Thursday, July 07, 2011

Allah by Mirolsav Volf -- A Review

ALLAH: A Christian Response.  By Miroslav Volf.  San Francisco: Harper One, 2011.  326 pp.

Do Christians and Muslims worship a common God?  In the opinion of many Muslims and Christians the answer to this question is a rather simple and stark no.  Muslims might point to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity as proof that Christians worship a divinity far different from the one described by their strict monotheism.  Christians might respond in quite the same way, suggesting that the fact that Muslims don’t accept the Trinity is proof that Allah isn’t the same as the God they worship.  Others might suggest that while the Christian God is a God of love, Muslims serve a violent, wrathful, and vengeful God.  In response to these claims, there would be counterclaims, of course.  The question, however, is an important one because Christianity and Islam claim the allegiance of more than half the world’s population and adherents of these two faiths find themselves in conflicts around the globe.     

There is no question that there are differences between the Christian and Islamic faiths, differences that include but go beyond the doctrine of the Trinity, but according to Miroslav Volf, a Yale theology professor who has been in active conversation with Muslims, there are also significant commonalities.  In his view, these commonalities can provide an important foundation for conversations that could help build bridges between the two faith communities. 

Allah is a continuation of a conversation that began with the publication of “A Common Word between Us and You,” a document that was written by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan and signed by a number of leading Islamic scholars.  That document was written in response to a speech made by Pope Benedict XVI, which had spoken of Islam in rather disparaging terms.  The point of the “Common Word” was to dispel misunderstandings and misinterpretations of Islam as a way of building bridges between these two faiths.  The conversation that began with the “Common Word” continued in the publication of a book edited by Volf, Prince Ghazi, and Melissa Yarrington entitled: A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor, (Eerdmans, 2010).  

In Allah Volf expands on this conversation, sharing his own vision, informed by his own Christian faith regarding the possibilities of engagement on the basis of a confession of faith in a common God.  Volf’s own story of growing up as a Protestant Christian in Croatian Yugoslavia, a context in which he was taught by his father to both respect Muslims and affirm the principle that both faiths worshiped a common deity.  That conviction has been reinforced over the years as Volf became a well-regarded theological voice, whose mentor was Jurgen Moltmann.  

Volf’s goal, as laid out early in the book is “to explore how Christian and Muslim convictions about God bear on their ability to live together in a single world.”  It is not, he insists, a book about soteriology (salvation), but rather is focused on political theology (pp. 12-13).  This is important, because without making this distinction in purpose, readers can easily get distracted by the question of whether one or the other religious system is the true way of salvation.  That question is not part of the discussion.  What he wants to do is demonstrate that these two faiths do not represent worship of two rival gods, but rather represent “two rival versions of the Master of the Universe (p. 13).

The book is divided into four parts that cover 1) the disputes that have riled the two traditions today and in the past; 2) the question of whether we’re dealing with two deities or a common God; 3) the critical themes of Trinity and love; and 4) the question of living under the same roof.  Finally, in the epilogue, Volf invites the readers to consider the importance of resisting extremism.  It should be noted that Volf is writing as a Christian, seeking to offer a Christian response to these questions.  In doing so, he invites his Muslim counterparts to do the same.  The principles that are inherent in his effort stem from principles developed in the Middle Ages by a Catholic Cardinal named Nicholas of Cusa, a religious leader who sought to counter the burgeoning Crusade movement of the day.  Believing that war would not resolve these deep-seated problems, he suggested that dialogue represented the best means of dealing with the questions of the day.   Volf makes the same call for conversation today, believing that we may have more in common than we have been led to believe.

In making his case, Volf, who is a Protestant Evangelical Christian, seeks to compare what he would call normative Christian and Islamic understandings of God and God’s place in the world.  He notes that there is a tendency on both sides to compare the best of one’s own faith with the worst expressions of the other.  This is not only unhelpful, it’s less than honest. Although one might disagree with his definition of normative faith – his vision of Christianity would be a moderate Trinitarianism – the point is well taken – compare the best and most common visions.  

To make a couple of important points on the book.  First regarding the doctrine of the Trinity.  Volf insists that this doctrine, if understood according to the normative teachings of the church, should not be a stumbling block.  That is the very things that Muslims reject, Christians should also reject (that is expressions of Trinitarianism that verge into tri-theism).  The Qur’an condemns the idea that there is a “trinity of Gods” and that Allah has an associate, but so does normative Christianity.  There are not three Gods, but one God in three persons, and Jesus isn’t a separate divine being, but one who shares the essence of God.    God, he says, is beyond both concepts and numbers, but suggests that maybe we would be helped if we consider that God is three agencies, but one essence.  One important key, at least for Christians, who might wonder about the Muslim rejection of Trinity – if this is a problem, then not only do Christians not worship the same God as Muslims, but they don’t worship the same God as Jews, and no one has made that suggestion.  
Regarding violence, love, and mercy, we must start by recognizing the problem of violence, but also understand that violence isn’t just a Muslim problem, nor is it central to Islamic beliefs and practices.  There is a question, however, concerning the way in which the two faiths understand the relationship of love to God.  Christian theology insists that God is love.  It is an essential aspect of God’s being.  Islam is not as clear about this, but they do speak of God as Merciful and the Benevolent one.  There are differences, it is true, but there is enough similarity to make conversation possible.  

Thus, we come to what is the key to the proposal – both faiths, each in its own way, ascribe to what Christians and Jews speak of as the two great commandments.  Islam phrases this differently, but the two faiths are in agreement that God loves and so should God’s people.  Where there may be a major point of difference is the Christian teaching on loving one’s enemies – a doctrine that doesn’t appear in Islam, though it’s also one that most Christians ignore.  But, if we can start with these two commandments as a shared ethic, then we can begin to respect one another and even in our evangelism of each other embrace a code of conduct rooted in this common understanding.  

But, living together in peace requires that we understand how this should work.  Volf believes that there is present in both faiths the foundational principles that can lead even those who affirm religious exclusivism to embrace political pluralism.   While some believe that monotheism is inherently exclusive both religiously and politically, Volf doesn’t believe this is true.  In fact, he believes that two features of monotheism can favor political pluralism. These features include believing that God “gave religion an essential ethical dimension,” and the decoupling of religion and the state/ethnicity.  That is, in monotheism, people of all nations are called to give their ultimate allegiance not to state or tribe but to God.  Thus, there are three basic propositions that define the two faith that enable this political pluralism:
  1. The one benevolent God relates to all people on equal terms 
  2. Love of neighbor demands that we grant the same freedoms to others that we claim for ourselves.
  3. There should be no coercion in matters of faith. (P. 231).
 The problem isn’t with the teaching, but with the practice.  These principles are inherent in the faith traditions, but rarely have they been put into practice.  

The book closes with ten ways in which the two faiths can join together in pursuing the common good and battling extremism.  This will require a willingness to forgo coercion and rely on conversation.  It will require theological conversation, knowing that this has political implications.  It will require that both sides give up prejudice and stand against religious compulsion.  None of this will be easy, but the future depends on our willingness to move in this direction.   This is because, as Volf suggests in closing, despite differences that won’t go away, the confession that we serve a common God does two things – it “delegitimizes religious motivation to violence between them” and “supplies motivation to care for others and to engage in a vigorous and sustained debate about what constitutes the common good in the word we share” (p. 262).  

Christianity and Islam, along with Judaism, trace their origins to Abraham.  According to Genesis Abraham was promised that it would be through his posterity that the nations would be blessed.  Judaism and Christianity trace this blessing through Isaac, Islam through Abraham’s other son, Ishmael.  No matter the lineage, Christians and Muslims share a common calling – to be a blessing.  That is well summed up in the two commands – to love God and neighbor.  We are indebted to Miroslav Volf for helping us see the commonalities between our traditions so we might together take up our calling.  Of course, the stakes are high, making this book essential reading – even if at points you disagree with his theology or interpretation.  The point is that there is a way to start building bridges, if we’re willing to join in the project outlined by Dr. Volf.  

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