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The Table Video

Miroslav Volf

Living the Good Life (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 discuss the nature of the good life. According to Dr. Volf, there are three essential and inextricably linked dimensions to the good life. The three dimensions are circumstantial, agential, and emotional. He suggests that modernity has a tendency to overemphasize the circumstantial dimension, which could threaten to limit our individual and communal flourishing.


Miroslav, thank you so much for joining me today and for visiting Biola University to talking about suffering in 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,

Yes, glad to have you.

back at Biola.

Yeah. 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 articulate what you take the good life to be?

Yes, one of those terms that has a life of its own. And it lives in kinda particular subcultures in a different way. I think of an issue for the actual digest entitled “The Good Life.” And then, subtitle was “Fabulous Homes From Around the World.” [laughs] That’s a kind of–


Lifestyles, kind of opulence association with the good life. I tend 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 a circumstantial component, agential component, agency of a person, and kind of emotional component. And all three of them combine 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.


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 then we can explicate each one of them, what it takes.

Yeah, with those as standards, I mean, not to burst the bubble too soon, I can think about I mean, 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, can a life full of suffering, existential crisis and pain can that be called the 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 it as well as in the way it causes us to mourn. And in a sense, in a 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 won’t have fully good life with experiences of brokenness. But we can have a good life. And then one has to ask ourself 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 well and isn’t good in circumstantial dimensions. So you’ve got not only all of them fish are going through all of them.

But also, sometimes situations where you have to sacrifice one over the other. And we have tended to in a contemporary culture to install circumstances as the most important dimension of our lives. I think in the Christian tradition without negating importance of circumstances, is the agency that is important indeed. Some of the suffering that is pragmatic in the bible of the suffering of Christ, comes as a result of trying to make circumstances as well as agency, as well as an emotions of others to express the good life.

Yeah, you I mean, you 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 is a kind of agency toward the self. And there’s an agency towards the 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 a great deal of our enjoyment of the world and comfort with circumstances is tied to our expectations, and tied to the way in which 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.

You’re interpreting them all of the time.

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

That’s right, exactly. And because the two again, reinforce each other. How I relate to others. How they relate to me. Of course, it would be a mistake for them simply to say, “Well, the only thing I need to do is change your attitude.” [laughs]

Change your mindset.

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