Miroslav Volf – Faith and Reconciliation: A Personal Journey

God's Advocates

by Rupert Shortt

see title page for more information

and chapter 1 on Rowan Williams

(Darton, Longman & Todd, 2005)

Miroslav Volf

Faith and Reconciliation: A Personal Journey

SHORTT: All those interviewed between these covers talk to a greater or lesser extent about their thought through the lens of their lives. This seems a particularly worthwhile approach in your case, because you grew up in Communist Yugoslavia and pursued a theological education against the odds. It was hard enough to lay your hands on books that challenged Marxist orthodoxy, let alone to get on the college course of your choice. Your life has been interesting for many other reasons besides, including your shifting church allegiance – from Pentecostalism via Presbyterianism to Anglicanism – and the peripatetic pattern of your work. You studied in your native Croatia, then the United States and finally in Germany. You now live in the United States and have won renown for promoting reconciliation among Christians, and between Christians and Muslims in the Balkans. Although the worst of that conflict was over before the turn of the millennium, your reflections, encapsulated in books such as After Our Likeness1 and Exclusion and Embrace2 provide rich materials for confronting the even stiffer interfaith challenges that the world now faces, as well as the sceptics who see religion as creating more stumbling blocks than solutions to the search for peace. We’ll turn to the subject of violence later. Could you take us back to 1950s’ Yugoslavia to start with?

VOLF: I was born in 1956 in Croatia but grew up in Novi Sad, a multicultural city in northern Serbia, where my father was the Pentecostal minister. Ruled as we were by Communists out to destroy religion, we lived in interesting times, especially since we were not only religious but also belonged to the small Protestant minority, and within that minority to another, namely, Pentecostals. At school, for instance, a teacher would ask in front of the whole class what my father did. ‘My dad is a pastor,’ I would say. ‘What on earth is a pastor?’ would be the reply. This caused me almost unbearable shame at the time. I remember swearing to God that I would never do to my own children what my dad did to me by being a minister. My vow was soon broken, of course – superficially, because some visiting Swedish teenagers made faith attractive to me, but more deeply, because of the genuine and life-giving faith of my parents and my saintly nanny. So the hostility of that secular environment in my childhood and young adulthood contributed a lot to my self-understanding as a Christian and a theologian. I never had the luxury of entertaining faith merely as a set of propositions that you do or don’t assent to. Nor was faith part of the cultural air I was breathing. I always experienced it as a distinct way of life, because it was a contested way of life. Through its educational system, political institutions and mass media, the dominant culture was telling me that religion was nothing more than superstition and a form of false consciousness that legitimised violence and served as a bulwark against progress. When I look back on those years, I realise that as far as my faith was concerned, I faced two fundamental challenges from early on: faith’s ability to help human beings flourish, and its intellectual plausibility. To what extent can faith in the God of Jesus Christ be intellectually compelling to the larger public? To what extent can such faith be generative of human flourishing in all spheres of life? These are the two large questions engendered by understanding faith as a way of life, and I’ve been pursuing them, especially the subject of human flourishing, throughout my career. The centrality of these questions explains why I could never do just religious studies – that is, examining the phenomenon of religion from various angles. Such study is important, even indispensable. But it’s not sufficient. The challenge is, I think, to shape religious and so-called secular realities in the light of the reality of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. That’s why I’m a theologian.

SHORTT: It also explains why you’re well equipped to be Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Can we return to this after hearing more about your early life?

VOLF: I devoured novels, especially by French and Russian authors. One of the first extracurricular books I remember reading as a sixteen-year-old was Bertrand Russell’s Wisdom of the West, an accessible and masterfully written history of Western philosophy. The book had just been translated into Croatian, and my brother-in-law gave it to me as a present. It was through the atheist Russell, paradoxically, that I discovered Plato as well as Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, and Leibniz, and much else that was of immense theological significance in the Western philosophical tradition. By that time I was keenly aware that my faith was subversive, and before the age of twenty I had bruises on my body caused by an angry anti-Christian mob, and a brief spell in jail, to reassure myself that I wasn’t making it up in an act of self-importance. I also felt I needed to do some serious intellectual work to make its subversiveness more effective. Before I enrolled to study philosophy and classical Greek at the University of Zagreb, and theology at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in the same city, I taught myself Greek and was deeply immersed not only in writers such as C.S. Lewis, but also in theologians such as Wolfhart Pannenberg, Karl Barth and Josef Ratzinger, whose Introduction to Christianity was just translated into Croatian. From Zagreb I was able to go on for further studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, in the mid-1970s. There I was exposed to a generous kind of Evangelicalism: rooted in classical Christian convictions, yet open to exploring new theological movements. It was there that I first encountered liberation and feminist theologies. Having graduated from Fuller, I returned to Yugoslavia and taught at the seminary where I’d studied, founded a Christian monthly magazine, and then went to Tübingen in Germany to do doctoral work with Jürgen Moltmann. My research dealt with Marx’s philosophy of work. Some of my friends found this very surprising. To me, it was all to do with loving one’s enemies. A dissertation on Marx, I felt, would not only immerse me in the work of German Idealists (especially Hegel and Fichte) and their critics (Feuerbach and Nietzsche, as well as Marx), but also have some bearing on my original milieu. In the early 1980s, when I was writing the dissertation, Marxism was still officially alive in Yugoslavia. Soon it was to give up the ghost, at least for a while, but the lessons Marx taught me remained: first, deep analogies between religious and economic forms of alienation – between idolatry and love of money, in biblical terms – second, suspicion of attempts at whole-scale social transformations based simply on moral appeals; and, above all, the centrality and pervasiveness of work in human life. For example, you sit in your shop repairing bikes or in a corner office managing a global firm, and an interpretation of the entire world is implicated in your activity.

SHORTT: Your doctoral work was interrupted, wasn’t it?

VOLF: Yes. I was about two months away from submitting my dissertation when I received a summons to do military service in Yugoslavia, and I had several unattractive options. If I said no, I’d face imprisonment if I ever returned from abroad. Saying yes, on the other hand, would not only interrupt my studies but go against my pacifist convictions, which I still hold in a modified form. Eventually, I decided that I would yield to the request but tell them from the outset that I wouldn’t do anything that involved killing people. This was in late 1983, and as soon as I arrived at the base, I was spied on by virtually the whole unit: all my movements on and off base were tracked, my mail was read, my conversations with students were taped after I had been dragged into discussing potentially dangerous topics, and so on. Four months later, the interrogations began. I was completely at the mercy of my tormentors. They threatened me with years of imprisonment. I had no recourse to an independent lawyer. Even though the threats eventually proved empty, I had a vivid sense of the subversiveness of my faith. After my demobilisation, I spent the next few years in Yugoslavia and Germany, first finishing my doctoral work, then teaching, and finally doing the postdoctoral research that formed the basis of After Our Likeness. The research for the book grew out of my ecumenical experiences. In 1985 I was invited to take part in and write a position paper for the dialogue that Pentecostals were conducting with the Vatican, a dream opportunity for a very young theologian. The topic was communion, and it got me immersed in Roman Catholic ecclesiology and the ecumenical movement.

SHORTT: There’s a strong trinitarian element in your ecclesiology, and a corresponding insistence that false ecumenical moves are often based on defective models of God. Take a very influential figure like Cardinal Josef Ratzinger. I think you would want to see his model of church government as excessively centralist, because rooted in a sense of the priority of the one divine substance over the three persons of the godhead.

VOLF: There are many tributaries to Ratzinger’s excessively centralist model of church government, and an inadequate account of God’s being is one of them. But my main concern was not to engage in a critique of Catholic ecclesiology, but to mend Protestant ecclesiology. Protestant tradition in general and in particular the Free Church tradition to which I belonged, have often failed to connect the nature of the Church to the nature of God as Trinity. The consequence has been religious individualism: each person connects directly with the Lord through the Word proclaimed, and each person is ‘saved’ by himself or by herself and only subsequently enters into communion with other believers. My sense was that Free Church ecclesiology, both for the sake of the Free Churches themselves, and for the sake of their relation with other Churches, needed to be enriched by theological reflection about the relationship between the Church and the Trinity that has been going on for centuries in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. And that’s part of what I’ve tried to do, while at the same time arguing that the Free Churches should properly be treated as Churches, and not as second-rate assemblages of Christians. They may not be the best possible Churches, they may be even significantly deficient: but they are Churches in the full sense of the term, and therefore partners of equal dignity in ecumenical dialogues.

SHORTT: There’s evidently a high level of agreement between you and Christoph Schwöbel on this point3 Let’s turn to the categories of exclusion and embrace which are also central to your thought, and based on your experience during the bloodbath that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

VOLF: After Croatia declared independence in 1990, war was almost pre-programmed. Serbia would not let Croatia go, because Serbia had territorial aspirations that extended over a good deal of Croatia, especially places that historically had had a significant Serbian minority. With most of the military might concentrated in Serbian hands, one-third of Croatia was soon occupied. Its towns and villages were emptied of their populations: some people were killed, and others were driven out. Though I had moved to Germany in 1989 and then to California at the very end of 1991, I still continued to teach for roughly a semester each year in Croatia at the Evangelical Theological Seminary. In fact, in the fall of 1991 my wife and I, together with the students and staff of the seminary, watched from exile in Slovenia the fall of Vukovar and relentless attacks on Osijek, the seminary’s home town. At that time, the big question for me, as a Croatian, was, How do I respond to this aggression as a Christian? My knee-jerk reaction was that a few B52 bombers would do the job. We wanted to respond to Serbian aggression in kind: drive out and wipe Croatia clean of Serbs

who pursued the policy of ethnic cleansing. But it took only a moment’s reflection on some basic Christian teaching to see that this was wrong.

SHORTT: And did you bracket the just-war tradition with a ‘common sense approach’?

VOLF: In a sense, yes. I was, of course, familiar with just-war theory. It is a dominant tradition in Christianity – though manifestly not the traditional Christian position – and it has been pre-eminent ever since Augustine formulated it. Modern just-war theory has become divorced from any concern with the practice of reconciliation. But reconciliation lies at the heart of the Christian response to transgression and enmity. A compelling alternative to the just-war tradition does not rest primarily on the many New Testament passages dealing with non-violence; rather, it rests on the broader pattern of God’s action toward sinful humanity, which in the New Testament is universally seen as a model – with adjustments, of course – for Christians to follow, and which is echoed in New Testament passages advocating non-violence. I argue strenuously in Exclusion and Embrace that the practice of reconciliation doesn’t leave questions of justice behind. Rather, it reframes them by setting them in a larger context. No authentic reconciliation is possible if you disregard justice; but equally, no genuine justice is possible if you don’t pursue reconciliation. Similarly, the notion of forgiveness, which is, of course, much more at home in interpersonal than in inter-communal relations, does not negate the concern for justice. On the contrary, the very act of forgiveness both affirms the rightful claims of justice and sets them partly aside by not letting them count against the transgressor.

SHORTT: So your approach to conflict resolution draws on Christian teaching about identity, among other factors.

VOLF: Yes. The wars in the former Yugoslavia were waged partly in the name of pure identity: with Muslims, especially in Kosovo, Serbs and Croatians alike insisted on the purity of their respective soil, blood and culture. So I was also looking at the Christian tradition for resources to help me think about identity. What does it mean to be a self, to be a bearer of identity? What does it mean to be a community, and as a community, a bearer of identity? What kinds of boundaries should we have? By looking at the Christian story, I came away with two conclusions. First, identities are a positive good. Therefore, boundaries must also be good and be maintained, for without boundaries there would be no identities and the world would be one large undifferentiated chaos, which is to say that nothing would exist. Second, identities are a result of interchanges between their bearers. Consequently, boundaries cannot serve simply to keep things out: they must also serve to let things in. So identities are dynamic. Selves are always being enriched by others, even as they are in the process of remaining themselves. Let me give a simple example. I like to bring works of art home with me from foreign trips. So here’s a piece of a foreign culture that now has been put in my office, in my living room or wherever, and shapes the space that’s properly my own. It is a sign of porous boundaries and of an identity that’s not self-enclosed. Such a notion of identity – one that doesn’t exclude the other from the self – is very clearly visible in some basic Christian tenets. Take the trinitarian idea personhood. A divine person is itself by being ‘inhabited’ by other persons so that, for instance, the Son is never the Son without the Father, and vice versa. Or take a key idea in the account of Christian

community. A church is a local church only because its ties to other local churches are part and parcel of its very identity. It seems to me especially helpful to think of identity along these lines in the context of conflicts that involve claims to purity.

SHORTT: Let’s return to reconciliation. Some people might endorse much that you’ve just said about reconciliation and justice, but have questions about how it applies in practice. That would be the Niebuhrian view. This says that B52 bombers might be your only available means of arresting a cataclysm that is involving tens of thousands of rapes, and hundreds of thousands of deaths. And paradoxically, in view of the Iraq situation, in Britain it was the Left that tended to rattle sabres over Bosnia. It was the Right that was associated with calls for non-intervention, on the grounds that UK interests were not threatened. Many on the Left replied that force was required to satisfy the demands of justice, regardless of one’s national interests. As you know, Europe then proved itself ineffectual in bringing the warring factions to heel. Many believe it was American might that eventually averted an even graver catastrophe.

VOLF: Two questions need to be asked with regard to military intervention. One has to do with a situation that has got out of hand, as clearly happened in the former Yugoslavia. Another has to do with creating the climate in which such catastrophes are far less likely to arise in the first place.

SHORTT: I’m talking about the first sort. Sometimes the Christian will have to think and act in the heart of the maelstrom. Can one infer that you now believe military action is justifiable in some circumstances?

VOLF: When American might and its role in former Yugoslavia are invoked, it’s good to keep in mind that the American military needed to step in because US diplomacy had been complacent when the conflict was still brewing and there was an opportunity to prevent it. This just underscores, I think, the importance of creating good climates at an earlier stage. But to answer your question directly, I do believe that some forms of military action are justifiable in certain circumstances. That’s what the very end of Exclusion and Embrace is all about. In all circumstances, it’s wrong for a person to take a life of another, but in some circumstances one can take upon oneself the sin of taking the life of another so as to prevent graver evil from occurring. In a world where violence is committed in the name of religion, this position has the advantage of clearly showing that taking the life of another – in war or otherwise – is sinful from a Christian perspective, even when it is needed.

SHORTT: So there’s a difference here between you and David Martin, who consistently draws a tighter distinction between private and public morality. An example, on his view, would be the attempt on Pope John Paul’s life in 1981. John Paul could forgive his would-be assassin, but couldn’t recommend release for the captive without violating a moral order.

VOLF: That distinction is valid if applied in a proper way, but it can be misused. If it’s turned into a simple disjunction, it becomes deeply problematic. And it looks to me as though that’s what David Martin has done with it in his contribution to this book. Certainly, atonement was not ‘a way through the impasse of political action’, as David says4 But to say that after atonement ‘everything stays the same’ in the world of politics seems to me either to privatise faith illicitly, or to compartmentalise faith and make its central convictions irrelevant to the world of politics. Though politics can’t be based on atonement, atonement should certainly shape how Christians engage in politics. David Martin also seems to think that Christians must take rigid, overarching stances in the world, like being a ‘realist’ or being a ‘witness’, so that you have to choose between the two. I’d say that the social reality we face is so varied that I could well be a witness in one situation, a full participant in another, and a something else in yet another. The penchant for typologies one finds in writers from Max Weber through Ernst Troeltsch to David Martin obscures realities as much as sheds light on them.

SHORTT: In other words, you want to defend the integrity of being a conscientious objector in one situation or at one level, while at the same time paying your taxes and driving a car.

VOLF: That’s right. I can imagine myself being an adviser to a government in a Cold War situation on the one hand, while, on the other, deploring that government’s policies in other spheres if they conflict-ed with my convictions. Even if I felt that complete non-involvement with the government were appropriate, I might well be involved in many other spheres of life, such as business or medicine or education. Typologies are straitjackets designed with specific values and interests in mind. John Howard Yoder’s critique of the kind of typology that H. Richard Niebuhr adopts in his book Christ and Culture is exactly on target. Some aspects of culture we can accept at face value. I don’t know how to make a hatchback car as distinct from a saloon in a Christian way, for example, and therefore would not know what it would mean to make it in a non-Christian way. In other areas of culture I might participate at a critical distance. In yet other areas I might refuse participation completely. Moreover, these areas and these situations are not static; they may change and therefore necessitate a change in my stance.

SHORTT: Nevertheless, you’ve owned up to a significant change of outlook by conceding that in some circumstances B52 bombers are the appropriate response to cases of intolerable aggression. To that extent, you yourself have become more of a ‘realist’. Isn’t it surprising, then, that you’re commending the pacifist John Howard Yoder, but criticising the ex-pacifist David Martin?

VOLF: I’m not sure about B52 bombers. They may be too crude an instrument. But as I’ve mentioned briefly, I do think that a military response may be appropriate in cases of intolerable aggression. I shifted from the pacifism of my childhood and early adulthood to the position I am taking now by extending the obligation to love my neighbour when that neighbour’s life is threatened by a third party. After reading Oliver O’Donovan’s book The Just War Revisited, in which he understands war in the context of a ‘reconciling praxis of judgment’5 and argues that it is not ‘essential to war making that you should kill, merely that you should remove by all necessary means the forces that oppose you’6 I find that I’m not as far from just-war theory as I thought I was. As to the question about Yoder and David Martin: I am commending and criticising here only narrow segments of their thought. I’ve learned a great deal from David Martin, and I like his account of secularization and analyses of Latin American Pentecostalism. My point is very simple. I don’t have, and I don’t think it is good to have, some overarching stance toward the world. It is to Yoder’s credit that he rejected such stable, overarching stances. His opponents, who have a stake in painting him as a sectarian so as to dismiss him more easily, seem to me much less subtle on this point than he was. On this issue, my position is somewhat analogous to that taken years ago by another Yale theologian, Hans Frei, on theology’s relation to particular philosophies. He recommended an ad hoc approach, based on the extent to which a given school of thought can help illuminate the Christian story. At the same time, he insisted that other philosophies should never control our understanding of the Christian narrative, which in reality means replacing it. In my opinion, that’s what it means to think and act in a Christian way. To use Augustine’s image, I don’t see why I should either melt all the gold of the Egyptians, or simply use it as it is. My term for such a stance is ‘soft difference’: there is difference, but the difference is soft in the sense that boundaries are not impermeable. For me, our engagement across the boundaries should be governed by the demands of generosity and justice.

SHORTT: Moving on to your approach to Scripture: I know this isn’t the place to ask you to develop a fully-fledged hermeneutical theory, but liberal Christians in particular might want to query the central place accorded to biblical models in your reasoning about religion and society.

VOLF: There are two principal explanations for my approach. First, the biblical texts are extraordinarily rich, richer than theologies based on them, and much richer than those theologies that have discarded them completely. Have you noticed how much more complex and interesting and close to life the Jesus of the Gospels is than the Jesus of historians’ reconstructions? The one is pulsating with life; the other is a bloodless abstraction. The conversation we have just had about sectarianism is another example. Theologians often go on assigning particular biblical texts to particular categories and then interpreting them in the light of these categories. But when you enter the world of a text such as John’s Gospel, you find the text is much richer and more subtle. Second, these texts are authoritative for Christian communities, in my view. They are the word of God, and they have been authoritative for centuries, thus shaping not only the convictions of individuals and Christian communities, but also the sensibilities of whole cultures. Theology disregards interpretation of biblical texts at its peril. Liberal Christians who advocate the position you refer to might find themselves irrelevant rather quickly, without a basis from which to speak to Christian communities, having little of interest to say to the rest of the world.

SHORTT: They, for their part, might complain that you are begging the question here, because the Bible is not always life-affirming. In their view it’s missing the point to accuse bigots and fundamentalists of misinterpreting the texts, because the problem – the intolerance or ignorance or whatever – is in Scripture itself. Take an example like 1 Samuel 15, where Saul is commanded to destroy the Amalekites, and then censured by God for showing mercy towards some of them, ther than blind obedience to the divine will. Or Exodus 32, where an orgy of violence follows God’s command that the sons of Levi slaughter 3,000 of their own kin.

VOLF: It’s crucial not to read the Bible simply as a collection of texts that themselves may be collated fragments of texts from the Ancient near East and Greco-Roman antiquity. That is, of course, what the Bible also is. But a person of faith and a constructive theologian will read the Bible as Scripture, which is to say that at the very least she or he reads the Bible as a unity, however loosely or subtly defined. The texts you mention, and many others even more troubling, should be read not on their own but in the context of the larger unity, and for Christians, evaluated in light of the story of Jesus Christ. I’d be first to admit that Christian faith in particular has been gravely misused, and this corruption has partly sprung from appeals to sacred texts. But the proper response to such misuse is to engage in responsible interpretation of these texts as part of the whole of Scripture, which culminates in the story of Jesus Christ. The procedure will be somewhat different for Jews and Muslims, of course. Here’s a related consideration. I don’t see any signs that religion is withering away, except maybe in Western highbrow culture, or disappearing from the social scene. Given present trends, the likelihood that religion is going to cease to be an important factor in social life in the foreseeable future is close to zero. On the contrary, the social importance of religion is going to increase, because the two fastest growing faiths in the world today – indeed, the two fastest-growing overarching interpretations of life – are Christianity and Islam. Between them, they have close to 3.5 billion adherents, more than half the world’s population. Other religions are lagging behind but still following. Secularism doesn’t even seem a competitor. Since you can’t take religion out of people’s lives, the only thing left is to see whether you can interpret religions in such a way as to highlight their potential for peace. It helps in this endeavour, of course, if you believe that religions are more or less generative of human flourishing, as I do.

SHORTT: Sceptics, though, might be forgiven for remaining sceptical when one recalls the sight of bishops giving the fascist salute in mid-twentieth-century Spain, for example, or the outpourings of jihadists across the Middle East and Asia today. And what’s more, historical critical scrutiny of Islamic sacred texts is in its infancy. Even a high Christian view of scriptural authority is modest by comparison with what Muslims believe about the Qur’an.

VOLF: I understand these doubts. I hope I don’t have to reiterate here that I deplore the corrupt use to which religion has been put. But sceptics should keep a due sense of proportion. The good often goes unnoticed, especially in our culture, dominated as it is by media that operate under market conditions. I would be very surprised if it turned out that, for the majority of Christians throughout the centuries and in all parts of the globe, their faith was a motivator for evil to a greater extent than it was a motivator for good. As to historical-critical scrutiny of sacred texts, I employ the method – or rather, a version of it – and have benefited from it. But its significance is often overrated, especially when it comes to religion’s authorising of violence. St Francis and Dorothy Day did not need the historical-critical method to be prophets of peace. Neither did my parents or my nanny, to mention some ordinary Christian people. They all drank at the well of the Gospels and Epistles as we have them. On the whole, moreover, it’s a mistake to think that the less authority the sacred texts have, the less likely they will be to foster violence. Such a stance is part of the contemporary scepticism about all authority, and unease with religious certainty. But what matters most is the content and interpretation of these texts, not the extent of their formal authority; and more important than the absence of religious certainty is the presence of humility. You also asked about the Qur’an and its extraordinary authority for Muslims. My hope is that the Qur’an can be interpreted in such a way as to foster peace. But such interpretations are for Muslims to undertake, not for me.

SHORTT: Again, though, both liberal Christians and non-believers might take some convincing. They could argue that Christianity has become more tolerant and tolerable on the coat-tails of secular liberalism, as much as through other sources. The Roman Catholic Church condoned slavery until well into the nineteenth century, and didn’t even acknowledge the principle of the sovereignty of conscience until the 1960s.

VOLF: Tolerance is one of those big words that say too little and too much at the same time. So some caution is called for. When it comes to intolerance in the history of Christianity, the main problem is not so much with the Christian faith as with its alignment with political power over the centuries. The alliance of throne and altar was uneasy from the beginning, since at its heart the Christian faith is ambivalent towards worldly power. It can’t be otherwise, because its main symbol is the powerless God hanging on the cross. I don’t think it’s surprising, then, to see that democracy owes more to the Christian tradition, in particular to Protestant sectarianism, than to European secularism. I should add that I agree with those historians who see European secularism as a mutation of Christianity and not an independent position. It is in the name of the one Lord that the early Baptists ‘democratised’ the Church and thereby gave impetus to the democratization of society. I’m not suggesting that pluralism and democracy are written all over the Bible. I’m saying that faith can be developed in ways that favour political pluralism. The word ‘can’ is operative. As I’ve said, I have no interest in exonerating Christianity in the majority of cases; I’d rather repent than defend. My interest is a constructive one – to show that at its heart the Christian faith promotes the flourishing of society, as much as of individuals. I should add that it’s narrow-minded and culturally imperialistic to think that pluralism and democracy are universally and unambiguously good. We’re guilty of that error these days, given our weakness for sitting in judgement over all previous epochs.

SHORTT: Doesn’t this leave us at something of an impasse, though? The very vexed question of gay clergy in the Anglican Communion shows why. Reinterpreting scriptural references to homosexuality is precisely what liberal Christians would understand by being ‘constructive’, just as (so it’s argued) an earlier generation jettisoned biblical attitudes to slavery. Not so, say conservatives: the traditional ban on gay sex forms a core part of Christian ethics. How do you think theology can establish who’s right?

VOLF: I don’t think this leaves us at an impasse, even if it feels like it these days. Rather, this leaves us with arguments to be made and adjudicated. Debates between individuals on weighty matters take time; debates within a tradition as diverse as Christianity on weighty matters take even more time. So I counsel being as hard-nosed about the arguments and as charitable to our opponents as we can possibly be. This is just translating a proper Christian stance toward our enemies into the realm of interpretative disagreements.

SHORTT: Would you talk more about your approach to Islam now? You have some important qualifications in this area, including your membership of Building Bridges Seminar, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s international group for Muslim–Christian dialogue.

VOLF: I am not an expert on Islam, though I do participate in the Building Bridges Seminar, and oversee a program in Muslim– Christian relations at Yale. I come to encounters with Muslims as a Christian theologian. Again, there are two points that I’d want to underline. One concerns the identities of Christianity and Islam. It’s not that you have the Christian faith as a self-enclosed entity on one side, and Islam as a self-enclosed entity on the other. They have partly overlapping identities. Second, despite this, it would be a mistake to proceed on the assumption that one faith is reducible to the other, or that both faiths are reducible to a third. Rather, as I’ve already argued, dialogues should presuppose real though permeable boundaries between the two faiths. One important way in which we honour overlaps as well as distinctions between Islam and Christianity at the Building Bridges Seminar is by reading each other’s Scriptures together as the centrepiece of our encounters. And in my experience, far from closing off the conversation, this exercise serves to stimulate it. After we’ve read the sacred texts together, I’ve often had the experience of learning something new, and that includes learning about the Bible and therefore about my own faith. Light comes from an unexpected corner, and I see the whole landscape differently. In this way, the other becomes part of me, in a sense. Under these conditions, even abiding disagreements can be immensely fruitful.

SHORTT: Can you give an example of how the Qur’an has enlarged your view of God?

VOLF: In the famous Surah 112, it is written, ‘Say, He is Allah, The One and Only; Allah the Eternal the Absolute; He begetteth not, Nor is He begotten; And there is None Like unto Him. ’As I read the text, I could have immediately focused on what looks like a negation of trinitarianism. And no doubt that is also what a Christian theologian needs to do when faced with this Surah. Instead, what struck me in the text was how exalted, unique and absolute Allah is represented as being. In some recent Christian theology God has often been reduced to the status of a companion or buddy, ‘who understands and shares our pain’. As I was reading the text I was reminded of how irreverent this kind of talk can be. You might say I did not need the Qur’an to remind me of that; biblical talk of God’s holiness and God’s dwelling in ‘inapproachable light’ could have done the same. And yet it was the Qur’an that reminded me of the absolute uniqueness of the God whom I worship as a Christian.

SHORTT: How much mileage do you get from the notion of the seeds of the Word in other faiths? As John’s Gospel puts it, Moses and Abraham knew Christ, even though they obviously weren’t Christians and had never heard of Jesus. Thus the phrase from John 14:6, ‘No one comes to the Father, but by me’, often seen as a proof text for Christian exclusivism, can or should be interpreted as meaning that no one comes to the Father except through the Word, who enlightens the hearts of all humankind.

VOLF: I don’t think Justin Martyr, who developed the idea of the ‘seeds of the Word’ in his Second Apology7 intended to drive a wedge between the Word and Jesus Christ, and therefore between John 1, where the Word is said to enlighten everyone, and John 14, where we read that no one comes to the Father except by Jesus Christ. According to Justin, the relationship between the seeds of the Word and Christ is between scattered parts of the Word and the whole Word. I am pretty sure some form of exclusivism is unavoidable, or at least I have not seen a coherent position that avoids it. Pluralism, as an account of the relations between religions, is just exclusivism expanded: you include major world religions, you manage even to squeeze in Marxism, but you exclude Branch Davidians or Satanists. So the central question is what kind of exclusivist you are going to be. And that takes us back to the concrete forms of faiths and how they advocate relating to respective non-believers. Even though I hold that there is no other Word but that revealed in Jesus Christ, I do believe that God’s Spirit is at work in all humanity, whether religious or not. So I have a stake in commonalities between different people’s faiths.

SHORTT: What made you an Anglican?

VOLF: I first encountered Anglicanism practically when I arrived in the US to study, and was soon in flight from bad preaching. In Protestant churches of whatever stripe, it was hard for me to find good preaching. And by ‘good preaching’, I don’t necessarily mean rhetorically polished preaching, though that’s wonderful, or intellectually challenging preaching, though that’s even better. I simply mean the kind of preaching that has the nerve to be unabashedly and joyfully Christian, rather than an ersatz version of something else, such as psychology or sociology, or some common-sense wisdom gleaned from ubiquitous self-help books. Equally unsatisfying, I’ve found many ‘conservative’ churches that have retreated into fortresses built with the hard stone of rigid orthodoxy and lost Jesus Christ in the process. The Book of Common Prayer has been a great refuge for me. If the rector delivers a good sermon, I’m very happy. But if the sermon is disappointing, at least I have access to the genuine content of the Christian gospel expressed in the beautiful cadences of Renaissance prose.

SHORTT: Lastly, I’d be grateful if you’d lift the lid on the wider domain of Evangelical scholarship. This book draws together a sizeable body of opinion. But you and your fellow contributors all have, or have had, posts in elite universities, while in the US, for instance, at least 70 per cent of theological students are formed outside Ivy League or comparable institutions. You, however, have worked in both systems.

VOLF: And we should not forget the Third World, too, where most theological training colleges among Protestants are Evangelical. As far as the future of Protestant Christianity is concerned, these institutions are much more important than anything going on in the Western world, whether Evangelical or not. Many Evangelical places I know are intellectually vibrant. Fuller is a case in point: its current President, the moral philosopher Richard Mouw, combines intellectual sophistication with deep Evangelical commitment. Though I don’t care for labels, I have the impression that these days there is more intellectual vibrancy and creativity on the more conservative side of the theological spectrum than on the more liberal one.

SHORTT: So someone who is dismayed by the intellectual thinness of Billy Graham, for example, can be reassured that there’s a richer diet available close at hand.

VOLF: Billy Graham’s intellectual thinness is studied. He is an evangelist who seeks to appeal to the masses and intentionally preaches with the vocabulary of an eight-year-old. It takes extraordinary skill to do that. This is not how I, or many of my former colleagues at Fuller, like our sermons. And many of them would question not just Billy Graham’s delivery, but also the theology that informs his evangelistic message. My former colleagues are serving their students a diet that should produce good pastor-theologians. After all, many of them were trained at places like Harvard or Yale and Oxford or Cambridge – not that that’s a prerequisite for being a good theologian – and they think deeply and seriously about their faith. But the source of American Evangelical vibrancy is not the institutions that train its leaders. It is found, I think, in the character of Evangelicalism as democratised religion. Anybody can set up shop and sell his or her religious goods. They don’t need to be trained in

any particular way or certified by any examining body. The consequence is both a deep conviction on the part of preachers, and the extraordinary cultural closeness of their message to the culture of their audience. The upside of this closeness is the ability of American Evangelicals to mediate faith well; the downside is that often the gospel they proclaim is captive to a given culture. A bit of training from places like Fuller would be of great benefit to many American popular preachers.

SHORTT: How does this grass root vibrancy translate into relations between various Christian groups?

VOLF: Old-style ecumenism, built on relations between representatives of various denominations, undergirded by the work of theological commissions, and aimed at visible unity, is in serious trouble today. When we look at the situation globally, more new churches are founded every day than can come together in the above fashion in a century, even assuming the best intentions, hard work, and ecumenical enthusiasm on all sides. But the situation is far more positive at grassroots level. Old denominational barriers are being broken down. To me, that is very significant. New divisions are being created too, of course. The most troubling to me is the widening divide between Western and in particular American Christians, especially of the Protestant kind, and their co-religionists in other parts of the world. We need to pay much more attention to what non-Western Christians tell us, not only about the character of faith, but also about what it has to say about the neediest of this world. In any case, the future of Christianity belongs primarily to them, not to us.


12. MIROSLAV VOLF: Faith and Reconciliation: A Personal Journey

1. Miroslav VOLF, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Eerdmans, 1998).

2. Miroslav VOLF, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon, 1996).

3. See p. 000.

4. See p. 000.

5. Oliver O’Donovan, The Just War Revisited (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 5.

6. ibid., p. 21.

7. Justin Martyr, The Second Apology, in Volume 1 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Eerdmans, 1969).

Leave a Comment