Volf’s theological work is predicated on the conviction that “private” and “public” spheres cannot be separated, though they must be distinguished. In recent years he has given increasing attention to the public dimensions and roles of faith.
From 2008-2011 Volf taught a course on “Faith and Globalization” with ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, an interdisciplinary course for students from all parts of Yale University. The assumption of the course was that globalization processes and faith traditions are some of the most powerful forces shaping today’s world and that the world’s future depends to a significant degree on how faiths relate to globalization and how, in the context of globalization, faiths relate to each other. Many themes of Volf’s work so far came together in this course—the relation between faith and economics, faith and reconciliation (and violence), interfaith relations, faith and politics (in particular, defense of democratic pluralism), and so on. Through this course and in his work with globalization more broadly, Volf is seeking to think through all these issues not from a generically human standpoint suspended above concrete traditions—which he believes does not exist—but from the perspective of the Christian faith.
In A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (2011) Volf summed up his reflections over the years on how Christians should interact with the surrounding culture broadly conceived. He contends that with regard to the public realm Christians face two major dangers (“malfunctions of faith,” in his terminology): one is to withdraw from public life and to leave their faith “idling” in all spheres outside their private and church lives; the other is to be engaged, but to do so in a coercive way, shoving the demands of their faith down the throats of those who embrace other faiths or no faith at all. Positively, Volf argues against two extremes: against a complete separation of faith from public life, a kind of secularist exclusion of religion from public realm (and sectarian self-isolation), and against a complete saturation of public life by one dominant religion, a kind of religious totalitarianism. Against both secular exclusivists and religious totalitarians he contends that, in a world in which many faiths often live under a common roof, freedom of religion and the Golden Rule should guide how faiths relate to each other in the public space. As to the Christians’ own engagement, Volf contends that there is no single Christian way to relate to the broader culture as a whole. Instead, while remaining true to the convictions of their own faith, Christians should approach their larger cultures in an ad-hoc way, accepting or partly changing some aspects of culture, possibly completely withdrawing from still others, and cheerfully celebrating many others.
Over the years, in diverse settings Volf has brought faith to bear on a variety of more public issues. Examples include the following: He was a member of the Global Agenda Council on Faith and on Values of the World Economic Forum (2009–2011); he worked with the Advisory Council of President Obama’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships; he gave a keynote address at the International Prayer Breakfast at the United Nations (on 9/11!) and spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington (2010); he delivered a keynote address at the international Military Chief of Chaplains conference in Cape Town, South Africa (2008). He is also present in the media, giving interviews to major news organizations in this country (for instance, NPR, CNN, MSNBC) and abroad (for instance, Al Jazeera, HRT).
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