Brief Reviews, VOLUME 12

Volf / Croasmun – For The Life of the World: Theology that Makes a Difference [Review]

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A Review of

For The Life of the World:
Theology that Makes a Difference

Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun

Hardback: Brazos Press, 2019

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Reviewed by Cate Michelle Desjardins
 
 
I’ve been pondering Jesus’ words lately. You know them. After comparing himself to a gate that those who go through, like sheep, will find green pastures, Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly” (John 10).

What is the abundant life that Jesus speaks of? What does it look like in practice?

I’ve thought of this passage often in the last year of my own life. Two years ago I accepted a short-term foster placement who then became a long term placement. Z was with us from 8 months old and, after a year of building a relationship with her birth family and eventually reaching near to the point of adopting her, the birth of a sibling changed all of our plans and we said goodbye. This past year, then, I’ve gone from being a full-time running-after-the-sassy-toddler mom to a childless young adult. I am a chaplain, a reader, a Mennonite. Sure. Some would certainly even say I’m still a Mom. But when you’ve experienced having a young child in your home and then not, life loses a surprising amount of sparkle. While I will be the first person to say that foster care is hard (very, very hard) and not even just the goodbyes, I reflect on that year of my life with the absolute assurance that it was an abundant and, in the words of Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun in their new book, For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference, it was indeed a flourishing life.

A project out of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, For the Life of the World is, as the authors are careful to delineate in the in the introduction, a manifesto, one that calls for theology to re-take its rightful place in the academy and the world as a discipline for the articulation of a Christian vision of flourishing.  I opened this book in the middle of this wondering place in my life with a great deal of hope – the kind of hope for personal transformation I don’t usually experience when opening a work of academic theology – but hope all the same. Perhaps here within I would find a way back to that abundant flourishing I felt while parenting Z.

Miroslav Volf, perhaps best known for his 1996 theological book Exclusion and Embrace has also published, more recently, a book entirely focused on the concept of flourishing, entitlted Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. His co-author, Matthew Croasmun, teaches the Life Worth Living seminar at Yale alongside extensive Pauline scholarship and founding a community-focused Vineyard church. It is from these backgrounds, and they are truly evident throughout the text, that For the Life of the World is written.



The book has five chapters, each of which builds on the previous, from describing why questing for the “good life” or the “flourishing life” is a fundamental part of the human experience (Chapter 1), the authors delve into what they believe to be the crises of modern theological scholarship. It was the discussion of the crisis of theology that really drew me into the book. I have plenty of friends who seek passionately to study and produce academic theology that run up against much of what the authors describe as debilitating: such job insecurity that theologians are forced to primarily publish what is popular and marketable, over what might truly make a valuable contribution to the academy and the world.

The authors also describe theology-as-science (distinguished from theology in conversation with science) as one of the problems: this is theology that is purely descriptive, they argue, not normative. They particularly call out practical theologians who have adopted the methods of social science in this chapter. As a practical theologian who has, indeed, adopted the methods of social science to do my work, I was surprised that they understood these methods to be a part of the crisis of theology. The authors argue that in this case the subject matter becomes Christianity, and describing Christianity, as opposed to the normative work of theology seeking to discover and describe a Christian vision of the flourishing life. While I can see that argument, I believe we theologians need a robust and accurate understand of how real Christians today understand, interpret, and use their faith in diverse contexts and only then do the normative work of not only describing but teaching what it may be to live an “abundant” life. The methods of social science are, I would argue, important tools in that continuum.

If theology, as the author’s argue, is to be a “robust, descriptive work oriented toward an actionable, liveable normative vision of human flourishing,” then the lives of theologians themselves must reflect their very work. The chapter, “Lives of Theologians” with another co-author, Justin Crisp, was one of the strongest in the book. Unlike many other disciplines, as theology seeks in particular to describe a “life worth living,” theologians more than others must embody an affinity between their work and their lives. Perhaps this suggestion in not unlike Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous suggestion to a young poet: “Live everything…live…into the answers.” Theologians are pilgrims, doing ecstatic work – that is, work about something outside of themselves – always longing for fruition, but knowing we live in the “not yet” space. We must love God, knowledge, truly love our interlocutors, and work with gratitude and humility. This chapter alone – written with the same firmness, grace, and humility the authors call for – should be required reading for anyone beginning advanced studies in theology.

For the Life of the World is a manifesto that will appeal primarily to those pursuing advanced academic theological work. While the authors state in the introduction that the book is meant to be a manifesto for all theologians, who they commendably define very broadly, the format of the book – with extensive, technical footnotes – and the tone of it will limit its broader appeal. Perhaps also, I found For the Life of the World to not ultimately offer what felt to me like a particularly new or radical proposal. Of course, not every work of theology needs to do that, and I can see how the authors worked diligently to make their vision of a flourishing life a universal one. Yet I couldn’t help but be disappointed in that very broadness. If the flourishing life is ultimately about, as the author’s suggest, a nuanced interplay between love, peace, and joy and theology must, must matter in the life of the world which is “God’s home” – I feel as though feminist, womanist, Latinx, liberation and other theologians from the margins have been calling us to just that for years.

Reading this book as an Anabaptist, the authors’ extensive discussion of Protestant Christianity’s over-focus on the redemption narrative over an overall vision of eschatalogical flourishing, and their extensive treatment of peace as a comprehensive aim of Christian living read to me as Anabaptist-theology-lite. Lastly, although throughout the early chapters the life of Jesus is held up as perhaps God’s greatest gift to us as an example of a flourishing, if not necessarily easy, life –  I was surprised and disappointed that it was ultimately the life and theology of Paul that was exegeted as the source of the authors’ vision of flourishing Christian life. The authors did not engage in an extensive discussion of the life of Jesus, only a mention at the end of the book that they “could have” come to the same conclusions had they more thoroughly explored the synoptic gospels. I wish they had.

As for me, For the Life of the World did serve as a meaningful reminder of the primacy of “love above all” as an orientation and posture in the truly flourishing Christian life. It did not perhaps provide the specifics for which I was hoping. So, I will continue to live in the “not yet” of answers that the authors powerfully suggest we will always live in, but ought never stop striving for the truth. And that’s fine with me! Just as a flourishing life will not look the same in  first century Palestine, in Paul’s Roman World, or in today’s modern world, the book also reminded me that flourishing, for all of us, might look different in each successive season of our lives and still, indeed, be good.

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Cate Michelle Desjardins is a pediatric chaplain researcher in Cincinnati, OH whose work focuses on the theological experiences of families whose children require medical technology to survive. In her spare-time she provides respite foster care and blogs about religious travel at www.sacredwanderings.com.

 






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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


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