Something is rotten in the state of academic theology.
That, at least, is the bold claim that Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun advance in their compelling new book, For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference. Volf and Croasmun fear that academic theology has lost its way, in part by positioning itself in opposition or even hostility to the church and its ordinary believers. Rigorous research and scholarly writing may not lead inevitably toward an unhealthy detachment, but the reality of that detachment both from church life and the most fundamental questions of human existence is all too common. As a result, regular churchgoers have grown skeptical of academic theology, and non-Christians simply dismiss it as a relic of the past with no legitimate space in the public square. Theology, the authors argue, used to be about the “Big Questions,” but now it contents itself pursuing in-house debates about obscure historical figures and formulations, all while neglecting to make connections with contemporary audiences.
While Volf and Croasmun are certainly not the first to worry that the discipline of theology has moved much closer to the margins over the last century, they describe the situation with new urgency. Academic theology, they argue, has been too willing to seek legitimacy by operating within the “great edifice of science,” which entails submitting to a foreign set of expectations and methodologies. Because of this surrender, they fear it will lose the very thing that makes it unique and meaningful: its capacity to point to the living triune God and articulate the kind of life we should live in response to his revelation.
The authors argue that theology, rather than playing by a set of imposed rules from the outside, should instead stand on its own two feet, confident that it has answers to life’s most pressing questions. The purpose of theology, they argue, is “to discern, articulate, and commend visions and paths to flourishing life in light of the self-revelation of God in the life, death, resurrection, exaltation, and coming in glory of Jesus Christ, with this entire story, its lows and its highs, bearing witness to a truly flourishing life.” There is plenty of talk about human “flourishing” these days, but Volf and Croasmun offer something better than generic self-help schemes, pointing instead toward a distinctly Christ-centered vision.
How can academic theology reverse course and start making a difference again? The first and most important step, say Volf and Croasman, is to resume asking fundamental questions. Who are we, and how should we live in relation to God, our neighbors, and the surrounding world? What does a “flourishing life” actually look like? Christian theology is uniquely placed to discern and articulate genuinely helpful answers, but it forfeits this authority when it simply repeats secondhand insights from fields like psychology or biology, without any effort to fit them into a broader theological framework.
Christian theology makes clear and strong statements about who the Creator God is, what it means to be human, how goodness and sin relate to our present experience, and how human beings should therefore live. If we define the “flourishing life,” with Volf and Croasmun, as “the good toward which humans are meant to strive,” then a theology that responds to divine revelation should shape and govern our proposals about what this life might look like. The Christian account of faith, they write, “centered as it is on the divine Word become flesh in Jesus Christ,” gives us a framework to guide us toward genuine human flourishing. In fact, as the authors point out, rather than merely giving us a simple set of rules to follow mechanically, this faith includes many and varied witnesses to the action of God in the world. These “family disagreements,” carried out and refined over two millennia, offer an unrivaled starting point for discerning wisdom.
Unfortunately, the North American mindset is dominated by individualistic assumptions. In particular, it assumes that you—in your own internal world, based on your own private instincts—have all you need to decide what is good, both for the world and for yourself. Under this way of thinking, no one should presume to tell me what is good for my body, my relationships, or my vision of the happy life. Instead, I should be free to collect as many resources as possible—educational, financial, and otherwise—and use them in service of my own goals and ambitions, so long as I don’t interfere with anyone else’s personally chosen goals and ambitions. All outside authorities and moral codes are seen as illegitimate intrusions into this realm of private freedom.
In real life, of course, an ethic of extreme self-determination never really produces a life of love, community, and purpose. Volf and Croasmun propose six theological pillars that can stand in a pluralistic world to help shape Christian vision of genuine flourishing. These, they believe, strike an appropriate balance between conviction and individual freedom, between Christian confidence and openness to alternative sources of truth. The pillars are (1) a commitment to Trinitarian monotheism; (2) a belief in a God of unconditional love (and not just unlimited power); (3) the centrality of Jesus to all theology; (4) maintaining a distinction between God’s rule and human rule, which allows for the possibility of flourishing in different cultures; (5) upholding the moral equality of all human beings, recognizing that all sin and fall short of God’s righteous standard; and (6) valuing religious freedom—including the freedom to reject religion—because faith by nature requires it.
In everything they propose, Volf and Croasmun maintain a balance between hope and realism, avoiding both an over- and under-realized eschatology. They reckon honestly with sinful conditions of this world while also expressing confidence in the power of Christ’s work for us, especially as that work manifests itself in the common life of God’s people.
Far too often we are tempted to pit God against his creation, either by advocating a retreat from life in the world or a triumph through some program of cultural conquest. But each extreme undermines the Christian affirmation that the God who has created and redeemed us is good and active, even amid the complexity of this fallen creation. This is why we must return, again and again, to the central image of the kingdom of God: It reminds us that the Christian vision of an abundant life must always include both God and the world.
We must avoid placing God and his creation in opposition—a potential danger Volf and Croasmun see in Thomas Aquinas (or at least in some of his later disciples), who appears to make God alone the object of the human fullness. Yet Christianity proclaims a King and his kingdom, a Creator Lord who fashioned this world for a purpose and has not abandoned it. As the authors argue, “Human beings and the world come to fulfillment when they become in actuality what they have always been in intention: when God rules the world in such a way that God and the world are ‘at home’ with each other—more precisely, when God comes to dwell in the world and when the world has become and experiences itself as being God’s home.” But again, any proposal not grounded in a robust doctrine of Christ can too quickly go sideways and distort the Christian understanding of real human flourishing.
A Basic Need
As someone who lives and works within a tradition that highly values an educated clergy, I have often found myself pointing out that our elevation of the mind often overshadows our need for emotional intelligence. One can be an academic wiz and a terrible pastor. Reading For the Life of the World reminds us that the church in North America (and beyond) has a dual problem with its academic theology: The academics are increasingly spending their time and energy on pursuits that do not enable the laity to see and understand more deeply the gospel of Christ and his power for their daily lives; and the laity, faced with such irrelevant output, are increasingly convinced that theology has no place in their lives. Instead of calling each other to account, the two sides have let the situation worsen.
But theology and its relevance for an abundant life are not concerns merely for the academic world or the clergy. Volf and Croasmun are correct to say that a theological vision of the full life is a “basic need” that all humans long for, including those facing material poverty. Such a vision can be as important to our lives as food and drink, and the fact that we find this difficult to believe shows just how dire our present situation might be.
Most importantly, this book calls contemporary theologians to return to the big questions of life—to show genuine concern for the church, the world, and the good news centered on Christ himself. There is plenty of room for debating specific positions Volf and Croasmun take or theological assumptions on which they operate. But the authors have performed a real service in reminding us that no other discipline can offer what Christian theology does. Let all of us who write or preach heed their invitation to renew our focus on the things that matter most.
Kelly M. Kapic is professor of theological studies at Covenant College. He is the author of The God Who Gives: How the Trinity Shapes the Christian Story (Zondervan) and co-author, with Brian Fikkert, of Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream (Moody).
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