This episode features responses from our listeners and followers when we asked for their thoughts and questions on how to live faithfully in this political moment. Thanks to all who submitted questions!
Miroslav Volf and Evan Rosa take listener questions about how to live faithfully in this political moment, focusing especially on questions of how political division impacts Christian and civil unity.
- Miroslav’s social media bio gloss of the Prayer of St. Francis: "Before I tweet, I pray: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
- Dr. Bethany Keeley-Jonker: "I'm struggling to balance unity in the body with my firm conviction that the Trump presidency is hostile to my most deeply held Christian values.”
- Ramiro Medrano: "How can we foster unity in the body of Christ in the midst of division? How does one challenge the “brethren” to consider a different perspective? How can we correct bad theology and doctrine, when both sides use (or should I say abuse) Scripture to justify their position? I’m aware that much of this is based upon poor discipleship and interpretation. However, the polarization is further encouraged from the pulpit."
- Mutual vilification
- Unwillingness to listen
- Neither in spirit of public discourse nor of Christ
- The role of pastors in moral and political persuasion
- Cordell Patrick Schulten: Can the Stoic and Christian takes on adiaphora (“Indifferents” or “Non-essentials”) help reduce the amount of political friction?
- Anonymous: "Other than by avoidance, how do we sustain friendships in the midst of political/partisan differences?"
- Rebelling against the temptation to reduce human beings to their political opinions
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
Miroslav Volf: It's this fundamental question to me: what does the commitment to Christ and to one another in Christ mean? And often it seems that commitment to Christ is very thin, very tenuous. And that commitment to our compatriots or folks, which we share the same political opinions, commitment to our tribe, seems to easily trump commitment to Christ. Or we use Christ for the purposes of our tribal interests and tribal loyalties. And I think that's a really big challenge for the practice of faith.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. I'm Evan Rosa.
Miroslav Volf: And I'm Miroslav Volf.
Evan Rosa: And we're with the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. I asked Miroslav to come on the show today to discuss how to live faithfully in this political moment, but we're going to do it in a slightly different way than we've done before in the show. We're going to do a kind of grab bag of questions about that theme. Miroslav, how're you feeling about that?
Miroslav Volf: I think I feel okay. I think let's think of it as a process in which we all are engaged. And this is one conversation, one word, within the larger conversation that needs to happen.
Evan Rosa: I think this is also expressive of the important ways in which reflection is a process. It's a conversation that we want to encourage our listeners, but everyone that kind of comes into contact with the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, that conversation and dialogue and discourse. This is the way that we come to the truth. This is how to foster truth- seeking conversations.
Miroslav Volf: In many ways, this is the only way in which we can walk in the truth and walk together in the truth so that it isn't just about us having opinions and trying to internalize those opinions, but our life's journey. And on that journey, seeking what's the right step to make right now is as important of a question as what is the overarching perspective in the light of which we're making these decisions?
Evan Rosa: Yeah. I think that journey for many Americans— many people are really around the world right now— it feels a little confusing, like we've maybe lost our place on the map. There is a little bit of chaos. Maybe there are some obstacles in the way.
Miroslav Volf: There's strong opinions, right? I mean, we are in the setting in which people describe it as culture wars and probably that's not the right description for it because it kind of takes away from something from the horror of actual war. But nonetheless, there is a kind of war-like situation. Fronts are then tightened and then the sphere and the possibilities of opinion are restricted. And we seem to be not just nestled, but almost captive to particular camps from which even when we want, often can't release ourselves.
Evan Rosa: It also results in people holding back— holding back their comments, holding back their opinions, holding back their questions that overall serves to reduce the quality of the conversation. And so I think it's really helpful to be talking about that. What we've done is we've polled some of our followers from social media and ask this question of them: what is on their mind right now in terms of how to live faithfully in this political moment? And so in this episode, we're just going to read some of those questions and discuss the themes there. And we're going to see some common themes. So we've selected a few today and we're going to be talking specifically about unity and what this political moment does to the feeling of division in the church and in our families and in our friendships and communities.
I think, Miroslav, what I'm going to do though, is I'm going to actually put you on the spot and I'm going to cut in line. And I'm going to start with this because I noticed recently that your Twitter and Facebook bios say something to this effect. You say, "Before I tweet, I pray, 'Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.'" I think that's a fitting prayer for each of us to utter in our hearts right now. And I wonder if you'd say a little bit about that.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, sure. I mean, it grew out of, some of the discussions that developed, especially with my Facebook. And I've had that kind of experience during the 2016 election as well, where it's become a site of combat, almost. And I decided that it's very important for me also to make my social media sites as kind of civil sites. And basically I then shut out anyone who doesn't want to be civil, but then pretty soon I realized, it's not enough just for us to be as civil. That's a kind of formal feature of our discourse, but the content also, as well as form of our discourse, what we say and how we say what we say, has to be ordered to something larger than the immediacy of the debate in which we find ourselves, as important as some of those particular issues are.
And I thought, well, the overarching goal that we have is to be agents of peace, peace in this broad sense of the term that we find in the Hebrew Bible of Shalom. That is to say that involves both of the self and relations in which we find ourselves— multiple relations in which we find ourselves. And then to ask the question, "How can I be an instrument of this peace?" And besides it echoes also one of my very favorite prayers, which is the prayer of St. Francis. St. Francis never wrote that prayer, but nonetheless the Britain, in the spirit of St. Francis. And I was disappointed to learn that he never did write. I nonetheless continue to pray, and I find that immensely helpful in expressing the Christian spirit. And the Christian spirit, I think, we really need an environment like ours today.
Evan Rosa: What's beautiful about that is it calls you to picture the long game of what, ideally, what politics is about— being about public space and about a space that is common, commonly shared, where there's access to the goods of public life together for everyone as equitably and as justly as possible. And at the end of the day, we're dealing with each other as human beings and not just discursive combatants.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. And discourse itself is the public good. And so kind of to protect the public good of each other's voice and honor each other's voice. It's almost like a first requirement of family life, first requirement of city life, first requirement of more broadly construed political life. If I can't let the other person be themselves and articulate themselves, I'll have already kind of squeeze them out of that public space, out of my space. And that's why I thought that social media, as impersonal as they are, and as inviting a certain forms of egregious incivility, they can also be spaces where everybody has a chance to deliberate a bit and put something down, and other people can listen to it and internalize— we can deliberate together, publicly. And that's what I try to create, on Facebook and maybe to a lesser degree, on Twitter.
Evan Rosa: Let's go to Twitter. Dr. Bethany Keeley-Jonker just opens up and is transparent with this. And I really appreciate that. She says, "I'm struggling to balance unity in the body with my firm conviction that the Trump presidency is hostile to my most deeply held Christian values." So there's that struggle for unity.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. This question of the unity of the church in the time of political divisions. It's such an important question, especially for those of us for whom church matters and unity of the church matters, especially for those of us who think that the church is this community of believers in Christ who have been redeemed by the blood of the lamb from every tribe, every nation, over the past 2000 years, incredibly diverse throng.
And then we experience ourselves in the middle of political division and suddenly, that which should have been united in Christ ends up profoundly divided and not just divided, but in those divisions, mirroring the positions that are in the outside environment— political lines of skirmish. I've had that experience in former Yugoslavia as well. Many of my friends— you had the United Church of Yugoslavia and Yugoslavia abroad, but broke apart. Those churches broke apart. Divisions emerged within the churches along ethnic lines.
And, it's this fundamental question to me: what does the commitment to Christ and to one another in Christ mean? And often in such situations, it seems that commitment to Christ is very thin and very tenuous. And that commitment to our compatriots or folks, who with whom we share the same political opinions, commitment to our tribe, seems to easily trump commitment to Christ. Or we use Christ for the purposes of our tribal interests and tribal loyalties. And I think that's a really deep challenge for the practice of faith. And to me, I'm not sure exactly what the answer to this is, except to say that somehow we need to retrieve the fundamental place of allegiance to Christ or allegiance to the one God in our lives. So for me, that's more of a challenge than something that I know what we necessarily need to do about.
Evan Rosa: Maybe there's a way to further complicate that and say a little bit more about the challenge of this through another listener. This is Ramiro Medrano. And, this was through Facebook I think. He asks, "How can we foster unity in the body of Christ in the midst of division?" We've been talking about this already. "How does one challenge the brethren to consider a different perspective? How can we correct bad theology and doctrine when both sides use or, should I say, abuse scripture to justify their position." And he says, "Further, I'm aware that much of this is based upon poor discipleship and interpretation." And this is a key point for him. "However, the polarization is further encouraged from the pulpit." And so let's interpret this as from the leadership perspective as well, because I think pastors and ministers feel a call to the— as you have said in Public Faith in Action— the inalienable nature of Christian faith as public. And so pastors and ministers are feeling called to engage. And yet the division and polarization is often encouraged.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. Division and polarization is going to emerge. And I think sometimes the key question, the key question I think would be: does it emerge out of tribal loyalties or does it emerge out of commitment to Christ? Now, obviously, if I pose this question in this way, everybody's going to say, "This is my allegiance to Christ that leads to these political commitments that I have. And hence, in faithfulness to Christ, I have to take that stance in which means division."
Now, what I would simply say— and often when we push us a little bit more in conversations of this sort, I don't find that one goes back to the roots in the faith, but one immediately goes to the position of political allies or opponents. And I think maybe what we need to do is to stay a little bit longer within the faith, and then explore if we both claim that this is an expression of obedience to Christ. Let's stay with that and see how that obedience look like. And maybe the faith can become a platform on which we, on the basis of which we can talk together and even disagree in amicable ways, knowing that we are trying to articulate the significance of faith for today, which isn't that easy of a task. We have to be honest about that and we'll generally disagree. What I'm afraid sometimes— I find it so troubling— is that there is a kind of mutual vilification that is involved, and unwillingness to listen to the other person, shutting other people down. And that seems to me quite not in the spirit of a public discourse and certainly not in the spirit of Christ.
Evan Rosa: Yeah. To be a little more specific— this is my question as a follow-up. Do you think it's the role of a pastor to guide their congregation morally and politically such that a person from a different political persuasion would find it difficult to be a member of that congregation and a part of that committee?
Miroslav Volf: I think moral guidance is a responsibility of a minister. I think direct lobbying for a particular party should be avoided, but thinking through moral issues that are involved in our political decision-making. Nobody can decide. And pastors shouldn't decide for their parishioners what their political leanings should be in terms of electoral politics.
But, I think we would— as theologians and also as pastors— I think we would not discharge our responsibility faithfully if we did not try to adjudicate, in the light of the gospel, how we ought to think about particular issues that are being debated. I think a minister, for instance, that doesn't comment on immigration issues isn't taking seriously their faith. The minister who doesn't comment on abortion issue as well isn't doing it either. A minister who doesn't think, or doesn't comment on racism and doesn't think that equality before God is a fundamental conviction— I think in some ways is betraying the gospel. So, these are strong words. I know. But I think there are critical moral issues that we're facing today and they need to be addressed in the light of the gospel.
Evan Rosa: Another listener, by the name of Cordell Patrick Schulten, introduces this really fascinating ancient concepts that's used both in Stoicism and Christianity. And I wonder if this is on topic here. And this concept is adiaphora. And Stoicism translates it as indifference. But, in Stoicism. adiaphora are things that are neither mandated nor forbidden by morality. So it's how you approach them that makes them good or bad, whether you approach them with virtue or vice.
So Seneca, the famous Stoic, gives examples of things like strength, beauty, or wealth— more on the positive side— and pain, illness and death. These are actually “indifferents”. That's with a T. “Indifferents.” In Christianity, especially in the theological disputes during the Reformation, adiaphora were used to identify the nonessentials of faith and practice. Things the Bible neither commands or forbids, things like liturgy and administration of sacraments, varieties of worship, etc. And I wonder if there's something to learn from that. And that's what this listener Cordell is suggesting: is there something we can learn from the use of adiaphora to help us engage in more open dialogue on political issues?
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. I think it's a very important question to ask whether some of the issues that we are debating politically are not— they belong outside of the strict moral instruction, but belong to the assessments as to what might be, more expedient, more beneficial. And I think, good chunks of our political decision-making is about some of those issues. We might agree on goals, but disagree on means. And those means could be judged as adiaphora. I might not particularly like them, but on the other hand, not much rides on the decision going one way or the other.
Evan Rosa: Or it's not worth vilifying the other side, if they were to hold a position that suggests means that you disagree with.
Miroslav Volf: Right. And, we will also disagree on what issues are adiaphora and what issues are not. I think we can agree that some issues would be adiaphora. And, that's important to keep in mind because I think it will reduce the amount of friction because sometimes we, as grownups, are not too different than we were when we were two, three years old. The temper tantrum flares up, and it flares up around the particular issue. But that's not the reason for temper tantrum. There are other issues behind, and this is simply an occasion. And in many ways, there are occasions for strenuous debates over things that themselves, in of themselves, are not that incredibly significant, but they signify something to the other person and to me. And we should seek to, I think, avoid those. Be able to live together in peace and concentrate on what matters.
And I think also, I think that it would help the unity even on moral issues, if we were to—say that if you were to think that the concern behind some of the issue is what the moral issue is. Not particular way in which that is expressed and particular stands that's advocated. One can think about this in terms of whether one should have a completely free capitalist economy or whether it should be more regulated. How does one make a decision about this? Well, one has to make a decision about it in terms of: what's behind this? What is the goal of economic activity? What is my concern that will happen if we regulate? What is my concern that will happen if we do not regulate? Or what does actually happen, which has maybe a factual question as well. And once we pull back and talk about concerns, then maybe we can be more productive.
For instance, we might all agree that reduction of poverty is our goal. But now, if we agreed with that and we think that's a really Christian ideal, now we can say: "Okay, let's measure what we are doing against this demand. What are the costs and what are the benefits of one way or the other way of doing things? I sometimes think also that the debates about the masks are sometimes of that sort. I mean wearing it is not a terribly onerous issue. It stands for something. And so it would be maybe useful to think about what is the concern that lies behind and why is it that we either do or do not wear masks. By the way I'm a staunch pro-masker. But nonetheless, I can see how if we started talking about concerns behind, it would be helpful. And that's what maybe adiaphora helps us to point us in that direction.
Evan Rosa: Yeah, it opens up a space for genuine conversation where, because there is a form of indifference, it might be along the spectrum of indifference. It's important to—more or less important to—certain people, but it introduces this idea that some issues we can be a little more easygoing about, such that we can learn about the root reasons that people have. And it exposes us to each other in a way that allows us to more genuinely encounter each other and encounter what is often the veiled suffering, the veil trauma, and the worries, the concerns, the fears that lurk behind a lot of the really caustic and strident disagreement that's out there.
Miroslav Volf: When we think about adiaphora in the church life, generally those adiaphora issue are applied to the questions of church order. One might describe also church culture. I don't know how it is in United States, but when I was growing up, churches were divided over church music more than they did over doctrine.
Evan Rosa: Same here.
Miroslav Volf: And that's a typical example of total adiaphora, right? But nonetheless it symbolized certain norm of cultural belonging. It reflected on the way in which people understood themselves. It was an identity question rather than really strictly a moral or theological question. And it's very good for us to think which questions are really fundamental and which questions are of such nature, that they're identity questions where I could give way and nothing will be lost and maybe something will be gain.
Evan Rosa: And speaking of gaining, there's another question from, I think an anonymous Twitter account, but it seems like a great question nonetheless, "Other than by avoidance, how do we sustain friendships in the midst of political partisan differences?" So really this is going beyond identifying the things we can be indifferent to, but even with those very important differences in hand, how do we sustain friendship?
Miroslav Volf: One of the things that I think about quite a bit, not just with regard to this question but to our general stance toward the world. And that's the question that we often, but especially when we're in conflict, we zero in on the negative and we zero in on the difference. And where the difference is, if there is not an agreement, if we can read it negatively, we generally will read it. Spot the negativity. And even if it sounds that's not an issue, we need to spot them, what's negative. But on the other hand, the negative has this way of occupying the entire field of vision. And we don't see what the positive might be. And so in the friendships, if we end up simply talking about and zeroing in on where we fundamentally disagree and what's negative about the other person, obviously that cannot be sustained.
We need to find ways in which to articulate the positive without that meaning that we are indifferent toward the negative, but there's more to this relationship than that on which we disagree or that which is salient, right? This moment in this political skirmish in which we are involved.
And my sense is that life is, and we have to—that's what I said after the Trump victory in 2016, again, about clearly where I stand which was great disappointment to be. But, at the same time I said, "Politics is not everything." By long shot, it's not everything. And I think when one applies it to friendships, when one applies it to church life as well, there are other areas in which we, I believe, we ought to celebrate the good, and maybe watch a little bit how we talk about each other.
I sometimes tell the story about my boring family conversations around my dad. My dad would never allow us to say anything negative about anybody who wasn't present. And I mean, this is for 15-year-old teenagers. This is terrible. You can't create the buzz around the table, by commonly bashing and vilifying other folks and thinking of how smart and cool we are. But at the same time, I think, "Wow, this is actually extraordinary." I think this carefulness in speech about others, is in the service of attending to their integrity and honoring their integrity, even when we are disagreeing, strenuously disagreeing with them. And I think that's really important.
Evan Rosa: Yeah. What you're willing to say about another person. Yeah, so you're picking up on this idea that as human persons, we all have more to contribute to a relationship, more to contribute to each other than our political views. But we're living in a moment where a person is so often reduced to their politics, that we often miss each other in such a way that we're really living an impoverished friendships because of that, impoverished family relationships, impoverished community relationships. And that's because we fail to see someone in their, as their true self, beyond their political commitments.
Miroslav Volf: Absolutely. Let's rebel against that tendency.
Evan Rosa: Yeah. Miroslav, thanks so much for doing this. This is our first shot at this, and I don't know, I'm kind of excited about pulling more. So if you are listening to this, and if you enjoy this, then we would encourage you to leave a review. We'll pay attention to our Apple podcast show page. You can leave a question that way. You can leave a question on Miroslav's Twitter account, or a Facebook page. And, we'll continue to pull listeners for questions about how to live faithfully in this political moment. And thanks for listening everyone. Thank you, Miroslav.
Miroslav Volf: Thanks Evan. And thanks to everybody for listening.
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 Wolf. I'm Evan Rosa, and I edited and produced the show. Special thanks to our listeners and followers who've submitted questions. The quality and quantity was just so high that we couldn't possibly get to them all, but we hope you'll continue to submit when we do this format again in the future.
For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. New episodes drop every Saturday and you can subscribe through any podcast app. We hope you're enjoying the show and we hope that you'd consider supporting us. Three ways that you can do that are as follows:
You can share the show with a friend by text or email, and then I hope you talk about it. You could post it on your social feed. Or you could open up Apple podcasts right now, just after listening, to review and rate the show. Now we're asking you to share and support us because maintaining human connection is really important these days.
We were not meant to live at distance from one another. So we hope this show is just a small, consistent way you can keep connecting, keep growing, keep seeking a life that is worthy of our shared humanity. We'll be back with more this coming week.