(This is Part 1 of a review of Miroslav Volf, Allah: A Christian Response. There might be a Part 2. We’ll see.)
I’ve been meaning to read some Miroslav Volf. He’s one of those theologians that Tim Keller and Kevin Vanhoozer frequently cite. The the theological boyfriend of my theological boyfriends. And he teaches at Yale. So, yeah. I thought I’d start with Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. But the school library didn’t have anything by Volf except Allah: A Christian Response.
I figured that since I’m now teaching philosophy, religion, and worldview to more than a handful of Muslims, and since we’ve had the whole hijab dustup at Wheaton, and its attendant question about whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God or not, this was as good a book as any to read on vacation in Thailand—once I finished Marylinne Robinson’s Gilead.
I did, and I’m about halfway through Volf’s argument. I can see why people love him. Great prose, winsome approach, and a readiness to dive right into a very controversial subject. I like him. And I like this book. I’m glad I’m reading it. I knew from the get-go that he believes Christians and Muslims worship the same God, a position I have found awkward and unsettling for as long as I have been aware of the question itself. But I like to make it a practice to charitably read people that I’m inclined to disagree with, and it’s easier still to do when the it’s someone whose work has some sexy cachet in my tribe.
So, what do I think of the first half of Allah: A Christian Response?
Volf quotes Al Mohler, and negatively evaluates the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president’s insistence that Islam began as a conscientious denial of the Trinity and of the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Now, I am temperamentally much more predisposed to the posture, reasoning, and prestige of Miroslav Volf then I am to that of Al Mohler and John Piper (whose position Volf also quotes and takes issue with). And lately, I have been reading so many Roman Catholics as part of my PhD research that I am probably more predisposed to listen carefully to people like Pope John Paul II (one of Volf’s heroes in terms of affirming the “same God” doctrine), than I am to champion the views of strident Calvinist Baptists. To me, the former are fresh, new, and surprising, while the latter seem grumpy and perpetually threatened, insecure in their evangelical identities (or something like that).
But here, anyway, I’m somewhat surprised to report that Piper and Mohler’s position is more compelling to me than Volf’s.
Volf notes in passing that Christian scripture does not give a stance on whether Christians worship the same God as Muslims precisely because the canon of Christian scripture was closed five centuries before the birth of Islam. But where the issue of the identity of the Christian and Muslim God is concerned, I think this is more than a historical factoid. I believe that the author is overlooking a major set of historical religious contingencies, very central to Christianity, and very much at the center of the birth of Islam as well. He overlooks the fact that Christian Scripture says that Jesus came in the fullness of time; that God had once spoken by the prophets, but that in these last days, he had spoken finally by his Son.
What is particularly surprising (and disappointing) to me is that Volf takes an analytical, diachronic approach to the question of identity and otherness in Christian and Muslim doctrines of God. He gathers together a list of 6 things Christians and Muslims both say about God: that he’s one, that he’s the creator, that he’s transcendent, etc. And from that list, he says, in effect, “See? They’re saying the same things about their gods, so their gods must actually be the same God.”
But if one took a synchronic approach that takes seriously the history of revelation, which is so central to Christian doctrine and identity, and particularly to its eventual distinction from Judaism, things look a bit different. The reason that Christianity rejects ongoing rabbinical tradition as authoritative, and the reason it rejects a priori Mohammed as a true prophet, is that Christianity confesses that Jesus Christ is the supreme and final prophetic (as well as priestly and royal) revelation of God, who has come in the fullness of time, and after whom no further word need be spoken.
I think a focus on the history of redemption is an interpretive perspective that the New Testament itself champions. As such, it holds forth Christ as the culmination and even the eclipse of the prophetic tradition. It’s the final word. He’s the word the prophets themselves struggled to understand and anticipate. This fact alone makes it difficult to go very far with Volf’s strategy of amassing a ‘sufficient similarity’ between Muslim and Christian doctrines of God in order to assert their identity.
In fact, running this question along a redemptive-historical arc makes me cozy up even more to John Piper’s position, which Volf quotes early in his book:
I got a great help from a good friend of mine who said this: Suppose two people are arguing about their classmates from college 30 years ago, and they’re starting to wonder if they’re talking about the same person. “She did this and she did that.” “Oh, I don’t think she did that.” “And she looked like this.” “Oh, I don’t think she looked like that.” “Oh yes, she did.” And they’re arguing. They think they’re talking about the same person, and somebody comes up and says, “Well, why don’t you just open the yearbook?” So they get out the yearbook from 1968, and they open it up, and they say, “There she is.” And the other guy says, “Oh, no no no no, that’s not who I was talking about.” And it’s all clear now. We’re not talking about the same person.
And my friend said to me, “Jesus Christ, as He is revealed in the New Testament, is the yearbook. You open the yearbook, and you look at His picture and you say, “Is that your God?” and the Muslims are going to say, “No, that’s not our God.” And then you say, “Well, we’re not talking about the same God then.”
Furthermore, Volf glosses over, at least in the first 120 pages of the book, the fact that the central Muslim creed is not only that there is no God but Allah, but also that Mohammed is his prophet. And Muslims don’t just have this creed tucked away somewhere. They say it every day.
I learned a lot about Trinitarian theology from Volf, especially in his retrieval of Nicholas of Cusa in his fascinating fifteenth-century appeals to Muslim rulers about the similarities in their beliefs about God. Volf probably is right when he concludes that Muslim refutations of Christian Trinitarian theology rest on misunderstandings of tri-personality within divine unity, and that most Muslims have never heard Christians properly respond to those objections, coming as they do from a radical monotheist perspective.
But the fact of the matter is that there is a religion called Islam, and that it cane along 500 years after the fullness of time, in many ways specifically to refute the Christ event as the great revelation of God. Volf makes much about the notion that if Christians and Muslims were able to point out which God they worship, they’d both point to the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob to identify their God. Still, the fact remains that when Muslims are asked to identify their God, the first thing they do is say that Mohammed is his Prophet. Every day. Multiple times per day. Right away, Islam says something in identifying their god that Christians reject: namely, that Mohammad is his authoritative, even final, prophet. And, right away Islam began denying things about the Christian God that Christians had struggled to understand and articulate, held tedious but important councils to clarify, came to hold dear, and even died for in its first five centuries before Islam came along, namely the divinity of Christ and the nature of God as Triune.
Finally, the author notes that the reason his book is needed is because we are living in a post-9/11 world, and for the first time the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God has become existentially relevant to everyone. We feel it in our guts that this is an important question. He says that Muslim–Christian engagement on the scholarly level has had the resources to tackle this question with rigor for centuries, but that it was simply not a question that people were asking; it just was not relevant.
Now, however, it is perhaps the question. At least to Volf, the question is of such critical importance that if we get it wrong, we are liable to hate and bomb each other, and neither of us is likely to win. He believes that the question is central, and that he knows the answer, namely that Christians and Muslims do in fact worship the same God. With all the charity I can muster–and it is not difficult to muster charity for this author, who is, after all, revered as pretty sexy by evangelicals of my ilk–I am neither persuaded that it is the central question, nor that it should be answered in the way he does it.
For a long while now, I have been tempted to get a ‘coexist’ bumper sticker. That temptation is no longer active because I no longer have a car, being the cooler-than-you public-transit-using urbanite that I now am. Being the punchy person I can be at times, and knowing how much my fellow evangelicals dislike that bumper sticker, and how much they deplore the contemporary discourse surrounding tolerance, I have long thought it would be a wonderful provocation toward an important discussion among my fellow evangelicals if I slapped this sticker on my car. What is my point?
Well, this: Who would not want to coexist? What is the alternative to coexisting? Bombing each other? Demanding that only one religion is allowed on planet earth? Assuming that conversion or death are your only options? Yes, let’s coexist! I don’t want to die, and I’m too nice to kill you.
The author mistakenly thinks that saying we worship the same God is the key to loving and tolerating one another. But then, what are we supposed to do with atheists? With Hindus? With polytheists? (Granted, the radical fundamentalist fringes of those worldviews are not bombing us, I don’t think, and we are not tempted, I don’t think, to bomb them.)
As Volf points out, Muslims also bomb other Muslims, and Christians bomb other Christians. Apparently believing in the same God, but understanding that same God differently, is not the key to peace.
In my view, the problem here is that, according to standard sociology, it is the ‘proximate other’ who is often the most feared, the most threatening to us. That means that the similarities between Islam and Christianity are precisely what make us feel like there is a possible threat. And there is a threat, at least religiously. If you’re a monotheist, and you believe God is the sovereign creator, that he is benevolent, that he is transcendent and incomprehensible in his divine otherness from his creatures, well then, as a Christian, I am going to think that I’ve got a lot less work to do in persuading you to embrace Jesus Christ than if you were a doctrinaire atheist. And perhaps it goes the other way, too.
But there’s a motivation for me to love Muslims who aren’t converting to Christianity at all. And that is that they are made in the image of God. I’m going to go beyond the very practical but insufficient goal of coexisting with them. I’m going to love them. My faith tells me I must. Part of that love will be affirming the similarities in our doctrines of God. Part of it will be pointing out the radical dissimilarities with respect to the person of Jesus Christ. And another part still will be my seeking to persuade you how much better my religion is than theirs, simply because of the fact that God, who is love, became flesh and died for his enemies in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
But mostly, my love will be more mundane and less dramatic than that, just like it is with my atheist neighbors, and just like it is with people who go to weird Christian (?) churches that don’t seem to talk about Jesus nearly enough. It’ll involve sharing a dinner table and swapping recipes, if I am lucky enough. It’ll mean I’m a charitable and respectful Christian teacher of Muslim students. It’ll manifest when I rejoice with Muslim neighbors whenever He who shines in all that’s fair bestows some temporal blessing upon them. And, who knows, maybe it even means housing a family of refugees someday. I don’t know.
But the point is, Volf is wrong about the question’s critical importance, even more than he is wrong about the answer to the question. We are called to love lots of people who worship different gods than us, as well as those who believe in no god.
Coexist. Better, love. And, in loving, have loving, tolerant dialogue about your differences, and don’t assume that worshipping different gods means the only option left is violence.