Volf Believes in Thick Religion (by Wesley Menke)

CST student Wesley Menke

This post is written in conjunction with the “Becoming a Public Scholar” course and is directed by Monica A. Coleman.

My college math professor was one of a kind. He affectionately called his calculator “Fritz,” and would put it in his back pocket on cold mornings to warm it up. He would get one haircut per semester, whether he needed it or not, which would involve shaving his entire head—beard included. He taught calculus, but he believed in math. He would say, “Calculus is what got us off the farm, and onto the moon!” and “It was by studying math that the young Napoleon got a scholarship out of Spain, and into France.” But for as much as Prof. Schultz had a kind of faith in mathematics he always described it in pragmatic terms. When teaching us about the theory and history of the Bell Curve, he described it more as a technological innovation by Gauss, rather than a discovery. He enjoyed asking his students the philosophical question: “Is mathematics discovered or created?”

Miroslav Volf similarly believes in religion. He is a Christian theologian, with mostly traditional/orthodox views of the Christian faith. Like my old math professor believed in the power of math to make the world a better place, so does Volf believe in religion. He doesn’t deny the violence done in the name of religion. Nor does he deny the lackadaisical lukewarm faith present in the West. His thesis is that the key to a more peaceful world, and to human flourishing, is not suppression and neutralization of religion, but a thickening of it. Perpetrated violence is the result of thin religion, religion not fully understood, and religion hollowed out for ulterior motives. Peace is found not in suppressing the deep human need to be religious, but in more intentionally learning one’s faith, and being in robust conversation with others of different faiths in the public square.

In A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Public Good, Volf pushes hard against secularism. He criticizes its overly individualistic focus on personal satisfaction, its failure to identify human flourishing as a communal effort, on the lack of belief in God, and its lack of a clear metaphysic—a view on the inherent structure to the universe. Volf also holds that Jesus Christ is wisdom and the singular way to salvation. Yet he allows for the possibility and necessity of wisdom, and therefore Christ, to be revealed (if not completely) in other religions throughout the world. For this reason, and the Christian mandate to be loving, Volf argues for “religious political pluralism.” In other words, he is open, and thinks all Christians should be open to deep non-coercive open relationships to fellow human beings of various faith backgrounds. He really thinks there is something to be gained for both parties, and that religions need one another to get a clearer understanding of who God is, and how human beings can flourish beyond the conventional and trivial pursuit of individual satisfaction.

It’s too bad Volf doesn’t widen his circle to be in conversation with secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, and religious “nones” as collaborators to whom wisdom has been revealed. This is particularly important to me as I think of friends and mentors of mine who identify this way, many of whom acknowledge the power and potential goodness of religion. And while it would be problematic for some theologians to associate the revelation of wisdom as a kind of technological innovation, it would be fun to imagine new ways of being together, so that wisdom would be discovered and invented anew.

Wesley Menke is a candidate for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He has over ten years in full time youth ministry, and is working on a thesis about soteriology of youth. He is in his third year of coursework at Claremont School of Theology.

Follow him on twitter: @wesmenke

  • Elise M Edwards

    Thank you for this post. Wes, I think you do a good job of presenting Volf’s thesis.

    I agree with Volf about “thick” religion and I appreciated the balance between stating his own convictions about the Christian faith and the need for religious pluralism. Yet, I wish he had given a similarly thick account of secularism, and discussed the positive ways people do find meaning outside of religion. This book seems targeted towards Christians in particular and religionists in general, but if we are to take religious political pluralism seriously, there will have to be content-rich engagements between those who deeply ascribe to religion and those who don’t. I hope that will be forthcoming in other works by Volf.

  • Sheri Kling

    Nice job, Wes, of articulating Volf’s thesis in this text. I too agree with his assessment of when religion is malfunctioning based on its being too “thin,” and I also enjoyed his discussion of religious pluralism. One thing I’d like to expand on in your post is that when Volf identifies Jesus as wisdom, it’s important – in my view – to say that he is not just making a point that following Jesus is wise, or that Jesus’ way has something to do with being wise, but that he believes that such texts as the prologue to John’s gospel point to Jesus as the embodiment of Divine Wisdom, that Spirit of God that is infused and alive in creation and that is personified as female/Sophia in the Hebrew Bible, and also as the (again female) Shekinah that “tented” or “dwelt” among us.

    Thanks for illuminating this work for us!

    • Wes

      Thanks for highlighting that aspect of the text Sheri. You’re right in doing so, because it is the theological grounding for the whole thing. I have to admit that I struggled with this section, not that wisdom is embodied in Christ, but with a tone that bordered on exclusivity.

      • Sheri Kling

        I know what you mean. For me, if I think of “Christ” not as Jesus’s last name, but as the cosmic divinity that he embodied (that existed before and after the man Jesus lived and died), then I think we can talk about “the Christ” as Wisdom, Shekinah, Tao, Archetypal Self, Buddha nature, Atman, or, if not identical, that would be an nice bridge for conversation. That’s the Jungian in me talking, and it may not appeal to all, I’m sure, but it’s how my thinking is evolving.

        • http://cst.edu/academics/faculty/profile/monica-coleman/ Monica A. Coleman

          A very common process Christology as well. Cf. John B. Cobb’s “Christology in a Pluralistic Age.”

  • admin

    Hey Wes,
    I have been wanting to read this book, so it was great to read your post. I also wanted to confirm your sense that Volf is tends towards exclusivism. You can see in this interesting video (linked below) from his Yale lecture series that he argues for a “soft exclusivism.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WK3TPX2Z5w&feature=relmfu

    -Austin

  • Hannah Heinzekehr

    Wes – Great post. You have “hit the nail on the head” with how I was feeling as I was reading this book, as well. For as much as the word pluralism is bandied about in its pages, this book certainly left me wanting. Thick religion may be a framework that allows for a more robust Christianity, but I don’t think that it adequately addresses what it means to live in an inter-religious or even rapidly secularizing (is that a word?) context. One of my critiques of many accounts of pluralism is that they don’t go far enough in helping to make it clear what engagement looks like when truths are many. True dialogue cannot just be about arguing for our respective positions, but I think that we must enter into it willing to be or at least open to the possibility that we might be changed. Thanks for a great post!

  • Kathleen McGregor

    Wes, Hannah, you two have put into words the discomfort that I felt with the text. As a more and more Humanist agnostic leaning person of faith, the exclusivity made me uncomfortable. Of course, as a Christian, Volf would need to lift up Christianity as the answer to Christians who have “let their faith idle.” Arguing that religion has left the public square is disingenuous because conservative Christians are making their presence and beliefs known every day, changing the very conversations of the public square. Arguing that secularism is barring reason from the debate, and unfair to Christians is a dominant culture argument against allowing other voices and opinions at the table. Christianity has been and continues to be hegemonic, and there is no indication that it is under threat, except for the manufactured threat that is in the mainstream media day in and day out. While using pluralism, the word, over and over, he seems to be writing about tolerance. Perhaps, by using the godless secularists as an example, he is making a stronger case for Christians to have thick religions. However, he is reinforcing Western dualism that is not conducive to pluralism or conversation.

    • Jennifer Gutierrez

      I would argue that Christianity is under threat, but it’s an internal threat. It’s under threat from people that have gutted the historical nonviolent, counter-cultural life of Jesus so that they can use the frame of Christianity to promote their own personal or political agenda. That sounds like an argument for Volf’s thesis about “thick” vs. “thin” Christianity. And perhaps it is, except that he doesn’t seem to follow his own advice very well when it comes to Christian perspectives different from his own, including a feminist critique.

  • http://cst.edu/academics/faculty/profile/monica-coleman/ Monica A. Coleman

    One of the reasons I asked you all to read this book was that it was clear, but also fairly representative of the field of “public theology.” I think you have well identified some of the shortcomings of the field as it exists – but that don’t actually need to be there.


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