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The Table Video

Miroslav Volf

Good, Evil, Suffering, and Silence (Miroslav Volf Full Interview)

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 discuss the nature of the good life in light of the experience of suffering. First, they attempt to establish the dimensions of the good life, while analyzing the unique role that each dimension plays in the Christian life. The three dimensions discussed are circumstantial, agential, and emotional, and Dr. Volf suggests that Christians should pay particularly close attention to the agential dimension. The conversation then shifts to the way in which experiences of suffering interact with such a life. Suffering is examined through the lenses of agency, intellectual comprehension, and prayer. Dr. Volf discusses how experiences of suffering can lead to disorientation in all of these categories, and he offers Christians a few ways to move forward in the face of this reality.


Miroslav, thank you so much for joining me today and for visiting Biola University to talk about suffering and the good life, resilience, the human response, to really the universal impact of suffering and pain in our lives.

Great to be back in Southern California at Biola.

I wonder if we could start at the level of what is a good life? You’ve written on flourishing and you said that there are competing visions of the good life. Everyone wants a good life, everyone disagrees about what a good life is. I wonder if you’d articulate what you take the good life to be?

Yeah, it’s one of those terms that has a life of its own and it lives in kind of particular subcultures in a different way. I think of an issue of Architectural Digest entitled, The Good Life, and then a subtitle was, Fabulous Homes [laughs] From Around The World. That’s the kind of

Evan: Lifestyle. lifestyle, this kind of opulence association with the good life.

I tend to think in terms of a good life or actually various conceptions of good life to have three formal components. Somehow… life is going well for a person or for a community, for the world in fact. I act in a way that’s responsible, I lead my life well and I feel rightly, so circumstances or circumstantial component, agential component, agency of a person, and kind of emotional component, and all three of them combined together go into what we think and experience as the good life. Now, different traditions will emphasize one or the other and these three shouldn’t be understood as three independent stool of a good life chair but rather they bleed into one another,

Evan: Certainly. inform one another, and I think in the Christian tradition they’re expressed with terms like righteousness would be agential side, peace would be the circumstantial side, and maybe pinnacle of emotional… fulfillment would be joy in the Christian tradition. And so if you have these three interpenetrating one another, you have something of sense of the good life, and we can explicate each one of them, what it takes.

With those as standards, I mean, not to burst the bubble too soon, I can think about, it’s easy to imagine life not going well. It’s easy to imagine ourselves failing to act well in light of those circumstances, and it’s certainly familiar to know the pain of not feeling rightly, to be disordered and chaotic in our emotional lives. So I wonder, let’s overlay that understanding of the good life with, I mean, can a life full of suffering, existential crises and pain, can that be called a good life?

Well, in certain ways all of our lives are… caught in a kind of journey away into the goodness of our lives that we experience. We experience it always in a broken way, in a way that causes us to celebrate, as well as in the way that causes us to mourn. And in the sense of the Christian tradition, that is the eschatological vision so that the life and the goodness of life always is there on a journey to this eschatological fulfillment. And in that sense we can, we won’t have fully good life with experiences of brokenness, but we can have a good life.

And then one has to ask also, how are these various components in the Christian tradition aligned? And you can sometimes be in a situation where just because you live a good life in its agential dimension, because you act rightly, you experience life not going [laughs] well and isn’t good in circumstantial dimension, so you’ve got not only all of them, fissure going through all of them, but also sometimes situations where you have to sacrifice one over the other.

And we have tended in the contemporary culture to install circumstances as the most important dimension of our lives. I think in the Christian tradition without negating importance of circumstances, it’s the agency that is important. Indeed, some of the suffering that is paradigmactic in the Bible, like suffering of Christ, comes as the result of trying to make circumstances, as well as agency, as well as in emotions of others, to express the good life.

You’ve said this about just this topic: “My entire world is not defined by the circumstances “in which I find myself. “I transcend those circumstances in relationship to God “and therefore I’m enabled also to be an agent “that will transform and change those circumstances “if the opportunity arises.” So now there’s this component of transformation and change and that’s a really important component of what it means to be an agent.

That’s right, that’s right, and I think there’s a kind of agency toward the self and there’s an agency toward circumstances, as well, and some of the agency toward the self is in a strange way also already agency toward the circumstances.

That’s again not to diminish the need to transform the objective features of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but also great deal of our enjoyment of the world and comfort with circumstances is tied to our expectations and tied to the way in which we read what we are experiencing, because we never have just the thing there, right? Circumstances are such that I’m always already in relation to whatever the objective realities are.

Evan: How we’re interpreting our reality.

That’s right. So my agency in relating is a fundamental dimension of the circumstances themselves, right? And attention to, then, way in which I relate to circumstances, to myself in those circumstances, I think is also fundamental to the good life. So you can put it this way, say, if you take an illustration from the particular domain of our lives, say, economic domain. You cannot solve economic problem by economic means alone.

You cannot solve economic problems by however much production and just distribution you undertake. You still haven’t resolved that issue and the reason is because economic problem isn’t out there. It’s in my relationship to the circumstances.

Yeah, they’re symptomatic and expressive of some kind of internal disorder, perhaps internal just to the self, internal also to relations

That’s to each other.

That’s right, exactly, because the two, again, reinforce each other, how I relate to others and how they relate to me. Of course it’ll be a mistake then simply to say, well, the only you need to do is change your attitude. [laughs]

Evan: Change your mindset. You’d knock out, to go back to the beginning of our conversation, you’ll knock off one of the legs of the good life stool and you topple over. So I think each one of them has its own integrity but they’re bleeding into one another.

Indeed. Psychologists that work on post-traumatic growth are consistently finding that agency is 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 intact 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 grow more resilient or stronger through that suffering.

I wonder if you might comment on the kind of, like, 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 of our ability to make an impact? ‘Cause 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… sovereign individuals, owners of ourselves and our actions, that kind of sense of individual sovereignty is a deeply felt, not just theorized, but deeply felt understanding of the self.

Evan: 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, what’s so troubling about suffering often is that you end up with a self that, as you say, often is able to exert some agency but that agency is 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 a kind of a loss of ability to kind of relate and be in certain sense, in charge on account 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 that 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 also of certain sense of agency and certain sense of who I am, an investment in who I am. It’s only when I kind of let go of that and–

Evan: Losing yourself.

when I lose myself. I think that self is always constructed, right, but I lose my constructed self and suffering contributes to losing my constructed self, sometimes often falsely-constructed self, the possibilities open up

Right, there’s this kind of for transformation.

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

Yeah, yeah yeah yeah.

And then that stripping away, you said that leads to a transformation.

It could lead,

It can.

that’s right.

Not necessarily.

Not necessarily, right. But it can, especially if one doesn’t, if… if one thinks of the work of breaking down as simply a kind of a 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 a actual enemy or a kind of symbolic kind of enemy, then it becomes more difficult to kind of put yourself, in a sense, together. 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 partly the agency so that the kind of sense of the positive, notwithstanding the demolition work, remains. And I think you earlier spoke about a sense of agency of the self, that this condition of possibility of resilience throughout suffering, and I think some of that may be that, and obviously if you feel that you’re, in the suffering, protected. If you feel that in the midst of your suffering how difficult it is, you cannot be in the most fundamental level undone. That creates the possibility to always expect and hope for something new. There’s one element of response to suffering that is, as we’ve been discussing, agency, that’s so much in the moral realm, it’s in the realm of action and human attempts at control.

What if we could transition here a little bit to another kind of response to suffering and that is a kind of attempt to understand, a kind of knowledge. And some of your recent work in interpreting Job’s kind of psychic destruction and demolition, the kind of suffering that he undergoes in his life that we learn about in scripture, it leads to a kind of silence, you say, a kind of unknowing. And so I wonder if you might talk about the nuances there about how can we approach a response to suffering that might have something to do with unknowing and our silence in the wake of it?

Yeah, yeah. Suffering is always a major challenge to our knowing, a challenge in terms of what’s going on, and in particular a challenge in terms of what’s going to happen. What can expect as I’m undergoing the suffering? What are the hopes? And so the kind of faith of hope, and faith and understanding of what’s happening and what’s going to ensure is what challenges us in a profound kind of way. And… I think we sometimes want to explain suffering, want to control it, by various kinds of means.

Practicalism, sometimes we want to control it, but we also control it intellectually and often we come to too quick of closures because we can’t quite project what it is. In fact, I think that we cannot, in the suffering, project rightly as to what would we want to decide. We don’t know what’s going on and we don’t know what ought to happen. We know what we want but it’s not always clear that what we want can happen or that is a right and appropriate thing to happen. And I think this moment of not knowing is so fundamental.

You see it in Job and Job realizes after this terrifying speech of God that he can’t quite understand his life, that he needs to live in the realm of trust. You see it, you see it with Jesus hanging on the cross. My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? A kind of dashing of hopes that happens. You see it in Paul also, which is very fascinating when he says, well, we don’t know how to pray. Now you think the person who suffers exactly knows how to pray. I know what to ask.

They’re somehow more connected to even the person of Christ in that perhaps.

But also in my suffering, just get rid of this thing. I can imagine a very different life very easily, what’s gonna come. And yet, Apostle Paul writes there, we don’t know what to pray. And this is kind of a sense of unknowing, which is, I think, a condition of possibility of growth, and he talks about unknowing in a sense of every hope contains darkness.

And this sense of darkness of the future into which we go, whether we are suffering or, as a matter of fact, we live just our ordinary life [chuckles], except we think that everything’s bright and clean and clear when we don’t suffer. When we suffer we know that the future is really a problem. But this darkness of the future, darkness of the hope, I think is a recognition of it and non-understanding in the face of it is fundamental.

Yeah, I mean, there the scripture, “We see through a glass darkly. “We hope in things that are not seen.” The dark side of hope. We often speak in terms of glimmers of hope, right, where there’s light. But the dark side of hope is looking out into the dark and sometimes wandering, sometimes where that dark is also silence.

Right, right, because we tend to think of hopes, in the vocabulary of my own teacher, Jurgen Moltmann, we tend to think of hope in terms of optimism.

Evan: Or God’s promises.

Or, yeah, some kind of very specific outcomes that will take us from here to what is there, rather than hoping something new that comes to us in a kind of surprising way, so that every–

Would you say that’s a forward-looking kind of hope, looking from this vantage point, from earthly vantage?

It’s a hope that’s given, whose reason has given attempts to extrapolate from what is now to what is going to be. But the hope,

Evan: Eschatological grounds?

But this is actually eschatological structure of our lives, of anticipations, too, I think, because you know what you might want but I think we also know that hopes can be very much ills or projections, constructs of our imagination, and can kind of reinforce the oppressions that we are suffering in many ways.

And so this, I mean I see it almost paradigmatic. I don’t know, experiences of love are really extraordinary and so you… you have hopes, right? You have kind of images of what the person with whom you fall in love will be and look like. And so you kind of stretch yourself toward that.

Evan: You see the whole relationship before you.

But you’ve kind of identified what that kind of is in your head, and you’re kind of trying to match, but the most fortuitous and most fulfilling is when you recognize something and you say, now I see what I was looking for, all right, kind of the fulfillment gives you the eyes to see what it is that you wanted as you’re seeking fulfillment, right? And this a magical thing. That’s why love is magical in this way, right, because it is not simply, oh, I’ve wanted this and I just got it. It’s kind of boring, right? But I’ve been transformed in getting what I was hoping.

So again in Paul and perhaps Paul’s kind of awareness of Job’s silence of non-understanding, you say that that honors great suffering in a way that explanatory and justificatory speech cannot and that it is intellectually and morally more honest, this kind of silence of unknowing, fitting the scope of any possible knowledge we could have about both God and the world.

Perhaps, more importantly, you say, Paul’s nontheodical approach, approach without theodicy, toward suffering stands firmly in the tradition of Exodus, the paradigmatic way of contending with suffering in the Bible. And this is encapsulating comment, that God’s response to suffering was liberation, not explanation. And that is just, there’s some profoundness there. I wonder if you’d just comment on what that means.

Yeah, so my sense is that… one of the things, a sufferer… really doesn’t want an explanation, most of them, just get me out. Explanation doesn’t do something. Explanation kind of confirms me in the state in which I am. Right? In that sense, there is a kind of whiff of putting up with suffering in attempts to explain and to justify suffering and so that’s kind of one part of what I’m trying to say there. The other part is that in order to understand what each of the events in my life means, in order to kind of fit it into some kind of narrative, I need to be at the end of my life, because every, as my years go, I reinterpret all the events and suddenly realize, oh, possible meanings of them.

I think that the same is true for the entire human history so that if the theodicy is possible, it’s possible from the end of history backwards, because only then the clarity kind of comes and I think that’s part of the reason why, whether in Exodus or Apostle Paul, he doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to kind of explain or justify. He’s very much resting on the hope of transformation.

What I find so provocative about this is the kind of virtue of unknowing, the kind of virtue that looks like, is paradoxical, right? Socrates’ wisdom being in that he knew he wasn’t wise, knowing only what we don’t know. But this kind of speaks to a rightful and fitting place, our place as creatures, our creatureliness, as in relation to our Creator. And I wanna come back and perhaps close with some thoughts again about the groanings of the Spirit as a response. So in the wake of kind of silence, a deafening silence of unknowing in the wake of suffering, there is a space for prayer still but is a different kind of prayer.

Yeah, that’s Paul’s point when he says we don’t know how to pray because prayers, if it’s intercessory, well, you kind of specify, order your–

Evan: Petition.

order the Christmas gift [laughter]

Evan: I’ll take one of these.

from God. Yeah, yeah, and I want this kind of edition of whatever it is.

Evan: Ordering God around.

Exactly, right. So that’s generally what we tend to do. But kind of a sense of stepping back and understanding that I don’t quite know what it is that will make for fulfillment of my life but that my life is in the hand of someone who hears the groans, who groans together with me, and who somehow transforms my groaning into something that can be my own future, in fact, that is probably better for me than what I at this point were able to imagine it to be.

What I find so wonderful about this is it kind of occupies that space between knowledge and agency. This kind of prayer, the prayers of the Spirit, which come forth in groanings and longings and unfulfilled desires, kind of fills that personal space that’s somewhere between knowledge and somewhere between actions and somewhere between feeling, but it’s almost uniquely divine, the kind of things that come through.

It makes sense of our, I think, our deep intuition, not just a Christian intuition but a human intuition, that sometimes the only thing to do in response to suffering is to be silent.

Right, right. And then there’s silence that envelops a longing, right? It’s not a dumb silence fully, right? It’s all tense, filled with longing, and often a groaning, a sense that this is silence of things as they ought not be.

It’s feels like unactualized potential. It’s like

Yeah, something like that.

Like some tension that just is stirring below the surface and if only it could meet its end, maybe some kind of resolution, but it feels so far.

Yeah and I think that to be in that darkness, especially when we are undone by heavy suffering, it’s a huge challenge. How does one do that? I mean, in life of Christ you see that. My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? In a sense it kind of expresses the fundamental trust that was perceived to have been betrayed at the very last hour of life.

And yet what happens after he just says, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Forsaken is the last word. The curtain in the Temple splits into two, the grave is opened. The response of God. I mean, I put it sometimes this way, if you address a person, polite person will respond. God doesn’t say a thing but the way God responds is that the Temple tears, the graves open. Here you’ve got this intrusion of a transformative event.

Yeah, there’s almost like an ontological response.

Yes, exactly, exactly.

And that is something that is like maybe expressed in the tearing of the Temple and the graves opening but there’s some deep spiritual reality that has just been exploded.

In a sense it’s a sight of a new world emerging.

Yeah, something new. Miroslav, thank you so much for your time today. This is just rich and I’m looking forward to your future work.


Please keep at it.

Always good to be here with you, have conversations with you. That’s wonderful that we can collaborate.

Well, thank you so much.