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Pam King: What is a life worth living? What kind of life is worthy of our humanity? Theologian, Miroslav. Volf wants to reorient theology around human flourishing. His distinctive Christian vision of a life worth living attunes to joy in sorrow, celebrates pluralism in public, expressions of faith, and honors everyone in our common search for meaning, truth, and what matters most.
Miroslav Volf: I think we go wrong when we don’t honor people’s own. Search for truth. Truth-seeking conversations about something that has a claim upon your life. Argue with others but argue in such a way that honors everyone and this is a kind of central Christian conviction that comes right from the Bible. Honor everyone.
That’s what I need to do. Whatever they do. Do whatever they think. Love of God, love neighbor. Seek the kingdom, the good of the world, and in that good of the whole, your own good. And be attuned to what is around you in joy and also in sorrow.
Pam King: I’m Dr. Pam King, and you’re listening to With & for a podcast that explores the depths of psychological science and spiritual wisdom.
To offer practical guidance towards spiritual health, wholeness, and thriving on purpose.
We as a culture are in a crisis of meaning. It’s almost like our existential compasses are off-kilter. So many people are uprooted from faith, social, and civic communities. These are institutions that once supplied narratives for us. They gave us a sense of identity. They provided belonging. They provided rituals that enabled us to know who we are and who we belong to.
This is really important because meaning and purpose are central to our spiritual health, and therefore thriving theologians come into play because psychologists are more concerned with how meaning is made. Looking at the cognitive and affective processes in your brain that are involved and are more apt to describe what occurs, where theologians are more apt to prescribe what should occur.
My guest today is the renowned theologian, Miroslav Volf, the Henry B. Wright, professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School, and the founder and director of the Yale Center for Faith in Culture. I had the honor of having Professor Volf for Systematics Theology his last year at Fuller Theological Seminary.
We need stories of love and hope to define our lives. Much of Miroslav’s life’s work has been devoted to understanding what constitutes a life worth living. In our conversation, he shares about a God who is with us, who is loving and created us for love, and calls us to an active role in the flourishing of this world.
A central conviction to my work is that interdisciplinarity leads to more understanding. And for the last two decades, my psychological research on thriving has been intertwined and deeply influenced by the work of Miroslav, and I am deeply honored to share this time with him, to not only learn more about his personal story and hear about his work on a life worth living, but most importantly to experience his contagious spirit of faith and hope that we are with God and one another on life’s journey.
And we are for a greater purpose of living out love for the sake of the world. In this episode, theologian Miroslav Volf and I talk about ways to discern what really matters and how to be intentional about a life worth living, challenging many of the hyper-individualistic assumptions of our day.
Miroslav says, A thriving life is a life. Of connections and convictions. Miroslav reminds us that our spiritual health. Is dependent on our relationships with one another, with God and creation. We discuss the kinds of spiritual practices that quiets and creates space that slow us down and allow us to attune a broad and secure space for human becoming and unfolding.
He is passionate and vulnerable about his own experiences of faith, suffering, hope, and flourishing. He also reminds us that our spiritual health. Is not just our own, but it is found in our engagement with the flourishing of others in the world.
Miroslav, I am so grateful and honored to have you on the show today.
You’ve been deeply influential, and as a former student, it’s been such an honor to collaborate through some of your projects on the good life and to have you talk about the good life and flourishing because it is so deeply shaped how I think about human thriving, human development, relationships, spirituality, and I’m just really looking forward to talking about that today.
Miroslav Volf: Oh, thank you so much. Glad to have stayed in touch with you over the years and I’m glad for the seeds of early connection with theology and psychology and what you do is wonderful.
Pam King: The scene starts in 19 seventy-two Croatia, then part of the socialist federal Republic of Yugoslavia, where Miroslav spent his early life author of a book called Public Faith.
He describes his first challenge to live that faith in a public that viewed Christians as parasites. I’m really interested to hear about how you came to the idea of thinking about a life worth living as a person of faith.
Miroslav Volf: It seems to me that from the very beginning when I embraced consciously faith when I was around 16 years of age.
It seemed to me, and I hope I’m not just projecting something into that, those adolescent years, uh, but it seems to me that, that this was one of the questions at, at the center of it, how do we live? How do we live responsibly? How do we live in situations in which we are squeezed as we at that time were squeezed in former Yugoslavia religion tolerated, but not much more than than that.
And so from the get-go, I think for me this was a, this was a question, how does One Shape Once on Life and Phrase itself came after having read Tony Kronman’s book, Education’s End. The subtitle of the book is on why American Colleges and universities have given up on the meaning of life. And I think in that book, he uses as an alternative formulation for the meaning of life, uh, life that is worth living.
And that book. Kind of jolted me to awareness that humanities, but also theology along with humanities, has in fact been giving up on that question of the meaning of life. And I have my own analysis of the theological and otherwise why that is the case. But that’s what prompted this new awareness in my own theology, what should be at the center of theological endeavor, namely the kind of life that is worthy of us as humans, of our shared humanity, of what it means to live one’s life before God, and with the world.
And in the world is God’s creation.
Pam King: That’s beautiful and, and amazing to imagine you as a sixteen-year-old and former Yugoslavia, living a life where it wasn’t easy to flourish and, and having this deep inclination towards considering what is the meaning of life and, and how do I live this? I, I’d love to hear how the, that actual experience in those moments prompted you to think about like, what is a flourishing life or how do I live out this faith that’s not easy or natural to do in my setting?
Miroslav Volf: That’s right. In fact, that, that’s been very much kind of suppressed. And in some ways, you know, I meandered away from faith, uh, because I thought that. The gift of faith and of life that my parents were giving me mm-hmm was too onerous, too difficult to live. It’s not that they failed to live their faith with integrity, which would be totally untrue to say there, there were deeply devout and, and people with true integrity, and I mean by integrity, not just kind of crossing all T’s and dotting all i’s in religious sense, but in integrity with the beauty of faith, with forgiveness as part of it, with, with deep internal interior devotion as part of it.
But I think it was just too hard for me to embrace and maybe a little bit too foreign for me culturally to in inhabit. And when I came to, to faith, uh, I was really well known in my high school and just suddenly I was this kind of puzzlement. And I remember early on. Somebody has placed on the door of the, a kind of common room for teachers.
It was a, a fluorescent red sticker. Jesus. He’s alive. And the vice principal of the school who didn’t know me really well, called me. They somehow figured out I must have done it. And he didn’t know who I, who I was really as a student. And she called me and I entered the door and he started berating me, started yelling at me and saying, you know, who do I think I am to do such thing?
What’s this thing? What fate that I have? And so forth. And so it went on and, and then in the middle of it, he said, what kind of a student are you? And I was a straight A student. And so I saw me, you know, I’m I, I’m a pretty good student, straight A student, student. And he just, jaws dropped and he stopped and he said, please sit down.
And we started talking because his experience was that people who believe are idiots. That they can’t know a anything, that they are these parasites that want to undermine whatever the society’s trying to to do. And so that was my first initiation, so to speak, in the public living of my faith. But it was also beautiful.
It was beautiful in some ways, you know, there’s a story in the Gospels when disciples were persecuted and beaten up and then, then, then it says that they said they rejoiced because they were worthy to suffer. Mm-Hmm. Christ. I never thought of myself as being worthy to suffer, not to say myself, but I thought always, oh, there is this way and that way is worthy to suffer for, because it’s so extraordinary and so beautiful and so deeply human.
And I, I think that experience, I. Having been partly assaulted, um. Yet at the same time, assaulted for what you thought was something actually beautiful. You were holding a treasure. Hmm. And they thought it was poison.
Pam King: Miroslav speaks of the beauty of a suffering faith. The beauty of seeking a pearl of great price as a developmental psychologist.
This got me thinking about two angles on the role of faith in an individual’s life. There’s the lived experience, feeling, emotion, presence, relational encounter, and there’s reflection, careful thinking, seeking, understanding, observing, looking at the world scientifically. And it seems that wisdom might be found in the unity of these.
You said something so beautiful you said. You realize that this is a way of living where they just suffer for. Mm. And and about how old were you, do you think, when that became apparent to you?
Miroslav Volf: I don’t know when I could have actually articulated it in that way, but that’s what we felt, you know? And another occasion where we were actually beaten and, uh, chased out of a village that was completely communist-dominated, and we kind of disrupted it by some, I don’t know what we did.
We spoke about Jesus, uh, and they chased us out of the city, beat us up and chased us. And then we had this kind of sense of joy. And, uh, I think it’s, it’s in experiences like this that, like that one, that one kind of realizes there’s something really deeply. Kind of irrational you. You don’t quite understand why simply for being different, you are being persecuted.
And when that’s simply being different, you consider that you have found something really, truly beautiful. I think it had effect of appreciating even more what one actually had. Even if one felt, if I felt, you know, I can’t quite always live up to the treasure, but it’s the treasure that I’m holding.
Pam King: Hmm. And somehow that experience of persecution even being beaten, made it apparent. The treasure that you had of this faith in this life, like the goodness became all the more apparent in the context.
Miroslav Volf: And if I ask, if you ask me why that is the case, I’m not sure that I fully know how to answer it, except that you clearly perceived that.
Those who were contesting you and not just contesting in a friendly, but in a very unfriendly way, must be in some ways in the wrong, because they would have been in the wrong even if you didn’t have that treasure. So, so there, there’s something sinister about what they’re doing. Mm-Hmm. And that kind of reaffirmed, uh, in a strange way, uh, the, the goodness I, I don’t think it’ll pass philosophical test or verification or anything that in, in that sense, but existentially that, that worked as an important experience
Pam King: In my own life, I see that I’ve had intuitions or instincts, or I feel things or I do things.
And some of my academic journey has been trying to articulate them and understand them. And I was imagining you in this plate and persecution and saying, I couldn’t have articulated it then, but you still did it. And you felt it.
Miroslav Volf: Well, I think you, you point to something really important and I have those experiences that I have, uh, uh, maybe intuitions, but also I engage in certain kinds of practices and I think they’re good.
They’re okay. Uh, but they are not. As illuminated by reflection as they could be. And then I suddenly realized, oh, oh, this is what I was actually doing. And this suddenly then becomes something larger and something in a sense more beautiful and something that can be also through reflection, purified something that can be improved because of reflection.
So I see that both, that in some ways practices are sometimes smarter and more beautiful than theory, and that theorizing about those practices can make practices more beautiful and improve on them. And so there’s a kind of a dialectic between life lived and felt and kind of experienced and life reflected upon.
And I wouldn’t want to have one without the other.
Pam King: That’s very profound. I would say for myself, when my engagement in the Joy and the Good Life project with you, that one of the gifts to me personally, not just intellectually and academically, was thinking about joy and I tend to conceive of it as a virtue, but involving our thoughts and reflections and cognitions and our feelings and emotions and our actions.
And sometimes joy hits us from that bottom-up place. We’re not thinking about it, but we experience it. Mm-Hmm. And when we can slow down enough to reflect on what’s bringing us joy that is very invigorating and points us towards more joy and what really matters.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, I think that’s right. There’s always kind of excess beyond what we can actually say, what we can describe, what we can explain.
We stutter often when we try to especially describe experiences like joy or like suffering. There are beyond the words. That’s the beauty of them. Giving oneself to them,
Pam King: Thinking about this joy and the question of what matters most. I asked Miroslav what thriving means to him. And he frames thriving around three core human elements, agency circumstances and emotions. But he knits these elements together through the lens of the Kingdom of God and the powerful Christian imagination in that phrase, from the Lord’s prayer, thy kingdom come.
You know, I tend to use the word thriving in the word, a life worth living. You raise the question, what is the flourishing life? The good life? The life of value? I might say, what is thriving? And so I’d love to ask you for Miroslav Volf, what would you say thriving is?
Miroslav Volf: So what does it mean for me? I’m a Christian and we parse out the flourishing life, the life that is worthy of our shared humanity in three aspects. One aspect is agency, the other one is emotions, and the third aspect is circumstances. And if I ask the question well, okay, so what kind of agency. Is appropriate for a, a person who is thriving. And I would say, well, I, I think what’s appropriate is what Jesus said.
Love God with all of your heart and everything that you are and love your neighbor as yourself. Now of course, we had to translate that into concrete forms of action, but that would be a basic direction of what agency of a thriving kind of person looks like. When I think about circumstances, you know, it was just recently in the, we had a Bible study and I was, we were looking through a Lord’s prayer, and I was struck by really significant contrast in, in the Lord’s prayer and in the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.
And the first petition that is mentioned is your Kingdom come. Hmm. First petition that concerns the world. Right? And the Kingdom come means. Um, Kingdom is here universal concept in concerns, uh, setting a right circumstances that are global. Everything is involved. And then you go down and there comes a prayer petition for an individual who is praying himself or herself.
Our daily bread gave us today or our sustenance for the day. Uh, give us today. Now that is so narrow. Our individual life and sustenance for the day. Right. And, and you see now, obviously there’s a good that is being prayed for, but what is the proportion of the goods that you pray for out there, the world, and what is the proportion of the goods that you pray for your own life?
Mm-hmm is something that probably in today’s environment, people would invert that very easily. I pray first for myself, for my family. Um, the world comes later because the world is less important than, than my own needs are. I mean, it’s interesting to me how the perspective is that my own needs can truly come to be satisfied only in the context of the kingdom, not simply as my needs.
And hence they’re so small because kingdom is great and in the kingdom, everybody along with me, myself, have circumstances that are worthy of our humanity. That makes us try. And then the, the finally, the third one is emotions. And I always like to think o of it as a kind of attunement with the world.
Mm-Hmm. That it’s not simply feeling good, but you are attuned and attuned to the good of the world. And when you are attuned to the good of the world, then you rejoice. Mm-Hmm. When you are attuned to the pain of the world, then you mourn. And, uh, apostle Paul says, rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.
And this seems to me to cover the kind of range of, of emotions that belong to a person who is actually thriving. So love of God, love of neighbor, seek the kingdom, the good of the world. And in that good of the whole, your own good. And be attuned to what is around you in, um, joy and also in sorrow.
Pam King: Thank you.
That’s, that’s really wonderful. When you were talking about attuning, I imagined you with your family when you were saying you were being persecuted and yet you, you were able to attune to goodness of your faith, of what you shared with your family in the midst of the suffering. And that I think as I’ve read your work on Joy Christians, have the command and the opportunity to attune to goodness in the midst of sorrow and to attune to the redemption of the goodness despite sorrow.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. I, I think that’s really well, well said. I, I agree with that. People think of faith as, as kind of things that we believe, right? Uh, I think trust in the primordial goodness that goodness is always prior to anything that is. Evil or bad in the world. I, I think that’s also a very significant aspect of, of Christian faith.
That to me, that’s what it means to believe in God. It means not simply to say there’s this great power that exists because God for me, is, I think, less associated with power than with goodness, not with standing, but surrounds us. Um, uh. Notwithstanding the utter untrustworthiness of the world sometimes, uh, to believe still and trust in God as the primordial goodness.
That’s what gives a special flavor to faith in God’s. Certainly, also specifically Christian faith, and we see that in the in, in the persecutions, both of Christ and of the disciples, that this was kind of fundamental experience that I had
Pam King: To really understand Miroslav’s perspective on thriving and flourishing.
You need to see that for him, even amidst a very spacious public faith and principled pluralism that he advocates in the world, that at the core of his concept of human flourishing is Christ the narrative of love and hope he conceives of Christ as the key to who we are as human beings and the key to our flourishing.
You’re offering such richness. There’s so many things I keep wanting to follow up on, so I’m gonna try and go back with that. You offered the image of the little red sticker. Jesus is alive in what you just said about Christian faith, living in a world that is broken, where there is evil, where there is suffering, but there is primordial goodness of God’s love.
Hmm. And there is Christ who came to be with us. I’ve heard you say Christ is key to the flourishing life. How is that red sticker? Jesus is alive, fundamental to your understanding of the flourishing life.
Miroslav Volf: So one way to think about Christ, and I think not, not a bad way, a good way to think about Christ is to think a kind of a moral teacher and more than moral teacher, moral exemplar, there’s a life that he lived and that life is almost richer than the teaching.
We talked about the relationship between words and life. Mm-Hmm mm-Hmm. And so that example of life could be sometimes more powerful than the words about what one might do. And all of this is true, I think of Jesus. And it’s, it’s, it’s important. But I think more important than than that is this aliveness of Jesus.
That Jesus isn’t just a moral teacher, so that what we have from him are wise and demanding moral sayings. That he isn’t just an exemplar about whom we can read and be inspired, but that he’s actually alive by the power of the spirit. He can be present. He comes to us primarily, and first of all, with a gift and gift of himself as the one who by the spirit, lives through us.
To go back to my favorite theologian, Martin Luther, he talked about faith is being this casing, which holds the gem and the gem is Christ. Hmm. Uh, and this holding of Christ by, by faith means having Christ’s presence and liveliness in us. So he is alive. And I think we also want to gloss it all the time, not somewhere out there, but right here among us and with us and in us.
Pam King: I’d love to ask you how you experienced that in your vocation as a professor, thought leader theologian.
Miroslav Volf: That’s really an interesting question because I often don’t experience God. They’re all sorts of theories of why one might not experience God, because God is so different than the kinds of things we experience.
I’m not sure exactly what I believe about that, but there there is a kind of sense that how I see things and how I experience things that I experience Christ. Not so much how way I experience people or things or beautiful sights or something like that, but that the, the Christ is presence, so to speak, behind my knowing and willing.
It’s not a whisper to the side and somehow they’re standing on the side and, and saying, and whispering, but rather behind the willing and knowing. He is the one who wills. To opens up the possibility of, of knowing who’s active, and that doesn’t diminish my agency, but actually, uh, kind of heightens it and makes it even more my own church.
Fathers used to use the image of the heated iron in fire and you put an iron in fire and it gets heated in a glow and it’s, um, and it’s all red. All the heat and redness doesn’t come from the iron. But yet it’s iron, heat, and redness. Mm-Hmm. It comes from the fire. And so they, uh, imagined that this is how God is present in us, so to speak, as heating us from within so that we can glow with God’s presence, the world.
Now, I’d like to say I’d like. To think, I’d like to hope that something like that might be happening when Christ indeed acts in my own life and through my life.
Pam King: Miroslav has written many books, but one of his most significant early contributions was a book called Exclusion and Embrace. It’s a book about the ugliness of exclusion and violence and the lasting beauty of reconciliation, especially as seen through the image of the father of the prodigal son.
And in his theology of embrace, he talks about the structure of the human self is having a porous boundary. And to me, again, thinking as a developmental psychologist, this is an incredible expression of how we become who we are in relation. We are fundamentally relational beings made by a relational God, and that’s expressed and hurt.
Earliest attachment relationships and then reverberates through the rest of our lives.
Miroslav Volf: There’s a kind of space in which I, I cannot be very clearly and neatly separated from another person, though I am always myself, but the other person has come to inhabit and enrich that who I am. And I think we, uh, across the times we live in this dynamic relationship with others in which we are both.
Unmistakable ourselves. And in that sense also have an obligation to, to preserve and maintain our boundaries. But at the same time, given that these boundaries are porous, we are also always constantly in interchanges. And we are enriched by by others, just by living together with them. And I think if we.
Think of ourselves as self-enclosed individuals. Then we’re gonna negotiate, uh, relationship via, simply via our interest. I’m interested in this here or this, let’s try whether this interests overlap. If they do, that’s fine. If not, we go our own ways. But if you see yourself in much deeper communion with others so that others somehow, some part of you as well, uh, then the relationship ends up being very different and key to it becomes more love or grace or gift-giving exchanges without denying that something like rights as well ought to be affirmed.
Pam King: Amazing. And, and that goes back to your comment on the Lord’s prayer. The first petition is Thy Kingdom come. The first petition is for otherness, but we don’t ignore ourselves. We are present,
Miroslav Volf: And first is a kind of almost petition for wholeness of the whole, of which I am as myself. Unviolably an integral part.
Pam King: For some of us, especially when we’re young, religion really cramps our style. And it’s interesting how some churches or people of faith struggle with being too restrictive. The constraints sometimes feel so claustrophobic, but in Miroslav’s theology, personal wholeness in Christ is spacious and freeing.
God leads us out of constricted spaces, into expansiveness and open breathing, and it’s only in that expanse marked by love that we can find our true selves. I believe a Moltman quote you probably shared in class that just stuck with me was him saying that God does not cramp us. God gives us the broad space for which there is no more cramping.
And I think like my experience as a teenager in church is like, religion, cramped my style, it cramped me. It told me what to do. Yeah. Who to hang out with, what I was, you know, who I could be or not be. And this expansive idea or concept that God gives us. The broad space. Yeah. That as a human developmental psychologist that we can develop into where we’re not cramped, but yet that space is in the context of a wholeness.
It’s just, there’s a paradox there of spaciousness to be and become ourselves, but to do that within and for others, God, all of creation. Yeah. That’s beautiful. I’ve appreciated that balance in your work.
Miroslav Volf: It’s interesting also that, that that phrase, which Moltmann really liked, he liked it so much that he gave that the title of his autobiography is In the Broad Place.
I didn’t even know that. Yeah. So that’s basically his whole life. He construes as this being in that broad space. Mm. But, but it’s interesting where it comes from, and I’m not, I haven’t seen him tied to, to that context, but it’s in, in the context of liberation of children of Israel from Pharaoh. From Egypt.
Mm-Hmm mm-Hmm. God promises that he would lead that. I think it’s a, it’s Exodus three when God, several revelations to Moses that God will lead children of Israel outta slavery in, in Egypt and lead. Place in which there are no constraints of this sort. Mm-Hmm. And so you can see how the house of Pharaoh I is a house of constricted spaces.
Mm-Hmm. And that, that repeats itself in, in many kinds of setting, including as you, uh, rightly, not a lot of religious settings, a lot of religious settings like houses of Pharaoh. It’s a false God in the name of whom one is cramping people’s styles often, right? Mm-Hmm. Yeah. And, and so if Exodus is the paradigmatic salvation event in the Bible paradigmatic experience of salvation, is this going into the open space in one can breathe and be oneself with entirety of the creation?
Pam King: It’s profound. I, I honestly find in my work, when I’m in more faith-based Christian contexts, that message of. God wanting you to have space to be and become yourself, not for your own end, not to be full of yourself, but this full life, not full of oneself, but for God is really freeing and that a lot of people don’t get that message through church, that God rejoices in his unique creation, that he has made each person, but you are Miroslav and uniquely gifted.
And if, if you’re not being a steward of who you are, you’re not in a sense honoring God’s creation. That a lot of people don’t have that experience of I am a beloved creation and I need to be a steward of who I am.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. That’s, that’s beautiful. I really like that. Uh, so when, when we, we come, that’s my self-experience.
We come both with, with pluses and with minuses, and it’s a kind of mixture of those, those things. And we think, oh, if I can just push out those minuses and keep the, keep the pluses, but, but personalities don’t work that way. And sometimes I think it’s a very good message also to hear for those of us who are struggling with this tension in, in ourselves, that precisely in this tension, we are ourselves and beloved and we ought not think less of us for those tensions, but rather, rather live the positive of the tension.
Pam King: And perhaps because we experience ourselves beloved in our foibles, in our sin, in our weaknesses. And that’s where we really experience the most profound love. Yeah.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. I think that’s right.
Pam King: And as a psychologist, I understand relationships and the experience of love and bonding as essential for human development.
And so this idea of an anthropology or an idea of an imago image of God that is relational is so consistent with psychology. If we are not in loving relationships, we can’t thrive or flourish. And so that relationality is so central to to thriving and flourishing.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. Often part of that re relationality and part of that love is love notwithstanding, despite, uh, love of oneself, despite the foibles love of the other person with them, rather than kind of always wishing them out.
And then certain impatience kind of slithers in and, and a certain grumbling, it becomes part and parcel of, of, of the, of internal love language. And, um, I think it’s such a profound thing that God loved us while we were still far away. Mm-Hmm. And God loves us as we are far away. And in that, in, in many ways, it, it’s a tough thing, but that, that needs to be emulated.
Pam King: Absolutely. Yeah. And experienced.
Miroslav Volf: Yes. Yeah.
Pam King: If we think of God as the ultimate lover in a sense that can love us daily, despite our foibles, and that we have the opportunity to experience grace daily and forgiveness daily and be mindful that we’re loved, that it. Enables our vulnerabilities and weaknesses to be gateways to love.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. Yeah.
Pam King: And if we’re so busy pushing them out, right, right. Or being ashamed of them. We miss those opportunities to be loved. And I think that’s true in our human relationships. We can be so busy. Being good and perfect, but it is when we allow those close enough to encounter us in our invulnerabilities and encounter others and their vulnerabilities, right?
That’s where love is experienced.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Thank you for that.
Pam King: Miroslav and I moved our conversation toward discussion of his latest and bestselling book co-authored with Matthew Croasmun and Ryan McAnnally-Linz, Life Worth Living, A Guide to What Matters Most. The book addresses what I think is a rampant issue, and one I hope to address in my own work here in this podcast, as well as in the broader work of the Thrive Center.
And what’s that problem? It’s that in the search for getting what we want, hoping that in so doing we’ll find happiness. We often miss the normative question of what’s worth wanting in the first place. This is the task of seeking Truth. And it’s one of our key practical takeaways for this episode. How exactly should we seek the truth?
Pundits, poets, politicians, professors, pastors, and parents all make truth claims about how we should devote our lives. But in order to live a life that unifies the lived experience with lived reflection, we need to stay connected to truth-seeking conversations. I’d be curious on your reactions to the Life Worth Living Project at Yale Center for Faith and Culture.
How does that relevant to the church right now?
Miroslav Volf: Some people may see, well, this is just, uh, this is non-Christian in some ways because. Christ is mentioned and Christian faith is explicated, but among others on roughly equal, uh, equal footing. And we try to be really even-handed in terms of how we treat Christian faith in comparisons with with others there.
And so some people might feel well that that’s just not sufficiently Christian. That’s just pluralistic. My sense is that many of the voices that we have gathered in the, in the book and also that we teach in Life Worth Living class, they all think that there is a kind of a, a relatively coherent. A way of articulating what it means to live a life that’s worthy of our humanity.
That, and they may, they disagree about things, but nonetheless they think that that’s something that is really important for, for us to have. Uh, because otherwise we’re gonna be floating around. We are ourselves and as selves, we are under impact and influence of all sorts of other selves. And we think that we are authentic, but we find ourselves imitating, emulating to no end what’s, what’s around and kind of jostling to find ourselves and never being able to, to kind of settle on the goodness and on the truth of our own lives.
And I think in. To call people to this kind of in-depth reflection. I think it applies for Christians as much as it does for non-Christians. It applies for those who’ve been raised in Christian circles because often Christian faith, uh, as is the case with other faiths, has been kind of reduced to kind of set of, uh, moral.
Instructions rather than seen in its kind of integrity rather than seen as what, what we, what we say in, in the book, which I think is a very important part of the book, and that is the recipe, right? So you can put all these ingredients together as, as you, as you wish it. They have to fit together and this fitting them together so that they can carry the life in.
Its in its depth and across time. I think that’s really important in that sense. I think it, it, it’s, it’s a very important thing for Christians to, to read, to be aware because also it provides a frame in which they can think how Christ bears upon our, our lives.
Pam King: Absolutely. It’s, I wanna get to that frame a little more, but one of the things that I so appreciate is, you commend that a life worth living becomes normative. It becomes something that dictates your life, changes how you see the world, see yourself and how you behave. But it also offers the perspective that not everyone lands in the same place. That the life worth living endeavor is not a one size fits all, and that in our pluralistic world, people construe a life worth living and pursue it differently.
So again, it’s inherently relational. We have to have the capacity to take other people’s perspectives with respect and compassion regarding their choices about a life worth living, which often, I’m not sure, the church is always so constructive or helpful.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. Um, I, I, I think sometimes we feel that, and, and this is true not just of Christians, I think it is true, true of philosophers and of other religious traditions.
You know, they make truth claims, right? Some of them with, with kind of the greater degree of certainty that than others. But, but those are truth claims that are being, that are being made. And sometimes we confuse the idea of making a truth claims with, with a kind of absolute certainty that we, so that we, there is nothing new that we can learn and that there can be no possibility of us not, uh, not being fully right.
And I think we go wrong when we don’t honor people’s own search for truth. That the whole book is about having truth-seeking conversations. About something that has a claim upon your life. Uh, and argue with others, but argue in such a way that honors everyone. And so for me, this is a, this is a kind of central Christian conviction that comes straight from the Bible, from first Peter Short commandment, honor everyone.
That’s what I need to do. Whatever they do, whatever they think, especially honor those who’ve spent so much time trying to think through some of these issues as many of the figures, uh, have, that have, uh, that are not necessarily Christian.
Pam King: I think that honoring others is such an expression of the first commandment to love.
Yeah. In the church and perhaps in culture and other religious traditions, we elevate truth-seeking. Truth above love, and if we pursued truth in love, yeah, yeah, yeah. That would give us the disposition to honor one another’s journeys.
Miroslav Volf: I, I think that, I love that phrase. That’s from Ephesians, seek Truth in love, or, or, or.
Live truthfully, live truth in love. It means that two can be combined. Love guides the way in which truth is being pursued. But we honor truth as we honor love in this attempt to seek, but is what is true in the kind of loving way. I wish. I wish we as Christians knew how to do that better. It’s straight there in the Bible and we, hmm, they’re pretty bad at it.
Pam King: I asked Miroslav to elaborate on the practices and habits that helps support this kind of truth-seeking. And he brought a fascinating perspective on an almost monastic and ascetic practice of self-examination and intellectual discipline. And what’s interesting here is how the role of creating space and freedom, harkening back to Jurgen, Moltmann’s broad place and a sense of home.
This is such an important practice to cultivate in life. You actually address in the book when talking about how change is hard. Mm mm And that if people want to find stability and commitment in seeking a flourishing life, they have to train in a sense to lead that life.
Miroslav Volf: You know, one way to answer this question is, I have this incredible luxury that I can do the self-examination of the self in the very process of studying and writing.
And I have nurtured that connection. And I found it always very, very enlightening and very, very helpful. Challenging in some ways. But that means I haven’t separated my life as an, as an intellectual or the theologian in my life as a Christian. They’re kind of merged in some ways, into one, hopefully, but with, with honoring in a very serious way, the truth in the process.
But there’s so many, so many incredibly important practices that that Christians have known for centuries, and it’s sometimes I think it’s almost more difficult for us to think that, oh, we have to take on disciplines. And which means taking on disciplines mean means not doing something that you otherwise would be doing.
Mm-Hmm mm-Hmm. ’cause this is claiming your time. This is claiming the space. Mm-Hmm mm-Hmm mm-Hmm. In your, in your mind. And, and this is what you ought to devote your life. And the discipline somehow strikes us as ascetical. Why should I do that? Why, why don’t I live just the fullness of me at any given time?
Mm-Hmm. That I Mm-Hmm. In which I am. And I think the response is because the fullness of you that you would live wouldn’t be the fullness of you. It would be fullness of truncated you. Mm-Hmm. You that hasn’t grown into its own proper fullness. And I think also the, you. That hasn’t grown into bridging and taking care of others for which also certain kind of eschesis is necessary.
Mm-Hmm. So I think I, what I’m, what I’m suggesting ascetic practices would be good. Properly practiced
Pam King: What this got me thinking, um, going back to the Moltmann quote about this broad space. Yeah. And I, I’ve seen you write about how our life is so accelerated and so filled and it’s so cramped. Yeah. I have come to value in my life.
Maybe it’s aging practices that give me more space. Mm. And then working again on the joy project with you made me realize like attuning to joy, the emotions of it, the. Embodied feelings of it. I need space to do that. I can be so driven by lists and the dopamine hits of checking things off, but really those deep sensations of enduring joy and most meaningful joy, it really started to orient some of my spiritual practices around just being quiet and using like an examined prayer to like the Ignatian prayer, to attune to where I experienced joy and to wonder where God was in that and, and often found that’s where I felt most alive in God’s presence, probably most with me.
Miroslav Volf: That’s beautiful.
Pam King: But that for me is a discipline to slow down. Yeah. And be quiet and, and just on a daily basis kind of reflect. ‘
Miroslav Volf: Because there’s certain addictive character to the life that we, that we lead. And it’s not accidental. It’s addictive. It’s designed to be addictive, and therefore it has to be resistant.
Pam King: So we might take a moment of practice right now to create some space that can bring together lived experience and intellectual reflection. I’ll start with a question. Where has your life? Felt cramped and claustrophobic. What images or sounds or sensations come to mind?
Now, imagine an open and comfortable space. Is it an ocean, a desert, an expansive mountain vista, a large hospitable home where you feel welcome? What feelings come along with seeing yourself in that space?
What sensations do you feel,
and now how might you bring that expansive space into your mind and body?
How does it feel? To bring the expansiveness of an ocean, of a beautiful vista, of a warm, hospitable home inside you
trying to capture this concept. The medieval mystic Teresa of Avila wrote the Interior Castle. In 1577, in this book, she asks us to picture the soul as if it were a castle in which there are many rooms. But how do you experience this spaciousness within you? Have you explored an interior castle of your mind?
Take a moment and just see how much space there really is, space to explore, space to hold those feelings of lived experience, and also the reflections about our beliefs, ideas, thoughts, perhaps cultivate a practice of exploring and building out space to feel and space to reflect. Thank you for practicing with me.
I wanted to end on a relational note because the kind of public theology that Miroslav has become known for is in fact. Deeply relational theology. I think that’s one of the key reasons it resonates so much with me. It’s what pulls together the experiential with the reflective. It’s what draws the prodigal back to the parent.
It’s what makes sense of how we can live together harmoniously in our pluralistic world. And it’s what helps me understand how to live a life that is truly with and for. And that’s the idea that all thriving is mutual flourishing. Someone that you cite in life worth living, an indigenous wisdom from Robin, Walcomer, she says that all flourishing is mutual. And I think because of you. I have started to say human thriving isn’t thriving when it’s the expense of other people’s thriving. And so true human thriving contributes to a flourishing world. I’m curious to hear how you think about all flourishing as mutual
Miroslav Volf: Seems natural to us, especially natural to us who are bombarded from all sides with things to a kind of narrow our focus on ourselves.
And it’s a kind of strange paradox that we have whole world at our disposal, but it’s all reference to me and to my experiences, right? I am the focus of my own experiences and often, often we have a, we have a really narrow scope of, of concerns and you know, I look sometimes at the biblical traditions and I, I’m surprised.
How these people who lived in the almost isolated areas, they speak about the world that God is creating anew and expect the Savior of the world. And we expect in this globalized world, we expect the tiny little helps that we, uh, need for our living, our ordinary lives. And it seems like, like it’s called completely bizarre, like the Lord’s prayer.
Your kingdom come. I’m concerned about the king. That’s what you should be concerned. The question of your, of your food is important, but it comes after that. Or Mary, uh, I was always struck with Mary, this young woman pregnant with Jesus who thinks in the Magnificat. He, she’s, I don’t know what a teenager she is.
She comes from the hamlet that has 400 small houses, and what does she sing about? About God coming and taking the mighty down from their thrones and transforming the entire world, the saviour of the world? And I think, well, this is, this is amazing. So what I hope, what I, what I want is the expansion of the horizon of concerns.
Our horizon of concern is the horizon of God’s mission in the world. Our mission is God’s mission. Therefore, our horizon is God’s horizon. And that horizon is the entirety of what God has created. I’m included in it, not me, accepted me in it, but as a whole, and that that seems to me so obvious and yet it seems and feels in the setting that we live as so counterintuitive as if we were saying something out of some other world and not something that people have thought for centuries and people in a more impoverished, narrower circumstances than we have.
Pam King: I think even, you know, within the context of the church, people who have studied God’s word, where typical understandings of eschatology or afterlife is escaping this world and, and going to heaven and concern about personal salvation and I mean, your work has so transformed my thinking of like, no, it’s, the Christian life is not one of escaping, but it’s one of engaging God’s world and participating in, you know, the Spirit’s ongoing work of, of not just redemption, but flourishing of, of this world so that this may be a place that is where God fully dwells.
Miroslav Volf: I think this should be the last word of our conversation. This is fantastic.
Pam King: So I see so much of life worth living, which is, you know, a pluralistic endeavor. But it creates, it offers this space that we’re talking about, a space that people don’t naturally have in their lives. Right now. Our society doesn’t offer places, spaces, or relationships in which people can honor one another, lovingly seek truth, and even if people land in different places, to love one another and, and a life force living creates that space within the academy and universities colleges. I think it’s an incredible offering for churches other. Religions, but it is a space, it’s a structure that we really need. And I love, the invitation is so relational within the context of the book, but I, I just wanna say thank you for being such a good steward of who God has created you to be, of being a steward of all those experiences you’ve had as a young person, and you’ve continued to grow and transform it and have done so with reciprocity and offering this world so much and so many opportunities to continue to become who God created us to be, with and for god.
Miroslav Volf: Thank you so much. They, they, I have, I have a group of wonderful collaborators with whom I work and they’re one of the great blessings of my, of my life. Ryan McAnnally-Linz, and Matt Croasmun in this particular book, A lot of their own wisdom and hard work is in that book as well. And I want to honor them because they’re amazing co-authors to have and friends to have.
Pam King: Thanks for your time today. So enriching.
Miroslav Volf: Thank you. Pam
Pam King: Miroslav Volf’s conception on flourishing as seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. Characterized by attunement and agency. Life circumstances and emotion remains an important guide for my own theological and psychological research and how I live my life.
The key takeaways that I will carry with me from this conversation are the following love guides, the way in which truth is being pursued. Lived, experience and intellectual reflection must be unified. For us to find wholeness, we need spaciousness. Openness and freedom to be and become ourselves, but always relationally with and for others.
All flourishing is mutual and Christian faith is essentially an always a public faith. We need to pursue a public life, both with deeper conviction and deeper pluralism
With and for is a production of the Thrive Center at Fuller Theological Seminary. This episode featured Miroslav Volf with very special thanks to the staff of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture
This season, new episodes drop every Monday. For more information, visit our website, thethrivecenter.org.
Where you’ll find all sorts of resources to support your pursuit of wholeness and a life of thriving on purpose. I am so grateful to the staff and fellows of the Thrive Center and our with and for podcast team. Jill Westbrook is our senior director and producer Lauren Kim is our operations manager.
Wren Jeurgensen is our social media Graphic designer. Evan Rosa is our consulting producer. And special thanks to the team at Fuller Studio and the Fuller School of Psychology in Marriage and Family Therapy. I’m your host, Dr. Pam King.
Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and is the Founder and Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.
Miroslav Volf (Yale University) wants to reorient theology around human flourishing. For too long, theology has left practical transformation and lived experience out of the picture. But when we draw together Christian faith and spirituality within a holistic framework of understanding who we are, why we’re here, what we’re called to, and how we should live—we’ll find a life that is truly worth living. (Includes a meditative spiritual exercise by Dr. Pam King, “Creating Space.”)
- How to discern what really matters and how to be intentional about a life worth living
- The need to challenge the hyper individualistic assumptions of our day, focusing on thriving life as a life of connections and convictions
- Spiritual health as dependent on our relationships with one another, with God, and creation
- Spiritual practices that quiet, create space, and slow us down—allowing us to attune a broad and secure space for human becoming and unfolding
- Miroslav speaks openly and vulnerably about his own experiences of faith, suffering, hope, and flourishing
- Learn more about the Yale Center for Faith and Culture
- Check out Miroslav’s best-selling book, Life Worth Living: A Guide to What Matters Most (co-authored with Matt Croasmun and Ryan McAnnally-Linz)
- Reorienting theology around the concept of human flourishing
- Honor everyone, love God, love neighbor, seek the kingdom, stay attuned in joy and in sorrow
- Crisis of meaning and the need for deeper reflection on what matters most
- “We need stories of love and hope to define our lives.”
- Interdisciplinary research in psychology and theology
- Miroslav reflects on his early life in 1970s Croatia (then Yugoslavia)
- Anthony Kronman’s Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life
- Miroslav’s early faith: “Jesus is alive.”
- “His experience was that people who believe are idiots, that they can't know anything, that they are these parasites that want to undermine whatever the society's trying to do. And so that was my first initiation, so to speak, in the public living of my faith. … but, it was also beautiful.”
- A way of life that is worth suffering for—holding a treasure.
- “Another occasion where we were actually beaten and chased out of a village that was completely communist-dominated. And we kind of disrupted it by … We spoke about Jesus … and they chased us out of the city to beat us up … and then we had this kind of sense of joy.”
- Practices vs Reflection
- Moral practices and felt experience
- “There's always a kind of excess beyond what we can actually say, what we can describe, what we can explain. We stutter often when we try to—especially describe experiences like joy or like suffering. They're beyond the words. That's the beauty of them—giving oneself to them.”
- Miroslav Volf on thriving
- Thriving is framed around three elements of human experience: agency, circumstances, and emotions—knit together through the lens of the kingdom of God and Christian imagination
- Agency: Love God and Love neighbor.
- Circumstances: “Thy kingdom come” vs “give us this day our daily bread”
- Emotions: Attune to the world. “Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.”
- “Love of God, love of neighbors. Seek the kingdom, the good of the world. And in that good of the whole, your own good. And be attuned to what is around you in joy and also in sorrow.”
- Primordial goodness: Goodness is always prior to evil.
- Spacious public faith and Christ as the key to flourishing life
- Christ as a moral teacher and exemplar
- The “aliveness” and presence of Christ
- “I often don't experience God.”
- Martin Luther on faith: Christ as a gem, encased in our faith
- Church fathers on the presence of Christ as “heated iron in fire”—the heat doesn’t come from the iron but from the fired—similarly, God heats us from within.
- Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation
- Porous boundaries and our nature as relational beings
- Jürgen Moltmann’s autobiography A Broad Place
- “Religion really cramps our style… But in Miroslav's theology, personal wholeness in Christ is spacious and freeing.”
- Exodus 3: God promising to lead Israel out of bondage and constraint and into freedom and a broad space
- Relational image of God and relationality
- God as ultimate lover—”God loves us while we are still so far away”
- Life Worth Living: A Guide to What Matters Most
- Christian faith and pluralism
- Articulating a coherent answer to what it means to live a life that’s worthy of our humanity
- The Recipe: “You can’t put all the ingredients together as you wish. They have to fit together.”
- “We make truth claims.”
- “I think we go wrong when we don't honor people's own search for truth. The whole book is about having truth-seeking conversations about something that has a claim upon your life. And argue with others, but argue in such a way that honors everyone. And so for me, this is a kind of central Christian conviction that comes straight from the Bible, from 1 Peter. Short commandment: Honor everyone. That's what I need to do. Whatever they do, whatever they think, especially honor those who've spent so much time trying to think through some of these issues as many of the figures have that have, that are not necessarily Christian.”
- “Honor everyone.”
- Nurturing the ascetic practices of self-reflection and discipline
- Spiritual exercise by Pam King: Creating Space
- Teresa of Avila and the Interior Castle
- Relationality, reciprocity, and mutual flourishing
- Robin Wall Kimmerer in *Braiding Sweetgrass: “*All flourishing is mutual.”
- “Human thriving isn't thriving when it's the expense of other people's thriving.”
- “And it's a kind of strange paradox. At our disposal, but it's all reference to me and to my experiences. … We have a really narrow scope of concerns.”
- Mary’s Magnificat: “God coming and taking the mighty down from their thrones and transforming the entire world.”
- “What I want is the expansion of the horizon of concerns. Our horizon of concern is the horizon of God's mission in the world. God’s mission is our mission.”
About Miroslav VolfMiroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and is the Founder and Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. He was educated in his native Croatia, the United States, and Germany, earning doctoral and post-doctoral degrees (with highest honors) from the University of Tübingen, Germany. He has written or edited more than 20 books, over 100 scholarly articles, and his work has been featured in the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Christian Century, Sojourners, and several other outlets, including NPR, On Being with Krista Tippett, and Public Television’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. His books include Life Worth Living: A Guide to What Matters Most, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, Allah: A Christian Response, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, For the Life of the World: Theology that Makes a Difference (with Matthew Croasmun), and The Home of God: A Brief Story of Everything (with Ryan McAnnally-Linz).
About the Thrive Center
- Learn more at thethrivecenter.org.
- Follow us on Instagram @thrivecenter
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About Dr. Pam KingDr. Pam King is Executive Director the Thrive Center and is Peter L. Benson Professor of Applied Developmental Science at Fuller School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy. Follow her @drpamking.
About With & For
- Host: Pam King
- Senior Director and Producer: Jill Westbrook
- Operations Manager: Lauren Kim
- Social Media Graphic Designer: Wren Juergensen
- Consulting Producer: Evan Rosa
Meaning-Making (Part 1): The Power of a Meaning-Making Mindset
The practice of meaning-making involves exploring our belief systems, especially our beliefs around spirituality, which offer a distinct and powerful role in making meaning.
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