, caricatures, and critiques. Significant space is spend responding to the influential Muslim, Sayyid Qutb. It reminds me of yet another book on "creation vs. evolution" which is responding to a debate defined by extremists such as Richard Dawkins and Ken Ham.

Previously, I posted about how I don't like the label "science and faith". Similarly I don't like the label of "faith-based initiatives". The problem is that this plays to secularist claims that contrast "faith" and "reason" and "evidence". There is just as much "faith" and "personal values" in the views and policies of right-wing conservatives, Marxists, libertarians, Muslims, neoliberals, .... and Christian activists.

The book could have benefited from some concrete discussion and examples of how his proposals might work in practice. One example might be the Clapham Sect, associated with William Wilberforce.

Nevertheless. the book is a valuable contribution. Jeremiah 29 says
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

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