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."