Saturday, March 5, 2011

Allah, Rob Bell, Miroslav Volf and the Way We Treat Each Other

I am reading Miroslav Volf's new book, Allah: A Christian Response, in anticipation of his speaking at Streaming, Rochester College's ministry event, May 16-18. Volf will be presenting from his other new book, Captive to the Word of God, at Streaming, but we will also feature as part of the program a round table discussion on Allah. So, I want to make sure I have this important book read in advance of the event. Surely, there are few issues more pressing in our world than the relations between Christians and Muslims.

I'm reading this book also in the wake of the bluster abounding related to Rob Bell's forthcoming book, Love Wins. It has been the target of a lot inflammatory rhetoric from Bell detractors who have not read the book but are nevertheless convinced that Bell espouses universalism in the book's pages. Gasp. (See Greg Boyd's informed response. He's actually read the book).

I thought of the Rob Bell stuff when I read these lines from Volf's introduction:

"Sometimes when I observe contemporary U.S. culture, with its hard fronts and nasty culture wars, I have a strange sense that I've seen something like it before--in the Communist and semitotalitarian state in which I grew up. The issues and positions are very different, but the spirit is strangely familiar. In all public discussion, there was a party line that people had to toe; if you diverged, you were deemed disloyal and suspected of betraying the cause. I sense a similar spirit today among progressives and conservatives in the United States when it comes to many hot-button issues, including Islam."

Volf proposes a political theology in this book. That is, part of our understandings of God will determine our public actions especially in response to those who differ from us. Much is at stake in this for Volf as both Christianity and Islam project growth in the years to come. Moreover, as democracy emerges in more places in the world, Christians and Muslims will both have certain freedoms and rights in the public square. How will we live together? Volf says we won't if the spirit he identifies in the quote above leads the way.

I'm a fan of Volf's and sympathetic with his thesis as stated in the introduction to the book. When I state convictions like Volf's to others, they sometimes assume that I'm saying that ideas don't matter, or that somehow I've given up on the notion of Truth. I would just point out here that Volf believes it down the line. He's an orthodox Christian, and he's committed to truth. In fact, it is precisely his understanding of truth revealed in Jesus Christ that informs his openness toward others (openness is not the same as endorsement or agreement). As he puts it:

"Ever since I lived under the dead hand of a semitotalitarian regime, I have resisted toeing the party line. I know that the boundary separating truth and falsehood is not the same as the boundary between political parties or ideological combatants. I want the truth, not politically expedient or ideologically "correct" positions. And, as a follower of Christ, I want the truth seen with the eyes of inviting and reconciling love, not the truth born of cold indifference or simmering hatred."


Anonymous said...

Glad I friended you on facebook, because I got to see your blog...and get good ideas of books to read! I bought two of Volf's books my last semester at RC, but didn't get to read them and just recently started The End of Memory.

Sounds like Love Wins will be interesting too.


Mark Love said...


I knew there had to be a good reason to friend me on fb, but i didn't imagine it would be awareness of my blog. Glad you're reading Volf. I bet JB made it part of the premarital counseling.


Anonymous said...

The more I read about Volf the more I think I will like him. I plan to read "Captive" this spring - mainly because the title alone exposes some spiritual baggage I am carrying.

Regarding your blog, I see no danger in endorsement or agreement. Why the disclaimer? It smacks of party line to me and of that "strangely familiar" spirit. Since I know you well enough to know you do not feel the need to toe the line, why pull back from those words? This strangely familiar spirit will never go away as long as we claim that our Jesus is the only source of truth.
Jesus is the lense I choose to view the mystery that is God and to try to understand the life I am called to live. But I have two buddhist friends who live more Godly than I do and I endorse and agree with their truth. It works for them and who am I to insist on inserting Jesus in order for me to agree and endorse? And if that makes me a universalist, sign me up.

On a personal note I will not be able to attend Streaming. The project we were waiting on fell through. Peace my friend.

Mark Love said...

Shannon, I'm responding to people who say that openness means anything goes. Volf has a different understanding of God than Muslims at some levels. He doesn't believe all ways are equal. He can make distinctions and still see what you see in your Buddhist friends. But my point in the blog is broader than Volf. I just as committed to truth as the toe the line folks. (And I would say that Jesus is more than a lens).


Anonymous said...

I am good with different understandings and making distinctions. What I am pushing back against is the notion that our understanding is right, our distinctions are truth, and all others are false or second rate at best. And I want Jesus to be more than a lens but at this point in my faith journey I do not hold the position that salvation of the world and history requires Jesus. To make that statement brings me back to penal substitutionary atonement and a petty blood-thirsty god. The God revealed through Jesus and the God I know thorough my experience is not that kind of God. I like the idea of a Cosmic Christ – that would make my world neat and tidy. At this point, though, I do not have enough understanding to hold that position with honesty.

I do not believe that all ways are equal, but the evaluation of such ways should be how each way helps individuals know the unknowable, experience God, and live peaceful lives. For much of the world that way is Jesus, for much of the world it is not.

I am open to greater understanding and am resisting easy answers. I so wish I could be there in May.

Happy Birthday.

Mark Love said...


I think this is a McMenamin's conversation.