Interview
Creed
Politics
16 min read

Is reconciliation possible in America’s culture wars?

Understanding a strange kingdom of anxiety and belligerence.

Miroslav Volf is Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and is the Founder and Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.

A protest placard is held above a march, reading 'If you don't change it, you choose it'.

Miroslav Volf grew up in Croatia and is now Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale University, and the Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. He is the author of many books and is one of the USA’s most prominent public intellectuals. Graham Tomlin recently met up with him to discuss life, politics and faith in the USA during this pivotal election year. 

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Graham: So great to see you today, Miroslav. 

Miroslav: It's always wonderful to see you too. 

I want to talk to you about life in the USA in this election year and some of the issues surrounding that. What do you feel is the mood in the USA at the moment as the election approaches? 

It's tough to describe it, but I would say that predominantly it's a mix of belligerence along with apprehensiveness and uncertainty. I think the American left isn't the happiest with its candidate. They wonder whether Joe Biden can win against Trump, and whether he is too old to be president. On the other side, I see a certain kind of triumphalism and an increasing radicalism, and that is, for many people, worrisome. I also note a willingness to fight. And then there are some, among them some of my colleagues at Yale, who are determined to leave the country if things don't turn out quite the way that they hope! I tell them that I'm used to living under authoritarian regimes - that's how I grew up - and it's possible! Perhaps also responsible.  

Back in 1996 you published your book Exclusion and Embrace, which largely came out of your experience of the war between Croatia and Serbia, and before that, living, as you say, under a totalitarian regime in eastern Europe. I was struck by a question you asked there: “what kind of selves do we need to be to live in harmony with others?” I wonder how you reflect on writing that book now in the context of contemporary America, which seems much more polarised than it was back in 1996? Is there some of that work that resonates particularly with the US situation right now? 

I think so.  Some eight years ago - I'm not sure exactly where to draw the line - I sensed that the political fronts were hardening. They have since become almost completely mutually closed. Any movement toward the middle, towards reconciling, is experienced as a defection and weakening of one’s side.  

I have felt it before, in the former Yugoslavia. When I wrote the book advocating “embrace,” it fell on deaf ears - for Croats, Serbs, and Muslims. The book was written and published as the war was going and had barely ended and my compatriots felt that I was taking away their enemy; they were invested in having one. The time for reconcilers comes when fronts have gotten a little bit more porous than in situations like the one I've just described, which is to say that the time for reconcilers is ‘ordinary time’, rather than making interventions in the actual situation of conflict.  

As to the kinds of selves we need to be, whether in conflict or before or after it, I think it's being people who resist themselves becoming closed by the boundaries of the combatants in the fight, people who are able to see beyond the seen to the unseen, as it were, who hope for the unhoped for and who have the moral ground on which they stand, whose “will to embrace” has not been undermined by violence. 

In that book you also wrote about repentance and forgiveness as being crucial elements in reconciliation. Do you see much evidence of repentance and forgiveness within the USA right now? If not, what would it take to bring about that kind of culture within American life?  

I don't see much willingness. I see the culture becoming increasingly unforgiving. There are, of course, ritualistic gestures of forgiveness in different domains of life, but they're really public image management tools rather than steps toward reconciliation.  

Some of the resistance to forgiveness is a function of the conflict, as I noted earlier. In cultures of late modernity, I see another reason for resistance.  For the most part, we operate with the narrative account of the self: ‘I am what I have done, what has been done to me, what I have made out of what I've done and what others have done to me.’ But if you have this notion of the self, how do you do what the miracle of forgiveness requires? How do you unglue the past deed from the self that has committed that deed, when that deed is—by definition— defining of the person?  Forgiveness requires a vision of the self that isn’t defined by its acts.  For Christians, God’s unconditional love defines the self. That emphasises the importance of the Christian message and deep theological reflection on it to make such an account of the self plausible. 

And to take that idea further, much of our identity politics language tries to isolate one particular aspect of a person's self, and so that's the only thing I need to know about. So, I might say to you: I know what you're like. You're Croatian and therefore I can either say you're one of my tribe or you're not one of my tribe and I can either shun you or accept you that way. But of course, we are, as people, much more complex than that. We're much more multifaceted. We have different identities that are not just about nationality, but they're about relationship, embeddedness within society, political or family allegiances and all kinds of different facets of our selves. That trend to isolate one aspect of the self as definitive is surely quite unhelpful in enabling us to engage with each other as persons, as opposed to just a projection of our imagination? 

 It's a kind of betrayal of the particularity of the self and an inability to perceive the person as the particular individual that they are. I think that's also the case in ethnic or political conflicts. I remember during the war in the former Yugoslavia, saying to my fellow Croatians: “To be a Croatian is, almost by definition, to have Serbs as your neighbours.”  But, obviously, in the situation of conflict, the last thing you want to hear is that you have been defined by your relationship to the person whom you now want to obliterate! 

Exactly. And you can see that same dynamic playing out in the Israel-Gaza situation right now. In many ways, Israel is defined by its relationship with the Palestinians, and Palestinians are defined by their relationship with Israelis, and you can't get away from that.  

These days we often hear about culture wars. Progressives and conservatives offer different visions of the future. In the United States that seems a very polarised, toxic debate. Do you think that Christian faith offers a different path from either? Does it beckon us on a third path that is different from the conservative and the progressive polarity? 

Yes, it does, especially with hardened polarities of this sort. You know the old adage – “I don't care what's left and what's right; I care for what's right and what's wrong.” This right / wrong contrast, this dualistic moralism of religious traditions, can obviously be lived in different ways. But if we understand it in the properly Christian way, with humility, the contrast between right and wrong seems to me important because it provides us an independent place on which to stand and from which to open up a space for movement in this rather sterile conflict, or at least not to let ourselves be drawn into it.  

To nurture such Christian independence, we need to return to the big question that Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked toward the end of his imprisonment: “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?” That seems to me to be a central question, and it helps avoid the temptation of the church—as you see happening in the United States on both sides, left and right—to a certain kind of identification with the politics of a cause. 

I don't know if you've seen this book The Kingdom, the Power and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism, by Tim Alberta, which is very interesting. He’s a staff writer for The Atlantic, and this is his second book, looking primarily at the evangelicalism’s betrayal of the gospel, “thinning out,” so to speak, into a nationalist civil religion. 

The idea of the “stranger King,” suggests that we are in a kind of revolutionary situation. 

People in the UK often wonder how the Evangelical Church in the USA seems so solidly behind Donald Trump, who shows no particular sign of Christian, or evangelical faith. Clearly he will endorse certain conservative positions which evangelicals are in favour of, but is there something deeper going on than that? How do you read the Evangelical support for Donald Trump? 

I think it’s not only true of evangelicalism in this country, but in other settings, and it is also true of other Christian (and even more broadly, religious) traditions—that the nation ends up being a much more powerful god than the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. So, when there's a sense of threat, everybody coalesces around defence of that political in-group.  

My colleague here at Yale, the sociologist Phil Gorski, has written this interesting article “The Return of the King”. He talks about the shift from disenchantment and secularisation to a new immanentism in the U.S. today. He also invokes the vision, from ancient pagan cultures, of a ‘stranger King,’ who is not so much a sacred king, as in Christian understanding, one responsible to God, but a divine figure, who comes from nowhere, from outside, and who is seen as a rescuer, with divine powers that are above moral scrutiny. 

I think that speaks of the way in which people understand Trump. It doesn't matter how he behaves; he can do as he wishes. He could, as he put it early on, even before he became president, kill somebody in the middle of New York and that wouldn’t impact how people view him. We know about his sexual escapades and the lawsuits, and they don’t impact how he is seen by his supporters.  

The idea of the “stranger King,” suggests that we are in a kind of revolutionary situation. Steve Bannon is a very good example. He says he is a kind of Leninist who wants to take control of the state apparatus and dismantle everything. So, there's been a certain radicalism that is obsessed with power. I think that's where Trump has come in. And he has found religious interpreters who have helped him emerge as a new King Cyrus, or somebody who need not be held to moral standards because he is what is perceived to be needed right now. 

The idea of a re-paganisation is very interesting. Here in the UK, many people observed that Boris Johnson was the one Prime Minister in recent times (unlike Blair, Brown, May, Sunak) who did not really profess any very obvious religious faith. His great heroes are in fact, the classical pagan writers of Rome and Greece. There was no great idea for political harmony or vision there. It was more about holding power for its own sake in some Nietzschean sense. 

At least a few years back, some of the neo-pagan philosophers, like Alain de Benoist, who wrote, among other things, a book titled On Being a Pagan (which built partly on Heidegger and mainly on a certain interpretation of Nietzsche), were popular in hard-right circles. De Benoist sees himself very much as retrieving paganism, in sharp contrast to monotheism.   

One of the themes you mentioned a moment ago was that of the nation. One thing that strikes us on this side of the pond looking at America is a very strong brand of Christian nationalism. American churches often have a flag at the front, and presumably this idea of a Christian nation goes back to the Puritan vision that founded America. How do you read that theologically? Do you see the nation as a positive thing or a negative thing? Is it something we should be suspicious of? Is it something that should be embraced?  

I'm disappointed to see the nation turning into what seems like the supreme good.  I find it useful to differentiate between “patriotism” and “nationalism,” though this is somewhat arbitrary linguistically. If one went with that distinction, “nationalism” would be particularistic and exclusivist, and a nationalist would have a “national” God; “patriotism” would describe commitment to one’s own nation in the community of all nations, and a “patriot” would worship the God of all nations.  I think that Christians have universal commitments in the sense that there are no moral insiders and moral outsiders.  This kind of universalism is rooted in the simple conviction that each one of us is created in the image of God, who created all of us, and in the belief that Christ died for each one of us and was raised for our justification. I cannot place relative values on people based on their proximity to me. What I can have, is a greater responsibility for those with whom I live, those “whose lives are closely linked with ours,” as we pray in Episcopal and Anglican liturgy.  

What I find problematic is not just the “America first” kind of particularism (which sometimes goes along with isolationism).  Problematic also is the “America, the best” kind of universalism (which often goes along with expansionism).  One is withdrawing, the other is aggressive, but in both we are interested, above all, in ourselves and our own well-being. I think we need a world order in which we can affirm the equal dignity of every single human being — so that the life of my compatriot is not worth more than the life of those on the other side of my nation’s borders.  Equal dignity would also require that we care in a special way for those whose lives and conditions of life have been curtailed by the way we have exercised political power historically.   

The other aspect of this is surely that the Church is itself a multinational community. In the Christian Church, as they say, water is thicker than blood - in other words the water of baptism that binds us is stronger than differences of ethnicity and nationality. The church is a community that reaches across every nation of the world. These bonds are stronger than any other, and that relativizes the nation as an entity that defines us. It doesn't mean we can’t have a certain patriotic pride in our nation, or our place of origin. The particularity of that is a good thing - we're all rooted in places and histories, which are a part of who we are, but being Christian and therefore bound to each other relativizes the idea of the nation as what ultimately defines us as a people. 

 Agreed. 

You wonder what it would be like if across the culture wars we could recognise each other's Christian faith as being a stronger bond than the ideological differences that divide us? 

Or in situations of conflict - if we could recognise the value of a person of my ethnic group and someone of another ethnic group as exactly the same. That would have profound implications, even when we engage in what we might deem to be a just war.  How war is conducted would be greatly changed if we thought of one side and the other in that way, that each individual is of absolutely equal value. 

World altering and disorienting processes are under way, which I think partly underpin those political tensions, and we need to cast our eyes to that which lies underneath political tensions and to what can take us out of them. 

One of the other themes I wanted to explore was one of the casualties of our modern political life - Truth. We talk about living in a post-truth age. A huge volume of opinion, ideas and data comes at us every day because of the information revolution of the internet, social media and so on. The question is: why does truth matter in politics? I recall something you wrote in Exclusion and Embrace: “if argument cannot win, weapons must.” Once truth goes always leads to violence. So, could you just expand on that a little bit and explore that theme in the context of our political life?  

The stance that people often embrace in conflict is this: “If truth is against me, why should I be for the truth?”  And so, truth becomes a casualty of my own interest. We can observe that from a little kid, telling an “innocent” lie, all the way to the workings of the propaganda machinery in world politics. In a way, a lie is an homage to the truth, because a lie presents itself as truth.  A good deal of the tensions in the USA are rooted in an inability to trust that what the other person says is correct, so that there is this mood of suspicion that nibbles away any trust that may be built. It may be important to remember what Jesus said about truth — that it will set us free.  The truth sets each one of us free precisely by binding us to one another in trust. 

That begins to open up one last area I wanted to explore with you. You run a course in Yale University called Life Worth Living, which you offer for students who want to explore some of the deeper questions as to what makes a life worth living. I'd love you to just explain a bit about how that course works, but particularly bearing in mind the theme we're talking about today. What is a life worth living in this particular moment in the context of the USA? You talked at the beginning about how you’ve lived under totalitarian regimes, and that it's possible to live a good life even in really difficult circumstances. What does that life look like at the moment?  

I think of that course as a kind of exercise in truth-seeking conversations, in speaking about what matters most to us in life with those who disagree with us. The course is offered to Yale College students, undergrads, primarily. We may have seven or so seminar groups each semester, all populated by students from different cultures, embracing different faiths or none, and we discuss in sequence various competing visions of the good life on offer.  When I teach the class, I tell the students that, of the traditions we are exploring —  Buddhism, Christianity, Islam or Nietzsche’s philosophy — all make truth claims.  Which is to say that they are talking about the truthfulness of each of our lives. Our goal in class is to wrestle with these truth claims not just intellectually but also, and even primarily, existentially.   

This is a very important exercise in how one can, in a pluralistic setting, affirm the truth and stay by it, while at the same time entertaining seriously the opinions of others, even adjusting one's own perspectives in the light of the perspectives of others.  We need these kinds of skills given our profound disagreements on political, economic, and life-orientation issues.   

 So a life worth living would be a life where you can have those kind of conversations? 

Certainly.  These kinds of conversations and the kinds of deep but humble commitments to truth and to honoring others irrespective of whether we agree with them or not are a key element of a life that is worthy of our humanity.  At the political level, they are a condition of the possibility of envisioning and moving toward a common future.  

Do you see any signs of hope of this kind of discourse within the USA? You started off by saying how there's a sense of anxiety and belligerence. Are there signs that give you just a little glimmer of hope that there may be a different future going forward? 

Well, when I speak about the class to people, I don't see them yawning, nor do I detect wistfulness in their eyes, as if this were somehow unrelated to real life.  I see people listening and wanting to move in that direction, entertaining it as a possibility. When I talk in churches about the question “Who is Jesus Christ for us today?”, I don't find resistance. I find people saying — yeah, that's what we need to take seriously, because we are living in a kind of dystopian period.  

Our problems today are not just hardened political fronts and the emergence of civilizational nations with authoritarian leaders.  World altering and disorienting processes are under way, which I think partly underpin those political tensions, and we need to cast our eyes to that which lies underneath political tensions and to what can take us out of them.  Generative AI!  Imploding environment!  Tremendous disparities in wealth! These are things that will profoundly shape our future, and we need to know how to talk about them notwithstanding the deep disagreements we have.  We also need to nurture a Christian imagination, a hope for the world that the New Testament sketches — largely symbolically — at the end of the book of Revelation.  People today resonate with these kinds of themes, and that gives me hope.  

It has been good to end on this longer term note. One thing that Christian faith does - is it thinks long term. It doesn't think in electoral cycles, it thinks more in centuries than years or even decades, so getting that bigger perspective is really helpful. 

Thank you Miroslav for your time and your insights into our times.  

Thank you for the conversation. It's always great to talk to you. 

Miroslav Volf

A man with a beard and glasses, leans back and to one side while takking and holds open hand in front of himself
Miroslav Volf.
Explainer
Creed
Faith
6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  

Watch

The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.