While in Sydney last week I had the opportunity to be in the live audience for the ABC’s Q and A program. I was in Sydney for the Rethinking Conference at which Miroslav Volf was speaking about faith and public engagement. I’m still processing my thoughts from the conference overall and am hoping to post some reflections in the next week or so, but I thought Volf’s appearance on qanda embodied the kinds of things he spoke about at the conference. I also thought there were some clear echoes of the way that Jesus engaged with people publicly.
So here are my observations of how Volf engaged, and the echoes I saw of Jesus. I think they present some important challenges to Christians today in the way we think and act when it comes to engaging with our wider community as people of faith.
1. Be surprising and confound expectations
When Volf was introduced by Tony Jones as a “Christian intellectual” you could hear the audience snicker. Many people in our culture have preconceptions about what Christians will be like in their public engagement and they are not usually very positive.
Although I and others I knew in the audience had submitted what we thought were thoughtful, broad-ranging questions for Volf, these were not chosen to be asked. Those questions that were chosen were generally on the narrow range of issues people expect Christians to want to talk about in public.
What I loved was seeing how Volf didn’t answer those questions as people expected him to. I think the Christian woman who asked him how to handle public ridicule got a bit of a shock when he pointed out that the persecution he suffered as a Christian in his homeland was not necessarily a bad thing for him, and that Christianity operates best from the margins.
I was reminded of Jesus, who was constantly confronted by people trying to put him in a box or wanting him to take their side or confirm their opinion. He didn’t do so, and usually left people shaking their heads and asking themselves questions like, “Who is this man?”
I wonder if too often people don’t want to hear a Christian perspective because they think they already know exactly what we are going to say?
2. Be able to compellingly articulate ideas on a broad range of issues
The first topic of the night was the arts. Volf was not included in this discussion until the very end, and it seemed he was not expected to know or care much about the topic. I thought his response to this issue set the tone for the whole program, as he was able to show other members of the panel that he had an intelligent perspective on an issue that they cared deeply about, and was able to demonstrate points of connection between their vision for the world and his. Again, he refused to let himself be boxed into only speaking on a narrow range of issues.
Similarly, Jesus didn’t just speak about the “spiritual” issues people expected him to care about. He spoke about paying taxes, and caring for the poor, and how to treat your neighbour, and living with fear and anxiety, and the need for imagination and purpose. He spoke about the social, economic, political and religious issues of his day. The message of good news he shared touched every area of people’s lives and makes a difference to their everyday realities.
Genuine faith should touch all areas of our lives too, and we should be able to find many areas where we agree with and support the perspectives of others.
3. Be gracious and engaging with those who disagree
This was on display from most of the panel all night. I wondered if Volf and Billy Bragg, a socialist and atheist, were put on the panel together in an attempt to create some controversy and drama. If so, it didn’t work, because they spent much of the night agreeing with each other, and when they disagreed they did so amiably. Volf didn’t argue or raise his voice, but showed that he was listening respectfully to the other voices in the conversation and seeking to understand where they were coming from. His tone was as important as his content.
Likewise, Jesus engaged people with love and respect, compassion and grace. He certainly had his moments of controversy, but these were usually with the religious leaders who were trying to put him into a box on “their” side! To “outsiders” he was known for his generosity and hospitality.
Too often Christians are seen to be argumentative, judgmental and hypocritical, and I think it is our responsibility to demonstrate the opposite attitude in the way we engage.
4. Leave people wanting more
Above all, I thought Volf didn’t say too much. He got more opportunity to speak than I was expecting him to, I think because of the way he engaged, but what he tried to do was raise questions and not give all the answers. At the end of the show, I felt he didn’t leave people wishing he had just shut up, but rather wishing they had heard more from him.
This reminds me of Jesus and his propensity for telling parables. These certainly didn’t tie up all the loose ends, but left people to ponder, question, think, and hopefully come back for more. When people asked him questions, he often didn’t answer, but left them with questions of his own.
Why do so many Christians feel like they have to say everything in one go? What are we afraid of if we don’t answer every possible question?
Interestingly, most of the criticism I have heard of Volf’s qanda appearance has come from Christians who didn’t think he spoke clearly enough about the issues that they are passionate about. That he didn’t tie up the loose ends or say the things people were expecting him to say. Conversely, people who do not share his faith have generally seemed impressed with him.
This too reminds me of Jesus … the religious leaders of his day were angry that he didn’t meet their expectations, or answer all their questions, or condemn all their so-called enemies.
Perhaps there is something for all Christians to learn from. Our goal is not to preach to the choir, and perhaps the choir won’t be entirely happy no matter what we say. But if our goal is to invite those who do not share our faith to listen to what we have to share and consider it for themselves, then echoing Jesus in how we go about it seems like a powerful and effective idea.