by Graham Hellier
from Signs of the Times No. 46 - Jul 2012
'One God, one authority, one law' and all humanity should be brought to obedience, by force if necessary.
This was the teaching of the Egyptian Islamist, Sayyid Qutb, who died in 1966. Given the challenge of extreme Muslim fundamentalism, where should Christians stand, when they take to the public arena?
In A Public Faith the Croatian theologian, Miroslav Volf, current Professor at Yale Divinity School, brings his Balkan experience and careful scholarship to bear on this question. Based in the United States, he seeks to counter the 'clash of civilisations' approach of Samuel Huntingdon, that influenced the policy of George W Bush following 9/11.
Volf's goal is
'to make Christian communities more comfortable with being just one of many players, so that from whatever place they find themselves - on the margins, at the centre, or anywhere else in between - they can promote human flourishing and the common good'.
He inveighs against idleness - 'the faith that does nothing means nothing' - and rejects all forms of coercion, because 'Christians witness to the non-coercive generosity of God'. He urges Christians to embrace pluralism, not because they have no choice, but because it is implicit in a world where all wisdom is of God and where the surrounding culture is not a foreign country bereft of God - Christ 'came unto his own'. These are his homelands.
Set in our own history and tradition, we are what we are, argues Volf. We have no virgin place on which to stand but have good reason to engage fully, to love deeply and to hope for the future. Some may hold back, fearing that we but build sandcastles that will be swept away by the tide, but for Volf, God is transforming the world in anticipation of the world to come and we may not stand aside.
This is more than a re-statement of the argument about Christians and politics, for our changing world requires redefinition of what it means to live as a Christian community. Liberal Christianity is judged to be too diffuse and too accommodating to the surrounding culture. Volf asks for firm orthodox belief and a certain exclusivism, believing that truth demands it. At the same time he speaks of permeable boundaries and an obligation to receive as well as give. More liberal Christians can easily make whatever adjustments they wish, whilst gaining much from the clarity of his thought and presentation.
'Remember this is a battle for the sake of God.' - These words come from a manual carried by the 9/11 hijackers. In Allah Volf takes up the question - do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Or, less simplistically ... if their understanding and values differ so much, is their God effectively different?
Volf describes this book as political theology written for Christians. It is a wide-ranging analysis of the interface between Islam and Christianity. It includes Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) in his call for dialogue, Luther, in his insistence that for Muslims God is 'only a name', and Erasmus' view that the Turks were half Christian. For our time, Volf tackles the Pope's Regensburg Address - that gave rise to some rather misleading press reports - and the Muslim response 'A Common Word Between Us and You'.
The heart of the book explores the nature of God as seen in the two traditions and, crucially, the question as to whether love belongs to the very essence of God or whether strict monotheism demands that God is seen as pure will. Ahmed ibn Taymiyya (11263-1328) taught that God first loves God's own self, which is the source of all other loves. By contrast, though not altogether consistently, Volf defines love as giving to the other - and in Christian thought the 'other' is to be found in God.
At this point I feel that Volf presses trinitarian doctrine too far and then escapes into the obfuscation - 'numbers don't work the same way with God'. Ideas of incarnation are not explored - perhaps because it would extend the book too far - but the issues of coercion, apostasy, war and pluralism are discussed in detail. Readers may find the approach to be rather academic and the constant numbering of points can make for a dry narrative, but it is a clear and timely book.
Volf recognises diversity within Islam but neglects the diversity within Christianity - there is no diluting of his orthodox stance. This is a valuable refutation of the superficial contrast sometimes made between 'God' and 'Allah' - crudely caricatured by the US evangelist, Pat Robertson, as 'the God of the Bible' versus 'the moon God of Mecca'.