“Miroslav Volf!” my friends were saying. I recognized the name – he’s a theologian/ philosopher/critic who seems to write a book every six months – but I didn’t know his work very well. I’m more of a fiction/poetry guy, and tend to get lightheaded when ascending the peaks of philosophy and theology. But during my years of attending the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I’ve found that it’s a good idea to attend a few sessions given by new, unfamiliar presenters. You have to get book recommendations somehow.
The ascent was, indeed, steep. At a couple points, my friends worried that I might lose consciousness. But I took a fortifying breath and settled in.
Volf’s presentation concerned the Secular Age, and whether or not our own personal Age is, in fact, Secular. His contention was that ours is not, but not in the way that one might expect. “Some people assumed that the world would secularize,” Volf said, “maybe with the help of fellows like Dawkins. They assumed that religion would become privatized – no longer in institutions. And it would atrophy in private life. Ours would be a post-religious time. But none of that has happened.”
There had already been a Secular Age, according to Volf, and it lasted from 1848 to 1968 – The Communist Manifesto to Situationist Paris. In this period, the revolutions and upheavals that shaped the world were instigated by a secularist avant-garde, as evidenced by eugenics, dialectical materialism, the Cold War and a host of other Time-Life highlights. The age we find ourselves in now is one that Volf characterized as “Post-Secular,” meaning that claims to truth exist not hierarchically but horizontally, as in a lunch buffet.
I’m getting lightheaded just remembering it.
“Sometimes we forget how deeply religious the world is,” Volf said. “The hand of human beings is always reaching for God. Reverence to transcendence is not an add-on to human beings; it’s intrinsic to who we are.”
Different eras, different challenges
I found Volf’s presentation invigorating, but there was one aspect that left me confused. The overview of this Post-Secular age, where fundamentalism competes with orthodoxy and humanism dukes it out with scientific materialism and so on and so forth, reminded me of a round robin tournament, various worldviews getting matched up to see which would emerge victorious. Maybe it’s because I don’t follow sports, but this conception seemed, well, not terribly Christian. There was a zero sum aspect to it, which didn’t sound like it was in keeping with the spirit of Christian charity.
But what did I know? It had been years since I was in a college classroom, and even then, I wasn’t very good at philosophy.
Later that day, I got to see Volf interviewed by Cornelius Plantinga Jr., former president of Calvin Theological Seminary and a formidable thinker himself. Volf addressed the precise confusion I was having. It was very considerate of him.
The history of Christianity is long and varied, Volf explained. At certain points, the faithful have found themselves in the majority, even a ruling one, as in the Holy Roman Empire or various bastions of the Reformation. At other points, Christians have found themselves in the minority, as in the early church before Constantine codified Christianity as the official religion of his empire or believers in the People’s Republic of China, worshipping in back rooms and basements. Different eras, different challenges.
We should not be afraid of being marginalized, Volf told us. Constantly checking the numbers of our population to gauge our holiness, as if the church were a celebrity on Twitter trying to get the most followers, is simply not the best way to spend our time on earth. Majority, minority, we need only concern ourselves with being “faithful followers of Jesus Christ,” as Volf put it in his closing remarks of the interview.
A simple admonition, certainly, but I found that I was newly receptive to such a basic message following Volf’s elaborate, masterly tour of faith as it has played out in civilization. Not to say that I wasn’t still a little confused, but it was a generative confusion, one that comes from being in the presence of genuine mystery.
Today, in the Post-Secular era, “the purpose of religion shouldn’t be to compete with science,” Volf said. “World faiths don’t stand or fall based on if they can deliver better technology and longer lives than science. World faiths stand or fall by delivering meaning to our lives.”