Saturday, March 12, 2011

Allah, Identity, and Open Structures

I'm nearly through Miroslav Volf's book, Allah: A Christian Response. I have one big observation among the several I could make from this rich text. BIG OBSERVATION: The stance one takes with regard to issues of identity determines to a large extent how one will evaluate or understand commonalities and differences--in this case, differences between Christians and Musliums.

I think the most important section in Volf's book might actually be a little three page vignette in which he states his overall stance regarding commonalities and differences. The big question for Volf in determining the Christian response to Muslims is whether or not we worship the same God. While the starting place in asking this question might not be wholly determinative, Volf starts with those things that we have in common. (This he believes leads to the inescapable conclusion that we worship the same God).

In defending this approach he writes, "the way persons of faith see themselves in relation to others shapes how they approach the question of commonalities and differences between religions." Volf insists that a Christian approach to other religions begins with "a discerning generosity toward others" which requires one to begin with commonalities. To begin with differences, Volf suggests, is to take an approach that "rejoices in wrongdoing." In contrast, those who begin with a "commonalities" approach "are a bit like those who rejoice in the truth." This does not mean that anything goes, but "concentrating on what is common and keeping an alert eye to critical differences are but two aspects of 'rejoicing in the truth.'"

This week I'm preaching on the end of Matthew 5, the part that features the formula, "you have heard that it was said...but I say to you..." Here, Jesus' approach to the law and righteousness stands in contrast to other approaches on display in Matthew's gospel. I think Jesus is critiquing an approach to the law that would secure distinctiveness and identity by limiting its scope. In other words, if those parts of the law that make us distinctive from others can be defined and then observed, identity is secure. Jesus' approach is the opposite. He doesn't want to build a fence around the law so that it is manageable. He wants to knock the fences down and throw us ever deeper into the realities of God and neighbor. "You have heard it said, but I say to you" is a way of forming identity in relation to more, a surpassing righteousness, and by extension forming identity in relation to the other. We have our identity, not by holding on to our life or securing it, but precisely through losing it for the sake of the Kingdom.

The righteousness of God in Matthew is open range. There is always more and greater. There is always love of God and love of neighbor drawing us deeper into the ways of mercy. The Kingdom of Heaven is always coming, never fully arrived on this side of the eschaton. And this way of naming identity--through an open structure--is important to the mission of God. After all, in Matthew Jesus is not interested only in a distinctive people, but a people who can make disciples of all nations.

Volf's commonalities approach is open range, to my thinking. He identifies it more as an inclusivist approach as opposed to an exclusivist approach (though he knows that all approaches to faith have both inclusive and exclusive aspects). By this he is not suggesting that everyone is the same or that differences do not matter. Rather, he's identifying a stance that is more open to the other and that honors a God who is love.

As I read back through this, there is much to clarify here. But this is a blog, not a research paper, so I will continue to clarify if you will continue to read. All that to say...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Rather, he's identifying a stance that is more open to the other and that honors a God who is love"

I like this.

Thanks Mark. Looking forward to more.