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Free of Charge
Chapter 1: God the Giver
(For those wanting commentary and not the summary, skip to the bottom)
“There is God. And there are images of God. And some people don’t see any difference between the two.” In Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, Miroslav Volf attempts to separate out the difference between God in reality from our images and idols. And he does this principally around the themes of giving and forgiving. Proceeding by way of summary, paraphrase, and quoting, I’ll run through Chapters 1 and 4, offering a bit of reflection at the end. Chapter 1 now; Chapter 4 later.
God the Giver
Two particularly false images of God are God the negotiator and God the Santa Claus. When we view God as the negotiate we see God as one to whom we can pitch a deal, make an arrangement. If God will do this for us, we will give God that. All of us have lived this way, and know many more who do also, but Volf draws our attention to the fact that even if God were a negotiator, it would still make no sense to make deals with Him. He always has the advantage, the upper hand. There is nothing that God could need we could give him. Everything is already his. Volf makes clear that God is emphatically not a negotiator: “God’s goods are not for sale; you can’t buy them with money or good deeds. God doesn’t make deals. God gives” (26).
But if God is the God of the gift and not of the deal, is he then like Santa Claus? Does he give to all the little girls and boys gifts what they don’t need (or deserve)? Does he give without expectation or obligation? Does he demand nothing from us, giving indiscriminately and inexhaustibly? No! While God is the inexhaustible source of all gifts, he does also make demands. “Unlike Santa, God doesn’t just scatter gifts, smiling in blissful affirmation of who we are and what we do no matter who we happen to be and what we happen to do. God also urges us to do this or not to do that…God generously gives, so God is not a negotiator of absolute dimensions. God demands, so God is not an infinite Santa Clause. So, what is the relationship between God’s giving and God’s demand?” (28).
The answer is that while God gives, he also demands that we would give also; the obligation is to continue the giving. But of course we can’t gift a gift to God, for two reasons. He is already totally fulfilled, needing nothing from creatures, but gives and receives counter-gifts from each member of the Trinity. And everything that might be given to God is already God’s because he makes and sustains all things. So, “if we cannot return benefits to God, then how can obligations to God be attached to God’s gifts to us?” (42). Or, basing the question according to Romans 12:1-2, “what then is this sacrifice that is neither a gift nor a counter-gift to God?”
First, God’s gifts oblige us to a posture of receptivity, a posture where we “see ourselves as who we truly are, namely, receivers and receivers only. We do that by relating to God in faith. "The first thing to which God’s gifts oblige us is faith” (43). In reality we are all beggars. Our very existence and preservation are gifts from God of which we have not right. But this beggarly position is not full of humility, but rather is the apex of our humanity. “To receive from God in faith is the height of human dignity” (44).
Second, God’s gifts oblige us to gratitude. While when we give thanks we are not actually giving back anything, we are still honoring God and expressing our appreciation for the gifts given. Gratitude and faith cohere in that faith affirms that I am a recipient and gratitude affirms that God is the giver. “Faith receives God’s gifts as gifts; gratitude receives them well.” In neither faith nor gratitude is humanity diminished, but rather they complete us and acknowledge that life is not a self-achievement of independence, which leads to pride and sin.
Third, God’s gifts oblige us to be available to the Giver, available in the sense of being instruments and conduits of God’s gifts to others. Not only does God want to give us gifts, but He desires to impart within us the divine life of giving. The image of God in us is that we would be more than receivers, but also givers.
And in light of this, fourth, God’s gifts oblige us to participate in God’s gift giving. Not only are we conduits, potentially consumed by the task, or lose as the instrument, but we, through Christ dwelling in us, participate in Christ’s giving to the world. In this sense, we enter into the mission of God’s giving as we participate in Christ. But in the process we don’t lose ourselves, our identity as individuals. If we seek our own and a stance of pure receptivity, we will lose ourselves into the void of narcissism, but the paradox of love as gift is that when we give we find ourselves.
Here ends the summary; here begins the brief commentary.
A general and a specific observation. First it is of great merit that Volf has brought the discourse of the gift to a popular audience, allowing for an understand of God that is not strictly juridical, but rather based in the reciprocity and mutual recognition of giving gifts. The following chapters in part one of course spell out what this means for us. For those looking for a more scholarly/academic presentation of the ‘gift’ in its anthropological, phenomenological, and theological aspects, read John Milbank’s ‘Can a Gift Be Given?: Prolegomena to a Future Trinitarian Metaphysic’ in Modern Theology 11 (1995): 119-137.
Second, of Volf’s four obligations, the first is striking in regard to something I recently recently read in Jeffery Stout’s Democracy and Tradtion. In chapter 9 he outlines the rise of the discourse of ‘rights’. Against the authoritarian rule of feudal lords comes the a discourse of rights, a claiming to have certain rights that for which one ought not need to beg. The discourse on human right rises from the desire not to beg, but rather as something demanded.
In light of faith, which is receptivity of God’s gifts, which is to acknowledge ourselves as essentially beggars, what does this means for a Christians understanding of ‘human rights’? And also, what does that mean for our entire understanding of our relation to democracy, the discourse of right?
I think there are good and bad aspects of the discourse on right, but how do you think they relate?
Tuesday Afternoon Discussion Groups and Leaders:
Shaping Christian Vision Project – Andy Crouch
Description: If you had three years, three magazines, and a million dollars, what would you do to help Christian leaders think deeply and creatively about ministry in the twenty-first century? Christianity Today International had the magazines (CT, Books & Culture, and Leadership), I had the time, and, well, we're still looking for the money, but we decided to go for it. The Christian Vision Project will ask big questions about culture, mission, and the gospel and introduce a broad range of pastors, scholars (including Dr. Miroslav Volf), activists (including Theological Conversation participant Rudy Carrasco), and artists to a wider audience. One month into our projected three years of publication and production, we have learned a lot. At this informal session I will share the highlights of what we are doing and why, the pitfalls we've avoided and the pits we still might fall into, and the ways you can contribute.
The Embracing Community: Diversity in the Emerging Church – Jay Voorhees
Description: For much of the history of the church we have attempted to ignore the richness of God's creation as we have banded together with folks just like us. Yet, no matter how much we try to see no difference, hear no difference, or speak no difference, we continue to exclude persons from the party. How then do we "emerge" from our practices of exclusion to become communities of embrace?
Social Justice, Poverty, and the Emerging Church – Danielle Shroyer
Description: The crisis of global poverty is possibly the biggest moral question facing our generation of Christians. How the church will respond is critical not only for our witness to others, but for our mere validity as people of God. Using the conversations of exclusion, embrace, and grace, we will discuss both theological issues at stake in our response as well as practical action steps to move us closer to God's Kingdom. (We will also talk about Emergent's role in this arena and share steps that are underway to unite our efforts on the local, national, and global levels.)
Spiritual Formation and the Emerging Church – Ivy Beckwith
Description: This group will focus specifically on the topic of spiritual formation in the church addressing the spiritual formation of children, youth, and adults with an emphasis on deconstructing and re-inventing traditional schooling paradigms. We will also be intersted in discussing the role of intergenerational interaction in the faith community as a means of spiritual formation.
New Monasticism and the Emerging Church – Karen Ward
Description: NEW MONASTICISM is a small but growing 'stream' within the wider emerging church movement. We will discuss some of the 'marks' of new monasticism and it's significance for re-shaping church and mission for today's culture.
Exclusion, Embrace, and Youth Ministry – Mike King and Kenda Creasy Dean
Description: Kenda Creasy Dean and Mike King will lead a dialogue focused on Miroslav Volf’s theological work in Exclusion and Embrace and Free of Charge and how it impacts youth ministry philosophy and praxis. We will also explore how Volf’s project affects the behavior, thinking and priorities of the youth worker.
The Politics of Repentance: From Sacrifice to Mercy – Geoff Holsclaw
Description: Repentance. Is it anything more than personal, spiritual piety? Hopefully it is, otherwise it would make little sense for Jesus to announce his ministry with, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” In light of this we will investigate the social, ethical, and economic revolution of repentance as (1) the end of sacrifice (2) leading toward mercy, illuminated by Augustine’s Eucharistic Theology. By this we will examine one relationship (among many) between the ‘
The Humanity of God & The Embrace of the Other – Scott Collins-Jones
Description: Karl Barth is one of the Church Fathers of the modern era, and still manages to pique the interest of postmodern Christians as well. We'll spend some time considering some of the broad themes of Barth's theology and how they might relate to the work of Miroslav Volf. In particular we'll consider how each theologian grapples with the cross at the heart of God, and what that might mean for those who want to cross boundaries in the name of Jesus.
Ministry and Theology in a Flat World: Embracing others in a colloborative way forward – Tim Hartman
Description: In the best-selling book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st century, Thomas Friedman explores globalization, technology, and culture and their implications for politics, economics, and international relations. Friedman points out changes for business and government, but what about for theology and ministry? In a flat world which demands colloboration and creativity, the church must assess our strengths, weaknesses, methods, and message.
An Interview with MV has just been posted here.
TRAVEL TO NEW HAVEN
2006 Emergent Theological Conversation TENTATIVE Schedule
[updated 6 January]
Monday, 6 February
: Opening Dinner (for initial 115 registrants)
: Opening Reception, sponsored by Asbury Theological Seminary
: Theological Conversation, Session One: Theological Method and Stoking the Theological Imagination
Tuesday, 8 February
: Continental Breakfast, sponsored by The Christian Vision Project
: Theological Conversation, Session Two: Exclusion and Embrace
10:15am - 10:45am: Coffee Break, sponsored by Abingdon Press
: Lunch, sponsored by Gordon-Conwell and NCCUSA's Faith and Order Commission
: Breakout Groups
Wednesday, 8 February
: Continental Breakfast, sponsored by Wesley Theological Seminary
: Theological Conversation, Session Three: Free of Charge
Reflection by Tim Oslovich
The last chapter of Exclusion and Embrace shows us how Volf’s insights into violence, forgiveness, truth and redemption lead to a way of following Jesus that rejects aggression but does not lead to passivity or despair in the face of evil. It is a way that in various ways reminds me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Howard Yoder, and Archbishop Oscar Romero.
Volf begins the chapter by recounting Michail Bulgakov’s retelling of Jesus’ encounter with Pilate in which Jesus is condemned because he foresees a time in which the power of Caesar will be eliminated because people will “pass into the kingdom of truth and justice where no sort of power is needed” (Volf 275). This is the most dangerous kind of statement that one can make to a hegemon because not only does it threaten a particular government or leader, but it reveals that all those who rule by force are ultimately illegitimate. God’s rule is coming and there is no place for domination there. The promise of God’s coming Kingdom, along with Jesus’ death at the hands of evildoers, is what under girds Volf’s way of living faithfully in a world filled with violence.
Jesus is crucified for announcing God’s Kingdom. Volf warns us that we are too quick to pass over the crucified Messiah and too eager to follow the “victorious Rider on the white house” of the book of Revelation. We accept the crucified Jesus as the means for saving us from our sins, but we much prefer to follow the victorious Christ who comes to destroy evil (Volf 276). Some contemporary American Christianity clearly accepts this division of labor between the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Christ. It is a wonderful thing that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins, but it is even better that he ascended into heaven and will one day lead a great army to wipe out all of God’s enemies. We are on his side, and if we get a head start on wiping out evil, clearly we doing God’s work. We are imitating God.
Volf rejects this reading of how we are to follow Christ and suggests that there is an alternative that enables us to live peacefully and faithfully in a violent world. However, before detailing his proposal for being faithful to both the crucified Messiah and the Christ coming in glory, Volf discards several modern and postmodern solutions to the problem of violence.
First, Volf rejects the Enlightenment claim that the abandonment of religious beliefs and an acceptance of the rule of Reason will lead to the end of violence. Although acknowledging that the “civilizing process” (read: the spread of Enlightenment ideas, the establishment of more formal governments and the declaration of a state monopoly on violence) may indeed reduce the amount of “irregular” violence in the world (i.e., violence that is not state-sanctioned), it dos not necessarily reduce violence as such (Volf 280). Volf, citing Zygmunt Baumun, points out that the Holocaust and, by implication, other instances of state-sponsored murder are completely at home in the modern world. Volf goes further than Baumun, however, in seeing a more fundamental cause of the horrors of mass killing. Whereas Bauman argues that reducing the bureaucratization of society and constructing societies in which humans have deeper connections with one another would lead to less violence, Volf responds that it is often precisely in these places of close human proximity that hatred and violence thrive. “[H]uman beings destroy what they hate, and what they hate most is a rival on their own territory” (Volf 282). This brings to mind Volf’s story earlier in the book of the Muslim woman who was brutalized and humiliated by one of her students, the only son of her neighbor (Volf 111). If a person can treat one’s teacher, neighbor, and the friend of one’s parents in this way, clearly, proximity will not solve the problem of violence. The modern tools of bureaucracy and propaganda do make mass killings more likely. Bureaucracy can be a shield of denial (“I was only doing my job;” “I was just following orders;” “I didn’t know where the train was going, I only drive it”). Propaganda can shape people’s minds in profound ways, especially when other sources of information are limited. But as Volf’s story (and countless other stories from Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, and other places) clearly shows, knowing the Other does not necessarily make him or her worthy of the status of human being.
The second solution to the problem of violence which Volf considers inadequate is inter-religious dialogue. Volf is not opposed to inter-religious dialogue, but he is not optimistic that peace among religions will produce peace among nations for the simple reason that the only wars that “peace among religions” would prevent are strictly religious wars (cf. Volf 284-8). Even if religions accepted one another’s right to exist, people would still have plenty of economic, social, cultural, racial, and other reasons to kill each other. Also, as Volf points out, believers in the same religion kill each other all the time. The Mennonites’ “A Modest Proposal for Peace,” a plea that the Christians of the world not kill each other, has clearly fallen on deaf ears.
Much more important than peace among religions is the rejection of the religious legitimation of violence within each tradition (Volf 285). Only when religions reject the notion that violence can be “blessed” will religion cease to be used by political authorities to claim that their war is just and good. I think Volf makes an important claim here inasmuch as this is an either/or situation. Either religion can be used to legitimate violence (sometimes) in which case it will be used often and inevitably be used wrongly, or religion cannot be used to legitimate violence in which case no wars can claim to be “blessed.” Without downplaying the difficulties of such a choice, Volf opts for the latter as the faithful Christian option.
Volf next examines the claim that violence lies at the heart of Christianity and cannot be separated from it. Gilles Deleuze argues that the New Jerusalem, which (according to Deleuze’s reading of Revelation) comes into being when earth and most of the human race have been destroyed, is not better than the lake of sulfur. Indeed, it may well be worse because, from Deleuze’s point of view, all the inhabitants of the New Jerusalem are constantly under the gaze of God and forced to internalize God’s judgments. It is the ultimate totalitarian regime. People are completely under the control of the Ruler; everyone even thinks the same way. The fact that this Ruler is presented as a “Lamb who was slain,” simply is a mask of victimization which briefly conceals the desolation and oppression that is to come.
In order to avoid this tyrannical end, Deleuze’s postmodern solution is to eliminate making judgments. This would stop the cycle of exclusion and destruction of the other because there would be no “other.” Volf points out the inadequacy of this solution since it would prevent us from being able to “distinguish between the Butcher of Lyon and Mother Theresa” – no judgment means chaos and murder (Volf 290).
Volf acknowledges that violence is at the center to the Christian story. We cannot escape that God is involved in violence. We must acknowledge the violence done to God in Jesus of Nazareth and the violence which God must do in order to restore peace in a world gone horribly wrong. But we must also remember that violence is a distortion of the world that God created. God did not battle chaos monsters to form the earth; violence is not at the beginning of the story. As Volf reminded us in chapter II, violence and murder were human inventions. Jesus absorbed the violence that was inflicted on him, “demasked” the process of scapegoating, and struggled against violence nonviolently. Perhaps most importantly, “the cross is a divine embrace of the deceitful and the unjust” (Volf 294).
This redemption is only ultimately fulfilled in the Rider on the White Horse. Volf does not believe in the “infections power of nonviolence” (Volf 296). There are (or at least might be) some who are beyond redemption. All are offered the embrace of the Crucified One, but there are some who are not responsive to God’s love and goodness. God is patient and continually offers forgiveness and new life to everyone, but “God’s patience is costly, not simply for God, but for the innocent” (Volf 299-300). Eventually, God will (re-)create a world of justice and truth, love and peace, and God will “inflict violence against the stubbornly violent in order to restore creation’s original peace” (Volf 300). In the end, the only way to eliminate the “stubbornly violent” is violence, unless one has faith that everyone will eventually reject violence and repent freely. This seems a bit much to believe. We can posit that God’s patient love eventually wins everyone over, but could not the resister perceive God’s tenacity to change the resister’s mind as a form of violence?
God’s violence makes it possible for God’s followers to reject violence. Human violence only begets more violence. Human nonviolence will sometimes mean death for those who refuse to kill, but sometimes it also plants the seed of peace (Volf 306). What enables us to reject violence, in the face of not only our own deaths but also the deaths of others, is the conviction that God will do whatever violence needs to be done to ultimately bring about justice and redemption. Only God can do this because only God has embraced even the worst sinners and most violent perpetrators of evil on the cross. Volf argues that either humans must be violent or God must be violent if we are not to abandon any hope for justice. I agree with Volf: Unless we believe that those who are evil can always be loved into becoming good, there is no alternative to God’s violence as a penultimate reality. We can hope and pray for the redemption of all. But historical experience, not least the experience of Jesus himself, seems to indicate that nonviolence and love will not always win over the violent. That may be true even at the last judgment, and then only the exclusion of the “stubbornly violent” will usher in the Kingdom of God.
Nevertheless, we must remember that the end of the story is the Kingdom of God – the biblical vision of Isaiah 11 – a place where violence and death are no more despite the presence of (former) predators and prey. Here I would quibble with Volf over the name of that place. It is not utopia (“no place” or “good place”) but heaven, the place that is best and most real.
Deception and Truth
Reflection by Daniel Harrell
For evangelicals, the idea(l) of Truth is paramount. So much so that Truth’s supposed declension in the face of postmodern critiques has incited all sorts of knee jerk defensiveness against the threatened loss of a cornered market (power) and a loss of particular confidence in how-things-are (perspective). In chapter 6, Volf challenges human perceptions of Truth, concurring with postmodern critics who label the human capacity for knowing Truth as inherently limited. However at the same time, Volf sides with evangelical Christianity by asserting that human limitation need not diminish Truth’s reality (or render it relative) inasmuch as Truth finally does exist in the Mind of God. “We know only something of what God knows,” Volf writes, “as much and as little as God has revealed. …The belief in an all-knowing God should inspire the search for truth; the awareness of our human limitations should make us modest about the claims that we have found it, however.”
Any Christian dialogue (or monologue for that matter) that addresses God’s Truth necessitates modesty—a sorely lacking trait. Volf writes how the little knowledge we actually have of Truth gets “skewed because we suppress truth through desire to overcome others and protect ourselves.” What will save us from this hubristic penchant? Volf offers a four-step process whereby Truth-seekers and -speakers incorporate other’s perspectives. Such a move modestly approximates God’s Truth which is The Truth about each and every possible perspective. However our incorporation of others must move past mere acknowledgement to actual embrace. As a mentor of mine used to put it, the goal should be to understand another’s perspective so well as to be tempted by it.
More than an abstract category of facts and verbal pronouncements demanding assent, the Truth for which Volf argues is situated Truth grounded in “the things people do to each other.” More than what we say, the Truth that we do is what corresponds to divine Truth. Truth is essentially relational.
I spent a recent evening over at Harvard University where students from a Christian fellowship had taken Halloween as an opportunity to invite their entire campus (by way of little bags of candy with invitations inside) to a discussion of genuine (true) Christian faith. Walking over to the gathering, I asked one of the hosts whether they had had a chance to meet many of those to whom they had delivered invitations. She responded how they hadn’t actually stopped to talk to anyone, but had only dropped off the bags of candy. Hmm. What would I do if some anonymous Christian dropped unsolicited candy in front of my dorm room door? First thought: “Don’t eat the candy!” Not so surprisingly, only Christians showed up for the discussion.
The relational character of Truth requires real-live relationship to serve as Truth’s conduit. But even if the students had personally invited their classmates to the discussion, there remains another crucial proviso. As Volf obviously and yet profoundly notes: “before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it.” There has to be an interest in Truth for any perspective to form, any conversation to take place, any person to be embraced.
A crucial distinctive of Christian perspectives on Truth is its claim that Truth’s relational nature extends beyond the bounds of human-to-human relationship. As Jesus’ encounter with Pilate in John’s gospel articulates, Truth is not of this world. Our experience of it—our relationship with it—is as witness to it. We do not produce it nor control it. Jesus, as both paragon and paradigm of Truth, embodies Truth in his life as it is to be lived. Yet as Volf is quick to qualify: “The first thing we need to remember as we seek to learn anything from Jesus Christ is that we are not Jesus Christ, we are not the truth and we are not self-effacing witnesses to the truth.” Witness is different than possession; it treats Truth as that which is to be submissively obeyed rather than mastered. Obedience to Truth (and the failure of obedience) fuels the necessary modesty with which we then enter into dialogue with others. Modesty exposes the plank in our own eye to which we must first attend before poking at any one else’s specks.
Naturally this is the hardest sort of truth. It demands both self-assessment and self-suspicion of that assessment. But both are indispensable when it comes to modesty. I think it was N.T. Wright who once said that among the most important words when discussing Truth is the word perhaps. By incorporating such language into our speech and actions, chances are better that somebody may turn up interested in the discussion next time.
Exclusion and Embrace, chapter five, "Oppression and Justice,"
reflection by Cliff Knighten
In chapter five, "Oppression and Justice," Volf moves into a discussion of the problem of justice in an environment of cultural, socio-economic, ethnic, religious, and gender diversity. The question is relatively simple: How do people, communities, religious and ethnic groups, as well as nations live together in peace and social equity when there is no shared consensus on what is just? Volf writes: “When competing accounts either of what is just or what justice means clash, one person’s justice is another person’s barbarity and society is threatened with the chaos of violence.” (p. 195)
Volf presents three popular approaches to the problem. First, the traditional Christian argument that “universal justice” (at all times and in all places and situations) is rooted in the unchanging moral character of God. Since God is not a tribal deity, but rather the God of all nations, it follows that “God’s justice transcends all cultural construals of justice.” (p. 198). However, Volf rightfully draws a distinction between God’s universal justice rooted in his character and any particular human articulation of that justice:
The question is not whether from a Christian perspective God’s justice is universal, whether God can infallibly judge between cultures irrespective of their differences. The question is whether Christians who want to uphold God’s universal justice can judge between cultures with divine infallibility. The answer is that they cannot…. We must therefore distinguish between our idea of God’s justice and God’s justice itself. (p. 198-199)
The practical problem with all human articulations and interpretations of God’s universal justice, even those made by God’s people, is that they are inescapably particular, made from “inside a culture or tradition.” As a result, these expressions are always provisional and subject to revision.
The second popular approach to the problem of justice in a diverse world is the postmodern one. From this perspective, every account of justice which claims to be universal is inherently oppressive and unjust. John Caputo is representative of postmodern thinkers: “the worst injustice, the most bloody and unjustifiable transgressions of justice are … committed daily in the name of justice, under the protection of the name ‘justice.’” (p. 202) In this line of reasoning, universal justice must be “deconstructed” or unmasked as the oppressor so that the oppressed can be liberated to pursue their own visions of justice and the good. Volf rejects the postmodern approach due to his belief that the ultimate outcome of the deconstruction project is something very close to, if not identical with, another universalizing principle of justice: “all should respect all; none should respect those who do not respect all.” (p. 204)
Finally, Volf examines Alasdair MacIntyre’s communitarian model of justice. MacIntyre emphasizes the role of the respective community’s tradition in the development of its view of justice. He then argues that the resources for successfully negotiating justice issues can be found within these broader traditions. Volf summarizes MacIntyre’s position:
For rational discussion to replace the sterile exchange of assertions and counter-assertions people must inhabit traditions. From within a tradition, they can then carry on rational debates not only with the fellow members of the same tradition, but also with those who inhabit rival traditions. (p. 206)
While affirming the logic of MacIntyre’s argument, Volf highlights the fairly obvious problem that the communitarian model can actually accentuate the differences between tribes rather than lead to consensus.
Building on the valid insights of each of these approaches, Volf then synthesizes his own approach to the problem of justice in a pluralistic world. He begins with the observation that all people inhabit multiple social environments or traditions. These multiple influences shape our beliefs and practices. Christians, Volf argues, “inescapably inhabit two worlds – they are ‘in God’ and ‘in the world’ – the world of the biblical traditions and the world of their own culture.” As a result, “Christian ‘tradition’ is never pure; it always represents a merging of streams coming from the Scriptures and from given cultures that a particular church inhabits.” (p. 208) From this Volf argues that we should hold on to “certain basic interrelated commitments” – both beliefs and practices that derive from Scripture – rather than the “totalizing” systems we create based on these commitments. This realization allows, rather demands, a more humble approach to our traditions than many Christians have taken in the past.
This “chastened” approach to our traditions provides the opportunity for what Volf calls “enlarged thinking” (from Hannah Arendt) or “double-vision.” Volf writes:
We enlarge our thinking by letting the voices and perspectives of others, especially those with whom we may be in conflict, resonate within ourselves, by allowing them to help us see them, as well as ourselves, from their perspective, and if needed, readjust our perspectives as we take into account their perspectives. (p. 213)
Volf uses the example of Jesus in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman in Matt. 15 as one biblical example of “double-vision.” In this encounter, Jesus willingly adjusted his actions by taking into account the perspectives of the “other.” While the complete realization of justice will only take place at the consummation, Volf argues that “double-vision,” if practiced with a will to embrace the “other,” will enable us to take small steps toward genuine justice between people and cultures.
Exclusion and Embrace
Chapter 4: Gender Identity
Reflection by Danielle Grubb Shroyer
In Chapter 4 Volf moves into the often perilous world of gender identity and offers us alternative ways to relate to one another as men and women in light of the Trinitarian life of God.
Volf first asserts that God language, whether it be masculine or feminine, must be recognized as coming from the constructs and limitations of our world. If we agree that God is not inherently gendered, then to speak of God in gendered ways is simply a means of making God personal. We cannot rightly describe a covenantal God as a divine It. We look to God to find ways of being fully human. Therefore God is not Father in a way that tells men how to be fathers any more than it tells women how to be mothers. I would go further (or more specific) to say that, in the spirit of embrace rather than exclusion, it is most fitting for God language to have a proper balance in our theological discourse. We cannot move forward with the rest of Volf’s argument if in our churches we are stuck silently reiterating a God who is inherently more male or female.
Volf is clear to delineate delicately between gender and sex; that is, he declares our sexed bodies as constant while our gender identity is fluid, constantly changed by societal and cultural factors. He then argues that our relation between one another as men and women ought to be grounded in the life of the Trinitarian God in whose image we were created. He cites Joseph Ratzinger’s description of the inner divine life as “relatedness,” one that is defined solely by its relations. The difficulty with such a view is that it inevitably ends in dissolution rather than distinction. If the Son is only the Son because he gives himself fully to the Father, there is no Son left at the end. Most women understand this argument well, as for generations to be married was to subsume one’s own identity into the identity of the husband. Furthermore, Ratzinger’s emphasis on self-giving love has been the basis for justifying a one-sided submission that all too often has left women with nothing left to give. This is not the covenant relationship of Scripture.
Volf uses Jurgen Moltmann’s response to Ratzinger as a much needed remedy to Ratzinger’s “relatedness.” Though relationship within the divine persons is important, and self-giving is a critical component of the love relationship between them, we must also recognize the reciprocity of relationships. As Volf puts it, “Persons are not relations; persons stand in relations that shape their identity” (180). In making such a turn, there is now a way to make space for the other; there is a possibility of self-giving that maintains one’s own unique identity.
Volf refuses to be wooed into the impossibility of describing “masculinity” and “femininity,” only stating that we ought to root our understandings in sexed bodies and allow the social construction of gender to continue to operate in a fluid state. He instead seeks to recast our ideas of gender identity in what I would term our vocational response to our God. We find in Scripture not prescriptive identification of how to be a proper man or woman, but “accounts of the successes and failures of men and women to live out the demands of God on their lives within specific settings” (182). How can we tell the story of God in a way that truly makes space for both men and women to find ways to answer the call of God in the specificity of their own situation?
Volf also mentions two alternative- and faulty- attempts to “equalize” gender identity. The first is by attempting to overlook our gender distinctions entirely, and the second is to synthesize them into a new whole. The danger in both is similar. Our concerted attempts to neutralize or synthesize gender either renders them both unimportant, or worse, further endorses the subjugation of one into the other. We cannot hide from our differences; to do so simply masks the ways we have failed to live in peace with one another. Volf instead proposes the reciprocal relationship between genders described in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:11: “Neither is woman without man nor man without woman.” This dynamic relationship of “woman not without man” and “man not without woman” maintains both the uniqueness of our sexed bodies and the tensions between our mutual self-giving.
How are we- both personally and in our places of ministry- making space for the other? Are we doing enough (or too much) self-giving or do we spend our time primarily expecting to be given to (or taken from)? Are we being honest with ourselves in the way we have all failed to live in a spirit of mutuality and self-giving love with one another?
Exclusion and Embrace
In chapter 3, Volf writes, “Inscribed on the very heart of God’s grace is the rule that we can be its recipients only if we do not resist being made into its agents; what happens to us must be done by us.” (129)
Have we become the ultimate consumers - consumers of God’s grace?
The embrace of the father of ‘the prodigal son’ is a moment we long for, ache for even. The belonging, the identity. No longer a stranger in a strange land, but one who is truly known, and loved. We are amazed that the embrace is offered - again and again. And we reach out to receive it again and again.
But when it comes to offering the invitation of embrace, when it comes to being an agent of God’s grace, when it comes to embodying, in that moment, even a fleeting glimpse of the kingdom, do we not stand, instead, as the older brother with our arms tightly folded as a shield of righteousness? And this at the return of our brother with whom we have a history, one whom we presumably loved. Because we are tied to our ‘stuff’? To our image of ourselves? To the future we have decided we will have? We are hostile at his intrusion back into our ordered world instead of open to the new possibilities it might throw open for both of us. The novum of resurrection, Moltmann might say.
If one then who is a part of us cannot break through this dominant narrative that Volf lays out for us, if the return of one with whom we have at one time laughed and cried cannot be received as a gift of God bringing us to repentance and farther down the road from exclusion to embrace, if one in such close proximity to us cannot move us, how will we ever shed our indifference and our blindness long enough to not only see Christ in the mother of Jihad, but to be open to understanding her, to be willing to be changed by her?
I fear that we want the embrace of the Trinitarian love of God to close as a protective circle around us without offering ourselves in love to be transformed. Where does that leave us?
Exclusion and Embrace
Chapter 2: Exclusion
Reflection by R. Keelan Downton
Volf reads “ethnic cleansing” as a manifestation of a desire for purity. The desire for a pure church appears as early as the Donatists and is repeated at various times throughout church history. This idea of purity seems to motivate the Essenes, various Muslims throughout history and even - if memory serves - some Buddhists, so this tendency cannot be restricted to a particularly Christian or even a particularly monotheistic impulse. Most religious communities engage in some form of line-drawing that can be (and has been) taken to extremes at various points in history. It is striking how quickly the theological question of purity (whether in terms of self, doctrine, or community) moves into the political. Purity - or at least the desire to be pure - has profound implications for how we order our lives, and once we begin to talk about ordering our lives, we are already enmeshed in political questions.
Volf draws attention (through Dussel) to the horrifying underside of civilization: empire, security, freedom is supported by conquest, theft, and slavery. It brings to mind a book entitled “Why Things Bite Back” exploring how problems tend to keep pace with the technology that is intended to resolve them (i.e. as cars become safer, people take more risks when driving; as computers enable greater office productivity, they provide more time-wasting distractions).
Volf drives home the point that any revulsion we feel towards the “ethnic cleansing” that others engage in ought to be redirected towards ourselves since our recent forebears engaged in acts of equal horror. When reflecting on slavery, I think we have a tendency to mentally side with the abolitionists - we feel good when we think of ourselves as similar to them because we share their conviction that slavery is wrong. The problem with this is that the relevant comparison is not their belief but their response to injustice. If you want to know whether you would have been a slaveholder, an abolitionist, or one of the millions who accepted slavery as a part of life, the question you need to ask is “what am I doing about racism today?”
Tony has suggested we keep an eye out for Volf’s proposals for a middle way between modern and postmodern constructs. One example is the warning against developing a moralizing/civilizing zeal that erects new boundaries. The other is renouncing boundaries so much that “we are unable to name what is excluded or why it ought not to be excluded”. This is reflected in his defense of nonexclusionary judgment that rejects both moralizing judgment and Rorty’s replacement of judgment with irony. The Christologically decentered center of self-giving love that Volf puts forward in response suggests that love plays a role in limiting self-giving since simply acquiescing to the demands of the other would destroy the self in the giving. Love for the other probably includes maintaining sufficient self-identity that the other does not become culpable for domination. The dynamic reality of human interaction does not allow us to state the terms of engagement beforehand (“I will allow you to change this much of me but nothing else”), but approaching love in this way can help us to avoid a false idea that love means letting the other do whatever s/he wants.
The notion that those who were classified as “sinners” in Jesus’ day were victims of a false projection of sin onto those who were socially unacceptable has significant potential to reshape discourse about sin in (post-, neo-, or otherwise) evangelical subculture. In a society where tolerance is elevated as a value, there seems to be a polarizing tendency that causes us to either 1) project serious sin outside of ourselves and our community (yes, we’re all sinners, but s/he is a SINNER) or 2) emaciate the concept so that the only significant distinction between a Christian and a non-Christian is their eternal destiny (that is, their behavior is indistinguishable). There may be a need to take our own sin more seriously, but in a way that does not downplay the moral distinction those times we get it right (or the Spirit’s power to help us do so). Volf suggests two ways of doing this. One is “renaming” (sin as moral rather than cultural) and “remaking” (people dehumanized by their own moral failings into transformed members of the community). The other is distinguishing between solidarity in sin and equality of sins.
The final thing I’d like to note is this chapter is the move from Abraham (the stranger who becomes a means of identification) to Cain (the violent other that is us). Volf invites us, with Girard, to unveil and delegitimate evil. This means naming evil in ourselves and others in a way that makes distinctions - shoplifting is of an entirely different character than child-molestation. It seems possible that lamenting our failures (claiming to be “the worst of sinners” etc...) is really an expression of narcissistic self-obsession that makes my own experience the focal point instead of engaging in the real difficulty of naming and responding to evil while deeply enmeshed in it.
Preface and Introduction: "The Cross, the Self, and the Other"