Faith in a pluralist society

Miroslav Volf speaking at conference

Miroslav Volf

By Penny Mulvey

Imagine a world in the not-so-distant future where Christians and Muslims and people of other faiths and no faith work together, holding to their own distinct perspective, but listening and honouring the other, to organise ‘a common world’.

This was the vision presented by Croatian Protestant theologian, Miroslav Volf, at the Rethinking: A Public Faith conference, held in Sydney in March.

Professor Volf presented four keynote lectures over the course of the three-day event, looking at the themes of faith, public engagement, violence and reconciliation.

While in Australia he was also a panellist on the ABC television program, Q&A, addressing some of those same questions. He said that as the world becomes increasingly interconnected and intertwined, people end up living together under a single common roof. So the question of a future non-violent world of faiths and non-faith needs to be seriously considered.

Speaking on Q&A, Professor Volf said: ‘We live in a religiously pluralistic world and the sooner we realise that and the sooner we embrace that, and accord equal rights to all citizens – whether they are religious or not – and organise our societies, make democracies faith friendly democracies, the sooner we will have rights of all citizens respected.’

Professor Volf is the Henry B Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and Director of the Yale Centre for Faith and Culture. A prolific author, his most recent titles include A Public Faith (2011), Allah: A Christian Response (2011) and  Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (2006).

An engaging, charismatic man, Professor Volf offers an optimistic theological perspective of a world that allows for people to hold to their own faith (Volf described this as a religious exclusivist) but to be open minded enough to listen respectfully and carefully to those of other faiths and no faith (as a political pluralist).

He said one of the barriers to this is what he describes as political religions. To assist the audience understand his point, Volf described an example last century when Sri Lankan Buddhist monks felt the need to take up guns, as their religion (a religion of non-violence) intersected with their desire for sovereign territory.

Professor Volf believes there are four principles in which Christian faiths can be non-violent and promote peace:
1/ Guard faith independence from political power and resist employing it as a marker of communal identity.
2/ Concentrate on faith’s vision of a life well lived, drawing on the full resources of original revelation and subsequent tradition. In other words, don’t thin out your faith and stay away from political power.
3/ Embrace complete freedom of religion. Freedom to practice, freedom to choose, freedom to reject.
4/ Don’t compromise the golden rule. In everything, you should do unto others as you want them to do unto you. In everything.

He reiterated this point on Q&A when he said: ‘Once you separate religion from power then religion can be politically and publically engaged. You don’t have either secular exclusion of religion nor religious domination of society, but you have got a vibrant engaged pluralistic society debating the nature of the good life.’

Volf spoke of different cultures which can either be entirely secular (the religious voice is not allowed to be heard) or, at the other extreme, where a dominant religious political voice excludes all other religions. He describes both of these societies as  political exclusivism which often ends in violence, or some kind of religious cleansing.

Volf describes Australia as a secular institution, where religions are pushed back from public space in the hope they will retreat into the private sphere. He said secular political exclusivists regard religions as irrational, which “will push for something like a return to pre scientific obscurity and moral traditionalism”.

His point is supported by an analysis of local media commentary. For example, Paul Monk, in an opinion piece on the recently released movie Noah, made clear that any religious person was incapable of engaging in scientific discussion on climate change:

I reflected that billions of human beings still profess belief in Bible-based religions or various kinds of pseudo-prophetic quackery no more credible than Aronofsky’s Noah. Yet this is the world in which the IPCC report has to find its readership and be debated. What hope is there, then, of rational agreement or cohesive action? Little enough; but then it was ever thus; less because of human evil than because of human simplicity, confusion and compound error. (The Age, 9 April 2014)

Volf finds his inspiration from 17th century American theologian Roger Williams.

“Williams believed it was abhorrent to compel or persuade anyone else to believe what he believed. He said it was an issue of religious freedom.”

Volf said that Williams made clear that the idea that those obedient to the word of God have to make everyone in the space Christian must be given up.

“The idea of prophetic engagement and transformation of the whole society is powerful but not right,” Professor Volf said, clearly challenging the Christian missionary concept of Matthew 28:19 of going into the world and making disciples.

He argued that this is deeply contrary to the Gospel, which is about being on the margins.

The Uniting Church seeks to engage in a pluralistic society. We are already involved in multi-faith conversations that have at their centre, profound respect for the other and deep listening. The challenge is – can we hold these conversations as people of a particular exclusive faith position, or do we find ourselves adopting what Volf describes as a ‘thin faith’?

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