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Embracing the ‘other’ in love, truth and grace - interview with Miroslav Volf - part 1

Sunday, 1 June 2014  | Miroslav Volf and Gordon Preece



Christians must practise a ‘hermeneutic of hospitality’ to those who are ‘other’, including Muslims and non-believers, argues Professor Miroslav Volf, Director of the Centre for Faith and Culture at Yale University. The renowned theologian and author of Exclusion and Embrace, one of Christianity Today’s 100 best books of the 20th Century, spoke to Gordon Preece during his visit to Melbourne in March. This is Part 1 of an interview which also appeared in the May edition of TMA.

GP: Firstly, Miroslav, how has your family formation and racial and religious background as a Croatian in formerly Communist Yugoslavia and as son of a Pentecostal pastor shaped 1. your own faith and  2. your relationship to other faiths?

MV: I was blessed to have three amazing nurturers early in my life, my father, mother and nanny, all in their own way, saints. Saints with warts, but saints nonetheless. My own faith, and theological articulations of faith, are footnotes to their lived faith. Even when I wasn’t particularly close to faith and wanted to rebel it was less because I thought it untrue, or non-genuine, or not beautiful, and more that it was just too hard a burden to bear, the gift too heavy to carry. So my faith journey starts with these extraordinary giants of everyday faith. Their faith was shaped by the utter gratuity of grace, by the consistent and painful practice of forgiveness, and these stances have been the directional push for my theological endeavours.

GP: Can you share about your nanny and parents in relationship to your brother’s tragic death?

MV: There was a tragic accident in which my older brother was killed when he was five, because he went to play with “his soldiers”, because we lived very close to a small military base. My mother and father were at work, and our nanny was supposed to be caring for us, but she let him slip out to play, and by the negligence of a soldier he was killed. Now my nanny was a true angel of faith, but managing things wasn’t really her strong suit. To their credit, my parents not only forgave the soldier but also my nanny. In fact, my mother never spoke an ill word describing the negligence of the nanny for my first 40 years. Forgiven was forgiven and therefore you don’t talk about it. I was 42 when I asked my mother, “How come you didn’t tell me about it?” and she said, “Well I forgave her, and she stayed with us.” Nanny ended up being the angel of my childhood. My first book was dedicated to her because she was such an extraordinary joyful presence in our lives. Yet she was also implicated in some ways, but my parents knew how to forgive and let it go.

GP: So your nanny could still be joyful because she was so freed up by your parent’s forgiveness (in more than a merely mental way)? I know you’re working on joy these days and am wondering about the connection?

MV: The credit is to my parents because they let her be. You could have imagined them constantly bearing down upon her, but she wasn’t a simply careless person. It’s also a credit to her. She always sang as she went about her duties, and I’m not sure just how she was as joyous as she was. She was a destitute widow, her husband never returned from war, she had no belongings. Yet in the midst of all of this, both with guilt and poverty, she was just a beautiful soul, just wanting to sing and be with the Lord. She is an embodiment of authentic Christian joy and life that isn’t artificially generated by a special event, but joy that comes from very deep springs.

GP: In Melbourne you lectured about the importance of formative practices like joy in the Christian life, not just abstract world views and systematic theology – though you use all of those. Could you explain how to develop forms of formation for things like joy and forgiveness?

MV: Sure. A world view of things is important but it’s like a frame that holds the content. In the intellectual dimensions of Christian faith there is an overarching interpretation of life, but situated within that is an account of the self, of social relations and the good. It’s actually the lived life that Christian faith is about. Christian faith is fundamentally about a way of life, but not a blind way of life. That’s what was transmitted from my parents and saintly nanny. My job as a theologian is to tease out the ideas embodied in such an incredibly powerful way.

GP: Could you talk about your family’s practice of hospitality also, particularly when you were a teen? And how practices like forgiveness, joy, hospitality, work out in relationship to other faiths?

MV: We always had somebody as our guest, either travelling preachers for dad’s church, or distant people without a Protestant church. They were assorted characters, not always to my parent’s joy, but that’s the stuff of which the Christian crowd is made, and their doors of hospitality were open.

One particular guy came once a month for communion. He had this huge Nietzsche-like moustache that hung and stuck out and he would slurp my mother’s delicious soup onto it. I was a teenager not keen to be with adults, nor keen about his table noises. It was very off-putting but in retrospect it was an amazing gift to me, the gift of my parents’ hospitality. Hospitality given irrespective of people’s customs and quirks. It was a lesson in the broader sense of hospitality, of attending to somebody who is different in their difference, without keeping your world so tidy that when they come you feel completely bent out of shape.

We need a kind of ‘catholic’ or supple sense of identity which can live with the other, standing firm where it stands, but providing space and room to recognise the other in their otherness, including hospitality toward other faiths. Before my father was called to ministry, he worked as a confectioner for a Muslim boss. My dad always used to say, “The best person I ever worked for was this Muslim confectioner. There was high admiration, even while he and his boss were witnessing robustly to each other, with a sense of the rightness of one’s own faith. That’s an important stance to have to others whether secularists or believers.

GP: You talk in A Public Faith (APA), about a ‘hermeneutics of hospitality’. How do you see that working out in relation to Muslims?

MV: I formulated it in contrast to “hermeneutics of suspicion”, where you seek what is below the surface, something more sinister that they might not even recognise – a kind of “evil eye” looking at the other suspiciously. But a hermeneutics of hospitality, at least as a first step, takes the other as the other presents itself, seeking the good in the other. In the second step there are judgements made, interpreting and assessing. But the first stance is one of openness, reflecting God’s basic stance towards humanity, an unconditional love, imitating God’s character and action in Christ, reflecting our own justification by sheer grace.

GP: In your most controversial book Allah, critics like Dr Mark Durie, a Melbourne Anglican Minister and scholar of Islam, would say, while admiring your loving hospitality towards Muslims, that truth has been compromised. How would you respond to that critique?

MV: Firstly, the hermeneutics of hospitality, which sees the good, isn’t contrasted to interest in truth. Truth and love don’t stand in opposition, and a hermeneutics of hospitality doesn’t relieve you from making correct judgements. And so, to my critics I concede on some points maybe I have been too charitable to some Muslims, but I still have not been persuaded that the critics are right. The book’s basic argument, namely that Muslims and Christians, notwithstanding their differences in understanding of God as the Holy Trinity or a simple unity, notwithstanding their differences of understanding Jesus as the self-revelation of God versus prophet; the object of worship is the same, though differently understood.

What I would say to some critics is: “Why it is that in regard to Jews, who have exactly the same and even stronger formulated objections to the doctrines of the Trinity and divinity of Christ, we can, without doubt, say that we worship the same God. But in regard to Muslims who have, content-wise, a very similar understanding of God to the Jews, why are we so hesitant to make that step?” How is that possible and why? – I haven’t seen an argument for it yet.

GP: Regarding the Jews, the Holocaust produced revisions of Christian theology in repentance for anti-Semitism. But in Christian Muslim relationships – despite the medieval Crusades, there somehow hasn’t been a similar process of repentance or dealing with these deep-seated memories, that can be remembered like yesterday. What makes the two sets of relationships, between Christians and Jews and Christians and Muslims, so different now?

MV: That’s the right direction for explaining the difference in reactions. In one case, Christians, en masse, are the guilty party with regard to the Jews’ horrendous persecutions throughout history. In the other case, Christians at least perceive themselves as being on the receiving end of Muslim violence, but that’s not how Muslims perceive themselves (as aggressors). I’d hope that whether we are guilty, see ourselves as guilty or as on the receiving end of animosity, we can build bridges to those we have injured as well as to those who have injured us.

GP: How can we get past childish reactions like “You started it?” and the murky mess of history and the blame game?

MV: Christian action shouldn’t be reactive. Irrespective of the context or whatever has been done to us, there is a stance that we take which isn’t conditioned by others’ activity, a kind of non-reactive morality that Christian faith and theology ought to be known by.

GP: Despite some reaction to Allah, that you put too much stress on God’s love, you started by quoting a Franciscan friend who noted the lack of fear of God on both sides in the Balkans conflict. It’s not a popular term these days in modern “soft-bellied” Western Christianity. Where does that enter into the relationship between the religions, and in their self-critique, especially for Christians?

MV: Fear and love of God are like two sides, two dimensions of the same thing. It’s love for the sovereignty of the love of God, for the utter claim that God’s active love has upon our lives and the holiness of that unconditional love. The utter primacy of that love in our own lives can preserve us from reactive morality – “they did that to us and therefore have to apologise before we make a first step toward them”. We are enmeshed in mutually destructive dependence but if we fear God we’re taken out of it. We’re both secured and compelled by God’s love to act the way God does towards God’s enemies, which we all, in a profound sense, are.

GP: Your very strong emphasis on forgiveness, reconciliation and embrace comes across as Christian pacifism sometimes, for example in Exclusion and Embrace. But you also talk powerfully there about God’s judgement against injustice. Along with the fear of God, how does the judgement of God help with issues of conflict reconciliation and justice?

MV: Just as fear of God is the subjective accompaniment of our love for God, so judgement is an accompaniment or dimension of the actuality of God’s love, just as the holiness of God is. That is the recognition of the utter primacy and integrity of this love. The human side of that love of God turned toward humans, is both unconditional acceptance and also judgement, a judgement of grace. But judgement is not outside of love, just like I don’t think that justice is the opposite to forgiveness, but in every act of forgiveness justice, or “just” claims of one person against another are both affirmed and transcended. The love of God has justice as part and parcel of it. Injustice cannot be a mode of love, right? So the setting of relationships aright through grace is just what that love is, and that’s where God’s judgement comes in, judgement against the forms of “unlove”, judgement that both condemns, but also calls back and rescues and returns to the good. So we need to talk about the judgement of God. The key question is, how do we understand it?

GP: In Exclusion and Embrace, you paraphrased Paul in Rom. 12 about leaving vengeance to God. You contrast a university commonroom setting of abstract academic debate of this issue with the actual genocidal situation taking place, when you were giving the lectures in the Balkans. How does this work out in relation to people who have endured horrendous wrongs?

MV: People who have endured horrendous wrongs want the injustice against them met, and they want the perpetrators of that injustice stopped, they don’t want it to happen to others, and they don’t want it to happen again to them. They want, ultimately, for the victimiser not to triumph over them, and I think that’s the role of God’s judgement, and that’s also the role of leaving vengeance to God. Exactly how God avenges the wrong, we may debate, but a setting in which a moral order which has been disturbed profoundly by violation of somebody’s rights by oppression is reasserted and re-established, that kind of transformative judging and redeeming action of God, is fundamental if there is to be hope for a world of love.

So, judgement and the vengeance of God, and therefore from our side, fear of God, are fundamental in bringing about a world of love. I wouldn’t want it otherwise. I wouldn’t want anything [evil] that’s crawling on the face of the planet now to find its way back to ruin that world of love. So the transformative, purifying judgement of God is a condition of the world of love. In a small way we each experience that when we embrace faith, and when we are given a new birth in baptism we die, and we are raised again as new persons. Each repentance is a form of incarnation of that final judgement, turning away from sin to do righteousness.

The Revd Dr Gordon Preece was a PhD student of Professor Volf and is Director of Ethos and Honorary Research Fellow, MCD University of Divinity. 

Part 2 can be seen here

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