Miroslav Volf on Public Faith

Essays

In “A Public Faith” I offer a sketch of an alternative to totalitarian saturation of public life with a single religion as well as to secular exclusion of all religions from public life. I write as a Christian theologian to followers of Christ. I am not writing as a generic religious person to adherents of all religions, a project that would fail from the start. To stay with the example of Qutb, it is a task of Muslim scholars to elaborate distinctly Islamic alternatives to Qutb. My task is to offer a vision of the role of the followers of Jesus Christ in public life, a role that stays clear of the dangers of both “exclusion” and “saturation.”

Debates are raging today about the role of religions in public life, and it is not difficult to see why. First, religions—Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and so on—are growing numerically, and their members worldwide are increasingly unwilling to keep their convictions and practices limited to the private sphere of family or religious community. Instead, they want these convictions and practices to shape public life. They may engage in electoral politics and seek to influence legislative processes (as the Religious Right has done in the United States since the Reagan presidency), or they may concentrate on transforming the moral fabric of society through religious awakening (as the Religious Right seems to be doing during the Obama presidency). Either way, many religious people aim to shape public life according to their own vision of the good life.

Second, in today’s globalized world, religions cannot be neatly sequestered into separate geographic areas. As the world shrinks and the interdependence of people increases, ardent proponents of different religions come to inhabit the same space. But how do such people live together, especially when all of them want to shape the public realm according to the dictates of their own sacred texts and traditions?

When it comes to the public role of religions, the main fear is that of imposition—one faith imposing aspects of its own way of life on others. Religious people fear imposition—Muslims fear Christians, Christians fear Muslims, Jews fear both, Muslims fear Jews, Hindus fear Muslims, Christians fear Hindus, and so on. Secularists, those who subscribe to no traditional religious faith at all, fear imposition as well—imposition by any faith—since they tend to deem all of them irrational and dangerous.

The fear of imposition of religious views often elicits demands for the suppression of religious voices from the public square. The people espousing that view argue that politics, one major public sphere, should “remain unilluminated by the light of revelation” and should be guided by human reason alone, as Mark Lilla has put it recently.[1] This is the idea of a secular state, forged over the last few centuries in the West.

 

Religious Totalitarianism

Unlike those who think religion should stay out of politics, I argue that religious people ought to be free to bring their visions of the good life into the public sphere—into politics as well as other aspects of public life. What’s more, I believe that it would be oppressive to prohibit them from doing so. But as soon as one starts making such an argument, some people raise the threat of religious totalitarianism.[2]

For many secularists today, militant Islam, represented by a figure like Sayyid Qutb, shows how religions, if allowed free reign, would behave in the public realm. This represents a massive misunderstanding of religions, but it is the ghost that haunts discussions of the public role of religion. To get this “ghost” clearly into view, I will sketch briefly Qutb’s position as articulated in Milestones, a short and revolutionary book he wrote in prison (1954–64), which earned him a death sentence in 1966. Qutb has been described as “the godfather of radical Islam”; what Marx was to Communism, it is said, Qutb has been to radical Islam. This is an exaggeration. It is true, however, that he has been “the major influence on the worldview of radical movements across the Muslim world.”[3] To me, he is the most compelling and presently most influential representative of what I would describe as religious totalitarianism—more intellectually rigorous than contemporary Christian representatives of religious totalitarianism, such as the so called “dominion theologians.”[4] The position that I myself advocate in A Public Faith is an alternative both to the secular total exclusion of all religions from public life and to Qutb’s total saturation of public life with a single religion.

I am a Christian and Qutb is a Muslim. But the contrast I am drawing is not between Christian and Islamic positions. For a great majority of Muslims, Qutb’s position is completely unacceptable, faithful neither to the authoritative sources of Islam nor to the centuries-long experience of Muslims with a variety of political arrangements in many parts of the world. The contrast is rather between religious political pluralism and religious totalitarianism. The position I designate here as “religious political pluralism” emerged within Christianity, but it is not the Christian position. Not all Christians embrace it, and some in the last few centuries have strenuously objected to it. Inversely, among people of faith, it is not Christians alone who today embrace religious political pluralism. Many Jews, Buddhists, and Muslims, among others, embrace it as well.[5]

Here is the bare-bones sketch of Qutb’s argument:

  1. Since there is “no god but God”—the basic Muslim conviction—God has absolute sovereignty on earth.[6]
  2. That God alone is God means for Qutb that all authority of human beings over others is illicit. Every human authority (except that of prophet Muhammad as the mouthpiece of God) is an idol, and compromises God’s oneness and sovereignty.
  3. Guidance as to how to lead one’s personal life and how to organize social life comes from God alone (as revealed through the prophet Muhammad). Just as the one God “does not forgive any association [of another divinity] with His person,” so God does “not accept any association with His revealed way of life.”[7] Obeying the commands from some other source than God is as much idolatry as is worshiping another deity.
  4. Islam is not a set of beliefs, but a way of life in total submission to the rule of the one God. The Muslim community is “the name of a group of people whose manners, ideas and concepts, rules and regulations, values and criteria, are all derived from the Islamic source.”[8]

Qutb sums up the internal constitution of the Muslim community in the following way: “No god but God” means “no sovereignty except God’s, no law except from God, and no authority of one man over another, as the authority in all respects belongs to God.”[9] A community that embraces these principles as a way of life is a Muslim community. It is exclusive and its rules regulate all aspects of its members’ lives. This is its internal constitution. What about its external relations?

  1. Muslims are called to cut themselves off completely from communities that exhibit ignorance of the guidance of God.
  2. Since God is one and the Creator, the law of God that regulates human personal and social life, as formulated by the prophet Muhammad, is no less universal than the so-called laws of nature; both laws apply always and everywhere.
  3. “The foremost duty of Islam in this world is to depose Jahiliyyah [ignorance of the divine guidance] from the leadership of man, and to take the leadership into its own hands and enforce the particular way of life which is its permanent feature.”[10]
  4. Muslims are called to embrace the faith that there is “no god but God”—a faith that must be embraced freely, since there is no compulsion in religion.

Imposition of the rule of one God, as interpreted by the prophet Muhammad, on the whole world—this is the mission of political Islam as interpreted by Qutb. There can be religious freedom properly understood only within a political order that embodies the Muslim way of life. Political Islam is religious at its basis, and, unlike the mainstream of Islam, it is aggressively totalitarian in its character.[11]

 

Toward an Alternative

In A Public Faith I offer a sketch of an alternative to totalitarian saturation of public life with a single religion as well as to secular exclusion of all religions from public life. I write as a Christian theologian to followers of Christ. I am not writing as a generic religious person to adherents of all religions, a project that would fail from the start. To stay with the example of Qutb, it is a task of Muslim scholars to elaborate distinctly Islamic alternatives to Qutb. My task is to offer a vision of the role of the followers of Jesus Christ in public life, a role that stays clear of the dangers of both “exclusion” and “saturation.”

My contention is that there is no single way in which Christian faith relates and ought to relate to culture as a whole. The relation between faith and culture is too complex for that. Faith stands in opposition to some elements of culture and is detached from others. In some aspects faith is identical with elements of culture, and it seeks to transform in diverse ways yet many more. Moreover, faith’s stance toward culture changes over time as culture changes. How, then, is the stance of faith toward culture defined? It is—or it ought to be—defined by the center of the faith itself, by its relation to Christ as the divine Word incarnate and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

The center of the Christian faith suggests a relation to the broader culture that can be roughly described in the following six points:

  1. Christ is God’s Word and God’s Lamb, come into the world for the good of all people, who are all God’s creatures and loved by God. Christian faith is therefore a “prophetic” faith that seeks to mend the world. An idle or redundant faith—a faith that does not seek to mend the world—is a seriously malfunctioning faith. Faith should be active in all spheres of life: education and arts, business and politics, communication and entertainment, and more.
  2. Christ came to redeem the world by preaching, actively helping people, and dying a criminal’s death on behalf of the ungodly. In all aspects of his work, he was a bringer of grace. A coercive faith—a faith that seeks to impose itself and its way of life on others through any form of coercion—is also a seriously malfunctioning faith.
  3. When it comes to life in the world, to follow Christ means to care for others (as well as for oneself) and work toward their flourishing, so that life would go well for all and so that all would learn how to lead their lives well. A vision of human flourishing and the common good is the main thing the Christian faith brings into the public debate.
  4. Since the world is God’s creation and since the Word came to his own even if his own did not accept him (John 1:11), the proper stance of Christians toward the larger culture cannot be that of unmitigated opposition or whole-scale transformation. A much more complex attitude is required—that of accepting, rejecting, learning from, transforming, and subverting or putting to better uses various elements of an internally differentiated and rapidly changing culture.
  5. Jesus Christ is described in the New Testament as a “faithful witness” (Rev. 1:5) and his followers understood themselves as witnesses (e.g., Acts 5:32). The way Christians work toward human flourishing is not by imposing on others their vision of human flourishing and the common good but by bearing witness to Christ, who embodies the good life.
  6. Christ has not come with a blueprint for political arrangements; many kinds of political arrangements are compatible with the Christian faith, from monarchy to democracy. But in a pluralistic context, Christ’s command “in everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12) entails that Christians grant to other religious communities the same religious and political freedoms that they claim for themselves. Put differently, Christians, even those who in their own religious views are exclusivists, ought to embrace pluralism as a political project.[12]

This is, in broad strokes, the alternative that I propose to religious totalitarianism.



[1] Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West (New York: Knopf, 2007), 309.

[2] Just for the record: religious totalitarianism is not the only form of totalitarianism. Indeed, all of the most bloodthirsty forms of totalitarianism over the past century or so—Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism—were not religious in character at all.

[3] On Qutb, see John L. Esposito, The Future of Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 67–68.

[4] On Christian Reconstructionism, see John Pottenger, Reaping the Whirlwind: Liberal Democracy and the Religious Axis (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2007), 208–39.

[5] For Islamic arguments for political pluralism, see Feisal Abdul Rauf, What’s Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West (New York: Harper-Collins, 2004).

[6] For traditional Jews and Christians no less than for Muslims, this is an uncontested claim. But many followers of Abrahamic religions consider the implications Qutb draws from it deeply problematic.

[7] Sayyid Qutb, Milestones (Chicago: Kazi, 2007), 90.

[8] Ibid., 2.

[9] Ibid., 14.

[10] Ibid., 89.

[11] At the end of Milestones Qutb underscores that the fundamental struggle in the world today is a religious one, not economic, political, or cultural. “The struggle between the Believers and their enemies is in essence a struggle of belief, and not in any way of anything else. The enemies are angered only because of their faith, enraged only because of their belief. This was not a political or an economic or a racial struggle; had it been any of these, its settlement would have been easy, the solution of its difficulties would have been simple. But essentially it was a struggle between beliefs—either unbelief or faith, either Jahiliyyah or Islam” (ibid., 110).

[12] On the relationship between religious exclusivism on the part of Christians and Muslims and the embrace of pluralism as a political project, see Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011), chap. 12.

Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.

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