Miroslav Volf 2: Interview on ‘Allah’ as path to peace

THIS WEEK, we are reporting on Christian-Muslim relations in light of news events.
Part 1
, a report on a new investigation into Muslim life—and an excerpt from theologian Miroslav Volf’s new book, “Allah.”
Part 2, a story about one Muslim Mom.
Part 3, Miroslav Volf interview begins.
TODAY, we complete our interview with the  theologian Miroslav Volf.
You can order “Allah: A Christian Response” from Amazon at a discount.


DAVID: We’ve been talking about reasons that tensions are rising between Christians and Muslims. There’s violence and fear in the world. The Vatican seems more interested in emphasizing differences than similarities right now. One other problem you discuss in your book is that many American Christians don’t know their own Christianity very well. This point reminds me of Kenda Creasy Dean’s book, “Almost Christian,” which we recommended earlier. You and Kenda both make the point that a lot of Americans have fallen into a casual belief in a kind of Christianity Lite. Does that make sense?

MIROSLAV: I would fully agree with you. This kind of easy merger of American culture and Christianity is at odds with what is happening in many other parts of the world in Christianity. This becomes a problem when we’re placing a highly Americanized version of Christianity Lite in contrast with Islam. Then the contrasts seem greater. Yes, I think this is one of the things we need to consider.

DAVID: This kind of Christianity Lite we’re talking about here has been described as a vision of God as a heavenly butler and therapist. That’s not orthodox Christianity. Kenda Creasy Dean argues that this is a great opportunity for Christian families to rediscover the fullness of their faith—their real faith tradition.

MIROSLAV: If you’re comparing Christianity with Islam from the standpoint of a kind of bastardized version of Christianity, then the difference is perceived as starker than it ought to be. If God is a butler, then the contrast seems very high with a faith that sees submission as a primary mode of relating to God. As Christians we forget that we not only worship Jesus Christ as savior and deliverer, but also as Lord. An encounter with Islam may be an occasion for us to go back to our Christian roots in a fresh way.


DAVID: One of your earlier books that I think people may want to read along with the new, “Allah,” is your earlier, “The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World.” In that book, you write about your own experience of fear and frustration within the Communist system. For a while as you served in the Yugoslav army, you found yourself under a very intimidating investigation. This can become quite a cycle of fear, anxiety, anger. We just published a story about the Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky. When Brodsky finally got out of the USSR, he still felt fear when he’d see an American policeman on the street. Just a sight of a uniformed officer would make him anxious. How do we get past such trauma?

MIROSLAV: For me, it boils down to two foundational convictions. One is: I am not what I, or somebody else, has done to me. My identity is not locked into the history of my own pain, either pain that I inflicted on myself or that others inflicted on me. I am who I am, in a profound sense, because I am a beloved child of God. That allows me to transcend, to not be constrained, by the doings of others upon me. That frees me from the captivity of the past.

Second and equally significant is an insight from Jürgen Moltmann about how the future looks to us. How do we see the future? If you’ve suffered a great deal in your life, then you look into the future through the rear-view mirror. You can only see the future through your past. The future then becomes an extension of your past.

In the biblical tradition, the future breaks sequences of the past. The future breaks expectations and the chains of the past and brings something that is radically new. What is radically new is the promise of this God who is committed to loving us. To me, the definition of who I am and what awaits me is defined by this experience of this extraordinary love of God. That’s what helped me through the whole process. That’s the way in which we can heal our memories and move on without being held captive in fear of repetition.

DAVID: In “The End of Memory” you write about times when we may need to set aside the past, when we may need to forgive trespasses. In some cases, we may actually need to forget the past. You also argue that, without memory, there is no human identity. So, is it realistic to hope that we might actually forget some of the past?

MIROSLAV: As I indicated in my last answer, my hope for the future is not simply an extrapolation from past behavior. My hope is that something new can emerge. I have hope in the presence of God in our midst. I am hopeful that we can learn to see ourselves truthfully as Christians, accepted by God, but nonetheless truthful about our past. The truth is that our past with regard to Muslims was not that pretty. And I hope, too, that we also can see Muslims in the truth of their past and together we can see possibilities for the future.

I don’t want the past to define what the future might be. To the degree that we can both agree that the truth will set us free, to the degree we can embrace the truth, then we will be able to transcend this seemingly eternal cycle. But we can embrace this truth that will set us free only if we know we are secure—no matter what the truth about ourselves and the other person may be. That may sound too hopeful and too soft, but at the same time I think that it is precisely these kinds of nuanced workings of our souls that hold the key a better future.


DAVID: You haven’t just been theorizing about these matters. You’ve been at the core of international efforts to bridge these gaps. We also want to recommend to our readers “A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor, a book that contains both the landmark 2007 Muslim statement to Western Christians—and the public response that you helped to organize from a wide range of Christians. In that book, you say that the Muslim effort, called “A Common Word,” has “the potential of becoming a historic watershed defining the relations between the two numerically largest faiths in the world today for the good of all humanity.” So, that was in 2007. What do you think today?

MIROSLAV: It’s a very useful document. I consider it to be one of these most hopeful documents in ecumenical history over the last 50 years. I hope that its potential will not dissipate by the lack of engagement. I think it charts a program we need to follow through on.

DAVID: What needs to be done?

MIROSLAV: We need to follow through with serious scholarly work as well as community-relations work. My own new book, “Allah,” is really an outgrowth of that process and it is an attempt to provide more underpinnings for the process. It’s very well to say that both Muslims and Christians are obliged to love God and love neighbor, but work has to be done on what this means. Work also has to be done on the Muslim side. There are lots of questions we need to discuss and clarify.

DAVID: And now we’ve come full circle from where we started this interview. Your new book “Allah” is taking that next step in faith—and in hope. In the face of wars and rumors of wars, as you said at the start, you continue to work in hope, right?

MIROSLAV: Scripture is an extraordinary story of both tragedies and sufferings—and hopes—whether those are of Abraham or of the people of Israel or of Jesus Christ for Christians. The whole arc of these stories is the arc of the suffering, then the hope. As we encounter scripture, we latch our hopes onto those hopes we find there. Why do we do that? Our hopes need direction. Our hopes need wings.

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

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(Originally published at readthespirit.com)

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