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The Table Video

Miroslav Volf

Agency and Suffering (Miroslav Volf)

Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology, Yale Divinity School / Founding Director, Yale Center for Faith & Culture
February 7, 2018

Theologian Miroslav Volf and CCT Director Evan Rosa reflect on how experiences of suffering tend to deprive us of our sense of control. Often times this perceived loss of agency is one of the most shattering aspects of suffering. The control that many of us believe we have over our circumstances is a source of great comfort, and therefore it can be disorienting to suddenly realize this sense of power is largely a facade. Dr. Volf suggests viewing this deconstructive process as an opportunity for potential improvement. The experience of having false elements of the self removed creates the space for growth in Christ.


Psychologists that work on posttraumatic growth are consistently finding that agencies, one of those factors, that contributes to the ability to make positive change in the wake of suffering, that our sense of agency, keeping that in tact through a process of suffering, through a process of pain or injustice or oppression, is deeply connected to our ability to make sense of, and find meaning in, and be able to, kind of grow more resilient or stronger through that suffering.

I wonder if you might comment on it, from a theological perspective, the kind of psychic nature of losing agency. Undergoing suffering in a way that kind of strips us of our control, strips us of our ability to make an impact. Because this is, I think, now we’re talking about suffering at the most dire level.

Yeah, yeah. I think most of the… Especially for us moderns, because we tend to read ourselves, and understand ourselves implicitly as, kind of suffer individuals owners of ourselves and our actions, that kind of sense of individual sovereignty, is deeply felt, not just theorized, but deeply felt understanding of the self.

Interviewer: I’m the captain.

And if you lose one of the most difficult aspects of suffering, is kind of the loss of the ability to control the environment, kind of letting go and the self, that’s so troubling about suffering often, is that you end up with the self that, as you say, often is able to exert some agency, but that agency is a kind of curtailed. And often, if you can’t quite exert agency that you think you want to exert, you perceive yourself as not exerting agency. And there is kind of a loss of ability to, kind of relate and be, in certain sense, in charge on the count of false expectation of what it might need to be the case for me to be in charge.

You know, but one of the things I find puzzling about suffering, and I’m not sure exactly that I know how to clearly think about it. But it seems to me, intuitively and theologically right, that one of the possible sources of growth from suffering, is concerns precisely the loss of certain sense of agency and certain sense of who I am, and investment in who I am. It’s only when I kind of let go of that and

Interviewer: Losing yourself?

Lose, when I lose myself. The self is obviously constructed, right? But I lose my constructive self when suffering contributes to losing my constructed self, sometimes often falsely constructed self, the possibilities open up.

There’s this kind of saying–

They’re saying goodbye to the false self, the false notions that are kind of setting ourselves up. Perhaps in a kind of idolatry sense of control that too closely approximates the control only God has.

Yeah, yeah yeah yeah.

And that stripping away, you said that leads to a transformation?

It could lead.

It can. Not necessarily.

Not necessarily, right. But it can, especially if one doesn’t… If one thinks of the work of breaking down, as simply a kind of negative work, as a kind of demolition work of somebody who is my enemy and doesn’t want the integrity of me to be there. Whether that’s actual enemy or symbolic kind of enemy. Then it becomes more difficult to put yourself in a sense to, if it’s merely demolition, but if you can perceive how, through all this.

What might be possibly able to emerge, through demolition. I think that’s also partly the agency, so that the kind of sense of the positive, not withstanding the demolition work remains, right. And I think you earlier spoke about this sense of agency of the self that this condition of possibility of resilience throughout suffering, and I think some of that may be that. But obviously if you feel you are in the suffering protected. If you feel that in the midst of your suffering, how difficult it is, you cannot be the most fundamental level undone. That creates the possibility to always expect and hope for something new.