Miroslav Volf: A Public Faith How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good Brazos Press 2011
I was inspired to read these books when, earlier this year I heard that the third aim of the Diocese of Canterbury was ‘Contributing to the Common Good by building sustainable and life giving communities and partnership.’ These two short books about the Common Good point us towards important elements in our work of contributing to the Common Good.
It might be helpful to consider first some of the origins of this phrase, the Common Good. Historically the idea is more common than the actual phrase. The idea is found throughout the scriptures, but it is only in the early Christian document, the Epistle of Barnabas do we find the phrase itself. “Do not live entirely isolated, having retreated into yourselves, as if you were already justified, but gather instead to seek together the common good.” It is used as a phrase by St Thomas Aquinas in the 12th century and then since 1891 it is has been used frequently in Roman Catholic Social Teaching and it came into the Church of England. In our liturgy of 1966 in the Series two Eucharist, in the prayers we prayed that God might ‘direct the nations in the ways of justice and peace, that we may honour all men, and seek the common good.’
Walter Brueggemann proposes ways in which the Scriptures may guide us as we journey together toward the common good that God wills for the world. In Exodous we are guided in the journey from the oppression and injustice of the Empire of the Pharaohs to the practice of neighbourliness established through the giving of the law. Always there is the temptation to retreat into empire rather than strike our towards neighbourliness. Jeremiah’s Israel is again threatened by the fear and anxiety of empire. He speaks the words of God envisioning an alternative possibility. Jeremiah, Jesus and Paul all offer foolishness, weakness and poverty as ways of countering wisdom, might and wealth. To take this journey we need to persue holiness, pain and truthfulness.
Next Brueggemann bids us consider Isaiah. We move through loss, grief and hope to the final chapters of reconstruction. Reconstruction will only come as we depart from what is familiar but destructive into a new world in which we are challenged to live in new ways, ways that must be worked out in the particular circumstances of our own lives.
I find great help in Bruegerrmann’s challenge to Christians to use the great passages in Exodous, Jeremiah and Isaiah to assist our building of a new neighbourliness in our contempary world. Miroslav Volf addresses a number of important questions that centre on how Christians might make their contribution to national conversations about pursuing the common good. He starts by proposing that the Christian faith as a prophetic religion is all about being an instrument of God for the sake of human flourishing, in this life and the next. Then he speaks of a centre of Christian life as the ascent to God where we are transformed in heart, mind and body and our return to use our changed selves in the service of human flourishing. He speaks of how this process might malfunction. Maybe the ascent is to a god of our own making rather than to the true living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Maybe things go wrong on our return; parhaps we are too idle, maybe too busy to help well. Maybe we incline to a coercive appraoach.
Next, comes the central chapter on human flourishing, as human beings who only fully flourish as everyone else flourishes, who only flourish as we belong to life giving communities. Finally, Miroslav Volf writes about how Christians might share their wisdom and engage in public conversations. He has many wise words to suggest how we go about these crucial tasks.
I greatly admire these authors. I regret that they publish too many books rather than fewer deeper books. But while these brief books do not help us pursue the Common Good in practical detail, they both provide important signposts and biblical, theological and spiritual resources to help us all in this task to which our diocese and our discipleship directs us.
Since I wrote this review I have learnt that the Archbishop’s Council have changed the third aim of the diocese to ‘Building partnerships that enrich communities’. I hope that this task will still be inspired by the church’s long tradition, continued in these and other contemporary writings of letting our life as Christians to be guided by this rich heritage of seeking the Common Good.Christopher Morgan-Jones