Meet Miroslav Volf, whose ‘Allah’ is a path to peace

THIS WEEK, we are reporting on Christian-Muslim relations in light of turbulent news events.
In Part 1, we reported on one congressman’s plan to target American Muslims—and we shared an excerpt from theologian Miroslav Volf’s new book, “Allah.”
In Part 2, we published a personal story about one Muslim Mom’s decision to start wearing a scarf.
TODAY and tomorrow
, you’ll meet this remarkable Croatian-American theologian whose new book offers a path toward peace between Christians and Muslims. And, if you’re part of a small group looking for a great book to discuss this spring: You can order “Allah: A Christian Response” from Amazon at a discount..


DAVID: Your roots in Eastern Europe are crucial to understanding your impassioned work as a theologian. Your own Yale Center for Faith and Culture faculty page says: “A native of Croatia, he has forged a theology of forgiveness and non-violence in the face of violence experienced in Croatia and Serbia in the 1990s.” You obviously have experienced real-world tragedy and aggression. How do you describe the importance of these roots in Eastern Europe?

MIROSLAV: I think there is a profound significance in my growing up within my particular small community and in my being raised by folks who I think now were absolutely stellar Christians. They were extraordinary characters displaying the beauty of the Christian faith in many ways that captured my imagination. My father, my mother—we are talking about saints, extraordinary people as I regard them. Many people have those feelings about their families in many parts of the world. Nevertheless, this was significant in my life. When I was growing up, I saw their example even though we were part of a small religious minority living in a context of persecution.

DAVID: Earlier in my career, I reported for American newspapers from Eastern Europe, particularly around the time that revolutions swept through those countries in 1989 and 1990. We should explain to readers that Croatia is an almost exclusively Catholic country. Your father and grandfather were Protestant clergy. Plus, as you were growing up, your family lived in Communist Yugoslavia at a time when any active clergy risked persecution. And, you weren’t even part of the dominant church in Croatia. We might describe your situation as: a persecuted minority of evangelicals within a persecuted minority of active Christians.

MIROSLAV: What I remember about my family while I was growing up is that, in their Christian faith, they were unimpressed—they were nonreactive—with regard to the wider culture in which they lived. The pressures of that society did not transmute itself into animosity. This gives me an appreciation of marginalization and the ability to live out of the center of one’s faith without having to necessarily react to whatever goes on around you.

My grandfather was a Baptist minister and Dad was a Pentecostal minister. They felt a lot of pressure from the Catholics in Croatia. A lot of my friends reacted to that kind of pressure with an anti-Catholic stance. I’ve never felt that. I want to learn from Catholics and from the Orthodox tradition as well. This perspective of not feeling forced to react to the pressures of the world is something I value immensely.

DAVID: This is a theme we find right there in the pages of your new book, “Allah.” Whatever violence is erupting around the world, we don’t have to react automatically with more violence.

MIROSLAV: Right up to this latest book, “Allah,” I am saying that our perspective cannot simply be reactive. As Christians, we must carefully sketch outward from the center of our Christian faith. My whole career has been impelled by this beauty of the Christian faith—that even in the midst of a hard life, our faith can be a source of love. We can build bridges outward from that to others, whatever is happening in the world.


DAVID: That may sound like an easy thing to say. But I remember, in early 1990, reporting from Eastern Europe and meeting Christian leaders who suddenly were emerging from prison camps. I met a bishop who been forced to perform hard labor in a uranium mine. I met a priest who had a hole in the plaster wall of his home where the Communist-era police had used his body like a battering ram, trying to smash his skull. The priest survived, but I saw the big hole that was left in his wall. That priest, too, advocated non-violence. This refusal to react with anger, with hatred or with violence—this was not easy in that region of the world.

MIROSLAV: I experienced what I would describe as mild persecution in my life there. But, unlike me, my father did undergo tremendous persecution. Under the Communist regime, at one point, he was in a concentration camp and his life was hanging by a thread. He was a good-natured man in general, but he became furious. Then, God found him in that concentration camp. This encounter with God’s love in the midst of the worst of what could possibly be imagined—what he later described as Hell—gave him this sense of the victory of God’s love over his own very much reactive stance. That’s what he was redeemed from, from his consuming anger at the injustice of what was happening to him. His redemption came in the form of redemption from his own anger.

DAVID: The idea of setting aside our fear, our anger, our anxiety—so that we can see clearly and respond thoughtfully—that’s a very timely lesson right now. Have you been following news reports about the hearings planned in the U.S. House by a new Republican committee chairman? He plans to target Muslim leaders in the U.S., claiming they’re not doing enough to condemn terrorism. This Rep. King seems like quite an angry fellow.

MIROSLAV: No, I haven’t been following that news because I’ve been spending so much time focused on what is happening in Egypt right now. The events in Egypt have mesmerized me and I’m doing some writing on that.

DAVID: Well, Egypt is another good example of the timely nature of your book, “Allah.” Everywhere I travel and speak, if the subject of Islam and Christianity comes up, the first question raised by the audience is: Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? I know you’ve heard that same question yourself, when you travel and speak.

MIROSLAV: We live in a time of combustible tensions between Muslims and Christians—and between Western powers that are primarily Christian and those countries that are majority Muslim. Major wars still are going on in Iraq and Afghanistan and there are rumblings of war elsewhere. There are persecutions of Christians in many Muslim countries. There is a sense that a terrorist threat is at a height now, once again after 9/11. In Europe right now, there is a sense that multiculturalism is dead, this coming now from Germany and Great Britain. All of these forces ride on the tensions between Muslims and Western Christians. That is the kind of situation to which this new book speaks.

I am asking: Who do Christians and Muslims worship? The God we worship defines us, defines our ultimate values. Can the “other” community be trusted if their values are profoundly different than our own? Can we live together? Can we somehow find ways to avoid resolving disputes simply through violence? “Allah” addresses these fundamental questions. Realizing that we do have a common God means that we also have a common set of values. That can bring people together. That can bind us together.


DAVID: Your book is more than 300 pages and, in our interview, we are only scratching the surface. There’s a lot of rich material exploring what Christians actually believe about God—and the many similarities between those beliefs and Muslims’ beliefs. The book is written in clear prose in well-organized chapters. You start the book with a list of 10 arguments that “make or break” the book. Here’s an example of one of those arguments. You write: “I reject the idea that the God of the Quran stands as a fierce and violent deity in opposition to the God of Jesus Christ, who is sheer love.” Can you explain that line?

MIROSLAV: The Christian understanding of God makes this foundational claim: God is love. Nothing is as important as that in the Christian tradition. But then we must ask: Where is justice in our faith? And, if we look to scripture, we see a strong emphasis on justice. God’s love is not an unjust love. That’s why that statement in my book says that I reject the idea that the Christian God is “sheer love,” only love. No, we realize that God is love along with justice. That’s a fundamental part of understanding a God of love.

In Islam, there are many stern attributes of God and people may focus on that. But in Islam, Allah also is described as most merciful and all forgiving. There are many attributes of Allah that describe this merciful character of God. The Quran describes Allah as relating to us in the way that a mother relates to a child. So, God also is a merciful and loving God, along with justice, in Islam. If you compare honestly these notions of God between the two faiths, we see that people who try to make a contrast between a fierce deity, on one side, and an utterly loving God, on the other side, are offering a false dichotomy.


DAVID: Readers who have followed news of interfaith relationships through the years are surely asking themselves: Why is anyone still debating this issue of whether we share one God? The single largest Christian denomination in the world, the 1-billion-member Catholic church, settled this question in a document in 1965. Then just before the year 2000, John Paul II again wrote about how urgently he hoped people would realize that the three faiths founded by Abraham—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—worship a common God. Many Protestant denominations have similar statements. Why do we still need books like “Allah”?

MIROSLAV: In part, people still are debating this because there is this image of who Muslims are, and who their God is, from the media. The media consistently report on Islam in relation to incidents of violence. The question keeps arising: Can we square our concept of God, which Christians think of as a God of sheer love, with the idea that God might be a part of violence.

DAVID: And Pope Benedict XVI also raised that question in his 2006 talk at Regensberg that touched off a new debate about this issue. Do you think Benedict is trying to roll back the earlier affirmations?

MIROSLAV: Benedict did not deny that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, but he did starkly raise differences. So, here was the top leader of the majority of Christians in the world, one of the most theologically learned human beings in the world, raising different angles about our understanding of God. The question remains, then.

DAVID: But, are you saying that Benedict may actually backtrack on the famous 1965 declaration and declarations by John Paul II?

MIROSLAV: I think that Benedict is less irenic toward Islam. I think he still does affirm 1965, but I think that he feels it is important to describe differences between Christianity and Islam. John Paul II was a bridge builder toward Muslims and felt it was important to describe similarities. But, in many areas of Benedict’s work, he sees himself as strongly consolidating orthodoxy. He’s been known as a watchdog of orthodoxy as a theologian. So, he raises these questions of difference.

Then, another factor in the world now is that we are in a situation of conflict. If you are someone who has determined to resort to animosity and violence, then I think it’s very hard not to exaggerate differences in our fundamental values. In a sense, hatred needs to emphasize difference so it can appropriately latch itself onto the object of our hatred. Violence needs difference so it can unleash itself. That’s why Jews were called vermin in the Holocaust. That’s why Tutsis were called cockroaches in Rwanda. Emphasizing difference precedes violence. We need to see each other as alien in order to unleash our hatred in violence.

COME BACK TOMORROW for the conclusion of this interview with Miroslav Volf.

Remember, you can order “Allah: A Christian Response” from Amazon at a discount.

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