What makes a good life? What habits of attention, reflection, and action orient us towards knowing, desiring, and doing what is good, true, and beautiful? Such “big questions” may seem unanswerable and intimidating — but their exploration is at the heart of the human quest for meaning.
Drawing on his popular Yale course, theologian Miroslav Volf will join us to reflect on what makes for a flourishing life in our times. Together we’ll discuss his insights from the bestselling book Life Worth Living: A Guide to What Matters Most.
We hosted an Online Conversation with Miroslav Volf on February 2 to discuss the timeless Biblical question, “How then shall we live?”
Online Conversation | Miroslav Volf | February 2, 2024
Cherie Harder: Thanks so much, Campbell. And on behalf of all of us at the Trinity Forum, welcome to today’s Online Conversation with Miroslav Volf on “Pursuing a Life Worth Living.” We’re delighted that so many of you, well over 2,000 of you, have registered for today’s Online Conversation. We particularly welcome our first-time registrants—I think we have well over 150 of you—as well as our international visitors, and we have nearly 200 of you joining us from at least 32 countries that we know of, ranging from Fiji and France to the UAE and Uganda. So welcome from across the miles and across the time zones.
If you are one of those first-time registrants or are otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we work to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought leadership and provide a space where leaders can wrestle with the big questions of life in the context of faith and come to better know the Author of the answers. We hope today’s conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.
Our guest today is a theologian and scholar who has devoted his life to wrestling with those very big questions of life, namely, what is a good person and what is the good life? What is right and good and true? And what does that mean for how each of us orders our time, our attention, and our priorities? In short, what does it mean to pursue a life worth living? Now these can seem like esoteric, even unanswerable questions, but our guest today argues that pursuing them is immensely practical, even unavoidable. And he offers in his newest book a guide to aid the uncertain quester or pilgrim in recognizing and assessing the paths offered by different philosophies, faiths, and traditions, and to better equip them in answering the question we all must face: how are we to live?
Miroslav Volf is the founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, and a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School. He has written or edited more than a dozen different books, including Exclusion and Embrace, which was awarded the Grawemeyer Award in Religion and was named one of Christianity Today‘s 100 Most Important Religious Books of the 20th century. He’s also developed and teaches the most popular humanities course at Yale University entitled “Life Worth Living,” which is now taught well beyond Yale, including in a federal prison, and which forms the basis of his new and excellent work coauthored with his fellow lecturers Matthew Croasmun and Ryan McAnally-Linz, Life Worth Living: A Guide to What Matters Most, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss.
Miroslav Volf: Oh, it’s so great to be with you here and with the audience.
Cherie Harder: Yes, it’s great to have you here. So when we start out, I love to begin with the story behind the story. And I’m very curious about yours and not only what led you to study this and write this book, but, essentially, how did your life pursuit become the study of a life worth pursuing?
Miroslav Volf: Oh, that’s such a wonderful question. Thank you for it. And, you know, I’m one of those people who at 16 knew what my calling will be. And there is not a single day that I regretted pursuing it. As you can tell, I am now 67 years old. So it’s a wonderful thing. But I think it’s a wonderful thing for me because I think that is really the fundamental question of our lives that accompanies us across the journey in our life. And for me it was a question that I discovered early on. I was a son of a Pentecostal minister. And I always thought, living in former Yugoslavia—this is a communist country—that this was a kind of crazy job that my father has inflicted upon me, and that it’s a burden with which I have to live. So I quietly and openly rebelled until when I was about 16. And I was trying to both kind of push back against my father and my upbringing. But at the same time, I couldn’t find myself pushing against the call of the person who was at the center of my father’s life, which was Jesus Christ. And I embraced faith as my own.
And from then on, this was the question. This was my question, but interestingly enough, this was the question of my colleagues, of my fellow students, because they always wanted to know, “What happened to you?” Unlike today, I dressed well, you know, and people knew me in the entire school. I was a popular kid in the school, and suddenly they think I’m associated with this religion thing. And that was then a challenge for me. And I think that turned me, in a way, into a theologian. Even before I ever articulated that word for me, I wanted to explain what motivates, what gives depth, what takes us to a place where our humanity can be discovered as something beautiful, and make sure that people understand that. That’s what I found in faith. And that’s what I wanted to share with those who are interested, and in order to share, to explore. Hence my career.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So you’re teaching this class at Yale and, you know, Yale and other Ivies, too, in many ways, have sort of exemplified the trend of liberal arts—at least one-time liberal arts colleges—moving away from really grappling with the big questions or teaching about character and character formation and wrestling with questions of the good life. But your course is the most popular humanities course at Yale, even though it’s very explicit about the fact that each of us has a moral responsibility to answer these questions. And I would love to ask you, how have you gone about teaching it? Because you’re coming at this as a person of orthodox Christian faith, but you’re teaching it in a pluralistic way. And how has it been received by the very diverse student body there?
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, I think that was really, really key difficulty which we are facing. And I think that’s part of the reason why those big questions of life have kind of receded in importance. There are many reasons why that has happened, but one of them is that we have increasingly become, as a nation but also as universities, very pluralistic. Now, if you have a commitment to a kind of single truth and want to teach that at a pluralistic university, you immediately bump up against kind of little rebellions, that didn’t seem to be quite appropriate. And, you know, I teach at a pluralistic university. I have to honor my students’ convictions and beliefs, and also honor them as I teach. And so the key question was then, how does one teach a course in which one talks about varieties of ways in which our life as a whole is claimed and tries to articulate the truth of our life, our existence, but do it in a pluralistic way? And the way in which we have done that is to engage, what we do is probably maybe 6 or 7 major traditions—they are religious or they can be secular as well. But as we teach each of these traditions, we make an assumption and share that assumption with students: each of these traditions claims to be true, and if it claims to be true when it talks about human life, it talks about your life and it talks about my life. It asks me and you to do something about it, to either agree or disagree and take it seriously. Imagine ourselves as inhabiting that world. And that’s how I started teaching it in the course. Students are quite interested in that. They don’t have problems with plurality. And I don’t think it turned out that they have any problem of imagining themselves for the two weeks that we take one tradition inhabiting that tradition, taking seriously its truth claims. And, you know, we have students from different backgrounds with different persuasions in the class. Often it’s a seminar. They talk to one another, and the conversations are alive, and you can see them intellectually engaged, but you can see them also existentially engaged. And for me, when that happens in the classroom, I’m the happiest of all teachers.
Cherie Harder: I want to dig into the substance of your work and your argument, but before that I am curious, because I mentioned in the introduction that your course is now taught not just at Yale, but also in a federal penitentiary. And your coauthors lead a lot of that teaching. The questions that are grappled with among the students at Danbury Correctional Institute, how does that compare with the approach and the questions of the students at Yale?
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, I should say that it isn’t continuously taught. It has been taught. And we hope to teach it again. But currently it’s not taught. But in any case, that’s besides [the point.] Your question is right on the spot. And, you know, if you have a prison community, you have folks who have a little bit of time to think and to think back upon their lives, and they all see a sense in which life hasn’t gone right for them, in whatever ways you can articulate this. And sometimes I think that we need to come in a position where we have a sense that something isn’t quite right with us, to be able to open ourselves and to search for something with a kind of intensity and seriousness. I often think that the way in which we live our lives is almost—and if things go smoothly, in particular—is almost a distraction from taking seriously fundamental questions of life. People ask me—and I’ll return back to Danbury—people ask me, “Oh, isn’t this course for kind of middle-class people who have enough time to think about questions of how we should live?” And I respond to them, no, no, no, middle class people are most distracted and uninterested in that because their lives kind of go relatively smoothly. Where these questions have first formulated, many centuries ago, were by people who lived in impoverished circumstances compared to us.
And that’s what one finds also then in the Danbury prison because you find people who want to grapple because life hasn’t set well with them. And that seriousness is really refreshing. And I think I find also that students today can also do that. We need to kind of lead them into it. But often they come to our class because in some ways either they’re not managing to cope as well as they think they ought to at Yale or maybe they think, “Oh, I’ve been striving since my kindergarten to get into Yale. I’m now there. Why have I done all these things? Where am I? Who am I? What is my life supposed to be?” And these great questions are the heart of our being as human, and we need to pursue them with seriousness. And they do.
Cherie Harder: Before one gets to the point where one really grapples with some of those questions, it’s probably fairly common just to default to an assumption that—if we grapple with it at all—that the good life is long, healthy, wealthy, and happy. And, you know, if one had to pick, probably the star among that litany would be happiness. I think that’s probably a fairly common assumption, that the good life is the happy life. But right at the very outset of your work, you question that assumption, whether happiness is really the sum of flourishing, and I would love to ask you about what you see as the difference or at least questions to ask about the differences between personal happiness and the good life and flourishing.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, it’s a great question, especially if one understands happiness not in a kind of deeper sense of that term, a life that has its own integrity, and [instead] happiness is understood as basically pleasurable life: things are going smoothly, I feel okay, I’m happy. Meaning there’s a certain kind of lightness in my step. The feet, they tell you whether somebody is happy or not, right? If one understands it that way and if one is a Christian, now what happens when you read the Gospels? Was Jesus happy? And we find him relatively rarely laughing, smiling. We find him rather serious. Serious about his mission. And it doesn’t end particularly well. And then it ends relatively early for him, very early 30s when he dies. Now was he just a martyr so that we can walk around with happy steps and dance? Or might his life be paradigmatic in many ways of our own lives?
And once you start asking this question, you realize that happiness might be too flighty, too light, too much to blow around in the wind as it comes and never quite stable to carry us. And you realize that there’s things that are much more important. You should love your God with all of your heart, with all of your mind, with all of your soul. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. This is the life of fullness. This is the life of weight: not the flighty life, but arduous life. But arduous life that is, in fact, truly happy life.
And I think that little bit of self-introspection and also observing other people who we admire—. In the book we name Martin Luther King. Well, a short life. So long life? Would you rather be Martin Luther King or live a long life? Well, think about it. Or happy life? Abraham Lincoln [was] depressed, but amazing as a president or achievement. And so you can go down the line and see people who we admire a great deal, who have not lived the way we imagine happiness to be.
Cherie Harder: In your book you give what I thought was a really interesting formulation of what you call “the three food groups” of a good life. And you describe those as agency, or the question “how should we live?”; circumstance, or “what should we hope for?”; and affect, “how does the good life feel?” And you talk about how our different conceptions of those food groups, as well as our different combinations of them, will lead us down different paths. And so I was hoping you could tell us a little bit more about what you mean by those three food groups, and how we come to better understand them both alone and in combination.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, I think it’s very important to understand each on its own and all of them in combination, because some people think of them as completely independent things, and they kind of bleed into one another. So it’s very simple, actually, [the] components of a good life. In order to live a good life, I have to act in a certain way. Certain kinds of circumstances— I need to be placed in certain kinds of circumstances. I’m not a plant, but like a plant, I need a soil in which my particular kind of bodiliness can thrive, and it can develop in my own set of characteristics as a human being. So we need a set of circumstances. And we also need a certain nurture, a certain accompanying set of emotions and feelings in regard to that. So I’m active, I am passive because I receive something from the environment, and I am something between active and passive when I feel. And now we can take each one of them and ask the question, well, what does it mean to act rightly in the world? What kind of circumstances do I need to have a happy life? And what kinds of emotions are appropriate for me as one who in life thrives? And obviously a lot of discussion can be had about this.
For instance, maybe most interesting and most surprising to people, is if you take kinds of emotions: What kind of emotions should accompany a good life? You say “good emotions,” and then you just go on. That’s the end of the answer to the question. And yet when you just look a little bit under the surface, you see how those emotions can differ. There’s a great difference between pleasure, for instance, simple pleasure, which is how a lot of people think about the good life, and something like serenity and contentment. Pleasures are a little bit screaming at you. They’re kind of boisterous, alive. Contentment is kind of quiet and stays there over periods of time. And there’s a good question of, do we need both? How do we have both? How do we put them together? Or if you think about something like joy. Now I can take something like a pleasure pill. I can chemically induce pleasure. But I can’t take a joy pill. Because joy is feeling good about something good. And so it unites, if you want, both the feelings, emotion, that invites both feelings and circumstances of life.
And so, as you see, you can parse this out and then you can ask, as you gestured to in your question also, how do they fit together? How do they form this unit? Because I like to think of them as a good-life stool. But the three legs are not simply independent. They kind of bleed into one another. You can see it with joy, right? The joy is good feelings about something good. Well, something good can be either my good agency or it can be circumstances of my or somebody else’s life. And attending to all three of those is great. For those in the audience who are Christians and who know their Bible, it derives from what Apostle Paul says when he defines what the kingdom of God is. He says, “Kingdom of God is not food and drink. Kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Righteousness is right living. Peace is a kind of shalom, a set of circumstances of our lives. And joy is the crowning emotion of Christian life.
Cherie Harder: Any conception of the good life, however one kind of shuffles the recipe, has to grapple with what we as Christians call sin and what in your book, you had a chapter which was wonderfully titled “When We Inevitably Botch It.” So whether one calls it a botch or sin or falsehood foibles, moral failure is something that has to be grappled with. And your treatment of that, I thought, was fascinating. You pointed out that being wrong can feel like being right unless we know that we are doing wrong. And so there’s actually built-in incentives for self-deception, because being right feels better than being wrong. And you also talked about the fact that there are different paths, and they lead us along very different routes, but there’s actually a fair amount of convergence among a lot of different traditions in dealing with sin—perhaps except for Nietzsche, who essentially was in the camp of “deny, deny, send counter-accusations.” Essentially, to admit failure was a failure of nerve. And it seems like we are actually in a Nietzschean moment right now where that kind of approach is often sort of valorized. And certainly there’s a lot of incentives for it. How do you make the difficult case to students that actually it is good to acknowledge wrongdoing and to turn from it, what we in the Christian tradition would call repentance, when it doesn’t feel good and often there’s a price to pay?
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. It’s a great question. I think today, especially in today’s environment, we have a problem. We have a problem with truthfulness about our own lives. I don’t think the problem is that we don’t feel and see that we have done something wrong. I think that we think that it’s too costly—as you, I think, indicated also—that it’s too costly to admit it and that we will be, in the end, better off if we don’t. Whatever we do with the actual thing that we have done, but in terms of how we appear before other people, we are better off not admitting. And I think that’s partly connected with a kind of unforgiving character and nature of our culture as well. The two go together. If you know that you’re going to face unforgiveness, you’re going to hide and present yourself in the best possible light. And this unforgiving character of the culture, I think, is connected, in part, with a kind of narrative conception of the self, by which I mean we think of the self as some of what we have done and what others have done to us, and how we have reacted to what we have done and others have done to us. And that’s kind of gross. And that’s me, right, what has happened. But then how do I peel off something bad? How do I separate myself from something bad, so that I can be relieved of the burden of that being me? Because that’s what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is, you know, there’s a deed that sticks to me, but I take—or God takes, in Christian terms—God takes that deed and peels it off, and suddenly I’m freed from the guilt for that deed. It almost is an invitation to the transformation of the entire self when that happens.
And it’s this way of thinking about the self that [makes it] very difficult for people to accept the—. Though, I must say, I’ve written quite a bit on forgiveness. No matter what the audience, I receive the best reception on the topic of forgiveness than of any other topic on which I ever speak, because people are hungry for their lives to be forgiven, for they themselves to be affirmed, notwithstanding what they might have or have actually done. And it’s beautiful to see that. And from my perspective as a Christian theologian, I think that’s an incredible power of the gospel in the sense that it provides us a way to think. How do you separate the deed from the doer? How do you condemn the deed but actually embrace the doer? How do you condemn the deed so that you can embrace the doer, and so the doer can embrace themselves in the true sense of the word? It’s an absolutely beautiful thing. And students react well to that.
Cherie Harder: In addition to the challenge of sin is also the challenge of suffering. And we only have time to, I know, just skim the surface of this, but would be really interested in your thoughts for what makes for a good life in the midst of suffering.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. Suffering is a great challenge to life. To goodness of life. For many people, to goodness of God. Suffering can either make us cynical, divert us from any seriousness about actually crafting our life and leading it well, because it’s all pointless; anything can happen to anyone at any time; the life is not worth living, as many would say, in the light of suffering. On the other hand, suffering can be a space, the point where this tender plant of faith can grow and emerge.
In my own life, my own biography, my father has found faith on the death march—after months of rage against God and against God’s world. My parents’ lives, my mother’s lives have been full of suffering in many ways. And yet the lives that they have led have been, I think, extraordinary. They were able, in those kinds of settings, to think of the, not simply of the pain that they experience, but also of the beauty of the response to that faith. And that made them, for me, examples of what it means to live a beautiful life when everything is falling apart.
And I think that’s one of the benefits that religious traditions—and I can think of Buddhism in its own way, I can speak especially of the Christian faith, which I embrace. The Christian faith has at its core a person who suffered innocently. And the reflection of what it means that nothing can separate us from God’s love, I think to me is some of the most beautiful of New Testament writing.
Cherie Harder: There’s so many more questions I’d love to ask you, and we’re rapidly running out of time where it’s time to turn it over to the audience questions. But one last one we’d love to get your thoughts on. You are very clear in your work about how different paths do lead one in very different directions. The non-attachment and disengagement of Buddhism brings one to a very different place than the Christian injunction to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor. But one area of convergence is that it seems like most traditions say that actually we should not just think, we need to act. And that living well does require acting well. And so I’d love to hear from you about how your immersion into these questions and these studies and teaching this class has affected how you live. What, if anything, do you do differently as a result of pondering these questions?
Miroslav Volf: You know, that’s a really wonderful question, and I’d have to think a little bit to kind of trace the changes and learning in terms of what the engagement with those traditions and in my actually entire work as a theologian. So it’s almost, for me, doing theology and living were never two separate things. I always experienced them. In topics that I chose, that I wrote about, they were always tied to life. I have to have an existential question, and then I could write and be happy in writing. And, you know, I’ve experienced, for instance, with my book Exclusion and Embrace, it was written not just observing conflict and the inability to resolve, but also living in conflicts. I was implicated in that. And I often find myself, in some situation, in some conflict, and then I hear the voice, “But you argued in your book…” So, kind of my book was wagging a finger against me. I myself was wagging a finger against me, right. And in some ways, that is really what the study, proper study, of the Bible does for us, proper study of other spiritual traditions does for us. It reminds us and calls us back to ourselves, to our commitment. And I think I can find that in many other traditions. I’ve been involved many years in Muslim-Christian dialogue, and there are extraordinary riches of wisdom in the spiritual tradition that is associated with Islam. There are twistings of it, just like there are twistings of the Christian tradition. And even when I can’t quite go along the way and follow, I can certainly learn.
I remember a conversation. I’ll tell you conversation I remember with my friend Prince Ghazi of Jordan. And my mother was still alive, and she was visiting me, and Ghazi called me and we started talking about, I don’t know, somebody to whom God spoke. There’s a friend of ours, and I told [Prince Ghazi], “You know what, this guy told me that he was at a place, and God spoke to him.” And then [the prince] starts talking about, “Well, you know, in our tradition, we have a criteria for discernment. How do we know that it is God speaking rather than just my feeling a certain way and having certain predilections?” And I said, “Well, yeah, yeah. Right, right. The same thing in our tradition. We have even Apostle Paul speaks about gift of discernment. Right. So you have to have a special kind of attentiveness in order to discern. And you can’t just take it.” So we’re going back and forth, and my mother is sitting there and listening to us. And, I mean, my father was a Pentecostal minister. She was a Pentecostal all of her life, very devout. And she says to me, “You know what, Miroslav? This guy, he’s good for you. He’s taking you into places, you know, not away from deepening your faith, but actually into it.” And that’s how I experienced often engagement with various traditions, kind of deepening and seeing in my tradition something that I might not see otherwise.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s fantastic. We’re going to turn to questions from some of our viewers. And I see there’s quite a few. So the first one comes from Chuck Olsen. And Chuck asks, “In your class, do you share that you understand the claims of the Christian tradition to be the truth? And if so, how does that impact the dynamics of the class interaction?”
Miroslav Volf: Oh yes, we do. We invite all the students. It’s generally a seminar, multiple seminars that we have. Always everybody on the first— that’s what happens in the first session. Everybody describes their own traditions, where they come from. And when I speak about this, when my colleagues speak, one of them is ordained—Matt Crausmun is ordained as well—and we say, you know, “These are my convictions. That’s where I come from. I’m even an ordained minister. And that’s that. My goal here is not necessarily to persuade you. My goal in this class is to be an impartial guide in order to help you understand, ask proper questions, struggle with and be honest in asking those questions. And my purpose is to guide you through those questions.” And I think that’s how we approach it, so that everybody knows the kinds of claims that Jesus Christ has upon our lives, but at the same time, just as such, out of responsibility to Christ, to lead another person on their own search for life.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So Don Morgan asked, “How might churches use your book, or what are some of the ways that you’ve heard that they’ve used it?”
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, we were surprised because it wasn’t written for the churches. Two ways that we have heard and we’ll try to provide resources for that as well: One way was somebody said, “You know, Miroslav, why don’t you have two-minute, three-minute videos on each of your chapters? And I’m going to preach then a sermon from the Christian standpoint on the question that you’ve raised.” And I think that this is a really great idea, because what we are trying to do in the book is to raise a set of interconnected questions that can lead a person to take seriously the entirety, broad spectrum of what it is to live a good life, life to be good. The other way, and a minister in San Francisco has done [this] in a fairly large church. Basically, he uses the book to invite people who are completely unchurched and not particularly interested in Christian faith or might have suspicions about it: “Here’s what we are about. In many ways, this book names the issues that we want to attend. We have a particular perspective from which we address them. But engage this book and see whether, existentially, it speaks to you and whether you’re interested to explore these questions. And then we can see where it goes.”
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So a question from Mitchell Temple, who asks, “How might you connect Jesus’ declaration of the abundant life to human flourishing?”
Miroslav Volf: Yes, John, there’s a kind of notion of abundant life. You know, there’s an exegetical question of how to interpret “abundant life.” You can interpret it as a life of abundance, that is to say, having a great deal of interesting, good stuff. High quality, whatever you want to say, abundance. But you can also interpret it, and [this is] how I interpret it: “abundance of life.” So to say abundance of liveliness, kind of insuppressible liveliness no matter what the circumstances. And I think Jesus is speaking about this second option. So it doesn’t mean that circumstances of life need to be bad. After all, when you look at the images of a new Jerusalem, it’s portrayed as if it is the most glorious of glorious cities and environments, right. But I think we have to count that the same Jesus who said it in chapter 10, in chapter 14 goes on to speak repeatedly, when he leaves, they will be persecuted. Life will not be abundance of goods for them. It will be abundance of liveliness, an insuppressible, unextinguishable liveliness.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So an interesting question from Arjan Overwater. And Arjan asked, “What makes a good life together? How do we become joyful in community, and how do we atone for the wrongs embedded in the culture and community that we’re a part of?”
Miroslav Volf: I think that’s a very, very important question. The assumption is that life, lived properly, rightly, is a life lived together. And I think that kind of sense that the good life isn’t something that happens to us individually, either as bodies or as simply souls, but life that is good happens in interconnection that we have with our communities, communities of faith, but also broader communities. I think it’s quite right what Martin Luther King has said, “I either flourish together with everyone else or I don’t flourish.” This is my paraphrase. It’s probably not what he said, but something to the effect he did, I remember. But I believe that’s really right. And that’s why you have a kind of— Christian hope is for a global transformation and salvation, not simply a flight of a soul to some heavenly realm.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. So many good questions are coming in. Yuki Whitley asked, “What are your thoughts on the social dimension of how Christians may lead a good life in a pluralistic society? How to gracefully balance between the poles of being socially withdrawn and insular on one hand, versus being of the world, and relinquishing any distinction between what is good or true versus false and evil?”
Miroslav Volf: I don’t think we should relinquish anything like a distinction between what is good and true and false and evil. I think that would be a radical mistake. I think my sense is we need to ask the question, how do we speak the truth in love? How do we make the distinction and bring to bear the distinction in the realm where profound disagreements are? What would it mean as a part of loving another person to honor everyone? One of the shortest commands in the New Testament is “honor everyone.” Now that’s very interesting, and I think it would take us a long way if we would just obey this shortest of— I think, almost shortest of all, New Testament [commands]. How can you have a shorter? No, you can say “look,” right. So you can have a one-word command, but it’s a two-word command. And I find that very enlightening. I think we fail when we don’t honor. We fail when we don’t love, we fail when we don’t seek to embrace. We don’t fail when we say what we think is the truth. We don’t fail when we say what we think is good. It’s the way we do it. And in the Christian faith, you can separate the what from the how. If I am to love my neighbor, I have to love my neighbor in a loving way. Otherwise, I undermine the very command and the thing that I’m trying to achieve.
Cherie Harder: So Dan Balzer submits a question, wanting to follow up on the discussion of suffering. And he asked, “How do people in situations of long-term crisis—like refugees, those in prolonged civil war, chronic poverty—experience flourishing in your observation?”
Miroslav Volf: Well, I’ll tell you how I experienced it. I’m not suggesting at all that this is what we should all do and that this is the best one can do, and this is all one needs to do. But I was raised by a very saintly woman whose husband was killed in the Second World War. She was alone and the sole Protestant Christian among her entire family. My parents had two rooms and the kitchen. And she had none. They invited her to live with us. And then she became my nanny as my mother was working and my father too. I have never seen—at least from my perspective, I saw her when I was very young—I’ve never seen a person that is more marked by goodness, more joyous, than teta Milica. She was a short, 4.5ft-tall woman, babushka with a little mustache and a wart over her lip. And I thought she was the most beautiful woman because she radiated that kind of beauty.
Now I’m naming her as something that is possible. At the same time, I think those who live in ungodly circumstances as refugees and victims of war—I think of Gaza right now, Ukraine right now—they need shalom. They need circumstances that would let them thrive in more ways than teta Milica was able to thrive. But nonetheless, she was absolutely beautiful in that.
Cherie Harder: A question from Elizabeth Yang, who asked, “As a theologian, how or do you integrate the scientific or materialist dimension into your work, such as the scientific definition or understanding of emotions, circumstances, and agency?”
Miroslav Volf: So I think sciences are some of the coolest things on the planet because they— you know, all varieties. I mean, it’s incredible what they open up for us. But one of the questions that they cannot answer is what should I want? What kind of person should I be? They can analyze what I want. They can analyze even what I should want. That is, they can answer what I think that I should want. But they cannot tell me. Their job is to describe what is going on in the world. They can help me with means toward ends, but they really cannot set human ends. That’s my conviction. And this is in no way to dis the sciences. It is simply to describe their own self-understanding. And whoever then on the basis of scientific descriptions makes accounts or crafts accounts of the life that ought to be lived, at how life ought to go, and what kind of emotion one has to have, would know that they go beyond what sciences themselves allow. They’re making moral purpose judgments that sciences cannot do.
And that’s why I think that, for instance, at Yale there’s a course, “Psychology of the Good life,” very popular course. I know the professor quite well. We are on very friendly terms. I think both of these courses should be taught together. She’s trying to help people on the basis of psychology how to navigate life. She’s trying to help people [learn] how to get from point A to point B. We are trying to help people choose what the right kind of B is that they should be going to.
Cherie Harder: Betsy Kodat raises a question that I’ve thought about asking you as well. Betsy asked, “Have students given you feedback about how your course has influenced their lives, careers, and interaction in society?” And I’ll just sort of ladle on to that the fact that you mentioned in the epilogue of your book that you frequently are visited by students who share their concerns about their realized propensity to make wrong decisions and even the potential for living an evil life. And you often warn them about the even more likely danger of triviality. But I’d love to hear you talk about that, but also Betsy’s question about what feedback have you gotten from students about how this has affected their lives longer-term.
Miroslav Volf: Well, the first feedback we got, and that set us on the course of teaching the class—a long-term course of teaching the class—was that students were hungry. One student I remember said, “You know, until I sat in your class, I was never given permission to take with intellectual seriousness the questions of what makes for the good life.” And I thought, my goodness, this was the intellectual question that captured the imagination and which people pursued with intensity over centuries. And she can be born in a situation where nobody gives her permission to do that? This is crazy. She has to come up with a life worth living for herself. It’s impossible. Right? So these would be some reactions.
The other reactions are also, you know, I’ve received the email of a student [that] said, “You know, I don’t know whether you remember me, but I was in your class.” And then gives me the year this was, and he gives me a little story how he’s just gotten married and they have a dog and they’re expecting also a family and, you know, “and then I remembered your class.” Which is to say, now he’s at the juncture in life and asked, “What do I do with my life? How do I live it now, especially as the child is on the way?” And they go back to the course and look and try to figure out how to live.
Cherie asked kind of modes of failing, in a sense, in life. And I think that, obviously, the ways in which we can fail as human beings is just a spectacular failure. We are really influential, and we use that influence in some pernicious ways. We can all think of cases of this sort. But I think the great danger of our lives is that we get lost in trivialities, that we fritter away the beauty of life and the weight of life and live from moment to moment, chasing after one glitzy thing after another, one superficial task after another. And we end up empty-handed at the very end. What have I spent time [on]? It’s almost like our life is one long scrolling on the phone. Right? One interesting thing after another, that each of them is trivial, and all of them together add to this burden of triviality and sense of waste that have just happened, and I kind of knew it and didn’t want to do anything about it and still kind of followed it, because there’s a certain captivity to it. So my sense would be that is too what we try to warn the students of. That’s too what I start to try to warn myself away from. Every moment is precious and could be beautiful and beautiful with weight of consequence, of beautifying the world and beautifying other people around us.
Cherie Harder: That’s a great segue-way to a final question from Ed Savage, who asked, “What role does awe and wonder play in the good life?”
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. For me, it’s almost like at the foundation of everything. Because the goodness of life is not something that simply is there, something to pick up and if you want to do it [you do it]; if not, discard. But the goodness of life when you think about it is— I experience it as a gift. And if it’s a gift, it has some kind of a giver. And if it has a giver, it deserves gratitude. And if we are grateful, truly, we would be in awe of what is, what has been given, and we would seek to have eyes to be able to be in awe. And I find that being in awe is something that one has to nurture in oneself. This daily scrolling, these daily moments of triviality—awe fritters away. And you almost don’t have eyes to see what is so much more weighty and beautiful, that ordinariness of every moment that is being frittered away. So nurturing that sense of awe, I think, it’s really fundamental.
Cherie Harder: Thank you, Miroslav. In just a moment, I want to give you the last word. But before that, a few things just to share with all of our viewers first. Right after we conclude we’re going to be emailing out a feedback form. We’d really welcome your thoughts. We try to incorporate those. We really value the input. As a small thank you and token of appreciation if you fill out that feedback form, we will give you a code for a free Trinity Forum Reading download of your choice. There are several that we would recommend that complement some of what we’ve been discussing here, including Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Thomas Aquinas “On Happiness,” “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” by Tolstoy, and “Wrestling with God” by Simone Weil. So hope that you will do that.
Secondly, tomorrow, right around noon, we’ll be sending out an email with a link to today’s Online Conversation, which we’d love for you to share with others. We’ll also have a list of different readings and resources if you want to use this conversation for small group use and want to go further into your reading or discussion. Different opportunities and resources will be there for you.
Third, we would love to invite all of you who are watching to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who help advance the Trinity Forum’s mission of cultivating, curating, and disseminating the best of Christian thought for the common good. In addition to being part of the community, there are a number of benefits to being a society member, including a subscription to our quarterly Trinity Forum Readings, a subscription to our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated reading recommendations, and as a special incentive for those of you joining the society or with your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Professor Volf’s excellent work, Life Worth Living. So we hope that you will join us and that we can welcome you into the society.
If you’d like to sponsor a future Online Conversation, let us know. We’d love to talk with you, and there should be an opportunity to do that in the feedback form as well.
In terms of events coming up, in just a couple of weeks, on February 23rd, we’ll be hosting Tim Alberta, the author of the new book, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory. And we’ll be hearing from Amy Julia Becker in early March. Other guests lined up for the year include Christian Wiman, Philip Yancey, John Mark Comer, John Inazu, Elizabeth Oldfield, and more. So there should be an opportunity to sign up and register for those in the chat feature or on our website and hope to see you there. You can also access all of our past Online Conversations on our website at TFF.org.
Finally, as promised, the last word goes to you, Miroslav.
Miroslav Volf: Oh. Thank you so much. You know, we talked about the triviality and the danger of triviality. And one of the things that informs the book Life Worth Living, in particular the subtitle: “A Guide to What Matters Most”, is the story, the parable, that Jesus tells of a merchant who saw a treasure and then sold everything he had in order to buy that treasure. And I often ask myself a question. I want to put that question before all of us. What is the treasure for which you would be willing to sell everything that you have? And if you know what the treasure is, are you willing? Are we willing actually to risk everything to have, enjoy, that treasure?
Cherie Harder: Thank you. Miroslav, it’s been great to talk with you.
Miroslav Volf: Excellent to talk to you and to your audience. I love the questions.
Cherie Harder: Thank you to all of you for joining us. Have a great weekend.