Volf on “Giving and Forgiving”

On Saturday I attended Miroslav Volf’s 3 hour talk on the topic of renewing grace and forgiveness in a “culture stripped of grace.” The first talk, “A Culture stripped of grace” he had these things to say:

1. Our culture is oriented around satisfying desires. If you ask a person what makes us flourish, you may get get a blank stare, or, they perceive that flourishing means living with satisfaction. Can we imagine flourishing without met desires? Maybe we should speak of “living well” instead?

2. We have lost some of those things that religion teaches us how to curtail desire. We live in a “grab ass/kick ass world” We grab what we can and take revenge on those who try to take from us or block us from what we think we deserve.

3. We tend to live in 3 (maybe 4?) modes
a. Taking mode (get what we want) Notice that life becomes dull in taking mode and so you need bigger and bigger takes. “Opiate for the people is commercialized culture, not religion.”
b. Investing mode (try to get just a bit more than we get)
c. Exchange mode(rough equivalency of giving and getting). This is where we live most of the time and it isn’t bad
d. Gift mode (giving more than we hope to get). Here he made allusions to bad gift giving which he says is worse than exchange mode.

4. What happens when gift mode shrinks in culture or goes away? Human life is impossible w/o gifting. We cannot pay enough to cover the costs from being raised, for example. We begin to see, when gift mode shrinks, that giving is being a fool, a loser, a sucker. In this current crisis we are afraid not of going hungry but of not being able to have what we want. 

He ended the talk with the question we wants us  to ask: What is our life for? This requires us to think and stop just reacting to desires and culture cues. What is our life for? Is it for me or for giving? How might this current crisis move us to ask this question?


Filed under church and culture, cultural apologetics, Doctrine/Theology, Forgiveness, sin

4 responses to “Volf on “Giving and Forgiving”

  1. sneha

    Really appreciated your comment, “Can we imagine flourishing without met desires?”
    In my own community, we have been talking a fair amount about the sense of entitlement that seems to seep into the most giving/generous of individuals. In our discussion, we wound up here:
    Where are our hearts really? Life seems to have become more about compensation than giving with purpose.

  2. Lightbearer

    A few observations:

    “Our culture is oriented around satisfying desires.” Wouldn’t that include spiritual desires?

    “Opiate for the people is commercialized culture, not religion.” Actually, in the context that Karl Marx was using it: “Man is the world of man—state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world…Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” In other words, commercialized culture = religion.

    “religion teaches us how to curtail desire.” Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism, for example, teach the curtailing and/or elimination of desire. Abrahamic religions teach the subjugation of earthly desires to heavenly desires, not the curtailing of desires per se.

    “Human life is impossible w/o gifting. We cannot pay enough to cover the costs from being raised, for example.” Actually, it’s built on community, which is built on equitable exchange; a strong economy is the foundation of gifting. Children are not an exception; their labor and obedience is payment, and is usually expected throughout the life of the parent, in one form or another.

    Over all, sounds like an interesting talk; I’ll be interested in seeing where he the question, “What is our life for?”

  3. Lightbearer. I suspect Volf would have some things to say about Marx having grown up as an oppressed and mildly tortured Christian in a communist country.

    You put in quotes “religion teaches us how to curtail desire”. Did I say that? Don’t think so. Who did? Because I absolutely don’t believe that Christianity is about curtailing desire. It is about living with desire and desiring good things.

    Your view of equitable exchange may be a view of “normal” life but as I watch families care for children who cannot and will never move, breath, feed for themselves all the days of their lives, there is no equitable activity there whatsover. What then explains these parents sacrificial giving. It certainly isn’t for some distant or even close good.

  4. Lightbearer


    I would be interested in Volt’s fuller view on Marx and communism, as my point was that Marx makes a distinction between morality and religion. The same distinction is frequently made by Christians between spirituality and religion, where for the Christian, spirituality and morality are the same. This distinction is most loudly heard at this time of year (“the secular Christian culture makes Christmas too commercial; as true Christians, we need to get back to the true meaning of Christmas.”).

    Here is the full quote: “2. We have lost some of those things that religion teaches us how to curtail desire. ” The sentence, contrasted with the world as “grab ass/kick ass,” implied that Volt contrasted his view that the culture’s value of satisfying desires by stealing and fighting for resources is in conflict with religion’s value of curtailing desires. I agree with your assessment of Christianity’s view of desires; I disagree with his.

    Another issue is the fact that ~80% of Americans are Christians, most of whom will tell you that we live in a Christian nation. So how do you work around the obvious implication that our “grab ass/kick ass” culture is Christian-based, not secular-based? My guess is that Volt simply ignores this contradiction. I smell a double bind 🙂

    My views on equitable exchange were, in fact, based on known universal values found in all societies, so your exception proves the rule. The fact that you asked it in the form of a question is itself a logical fallacy, because my ability or inability to answer it in no way invalidates my point. But in fact, I can answer it. A combination of biologically-evolved kinship selection, cultural indoctrination that support group-oriented values, and behavior-compelling influence of personal schemas, are all supported by growing mountains of interlocking evidence found in as diverse fields as neurobiology, psychology, sociology, evolutionary biology, statistics, game theory, economic theory, etc.

    Now, it’s much easier to say “God made me/it/the world that way,” and just leave it as is. But God gave me an inordinate amount of curiosity and intelligence; so much so, that I can’t wait to find out how He does what he does. Scripture is the starting place for knowledge, not the end of it.

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