Reclaiming the Question:
What is flourishing life?
The Communists helped us. They stripped our faith of all the superfluous things. … Only someone willing to make a personal sacrifice could make a confession of faith. Young people entered the church because they understood this sacrifice.
The Rev. Vaclav Maly, who suffered imprisonment and torture in Prague before the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.
It sounds paradoxical but, under the oppression, we felt that everyday improved our spiritual life. I think it might be even a bit boring now that we are free.
Artist and mystic Otmar Oliva, in an interview shortly after the Velvet Revolution.
Then, 30 years later …
Christian theology has lost its way because it has neglected its purpose.
Miroslav Volf, writing in For the Life of the World, published in 2019 and available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine
You can’t fully appreciate the prophetic power of theologian Miroslav Volf’s new manifesto: For the Life of the World, Theology That Makes a Difference—unless you are aware of what was happening exactly 30 years ago in the region where he grew up: Eastern Europe.
At that time, the former “Eastern Bloc” was turning on its head. As a senior writer for Knight-Ridder newspapers in that era, I was sent to Eastern Europe with a colleague to spend a couple of months traveling across what we had been calling “the Eastern Bloc.” Our mission? We were assigned to document and write what turned out to be an award-winning American newspaper series about the catalytic role of religious groups in spurring revolution. This ambitious assignment arose because my colleague, Roddy Ray, and I had been watching countless U.S. news reports about these revolutions, casting these stories as political dramas. Roddy and I soon realized that this reporting was produced largely by foreign correspondents who had no understanding of religion. We knew that we had to step in to report the larger story.
In one Eastern European nation after another, Roddy and I traced key sparks of revolutionary ignition back to rallies inside churches, to courageous pastors, to spiritually minded artists and writers and to prophetic religious leaders. Thanks to our series of stories, American newspaper readers learned of names like Vaclav Maly in Prague and Laszlo Tokes in Romania—and many others, as well.
In one story, I simply described Maly’s tiny apartment, where the light fixture in the ceiling had been partly dismantled to remove the electronic surveillance devices from the Communist authorities. Nearby was a round hole in Maly’s wall where the rock-hard plaster and lathe had been crushed inward.
“That is where they picked me up bodily and rammed my head into the wall during one of the interrogations,” he told me. “Luckily, the wall broke before my head did.”
I met a priest who was emerging from years of imprisonment in a stone quarry, determined to help rebuild the church. Another priest was trying to clean the oil stains from the floor of his church, which had been used as a garage for police vehicles for years. I met a rabbi who was re-opening a cobweb-strewn synagogue.
One night in Prague, I was astonished to sit up long after midnight with 20-something activists in a tiny, book-lined apartment where they gathered to discuss theology as if this was the turning point of their world. What kept these men and women up half the night in impassioned debate?
They were discussing the coming centennial of a Vatican encyclical, Rarum Novarum, about God’s vision for proper relationships between capitalists and laborers and between governments and citizens. Writing in the midst of what he called “the spirit of revolutionary change” in 1891, Pope Leo XIII, wrote passionately about the divine value of each person’s life—even the poor and oppressed. For the young activists in that apartment, Leo’s questions about the purpose of human life and work were as relevant as that morning’s newspaper headlines.
On one wall in that apartment hung the poster that seemed to be popping up everywhere in Prague, at that time. It showed playwright-turned-activist Vaclav Havel in a casual black sweater with one outstretched hand as he declared: “Truth and love must conquer lies and hate.”
This explosion of spiritual wonderment was not limited to the cities—or to elite intellectuals in university towns. I also traveled into the remote mountains of Transylvania to write about an impoverished Orthodox family prying up the floorboards of their bedroom to bring out priceless icons hidden away for decades. Those icons were bound for a solemn procession back to their church of origin.
Here is how Tokes summed up that era in an interview, as I quoted him in that newspaper series:
“Churches managed to survive four decades of communist attempts to suppress them, generally because they preserved eternal values—moral values that our societies now need very much for the future. … Through these years, the churches’ strength was that they remained the only organized alternatives left for people to the totalitarian governments.”
Here Is Where Miroslav Volf Begins …
That is why Volf’s new book, which he calls “a manifesto,” begins the way it does—with memories from Eastern Europe in the 1970s. (You can read an excerpt here.) The question that this book raises is deeply troubling—almost heartbreaking—to anyone who lived through the turbulent transformation of Eastern Europe in the late 1980s.
Across that entire region of the world, a new vision of human purpose seemed to be emerging. Men and women who cared deeply about their spiritual values—everyday theologians—were willing to risk their lives to carve out a better way of life. Many were imprisoned, tortured and died as a result. When that happened, more and more arose to swell their ranks.
Here is how I reported on just one of those scenes in November 1989:
In one of the climactic rallies that helped push the revolution to victory, the Rev. Vaclav Maly and other dissidents addressed a crowd of 500,000 gathered along the Letna Plain, a huge riverfront park on the northern edge of downtown Prague.
At one point, a young police officer unexpectedly appeared at the podium and admitted that he had been among the police who had beaten a group of student protesters earlier that month. He begged for forgiveness.
Maly then talked about the need for forgiveness, asked the crowd to forgive the officer, then led his huge audience in reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Rita Klimova, a Jewish dissident who became the Czechoslovak ambassador to the United States, agrees that oppression actually has helped the church flourish. “It took the communists to make the citizens of Prague kneel on the pavement for the Catholic Church.”
That scene on the Letna Plain is one of the purest examples of theology in action I have ever seen in my 40-plus years as a journalist.
So, Theology Is ‘an Alternative’—
But to What?
Now, three decades later, Volf grabs his readers by the lapels on the first page of his book—and demands to know:
So, what happened!?!
In an interview about his new book, Volf told me: “In those years under these authoritarian regimes, the interest in theology—and, more broadly, the interest in the Christian faith, provided us an alternative safe space. We could think about questions of life and offer something like an alternative to the totalitarian powers that were holding our countries in such a tight grip.
“The problem was that, once the oppressive hand was lifted, many theologians were unable to shift to seeing their role and to continue to offer an alternative—this time to the emerging order in these countries. As a result, they became marginalized. Once the totalitarian regimes were gone, many thought their job was accomplished and there seemed to be little more for them to do.
“What I’m saying in the opening section of this book is that the motivation behind the vibrancy of theology for me, in those days, was the idea that we were exploring an alternative vision of life. But that alternative vision was not simply opposition to authoritarian regimes. We also were holding up a vision that was an alternative to capitalist and liberal orders, as well.
“There are still fundamental questions we can help people to answer for the good of the world.”
What You Need to Know about ‘For the Life of the World’ …
The first part of Volf’s case—about the explosion of creative theological activity across Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s—is largely unknown to most Americans today. However, the second part of his case seems more obvious: Theologians have lost their way.
Are you questioning that sweeping conclusion? Quick! Can you name a famous, living theologian?
To be fair, Volf points out in this book that everyone is a potential theologian. “I tend not to make a sharp line between professional theologians and the kind of ordinary theologian that every thinking Christian is,” Volf said in our interview. “Obviously there’s a difference in training and in the sheer amount of time devoted to the subject matter if one is a professional theologian. But fundamentally theology is about discerning and articulating the character of faith. In that sense, I don’t see theology as simply looking at Christianity from the outside and describing what’s going on in Christian communities—rather, I see theology as being the very ideational side of everyday life.”
Pew Research reports that, today, nearly half of all Americans (40 percent) regularly experience moments of wonderment about the meaning and purpose of life. That’s a starting point, of course, for what Volf is trying to encourage. That basic “ideational” instinct necessary for theological inquiry still is alive and well.
The bulk of Volf’s book is a systematic analysis of the failure of our more official theologians, today, to reclaim the basic purposes of their vocation. They are missing the opportunity to help shape the general wonderment of men and women into a meaningful theology, he argues.
Of course, the next question for Volf has to be: So, what should be the purpose of Christian theology? Volf and his co-author Matthew Croasmun write, “We believe the purpose of theology is to discern, articulate, and commend visions of flourishing life in light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.” (Our non-Christian readers should be reminded that Volf also is internationally known for his interfaith peacemaking and for important books on inter-religious dialogue such as A Common Word and Allah.)
The central theme of this new book, then, is “flourishing life.” So, think about that phrase for a moment! When was the last time you recall a news headline about a theologian—or any regional religious leader for that matter—talking about anything close to that exciting idea? What we get in public media, instead, are religious leaders endlessly debating rules and regulations and, even more tragically in 2019, the moral failures of their entrenched hierarchies.
You may be thinking: What about the popular prosperity preachers we see on TV? Are they theologians of “flourishing life”? But, Volf’s response is a resounding: No! Flourishing life is a vision that stands in stark contrast to the selfish desire promoted by name-it-and-claim-it, get-rich-quick preachers.
“The idea of flourishing life has been used especially in recent philosophical and psychological discussions about the nature of a desirable human life,” Volf said in our interview. “It’s in the tradition of talking about ‘the good life’ or ‘the true life’ or ‘life that is truly worth living.’ This is a vision of human life as it ought to be—something toward which we can aspire in our own lives and in the world as a whole. You might call this ‘human fullness’ in contrast to a life that simply echoes all the values and messages that surround us.
“I am asking questions like: How should we fill our time? What kinds of things should we want? And what kind of human beings should we aspire to be? Today, it is so easy to simply live by acquiring things, perhaps resources or knowledge or fame or wealth. We love social media and we want those clicks in our lives. If we get more clicks, then we must matter in the world.
“The questions I am asking used to be at the core of university life. The question of the good life—the meaningful life—was the central pillar of university life for centuries. Then, over many years, it was marginalized. Now, what universities do primarily is try to explain the world and teach people how to manipulate the world. The real questions are forgotten: How should we live? What should we do? Why should we manipulate the world in these ways? Try to raise those questions in a university setting and, now, they seem to be questions above everyone’s pay grade.
“We are ignoring the most important human questions of all time.”
Get a Copy for Your Small Group or Class
There are portions of this relatively short book that may be described as “a bit academic” for everyday lay readers. But this historic moment of global turbulence in 2019 and the over-arching energy of Volf’s manifesto make this so powerful and timely that we urge readers to dive into this book. If you do, you’ll almost certainly want to share portions of it with friends and perhaps discuss this book in your small group or class.
In our interview, Volf acknowledged that portions of this book are directly addressed to fellow academics. Volf and his co-author are both based at Yale.
“But there is a larger message in this book and I hope that readers will consider what we are saying,” Volf said in our interview. “I am hoping they will understand the importance of these questions. I hope that some readers will come away from this book saying: ‘Wow! This question of the flourishing life may be the most important question of my life.'”