Miroslav Volf and Kelly Corrigan discuss the role of education in seeking a flourishing life; the risks and rewards endemic to asking questions of meaning and existential import in the higher educational context; the meaning of success to college students, and how the specter of success drives our cultural narrative.
“We’ve become experts at means but amateurs at ends.” Miroslav Volf and Kelly Corrigan discuss the role of education in seeking a flourishing life; the risks and rewards endemic to asking questions of meaning and existential import in the higher educational context; the meaning of success to college students, and how the specter of success drives our cultural narrative; what it takes to live a life based on one's deepest -held values; Miroslav shares his own personal experience of approaching what makes life worth living within a particular Christian vision; what made him decide to be the only openly Christian kid in his high school; and how suffering grief, forgiveness, and living faith informed his early childhood and shaped his family's life.
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About Kelly Corrigan
Kelly Corrigan has written four New York Times bestselling memoirs in the last decade, earning her the title of “The Poet Laureate of the ordinary” from the Huffington Post and the “voice of a generation” from O Magazine. She is curious and funny and eager to go well past the superficial in every conversation. More on KellyCorrigan.com.
- This podcast featured Kelly Corrigan and Miroslav Volf
- Edited and Produced by Evan Rosa
- Hosted by Evan Rosa
- Special thanks to Kelly Corrigan and Tammy Stedman
- A Production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School https://faith.yale.edu/about
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Evan Rosa: For The Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Visit us online at faith.yale.edu.
Kelly Corrigan: I mean, I think success has been so long defined in a commercial society, that there's this default idea of what someone means when they use that word. And so you're really asking people to reimagine a definition that could be more inclusive of success that is not measured in the typical terms.
Miroslav Volf: One of the examples that we give is a story of Albert Speer, who was Hitler's architect. He was under 30 when Hitler kind of pulled him and offered him a position and said to him, you know, you're gonna be able to design buildings, the likes of which have not been designed since Roman times. And he writes it to his daughter and also to his posterity to kind of make his case stick a little bit.
But he basically says, but I was not a man who could refuse that. And so he was sucked in into that. He created also important architectural works, but in the process, participated in a kind of ungodly inhumane project. And here's an example of somebody who succeeded beyond measure as an architect, but who utterly failed, as a human being. And so that's what we're trying to bring together. So that our success in our humanity to match, be matched and married together with a success in whatever other, endeavor we have.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World. A podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. What makes for a successful life. Who sets the standard for that success? And if the medium is the message, who or what is communicating that definition of success to you and your friends, or to your children?
To their friends. Exactly whose Kool-Aid are you drinking? What kind of values have spiked that bunch? Today we're sharing a recent conversation between Miroslav Volf and writer Kelly Corrigan. Kelly hosts a PBS television show called "Tell Me More", and is author of five New York Times bestselling books. She also runs a prx podcast called Kelly Corrigan Wonders, where she's been running a recent series called Live from College, when she heard about the Life Worth Living Program that Miroslav developed through the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. She reached out for a conversation and was kind to let us share it in its entirety in our feed. Together, Miroslav and Kelly discussed the role of education in seeking a flourishing life, what success means to college students, and how the specter of that success drives the cultural narrative.
They talk about what it takes to live a life based on one's deepest held values. Miroslav shares his own personal experience of approaching what makes life worth living within a particular Christian vision, including what made him decide that the only openly Christian kid in his high school in the former Yugoslavia and how suffering, grief, forgiveness, and a living faith informed his early childhood and shaped his family's life.
Special thanks goes to Kelly Corrigan and Tammy Steadman. You can find Kelly Corrigan Wonders wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks for listening today, friends.
Kelly Corrigan: Guess where I'm going today? Where are you going? I'm going to New Haven, Connecticut.
Edward Lichty: So jealous.
Kelly Corrigan: I am married to a man, Edward Lichty, who loved college. He lives in an active state of gratitude that for four years, he got to travel from Little Rock, Arkansas to New Haven, Connecticut to study hip hop and film, Hawthorne and the history of the Depression, and still have plenty of time for pickup basketball and touring with a ridiculously named singing group.
He and I have spent decades talking about what makes something worth doing and ultimately what makes a life worthwhile. Which leads me to today's guest, Miroslav Volf. He is a professor of Theology at Yale, where he teaches a very popular class called Life Worth Living. I'm Kelly Corrigan and will be right back with a very special episode of Kelly Corrigan Wonders.
Hi guys. I wanted to make special mention of one of our key sponsors, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation. This is an incredible group of thinkers and doers and supporters who make podcasts like Kelly Corgan Wonders possible. They have supported us through our belief series, which was 10 questions for 10 people about what they believe and why, and how those beliefs changed their lives.
We did a five part series on the environment featuring teen climate activists as well as climate scientists who call themselves the science moms. And now we are deep into a very cool series called Live from College, where my producer and I go to 15 different campuses around the country talking to students, sitting in on classes and interviewing professors.
So here's to the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations. And running. Since the fifties, they've given out 3,800 grants totalling more than 300 million dollars. Thanks Mr. Davis, and thanks to everyone who's currently working with the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
Most of us wanna be better, but we're not sure where to begin. Comedian and host Chris Duffy is here to help you hear from guests and Ted speakers who might just make you a better human. From nurturing your emotional agility to challenging conventional wisdom and finding gratitude every day. This is your guide to becoming a little less terrible.
Find how to be a better human wherever you listen.
Welcome back to Kelly Corrigan Wonders. I'm Kelly Corrigan. It's a bold thing to call a class "Life Worth Living". To suggest that you've collected the wisdom of the ages and sequenced a curriculum that can take college kids from perhaps a life of hedonism and sometimes chaos to something more intentional and presumably fulfilling.
That's just what my friend Miroslav set out to do. Officially, he is Miroslav Volf theology professor and founding director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. I like him because he has a great Croatian accent. He is full of the best questions. And his life experience is informed by a deep personal loss that we'll talk about today.
Here is an unforgettable conversation with Miroslav Volf.
So I wanted to dig in with you about one particular class that you've been involved in. Can you tell me a little bit about Life Worth Living? What is the scope of the class? What kinds of traditions do you look into, and what do you hope kids get out?
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, that's one of those really big questions about our class, but it is a class about big questions.
The big question in a sense. So the main question we are trying to ask is what kind of life, what kind of world is worthy of our humanity? Not what do you desire, but what's worth desiring? That's the kind of driving issue behind the class, and it became really important to me after I read a book by a colleague of mine, the title of the book is Education's End On Why American Colleges and Universities have Given Up on the Meaning of Life.
And he reflects there, Tony Croasmun is his name, he is, Sterling Professor of Law and a philosopher as well. And he reflects on the shift that has happened in the higher education in this country in particular, but analogous shifts have occurred in other, countries as well. And basically he says, whereas when Harvard was founded, the question of the meaning question of the human purpose was at the very heart of the curriculum and other kinds of issues, whether they're technical or simply explanatory, were kind of feeding into that question that was around which the whole curriculum was revolving, and it remains so even through the process of secularization where that question became central, increasingly other issues came up. But in the, late 20th century, that question has been marginalized.
Universities became institutions for explaining reality, institutions for manipulating reality. Technological prowess and explanatory power became really important. All really very important things for the life of the world today. But the question of the purposes became margin.
Kelly Corrigan: And is it partially to do with who goes to college now? You know, hundreds of years ago when those very lucky, very wealthy young white men went to college, it was the life of the mind. And it was a pearl of great price, as they say, to just spend your time in these zones of contemplation. But now you are taking in all kinds of students who are coming from such a varied background that it's no longer safe to assume that they can afford this, that they have an intellectual community to return to. That they have the same aims as the original college students did in the United States.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, this may be a factor, but it may, your question may assume that you have to be comfortable to a certain degree, economically and otherwise to be able to engage these great questions of life.
And one of the things that we try to do in our course is to push against this idea. That it is really upon human question. And I often like to give example of my mother, who was growing up very impoverished. They had one cow that needed to be, fed, led to pasture, and she had to do it at four o'clock in the morning before she could go then to school.
She tells me when she was seven, she was running to a forest, and suddenly it occurred to her to ask the question, who am I? Why am I here? And that suggested to me that this was really a fundamental question of human existence. And when I travel, when I look around, I see people who are very impoverished asking this question maybe precisely because of the precarity of their lives. Great religious traditions who have this issue at the heart of their concern, have all been founded in settings which we would consider utterly impoverished. Nonetheless, that question was central for them.
Kelly Corrigan: Well, you know, I blame Maslow's Hierarchy. I really do because it really, you know, hit me as incredibly logical when I first encountered it as probably an undergrad at University of Richmond.And I just remember thinking oh, well there it is. That is the process, but that suggests that you don't really have time to self actualize if you're busy trying to find food, shelter, and security.
Miroslav Volf: And what we consider to be adequate food constantly keeps changing, what we consider adequate shelter and so forth, so that the needs do not have a natural threshold.Once you reach them, then you move the next step. But rather, we want sophistication in those things. Just like
Kelly Corrigan: The wallpaper problem, Miroslav. You always want wallpaper. First you want a wall, then you want wallpaper.
Miroslav Volf: And then you want to change that wallpaper after a while, then you would have a better wallpaper than your a neighbor does.
Kelly Corrigan: Yeah. Not a piece of art to put on your wallpaper. It's always getting away from you, but the idea that's really flawed in Maslow's hierarchy is that those experiences that are in these rungs are only linear. They couldn't be simultaneous, and that's just not true. You're saying that, of course, there are people around the world who are going to mass, like if you need proof, just look at all the people who are participating in religious practices and say, well, what are they asking? Their bellies are talking to them. Their feet are aching, and there they are asking the same big questions as these young white landed gentry men that I described at the top.
Miroslav Volf: I think that's exactly right, and I think you can almost invert that. It's our ability to pursue satisfaction of material needs, various forms of entertainment that keeps us at bay from some of the existential questions.
They may endanger our life as we understand it. They may append us. Ask for significant change in our lives because lives that we tend to lead are not really weighty with meaning they are maybe unbearably light.
Kelly Corrigan: Unbearably light. I was curious if my husband's experience in college might have been best described as unbearably light or if there was a layer of meaning that touched on these bigger ideas of morality and ethics.
So this class that I'm going to learn about, Life Worth Living, a big part of it is developing some kind of barometer for the ethical questions that come our way. So when you were in college, how much thought did you give to ethics?
Edward Lichty: It's interesting that class did not exist when I was there, but I suppose you could say that the whole exercise of being there was about contemplating a life worth living. We were lit up about apartheid. There were shanties built on one of the main quads at school. There was a lot of discussion around gay rights. People cared about the world at large. It wasn't just career training. I mean, it wasn't so much a place that focused on career ambition. It was much more about the world and how we might contribute.
Kelly Corrigan: So you guys started this class and the sort of structure of it is that you look at seven different ways of perceiving the world and ourselves and what is this sort of moral life.
Miroslav Volf: We're not whether to the seven, but alternative ways.
And that may be religious and they may be secular, but secular philosophies, utilitarianism. Or somebody like Niche has also asked that very question that's at the heart of their philosophies as it is at the heart of great religious traditions. And we organized reading these text around some central questions because otherwise it might end up being the introduction into worldviews for dummies, what we want is for them to engage these traditions with a set of questions. How do they understand what a truly good, true, flourishing life is? And for us, that means we ask the question, what does it mean according to this tradition for life to be led well? What does it mean according to this tradition for life to be experienced as going well, what circumstances they expect for life to have so that it can flourish. What does it mean for life to feel right? And so we have these three elements that are definitive of what a good life is. Alright? And then we ask the question, well, what helps does this tradition give you to achieve that life? What kind of motivations does this tradition give you?
You may say, oh, it's beautiful and desirable. Do I have any reason? Or then you ask the question, well, what happens when I fail? What do I do then? And it's possible to fail in one's life, not just in this or that endeavor, but in the life as such. You may succeed in endeavors, but fail in life. And then final question that we ask, to whom are you responsible?
Who's holding you responsible? You, community, God, universe? How do you construe this sense that you owe to somebody a certain form of life? And then we, we look through these traditions with these questions and we introduced the class by asking students to write a paper on what is Yale's vision of the good life.
Kelly Corrigan: I know, I think that's so interesting. I did get a check on, my husband went to Yale, all people who go to Yale really loved Yale, it seems to me. And I thought it was so funny that it's like Christianity, utilitarianism, Judaism, Islam, Yale. And I was like, it's a religion. I told you right now, it is a religion.
Miroslav Volf: Well, cause once you start looking, what is it that Yale expects from us? Suddenly students realize, you know it, it's fairly- I hope nobody's listening. Peter Salovey do not listen.
Kelly Corrigan: There's only a couple people listening. Just a couple.
Miroslav Volf: But it's kind of vacuous. In many ways it, it need not be right, but in some ways what they go away by concluding is that Yale expects you to succeed by whatever measure you, the world measures success. But that seems like that's not quite right. so once they've asked themselves, why am I here? Basically it's our different way of asking a question, why are you here? What was in your parents' mind when they sent you here? Why did you work so hard from the time you were three years old? And many of them have not asked themselves that question at all. Why?
Kelly Corrigan: And the first paper, they have to write, is the reflection on what their perception of what Yale is offering them? And then how they respond to that. And are you saying that by and large, they find the Yale version of a good life wanting?
Miroslav Volf: I think that maybe the best way to describe it is insufficient , in some ways, success is okay, but what's the content of success? And it's not necessarily that they find forms of humane success inimicable, but that it's kind of open. And I think that's how our institutions are designed, that's how our society is designed. You follow your dream. It doesn't matter which dream as long as it's yours. And what we want to tell students is sure, you need to follow your dream, but make sure that that dream is rooted in your dignity as a human being that is worthy of how you imagine the best of us.
That you have reasons, for that, that are beyond just Oh, people like that and therefore I like it too, I'll pursue it as well.
Kelly Corrigan: I think success has been so long defined in a commercial society. That there's this default idea of what someone means when they use that word, and so you're really asking people to reimagine a definition that could be more inclusive of success that is not measured in the typical terms.
One of the examples that we give is a story of Albert Speer who was Hitler's architect. He was under 30 when Hitler, kind of pulled him and offered him a position and said to him, you know, you're gonna be able to design buildings, the likes of which have not been designed since Roman times.
And he writes and writes it to his daughter and also to his posterity to kind of make his, case stick a little bit. But he basically says, but I was not a man who could refuse that. And so he was sucked into that. Created also important architectural works, but in the process, participated in a ungodly inhumane project.
And here's an example of somebody who succeeded beyond measure as an architect, but who utterly failed. As a human being. And so that's what we're trying to bring together. So that our success in our humanity to match, be matched and married together with the success in whatever other, endeavor we have.
You know, I feel like when I was young and my parents were smoking and drinking and driving gas guzzlers and that there wasn't an awareness that there are some companies that you actually wouldn't wanna work for. For ethical reasons. I just don't think that was a conversation that people had. I mean, at least not in my house, in my town, it was very honorable to get a job and keep a job for 30 years. And if it happened to be with Philip Morris, who would blame you? But now, my kid, I have two kids in college right now. They're very aware of the sort of low hanging fruit evil companies that they would not wanna be associated with. That would be a source of shame for them, that their friends would be like, dude, you're working for big agriculture or factory farming? I wonder if there's a new awareness level that's making kids of this generation kind of interrogate, do I wanna work for Facebook? Would I wanna work for Uber if they're really as bad to their drivers as people say they are? Do you see that?
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, no, we see that and we have kids like that who come to our class and many of them who don't. There's a basic sensibility where people want to resist. And in some ways what our course tries to do is give them.
Resources for that almost intuitive resistance that they have. It's often difficult for them, of course, once they finish college. And then once it gets real. How do you make that decision that you have actually made during this course? And often students do come to a certain awakening, but then the work really begins, right?
Kelly Corrigan: Right. And maybe they don't get the job offer at A, B, or C, and then the only offer they've gotten, their parents are saying, don't be ridiculous. Listen, if Miroslav Volf, don't listen to that guy you had when you were a sophomore at Yale, like, you need a job, you need health insurance. You're gonna have to put kids through college someday.
Miroslav Volf: No, I think that's right and I think we, we all find ourselves in a tension of this sort because we live in a society that operates in certain principles that undermine the good of our lives. I wouldn't just put it in a negative way. It both undermines, but it also makes other things, significant things in life possible, and it's this tension between these two that we have to negotiate when we make vocational choices.
Kelly Corrigan: One of Miroslav's collaborators at Yale asks students to consider authenticity as an ideal that might be worth striving for, and to learn to distinguish between a life of imitation versus a life of individual creation.
Edward Lichty: There is a certain way of being human. That is my way. I'm called upon to live my life in this way and not in imitation of anyone else's, so my life worth living on the ideal of authenticity isn't the same as yours. I have to be true to myself. I have to find my own path and follow it and so do you.
Kelly Corrigan: Well, if there's anything worth the time and money that college requires, learning how to be true to yourself might just be it. Coming up next, miroslav and I talk about the insight it takes to live a life based on values. And why it can be so hard to do in the real world. I'm Kelly Corrigan. We'll be right back with Kelly Corrigan Wonders.
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Welcome back to Kelly Corrigan Wonders. I'm Kelly Corrigan, and today I'm talking with Yale Theology Professor Miroslav Volf, who teaches a very popular class I'd love to take called Life Worth Living. How can you make your values so stable that even under pressure, you don't take the turn that you know you don't wanna take. I feel like for me, and I feel like I've read this about people paying taxes and telling little lies, that if they are a big donor to some charity, but then they fib a little on their tax return, they almost instantly refer in their mind to that big donation they made. Like they square it with themselves almost subconsciously and almost instantly. And I feel like that's a really understandable thing. So to the point of empathy, for all of us who are trying to live in the real world, but with a strong moral center, I just want to say that the pressures are real.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. Yeah. I think so too. And I think there's quite a gap between insight gaining even sturdy conviction, not just insight about a vision of a life that you want to pursue and actually being able to do that. That's what a good chunk of our lives consists of in many ways. Most of us, in majority of our environments, we are living in highly competitive societies. But highly competitive societies that generally don't have a stable goal that needs to be reached.
So it's not that I'm competing in order to achieve a stable goal, but the goal is constantly moving, which is to say I need to compete against somebody else, which is to say that I'm constantly in comparison to somebody else, a loser. And kind of sense of depression that has descended upon many of the students, I think it has its source in that. So there we're always surrounded by people who are better than they are.
Kelly Corrigan: But wasn't that always true? Like why now? Why would you see a difference in your students now?
Miroslav Volf: Well, one of the responses to that question, Alain Ehrenberg, The Weariness of the Self, gives the following explanation. He asked this question, why it is that 50, 60 years ago a kind of neurosis, inability to satisfy a certain demand to operate within the boundaries that a society has placed and then discomfort with those, why is it that was a significant, psychological malady? And his argument is because, nothing is prohibited or very little is prohibited, and you are always under pressure to realize yourself. So self-realization happens in a competitive situation with others without any sterly rule as to what constitutes success. Success is being better, but being better means I'm constantly running as a result. We are in this squirrel wheel, no, hamster wheel. Okay, not a squirrel.
Kelly Corrigan: That's a little Yugoslavia coming out there. You don't say that over there?
Miroslav Volf: Hamster wheel.
Kelly Corrigan: Do you have a hamster wheel? Is it a hamster wheel society?
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. Hamster wheel society. We use squirrel rather than the hamster, but the point is similar, right? Where you constantly have to be running to be better than somebody else. Otherwise, if you don't, it's not just that you're gonna stay where you are, you fall. We live the way we ride the bicycle. If you stop moving, you fall, but it's not enough to just move at your pace. You are whether you want it or not, in a race, and therefore you have to increase your speed.
Kelly Corrigan: I don't understand how that's different from what always was true. Let's go all the way back to the beginning of man, there's, you know, a pound of flesh out there and you're gonna get it, or I'm gonna get it and I'm gonna feed my family, or you're gonna feed your family. Weren't we always running against each other?
Miroslav Volf: We were running against it's each other. The claim is that we also had, norms, which at least served as validation of what I'm doing, what I'm achieving. If I succeed to snatch the pound of meat from my neighbor, I can then have the satisfaction that I lead a life that is right. Whereas if you live in the context in which simply competition decides you may have the rules of how to compete, but who's gonna end with the prize? It really depends on who does better.
Kelly Corrigan: But it's the changing of the norms. That's the change that's dropped people into this like dog eat dog feeling.
Miroslav Volf: That is the thesis. Right? And why in this dog eat dog environment, we are not able to achieve more stability, but feel constantly under pressure to perform. We don't have a solace of the norm satisfied.
Kelly Corrigan: Right because if there's a norm that's like, Hey, if you get to this level, you're doing it right. Then anyone can get to that level and therefore anybody can be doing it. But if it's only, if I'm better than you, I'm doing it right, then I gotta stay better than you.
Miroslav Volf: Or if it is, even if I fail in this endeavor, I have been a person of integrity. My devotion to it, I realize my humanity has been preserved. And so even in failure, loss is not a, it's a problem of course, but it is not a devastating problem. My humanity hasn't been called into question. If you live in a performance society where your value as a human being depends on your performance, then of course if you don't perform, you are lost. Completely.
Kelly Corrigan: Right, because it's overly tied to your value.
Miroslav Volf: That's right. You can argue with it, but I think it makes sense to a certain extent.
Kelly Corrigan: You've been teaching at Yale for 20 years or something?
Miroslav Volf: 25, yeah.
Kelly Corrigan: Have you noticed a big difference in the kids over the years?
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, some difference, but generally I think kids have become more dutiful in what they do. And as we've noticed before, as you have mentioned, they have become much more kind of socially, aware. Much more sensitive to whether that those archeological social kinds of issues, it's present.
Kelly Corrigan: Like they're more sophisticated consumers of the world for sure.
Miroslav Volf: They certainly are. That certainly is my experience. They've become, in many ways, more fragile. But they are more sensitized to,injustices to the damages that we do, and probably that burdens them also as well.
Kelly Corrigan: And I think this ecological anxiety, that they're even considering putting in the DSM as an actual diagnosis. So understandable. And a class like yours seems so valuable because you can return to it again and again over the course of a lifetime. One of the seven ways of looking at the world. I keep thinking of 13 ways of looking at Blackbird, but one of the seven ways that you put out there in this syllabus is utilitarianism. Can you talk about how the students respond to that and what some of those discussions have been like?
Miroslav Volf: Well, depending on how you understand utilitarianism, those have been interesting discussions, especially because we engage Peter Singer. His example is very famous, where he says, you're on your way to work, you have a new pair of shoes and you are passing by a water fountain. And in the water fountain, there's a two year old who you see is drowning. And you look at your shoes and you don't say, I just got new shoes. I think I've gotta go. You step into that pond and you save that child. Now, what's the difference between that child here and the child in Africa? That is dying because you have these nice shoes. If you had the shoes that were 10th of a price for those that you were wearing, that child would not be dying out there. So he makes an argument, your utilitarians do. The person furthest away from me is no less important than the person next to me. Therefore, act accordingly. And once that is issued as a challenge, it'll rock your entire world. Absolutely. Because it demands of you to take seriously the needs of the world as a whole. It's one of the great challenges that utilitarians present to us that we also pass on to the students in terms of what kind of life we think is worthy of our humanity.
Kelly Corrigan: I've just gotten really engaged in effective altruism. And so we give 10% of our income each year for the last two years. And when you do that, you're always right next to the larger question of like, well, why not give 50%? Like, why don't I just wear these clothes until they fall apart and then buy some new ones? Why do I spend money to color my hair? Why don't I just have one pair of glasses and why don't I just get the ones from Zenny that cost seven bucks? Like, you could, you could, it never stops. I mean, there's so much that's optional that you could go a lifetime without recognizing that that's optional.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, exactly. That is the challenge. It hits all of us. When you start thinking about it, we always think about super rich, how they should do stuff, and they become then excuse for us not doing anything. We have this idea that I do as a theologian from a Christian perspective, to think of the world as God's home, maybe home of homes, but the single home I imagine.
Okay, so in a single home you will have a, you will have a table and imagine on one end of the table there's a mother and a daughter, $2 a day each. In the middle of the, this long table, there is a sibling, $400 a day. And at the other end of that table, he is a father with $4,000 a day just for himself. If you had neighbors like that and you knew that, you'd be scandalized, right?
And yet each one of us lives in just such a home. If it's true that the world is our home. Now there are kind of limits to that analogy, and I'm aware of them. But a lot of the limits that we bring to that analogy are excuses. They're to our benefit, they're excuses to our benefit. And that's a push of utilitarianism, which I think those of us who come from other traditions, whether that's Jewish tradition, love of neighbor, Christian tradition, or Islamic tradition, it's a challenge to say we don't have ways in which to insulate ourselves from this utilitarian because it's a deeply human argument.
Kelly Corrigan: Yeah. I feel like that's another place where kids of a certain age, like the kids that are showing up in your classes, maybe are more daring in their thinking. You know how they say like, if you're a Republican and you're young , you have no heart, and if you're a Democrat and you're old, you have no money? Like there's this idea that at some point kids open their eyes, like their eyes just pop open and they become awake to all the bullshit. You know, all the ways that we are lying to them as adults as this sort of moral authority. And then they start really looking at us. I mean, I remember one of the strangest arguments, and it was really intense, which you know is a clue and unto itself that I ever got in with one of my kids, is we were flying the next day for a family vacation. And she questioned, why would we do that? Why would we four people fly so far? For seven days and then fly all the way back. And I just wanted to kill her, which to me is an indication that there's something very deep within me that she's touching. Right, that it's not her that I wanna kill. It's something horrible about myself that I don't wanna face.
But like the hypocrisy, I mean, it's intolerable. So you must get there in all these classes with your kids is how to accommodate that. How to not become this exacting lunatic, but rather live with that. Live with the fact that we are all just a bundle of contradictions. Live with the fact that people have very idiosyncratic ways that they justify what they buy and what they don't buy.
And then believe, and this sounds very 54 year old of me, but believe in the incremental. It won't be the sweeping change. We're not gonna get people to give half their income to the poor. They're not gonna see your table every single day. Every time they plunk down seven bucks for a coffee.
They're just not, I was in nonprofit for 10 years. I know it. You cannot hold yourself in that space. But could you, could we offer something incremental? Does that come up in class? Like do, are kids wondering about their parents and their parents' values and morals, and are they questioning what has been handed down to them and sort of rejecting some of the original ideas of their childhood?
Miroslav Volf: Yes. All sorts of kids, come to this class and many of them are very passionate in their convictions. And our goal as teacher is to honor those passions. Especially if they are challenges to our own established ways of living. But I think you're also right that there must be a way in which we can attend to our incapacity to live the way we desire to live.
That doesn't result in constant paralyzing self-recrimination. And at the same time, that does not simply excuse us as if the fact that we aren't doing this does not matter what in the Christian tradition won't cause a certain sense of grace. Certain sense of receiving affirmation of existence and of the rightness.
Even when one clearly and manifestly has broken the covenant, that one has, human covenant with oneself. And what happens that we give to students when we ask the question, what happens when you fail? I think it's really important because happens.
Kelly Corrigan: So when you think about Christianity and what happens when you fail, are you thinking of like breaking the 10 commandments or going to hell? Like those kinds of ideas.
Miroslav Volf: No, I'm thinking Jesus is much more stringent than that. Love your neighbor as yourself. We talked about effective utilitarianism. If neighbor is any human being to me, love that neighbor as yourself. That's your measure. The way you love yourself, and extent to which your love yourself, no less should your love your neighbor, and all neighbors. That's what I'm referring to. And in a sense, we are always already failing in the Christian tradition though, affirmed our goodness is affirmed. At the same time, we are always identified as the ones who have failed. And so how do you hold these two things together?
That's really one of the key issues in the Christian tradition. And I think for the response for that is there's something like, forgiveness. Which we have done wrong. It's possible for that not to be held against us. Of course, we need to repent. We need to change our ways, but nonetheless, that takes away not from the pressure to do what is right, but from the pressure of guilt that incapacitates one, from both embracing oneself, but also for doing the good in the future.
Kelly Corrigan: You're a big Christian. A big part of your life.
Miroslav Volf: I'm a Christian theologian, I believe.
And so when you get to that part of this course, have students ever given you the feedback that you're particularly passionate? Is it just oozing out of you in a way that the other subjects don't? So when you and I talk, I act partly in capacity as a teacher of that class, but partly in the capacity of who I am as a human being when I teach the class to students.
And when we have been writing this book, Life Worth Living, I aspire to be an honest broker, so that none of the traditions that we engage is short changed. So that every tradition that we engage is presented in the best possible light. I don't want to unfairly treat any of the traditions I want to present them.
And I think that's a commitment that I have to love my neighbor who thinks differently than I do. So it's a Christian commitment out of Christian commitment that I seek to do that. And we tell students at the very beginning, a number of us are Christians, but non-Christians who teach in the class as well. This is my traditions, this is where I come from. And you should keep in mind when you hear me speak, I aim to articulate the visions accurately and charitably. and if you feel that, I haven't called me out.
Kelly Corrigan: Do you ever get called?
Miroslav Volf: I haven't been, but I don't know whether that's because they feel it's professor, but they don't dare or because truly seek to do, and this is one of the non-negotiables of the class.
You know, one of the difficulties that we're teaching a class of this sort is that there is a sense that somebody's trying to shove down your throat their own religious tradition. And to the extent that occurs in the class, to that extent, class is a failure and will not have a longevity. We will not achieve what we need to achieve.
Therefore, we have said that we're gonna do two things. One thing is we're gonna try to treat that's our covenant. Each tradition will get its proper due and our tradition will not be preferred. The other commitment is all of these traditions may claim to be true. They're not just sitting like different flavors of ice cream in the ice cream shop and saying, do you like me today? And maybe tomorrow you're gonna get something else. Or maybe you're gonna combine a few things together. No, actually, they aren't just talking about themselves. They're talking to you. They're talking about your life. Therefore, we want to invite you while we are engaging in discussion of this tradition, for you to imagine yourself as sharing it for the moment, inhabit it.
You can exit anytime you want. You can, later be as critical as you want. But when you are inside, be critical of it if you want to be critical as making claims to be true right, and therefore making claims upon your life. And if you can't imagine yourselves living this life. If I am not impartial, I'm failing my student.
Kelly Corrigan: How old were you and under what circumstances did you learn how to learn? Like when do you feel like you can name a moment or a time in your life where all of a sudden you were like, I wanna live the life of the mind, I wanna teach, I wanna be a part of this giant conversation forever.
I can tell you the summer at the moment. My father is a minister and I was very happy. Minister's kid. It took me encounter with group of Swedish young people to kind of think slightly differently about the Christian faith. And after two summer traveling summers traveling with them, I kind of then embraced the faith of my, my parents. Who are by the way, wonderful people never kind of pressuring me.
Miroslav Volf: They would just model people who I called dim witted without realizing how beautiful their characters actually were when I was 16. And that happened when I was 16, and then I became the only openly Christian kid in my high school. And people, I was rather well known, everybody knew me in the, in the high school, and then everybody was asking, what? What happened? This is crazy. And I had to answer all these questions and that's how the whole intellectual endeavor started for me.
Kelly Corrigan: What happened on these trips?
Miroslav Volf: To tell you the truth, I don't know myself what happened. I can only imagine that suddenly being with folks who had this very natural, youthful way of living their faith, let me see the faith in different way than when I was observing it in my father's church of all places, right?
And I only know that my mother, when I came back that one summer home, the first day, said to me, something happened to you, you changed. And I had no idea what she was talking about. but nothing much more dramatic. And then it was a slow growth into trying to explore that. And I had the good fortune also to be introduced then to my brother-in-law who started feeding me books and philosophy.
And so one of my first philosophers of my read was a harsh critic of Christianity, Bertrand Russell. I was reading his book, Wisdom of the West, which was just translated into Croatian, and that's how my story started. And from a technical school which I attended, I shifted to philosophy and theology.
Kelly Corrigan: Your parents had a terrible thing happen to them. You lost a brother who was, was he five?
Miroslav Volf: Five.
Kelly Corrigan: Did you feel like you were able to observe their religious convictions serving them in that horrible time?
Miroslav Volf: I was one, when it happened. So I can look at it only in retrospect, their stories of what had transpired. It was a trying time for both my mother and my father. Where was God in all of this? And she was honest. She tells of a story how as soon as it had happened, and my older brother was killed by the negligence of a soldier, and as soon as it had happened,, independently of each other, my parents decided to forgive that soldier. Who was devastated, obviously, as a human being. My father, even when the soldier went back home, this was Conscripted Army, my father traveled half a day to talk to him about why he forgives him and to comfort him.
I thought what an absolutely extraordinary thing for my parents to do. And especially I became, aware of it, obviously when I had my own children and said, if that happened to me, I don't know what I would do. I had also a nanny at that time, and my nanny was partly to, I think my nannies, who was angel of my childhood, was partly to blame. Because she didn't quite attend to him.
He tended to run around. He had his own little soldiers, around his own, big soldiers, with whom he was friends. He was very outgoing, kid. And, I thought to myself, oh my goodness. Had that happened to me and my nanny was there. I would be furious at her. Even if she couldn't have done anything, she would've been gone the moment I found out. She stayed.
She didn't have anywhere else to go. She was a, she was an angel of my childhood. And I think that too is a kind of trust and sense of forgiveness that I found puzzling and beautiful at the same time. And I think it's all goes back to a sense of faith, sense of this is who we are, this is who our God is, this is who we are, this is how we live.
No matter how difficult it's for us.
Kelly Corrigan: Right, and most people don't have the opportunity, like the glorious opportunity to witness how holy and curative forgiveness can be because most people don't have an event that traumatic come to them, in which you would actually get to feel the difference between what it is to carry fury and what it is to carry forgiveness.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, and my mother was really beautiful and she has repeated many times that there hasn't been anything more difficult in her life to do than to forgive. And yet it was something profoundly beautiful. Never regretted it one moment, but there was a, the agony of it almost. He should pay. How can I forgive?
Kelly Corrigan: Plus I'm sure there were people around her. I mean, you can imagine if something, like, if there were an accident where two adults were involved in the death of a five year old and a gruesome death, there would be a chorus of people telling you to litigate. Which prolongs, which punishes, which does not heal. So again, if we go all the way back to the top where we have our most right heart and mind in place, and then we step out into the world with its pressures and cultures and messages, and then it dissipates like our little center that we're supposed to be able to count on, like starts to get pushed around by the culture or the messages or the real world or the pressures. And just like your parents had to step into their community. There must have been people screaming at them. You cannot have that woman live in your house, you cannot go see that soldier. You have got to turn him in.
Miroslav Volf: They're very, very firm. And what was beautiful about them, as well, I never felt the faith as oppressive. I felt it as I was growing up as kind of innate, in a sense intellectually. But I never felt it as kind of this rigid thing.
Somebody was trying to squeeze me into some kind of ill-fitting boot and my foot just wouldn't fit, in that, in that boot. That's, that was not an issue. Was not an issue. So much because nobody was trying to push me into that boot of religion. And sometimes you associate people with sturdy fate, like my parents with also kind of very, very strong and rigid. And they had this subtleness and it was very, this beautiful awareness of their own fallibility and fragility, and they're very open talking about it. And that's to me the most beautiful part about the Christian faith environment in which I grew up.
The honesty of it. Honesty, and this striving to be beautiful souls while recognizing brokeness. All the time.
Kelly Corrigan: What are your parents names and what was your brother's name?
Miroslav Volf: My mother's name was Mira. My father's name is Dragutin, and my brother's name was Daniel.
Kelly Corrigan: Thanks a lot for saying yes I think your students are really lucky to have you.
Miroslav Volf: Thank you. That's it. Very good.
Kelly Corrigan: Here are my takeaways from my conversation with the spectacular Miroslav Volf. Number one, the precariousness in our lives is often the thing that inspires the existential considerations. Number two, material satisfactions and entertainments sometimes endanger our interior lives. Number three, most lives are not weighty with meaning so much as they are unbearably light. Number four, the reason we examine our lives is because it's terribly easy to succeed in endeavors but fail in life. Number five, we live the way we ride a bike, often in a race. Number six, we are by turns broken and beautiful, such as the condition of being human. I'd like to thank Miroslav and his whole team at Yale working on The Life Worth Living Project. I'd like to thank the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations investing in our common future. Thanks also to my husband Edward Lichty, who shared his thoughts about his time at Yale throughout this episode. And of course, the team at Kelly Corgan Wonders. That's Dean Kaari, our technical producer, Tammy Steadman, my partner in All Matters, the guy sitting next to me right now recording this, Luke Sheer of Jericho Studios in Bozeman, Montana, as well as our spectacular intern, Paige Rayburn. Thanks to you all for listening. Join us on Friday for another For The Good of the Order, and again on Sunday for a new episode of Thanks for Being Here. As always, you can find me on Instagram. Kelly Corrigan. What was the weirdest class that you took at Yale?
Edward Lichty: Well, it's not weird, but American Film comedy was one that I took and loved and think about a lot.
Kelly Corrigan: Like what? What? What did you watch in that class?
Edward Lichty: Buster Keaton. Buster Keaton blew me away. He's one of the funniest guys ever. Never smiled once.
Evan Rosa: For The Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center, For Faith and Culture. At Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologian Miroslav Volf, and writer Kelly Corrigan. I'm Evan Rosa and I edit and produce the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. New episodes drop every Saturday, sometimes midweek.
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