A Voice across the Great Chasm: An Interview with Miroslav Volf
Miroslav Volf, the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School, is a world-renown theologian who combines impeccable scholarship with a deep passion for the church. Shaped by his experience of growing up in a Christian community in communist Yugoslavia, Volf has provided an important, distinct theological voice to many of the social and theological issues of our day. In this interview, Volf talks about his new book, Allah: A Christian Response, common misconceptions of the Trinity, and what it means to be a Christian in conversation with Muslim brothers and sisters.
The Other Journal (TOJ): In the introduction to your new book, Allah: A Christian Response, you write, “I know that the boundary separating truth and falsehood is not the same as the boundary between political parties or ideological combatants.” Can you talk a little bit about how you see the current political and cultural configuration in the United States obfuscating the truth? And how does this current political landscape cloud our vision as US Christians when it comes to understanding Islam?
Miroslav Volf (MV): I am writing this response two days after Representative Peter King’s hearings (March 10, 2011) about radicalization in Muslim communities. These hearings were a political spectacle, not an instrument of truth finding. They did something to consolidate the position of Mr. King in his political camp but nothing to improve the security of the nation. To the contrary, instead of eliminating radicalization, I have argued elsewhere that these hearings will perpetuate it.
Another example of how the US political landscape obfuscates truth is clearly apparent in the great uproar about the Islamic Center near Ground Zero. That was politically motivated, and it was one massive expression of prejudice. Basically, it rested on identifying Islam with a terrorist ideology. Now, I disagree with Islam on many points—I am, after all, a committed Christian—but to identify Islam with a terrorist ideology is simply false and represents a great injustice toward the majority of Muslims. And this falsehood was publicized in the service of gaining political capital. That is morally wrong. Any right-minded Christian must consider it a grave sin.
TOJ: The central and bold claim of this book is that “Christians and Muslims worship one and the same God, the only God.” What are the common mistakes about the doctrine of the Trinity that Christians and Muslims both make? When a deeper understanding of the Trinity is realized, how might this open up important commonality between the religions?
MV: Christians often understand the doctrine of the Trinity as if there were three separate divine agents who form a kind of loving troika and as if, when they want to do something in the world, they deliberate as a committee. Muslims understand what Christians mean by the Trinity in a similar way. They claim that Christians associate another being—Jesus Christ—with God; Christians, in their view, believe in one God and then add to that one God a divine associate.
But as I argue in my book, this is all wrong. It is a bastardized doctrine of the Trinity. Christians who know what they are talking about believe that there is one and only one God who has no associates—no divine troika, no divine committee of three. The Word and the Spirit are distinct but inseparable from the Speaker of the Word and Breather of the Spirit, and no divine “person”—neither Father, nor Son, nor the Spirit—ever acts independently in any activity. The Holy Three who are the Holy One interpenetrate each other in a way that creatures do not. Consequently, you cannot count God in the same way you count things in the world, and of course, you cannot count when it comes to God simply because God is not one of the things to be counted but is a source of all things that can be counted. Therefore, what Muslims deny about the Trinity, we Christians, when we know what we are talking about, do not affirm; Muslims are not contesting what we believe about the divine Trinity. So where some Muslims and Christians think there is an unbridgeable gulf, there is actually much commonality (though also some significant difference).
TOJ: You argue that the Islamophobia in North America is sustained more by geopolitical interests than by theological difference and discernment. Who benefits from the Islamophobia in North America and what effect does it have on Christian theopolitics?
MV: Islamophobia is not created by theological differences. It is the other way around: theological differences are exaggerated so that struggles against Muslims can be justified. Again, there are significant differences between Muslim and Christians beliefs, and these differences should be debated. For instance, I believe that a great majority of Muslims have gotten things wrong when it comes to their beliefs about Jesus Christ—both his identity and his work on the cross—as well as some other important Christian beliefs. But this is no reason for considering them enemies. And when some of them in fact act as enemies—as the terrorists inspired by radical versions of Islam do and as those Muslims who persecute Christians in countries like Pakistan do—it is our Christian duty to love them. Christ enacted love of enemies on the cross and commanded us to follow him in this regard. How can I say that I worship Christ as divine Lord and that I rest my life on his love of sinners but act in regard to Muslims in the exact opposite way from what he commands me to do?
TOJ: As with other books you have written, this book is tied deeply to your personal story. From your time growing up in Communist Yugoslavia to your current interfaith dialogues, what have you discovered as a Christian theologian about God from your Muslim brothers and sisters? What have they taught you about the Christian faith?
MV: These dialogues have deepened my faith. I have become even more attracted to Jesus Christ—Jesus Christ is the reason I am a Christian—and to the beauty of the Christian faith. And I have rediscovered that because I am so attracted to Jesus Christ and to the Christian faith, I can find new inspiration to respect, care for, and work for the good of people of all religions, Muslims included.
TOJ: You argue that at the center of their faiths, Christians and Muslims both find the command to love God with their whole selves and to love their neighbors as themselves, and you argue that we must apply this shared ethic to bridge a deep source of conflict between these faiths—missions. You write that “Mission, colonialism, and globalization feed off of each other to the detriment of Muslims.” Where does reconciliation start on the heels of something like the war in Iraq, where, as you note, in 2003 missionaries landed shortly after the troops? And if we do need what you call a “common code of conduct” for missionary practice, how is such a code created, and by whom?
MV: Reconciliation always starts in the hearts of individuals and then, ideally, it spreads. Church bodies and political bodies can also be involved. As to the common code of conduct, the discussions can start both at the very top and on the ground. I think that it would be important for influential Muslims, who command the respect of rank-and-file Muslims, to start a formal dialogue on this issue with representative evangelical and Catholic Christians who, again, command the respect of rank-and-file Christians worldwide.
TOJ: A deep point of friction between the Christian and Muslim faith is how the prophet Muhammad is understood. As a Christian theologian, what are specific ways you understand the prophet Muhammad that are distinctly Christian, respectful to Islam, and consistent with your thesis that we worship the same God?
MV: Where we stand in relation to Muhammad is a complicated issue that deserves careful deliberation. Clearly, a Christian will not be able to accept Muhammad as “the Seal of the Prophets.” For Christians, God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and in the Bible is ultimate. A Christian will not even be able to accept that Muhammad has the same level of authority as the Old Testament prophets or New Testament apostles. But it might be possible for Christians to think of Muhammad as a prophet in a loose sense of the word, the way we sometimes think of Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi as prophets. Christians can then judge the truth of their prophetic message against the measuring rod of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ as recorded in the Bible.
TOJ: As we watch protests in Egypt, Libya, Iran, Bahrain, and other places in the Middle East, it is evident that this is an important time to have a book like Allah: A Christian Response. We are watching largely peaceful protests that are asking for change in their governments and standing up against tyranny. I’m sorry for such a broad question, but what are your general reflections on the Middle East protests?
MV: What we see are hopeful signs. We don’t know yet how things will turn out, and it may well be that major difficulties are still ahead of us. After all, none of the big structural problems—for instance youth unemployment—that plague these nations have been solved by successful revolutions. Egypt is a good example. On the one hand, Muslims and Christians (and secularists) in Egypt have together deposed a dictator. And Muslim leaders like Sheik al-Qaradawi are recognizing publicly the importance of Christians in this endeavor (as I noted in my Huffington Post article from March 3, 2011). At the same time, tensions between some Muslims and Copts continue, and there is a possibility that the Christian minority will have it worse under the new regime than it had under the old. Similarly, unemployment is continuing and creating jobs will be a major problem. We—Muslims and Christians everywhere—should highlight what we have in common (our similar convictions about the One God, most importantly) so that we can build a common future. As I have argued in Allah: A Christian Response, Muslims and Christians have a common platform to stand on and work together. In the process of working together, however, it will also be important to discuss our differences, whether these touch on the role of women in society or the character of Jesus Christ as the way to God.
Chris Keller is Founding Editor of The Other Journal and a psychotherapist in Seattle, Washington.
Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and the founding director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Volf is a leading expert on religion and conflict, and he has been described by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams as “one of the most celebrated theologians of our time.” His recent books include Against the Tide: Love in a Time of Petty Dreams and Persisting Enmities and Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, winner of the 2002 Grawmeyer Award in Religion.