I made this video about my foray into bullet journaling in the past year. Baby steps toward living intentionally.
“Death, be not proud,” said John Donne of old.
But whether or not it reckons
squarely with its own certain demise,
for the time being–proudly or humbly,
it matters little–
it snatches away what is not its own,
and leaves us bereft of sons and lovers.
And who among us would not prefer
a thousand haughty benefactors
to one perfectly humble, mortal thief?
“Maybe iPhones have feelings, too,”
I replied, in a last-ditch effort
to plead my case, my lost
cause, my losing battle not
worth fighting, my stubborn
resistance to those who, like
you, self-righteously insist that
persons should talk to other
persons when in their presence.
“But let’s suppose they did,” I
continued. “I could put mine down
on this restaurant table and fix
my eyes and my desires squarely
on you instead, but Penelope—
let’s call her Penelope, provisionally—
could, through her one ear located
on the bottom of her long face,
still hear us arguing about my
priorities and begin to despise you
for wedging your way between us.
She would still take in at least the
ceiling and perhaps the occasional
especially demonstrative gesture
from one of her highly-evolved eyes,
either the one perched atop her radiant
face or—let’s not forget—the dominant
one peering through her helmet
on the back of her head. When
the bill arrives and it’s time to
calculate the tip, you can do
the math, I will presume, and she and I
will watch and listen as we drum
our digits on the table with justified,
spiteful impatience. And when it is that
time in the midst of our riveting conversation
to turn our attention to Ohio Sports
teams, I’m looking forward to hearing
your incisive analysis of the Cavs’
offseason trades and whether you
think the Tribe has the right elements
and chemistry to win it all this year. But
we both know that Penelope here is
the Michael Jordan of baseball conversation
and you’re more like our eldest son
insisting on the contemporary relevance
of castle sieges and pressing your case
that Minecraft counts as a STEM activity,
both of which are fine topics for conversation
for fine people, of course, given the proper
time and place. And I think we’d both agree
that this fancy restaurant on this, the
occasion of our fourteenth anniversary, is
by any estimation, neither the time
nor the place.
What’s the deal
“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”
-Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue
“But we have the mind of Christ,” Paul tells the Corinthians.
Theirs was a sensual culture, and its people followed their hearts wherever their hearts should lead them. This approach earned them notoriety within the Hellenistic world: to fornicate was to “Corinthianize.”
At the same time, there were powerful religious and secular leaders who championed not the heart but the hands. For them, it was all about action, power, movement, the exertion of the will, and the demonstration of mastery.
There were also intellectuals, both genuine and spurious, who advocated for the primacy of wisdom. These peddlers of philosophy weren’t “heart people” or “hands people”; they were “head people.”
It was into this context of disputed anthropologies that Paul called the Corinthian believers to a better way, the way of Christ. His pedagogy was imitatio Christi—the imitation of Christ. He called for Christians to have the mind of Christ.
Unfortunately, when we read that we are to have the mind of Christ, we often assume that Paul’s antidote to our culture’s Corinthian hearts, its lust for signs of power, and its sophistry is simply to out-think our secular opponents. We imagine that if we teach our children to best their peers in the realm of the intellect, bringing the Christian worldview to bear on every aspect of our culture, we can preserve the faith and pass it along to another generation despite Christendom’s decline.
Pedagogically, then, Christian education acts as though the secular head, heart, and hands must be replaced primarily with a Christian head. We tend to privilege the head over the heart and hands, hoping that a Christian heart and a set of Christian hands will follow naturally from a mind that has been thoroughly shaped by a Christian worldview.
But are we primarily thinking beings? Do our thoughts supervene upon our emotions and volitions in such a way that they determine the kind of people we become, and ultimately how we feel and what we do?
I don’t think so.
First of all, it’s not just our hearts that are fallen–though the heart is desperately wicked, as the prophet tells us. Nor is our fallenness confined to our actions. Our minds are fallible, too. Our ability to conform our minds to the teaching of Christ in his word is fallible, even while his word itself is not. We are just as capable of being mistaken as we sketch out the components of a robust Christian worldview as we are capable of unwittingly engaging in unfaithful conduct.
Story-shaped, or Argument-shaped?
When my best friend and I were both newly married, we frequently talked about our difficulties adjusting to married life. Those were heady days for both of us, and especially for his wife and him. They were intellectual people determined to sort out their married life according to their robustly Christian worldviews. They argued. A lot.
One day, as my friend recounted a recent heated argument between him and his wife, and the philosophical stalemate that resulted, I had a rare flash of insight and brilliance. I told him: “You two are going to have to decide if you want your marriage to be shaped like an argument, or shaped like a story.” I’ve never said something so incisive and helpful again in my life.
Worldview education as a program for outthinking our secular counterparts can only get us so far. It won’t even get two thoughtful Christians who love each other on the same page all the time. Many times we are so steeped in “the Christian worldview” that we begin to generate an unsavory Christian McCarthyism that constantly suspects other Christians of being secret agents for secularity.
Even if our typical worldview program gets us to the place where we can analyze everything under the sun with heroic levels of scrutiny and sophistication, it still misses the mark. Too often, the way worldview education is pursued in schools, churches, and homes falls woefully short of helping young people begin to lives that are shaped like stories.
We may be able to fill our children’s minds with arguments with which to defeat their pagan peers. But without something more than “worldview education,” our children’s lives will be shaped more like arguments than stories. And to have “the mind of Christ,” I believe, is not simply to stack up the right arguments for Christ’s lordship in a secular world. Rather, one has the mind of Christ when one begins to live into, to believe into, the story of God’s reconciliation of all things through Christ. A disciple of Jesus doesn’t just think Christian thoughts. A disciple of Jesus grows to have one’s whole being—emotions, thoughts, actions—follow the pattern of the Jesus’ own life. Disciples begin to think, feel, and act as though his story was really true, as though the story of Jesus has the one true happy ending we all want out of a good story.
Why Read? For “Final Narrative”
In his remarkable book Why Read?, University of Virginia professor of English Mark Edmundson puts forth the concept of “final narrative”. We read literature, he says, in order to try on a character’s way of being in the world, the story that their life is trying to tell. Trying on a character’s final narrative involves attempting to think their thoughts after them, feel things like they do, and consider what it would mean to act according to their pattern of action.
The author of the story, of course, lurks in the background of the action and the characters. She choreographs the movements of the character within the story arc of the book, and in so doing, she might be holding forth the character as a model of faithful human agency in the face of the twists and turns of the plot. Or she may be creating a character for whom the plot twists prove too difficult for a morally malformed character to navigate faithfully. Or she may have a complex character who acts with a mix of integrity and moral compromise.
Whichever way the author paints the character and the world that the character inhabits, a final narrative is proposed. We, as readers, must take stock of the proposed final narrative, and ultimately we must take them or leave them. Otherwise, our reading is pure entertainment and never reaches us at the core of who we are.
Final Narrative > Worldview
I believe that, by God’s common grace, Edmundson has hit on a concept that Christian educators should appropriate—one which could supplant “worldview education” in our schools, churches, and homes.
Worldview emphasizes thinking and seeing. By contrast, a final narrative approach to education would continue to recognize the importance of thought in the development of Christian character, but would also take much more seriously our emotions and volition, which are constituent parts of our humanity.
Where a worldview approach to pedagogy might teach children how to think Christianly, a final narrative approach to pedagogy would pay just as much attention to our practices. Biblical worldview integration might produce lessons that can help us know the truth. But a final narrative approach seeks to integrate the story arc of the drama of redemption. In doing so, it will go beyond a call to know the truth and challenge students to love the truth and enact the truth. Instead of thinking our way into having the mind of Christ, a final narrative approach would challenge students by having them inhabit practices that are meant to shape and develop their loves. Ultimately, we want students to be truthers, not just people who think in orthodox manners while they continue to feel and act in a heterodox fashion.
James K A Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, insists that we are not primarily thinking beings, but loving beings. In his books Desiring the Kingdom and You Are What You Love, he traces this Augustinian insight throughout the history of discipleship. He makes the case that our educational practices need to stop exclusively targeting the minds and begin to target the lives of students. As Annie Dillard has perfectly said, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Smith fears that our instructional habit of targeting the mind does not take account of the fact that students’ days are usually spent dutifully following secular liturgies, and that these liturgies have a formative power beyond that of our our lectures to guide students into story-shaped lives.
Thus, Smith argues, students may fill their medium-term memories with the thoroughly Christian data we teach them in the classroom; they may retain that data for long enough to regurgitate it on a test; and in so doing they might please any Christian educator and impress their classmates with their worldview knowledge. And yet, when they hand in their test and return their textbooks, their lives are still shaped by final narratives that are fundamentally secular. Students can know Christianity back and forth, but spend their days and their lives essentially adhering to the pattern of this present evil age, and having their desires shaped by those habits.
Most of our lives are not spent thinking. Rather, they are spent inhabiting practices that shape our loves, form our habits, and make it easier for us to act in certain ways. The Christian life is not the life of a detached observer, analyzing discrete phenomena on the intellectual plane. A Christian life, like any human life, is a life of thinking, feeling, acting.
Final Narrative in the Classroom
In the classroom, a final narrative approach to Christian education will, of course, involve instruction. We cannot live our students’ lives for them or get into their emotions and conform their feelings to a Christian final narrative. We will have to use our minds to reach their minds.
However, a pedagogy built on a Christian final narrative will also challenge students to inhabit Christian practices in ways that shape, form, and order their loves—loves that are ofttimes shaped by the final narratives of advertisers, shopping malls, pop stars, sports heroes, and the like.
Such a pedagogy will meet students at the existential level and not only the cognitive level. It will ask students to examine the lives they are living, and challenge them to give an account for the final narrative they are inhabiting, and the story their lives are telling.
We will need to ask students to examine their emotional reactions to events in the world, and not simply to rationally analyze current or historical people and events from a Christian worldview. We will have to draw students out of the classroom and into the surrounding community to interact with professionals in various fields, in order to hear people’s stories and uncover their final narratives. We will then need to challenge students to decide whether to adopt the story that such professionals are inhabiting as their own, to integrate certain twists and turns of those stories into their own unfolding story, or to reject the stories they encounter as ones which do not follow the narrative arc of a fully-lived Christian life.
Such a pedagogy would not be afraid to expose students to the final narratives of people who have no faith, or other faiths. Rather, it would welcome such engagements as opportunities to listen to the life-stories such people inhabit, comparing and contrasting them to the stories students want to tell with their own lives. In a Christian worldview-oriented approach, pedagogical gatekeepers often feel they must screen out potential speakers, artists, texts, music, and films if they deem them to be insufficiently Christian in worldview. A final narrative-oriented philosophy of education would certainly be sensitive to obscene and damaging content from outsiders. But it would not shy away from encountering alternative final narratives.
This approach recognizes that students are already having implicit dialogues with holders of competing final narratives as they go about their days. Therefore, it makes sense to bring those encounters into the classroom and to trace their story arcs. We need to help students ask good questions of others’ final narratives. What kind of story are we being told by their life? Does their story have a happy ending? Is their supposed happy ending consonant with the happy endings that can only be reached when all things are renewed by the Lord Jesus Christ? What kinds of practices are we being encouraged to inhabit? How will these practices shape our hearts, minds, and affections if we were to enter into them?
We can’t shield our students from competing or antithetical final narratives. They’re already hearing the stories. And even if we insulate students from such spurious final narratives through an airtight Christian school, an orthodox and pious church, and tight parental controls on the home computer, students will soon be off at college or out in the workforce, where they’ll be inundated with foreign final narratives. Why not unmask inadequate final narratives in the classroom under the leadership of a wise Christian teacher instead?
Ultimately, there is nothing wrong with the idea of “worldview” per se. Part of having the mind of Christ is literally “to think Christ’s thoughts after him.” Educators must help students learn to love God with all their minds.
But we mustn’t just see the world. We mustn’t merely know the world. We must live in the world, and as we do so, we must tell a story about the world and where it’s been, where it is, and where it’s going.
Ultimately, a final narrative approach to Christian education re-tells the narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation through stories and practices that aim to shape the loves of students’ hearts in such a way that many will come to desire to live into the Christian story with more and more thorough commitment. A final narrative approach challenges students to think, feel, and act in such a way that they spend their days, and therefore their lives, seeking to live within the story-pattern of Christ rather than that of this present, passing age.
Note: I was required to write a paper setting forth my personal Christian philosophy of education as part of my certification by the Association of Christian Schools International. It turns out that this is something I’ve been meaning to articulate for a while now, and so I decided I’d post it here. As usual, I’d welcome your comments.
Ahead of June 2015’s NBA Draft, Ohio State freshman point guard D’Angelo Russell declared that he was the best player in the draft.
Yesterday at the NFL Combine, Ohio State junior defensive end Joey Bosa declared that he was the best player in the draft.
Nobody has asked me to analyze potential draft picks for professional sports franchises. I would be horrible at in that role. After all, I came out of fantasy football retirement this year, drafted my favorite players, was algorithmically declared the worst drafter, and subsequently finished 14th out of 14 in my fantasy league.
What’s my deficiency? I’ve got to like you to draft you. And you’ve got to be likable for me to like you. And to me, likable includes having an appropriate confidence in your gifts, a good work ethic, and the ability to have fun while you’re doing your job. Cam Newton falls in this category for me.
What makes you less likable? When you need to insist that you’re the best.
In Russell’s case, he clearly stood head-and-shoulders above his Buckeye teammates. He left after his freshmen year, after all, and was taken as the second selection in the draft. And he’s doing fairly well his rookie season with the Lakers.
But in Bosa’s case, by saying that he’s the best player in the draft, he’s also saying that he’s better than 12 of his Buckeye teammates, his fellow national champions, his brothers. That he’s a better player than Ezekiel Elliott, Braxton Miller, Joshua Perry.
(Bosa is also saying that he should be drafted number 1 overall despite the fact that his statistics slipped dramatically this season. And despite the fact that he sat out of two of Ohio State’s most important games for bad decisions: breaking team rules kept him out of the season opener at Virginia Tech, and a targeting penalty against Notre Dame found him ejected in the first quarter of the Fiesta Bowl.)
“I’m the best.” Maybe that’s exactly what the Tennessee Titans, who have the first pick, wanted to hear: confidence bordering on cockiness with a tinge of invincibility and a heavy dose of superhumanity. (Apparently they didn’t need to hear Marcus Mariota say that last year in order to draft him as their franchise quarterback.) Maybe that’s what his agent told him to say. Maybe it’s all a game.
Yes, that’s right. It is all a game. And the game is for players and fans. To your fellow players, you’ve just told them you’re better than them. To this particular fan, you’ve just made yourself much less likable.
Come to think of it, these players are essentially saying “I’m the best. Pick me!” This is actually a contradiction. On the one hand, they’re saying “I’m in charge of my own destiny. I control my own fate. I’ve got mad skills and I’ve honed those skills to perfection. I know I’m the best.” On the other hand, they’re saying “Pretty please? You won’t regret it. C’mon, me. Me. Look over here! At me. Please?”
Maybe more than being disappointed in these athletes that I cheered on at Ohio State, I should feel sorry for them. They’re working like crazy, they can’t eat whatever they want, they have mad skills, and yet they’re still begging.
By the time I reached the epilogue of Allah: A Christian Response on a plane somewhere over the Yellow Sea, I realized just how good a book I was holding in my hands. Since I’m a prolific starter of books, but rarely a finisher, I always get sentimental in those rare moments when I actually come to the end of one. It’s sort of like the feeling of reaching the end of vacation (which I was also simultaneously doing): you are grateful for the time spent exploring a new lands, but, like it or not, it’s time to move on. Volf had me feeling like I was holding his scholarly and vocational burden between my thumbs. While I had spent a little less than a week with this book, that same book was something he had poured a little less than his entire life into.
I felt this sense of weightiness all the more as I read the acknowledgements, realizing how many Muslim and Christian friends and colleagues Volf had collaborated with in order to come to the understandings he reached, and to get them onto paper. Honestly, it was not much different than the feeling I got when I finished Gilead by Marilynne Robinson by the pool in Thailand, just before picking up Allah. Robinson’s Pulitzer-winning work feels like the achievement of individual genius, while Volf’s book radiates with the warmth of intimate collaboration. And yet it simultaneously feels like you’re holding a hot potato, given the touchiness of the subject matter and the tragic history and volatile present it entails.
My first evaluation of Volf’s Allah focused on his central endeavor: a Christian response to the question “Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?” I registered my disagreement with both his answer to that question (which was ‘Yes’), and his elevation of that question to the pinnacle of importance. Basically, I feel there is just too much ambiguity entailed in the notion of “sameness,” and not enough explanation of why that notion fits in this case. There’s merely a list of common beliefs about God’s nature, entwined with dozens of repetitions of the elegant but problematic formula “our common God somewhat differently understood.” And Volf’s case–that having a common God is key to living peaceably in the world and even to collaborating for the common good–seems to me to come up short. As a Christian, I’m ready to love heathens, atheists, and monotheists alike, and I’m prepared to collaborate for the common good with anyone who’s not a jerk. That’s my initial Christian response to “Allah” and to Volf.
But to leave it at that would be irreverent in the face of Volf’s achievement (and Allah really is an achievement.) I set out to read Allah as an exercise in humbling myself to learn from someone I initially disagreed with, at least on the topic at hand. (That’s a good practice, by the way, which requires charity. That’s a post for another day, soon.) And boy did I learn a lot.
A Correction to my Trinitarianism!
When it comes to the Holy Trinity, the central mystery at the heart of the Christian doctrine of God, I’ve got lots to learn. Sure, I can pass a quiz on the doctrine of the Trinity with flying colors. But still, reading Allah, I found myself surprised to realize the way my instincts about the Trinity skew problematically in one direction.
Volf beleives the fundamental fault Muslims find in Christianity is its alleged compromise of monotheism. As it happened, while I was reading the final chapter of Allah, my wife sat next to an Egyptian Muslim man at the Guangzhou airport while we waited for our delayed flight. She mentioned to him that some Koreans behind them were singing together. He asked if they were singing Christian songs. She said she thought she recognized the melody of a hymn. Immediately this gentleman, Mohammad, said that Christians believe in three gods.
In class, my Muslim students have been surprised to hear me say that Christians don’t believe in three gods. As the author recounts it, Volf’s Muslim friends often perk up and stay for a nightcap when he affirms with them Christianity’s robust confession of the oneness of God. In a way, Volf’s book’s thesis is that Muslims fundamentally misunderstand the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.
I love, love, the mystery of the Trinity. I try hard to make all my prayers trinitarian. I try to address one of the three persons. I make reference to that person’s ontological and economic relationships with the other two persons. I ask for divine action from specific persons, usually the one I think is associated with that kind of work. I offer my prayers in the name of the Son and by the power of the Spirit, amen.
If you’re a hymn-writer and you build your stanzas around the person and work of the three members of the Holy Trinity, you can bet I’ll sing at the top of my lungs. If you conclude said hymn with a doxology to the three-in-one, you’ve won my heart forever. Conversely, if it’s all “God God God God God” and no Jesus and Spirit, on my jerkiest days I’ll wonder if maybe you’d make a better Jew or Mulsim than a Christian.
But with all this emphasis on the distinction in the roles and relations within the Godhead and in redemptive history, has my doctrine of God skewed toward an unbalanced emphasis on the threeness at the expense of the oneness of God? It took a book on Islam and a careful theologian like Volf to convince me that, yes, perhaps my doctrine needs correction.
It’s Volf’s retrieval of Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64) that startled me out of dogmatic slumber. In his A Sifting of the Qu’ran, Nicholas argued that our language about God—even the language which God himself utilizes with which to reveal himself—cannot be applied to God in the same way we apply such language in reference to non-divine things in our common experience. Nicholas taught that “one or three or good or wise or Father or Son or Holy Spirit” are all linguistic approximations of incomprehensible realities, not “attributes” as we commonly apply them to created things. Though they may be the very names God gives us to call him, Nicholas reminds us that God “infinitely excels and precedes all such names.”
When it comes to the numerical thorniness of the Trinity, Nicholas says that “the Trinity in God is no composite or plural or numerical, but is most simple oneness.” Huh? I don’t really know what this means, except that, as Nicholas goes on to say, “when you begin to count the Trinity you depart from the truth.” To be fair, Nicholas reminds us that even the oneness of the triune God is not a number, but “absolute unity”; or, as Volf says “God is not first in a series or the only one in a set.” In other words, God is three in one, but not “one” or “three” in most of the ways we commonly use those numbers. The divine persons are “three in oneness, not in number.”
I’m now kicking myself for drawing the old stand-by diagram of the trinitarian mystery (you know, just saying it that way makes it sound even more inadvisable) on the board as my Muslim students queried me about my alleged monotheism.
Nicholas of Cusa would have probably have facepalmed if he saw me do it. After all, Volf:
In God there is no opposition between “self” and “other”; in Nicholas’s words: “‘not-other’ is not ‘same’ and ‘not-same’ is not ‘other.'”
Read that a couple times. Then drink some coffee and read it again. I hope you’ll appreciate how profound, and corrective, this is. I suppose I’ve heard of (and thought “hey, that’s sexy!”) the term perichoresis, the Greek word for ‘rotation’ or ‘circumincession’ that refers to the interpenetration or coinherence of each member of the Trinity with the others. But I didn’t realize until now how prone to erring on the side of threeness, or mere numeracy, my concept of the Trinity can tend to be. I am caught up in the drama of the different persons of the Godhead interacting with one another in creation, redemption, and consummation. But Volf has helped me see that there is just as much drama (not to mention orthodoxy!) as the Father, Son, and Spirit act in each other as the one God sweeps creation toward new creation.
When it comes to understanding Islam and its monotheistic similarity with Christianity, it’s bracing and instructive to read the conclusion of Nicholas: “In the manner in which Arabs and Jews deny the Trinity, assuredly it ought to be denied by all.”
If the point of reading about Christianity’s response to Islam is to learn something profound that I didn’t know, then Volf and his favorite Renaissance Cardinal have certainly succeeded as my teachers in this respect.
Before making a final evaluation of Volf’s work, I’ll raise just a couple more questions that stirred in me as I read the second half of his book.
Muslims, Jews, Heretics: The ‘Same God’?
First, in his effort to show that there are ‘sufficient similarities’ in the Christian and Muslim understandings of God to conclude that they worship the same God, Volf raises the question of Jews. He repeatedly contrasts Christians’ insistence that Jews and Christians worship the same God with the hesitancy Christians have in saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. He underscores the near unanimity with which Christians affirm that Jews and Christians worship the same God, noting that, after all, we have Hebrew Scriptures in our Christian Bibles, and the authors of the New Testament were themselves Jews. Why, then, do we think we worship the same God as Jews, but a different one than Muslims?
I agree with Volf that Christians should not necessarily radically separate our evaluations of the Jewish and Muslim doctrines of God. There is, as Volf demonstrates, a great similarity between Hebrew and Qu’ranic scriptures in their descriptions of God’s nature and a near equivalence of the Ten Commandments in the Qu’ran, which links the two holy books.
But here again, as I said in the initial review, the author continues to downplay the redemptive-historical trajectory of both the Old and the New Testaments.
Given the radical, in-the-fullness-of-time nature of the Christ event, and especially the insistence in John’s writings that the fact of the incarnation of God in the flesh is crucial to knowing and loving God, I actually don’t see why it is so important to affirm that Jews worship the “same” God that we Christians do. In other words, the mere fact that Christians tend to say Jews worship the same God does not prove either that Jews do in fact worship the same God as Christians, or, as Volf wants to assert by extension, that Muslims also do. In view of redemptive history, I have no problem questioning whether Christians ought to say they worship the same God as Jews. The supreme revelation of the New Testament is that God is Father, and that he is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. As John Piper says, when Christians point at God, they open the yearbook and find Jesus’ photo, and they say “here’s who we’re talking about.” But Muslims and Jews would say, “no, that’s not God.” To my mind, if you have the Son, then you have the Father. But if you don’t have the Son, you don’t even know that God is Father. And if you don’t have God as Father–despite all the requisite linguistic-theological footnotes Nicholas of Cusa would want to add to this figurative language–it’s hard to say that you have the one true God at all.
The Fatherhood of God, because of the revelation of God the Son and God the Father in the Christ event, is so central to Christian understandings of God that without it, we don’t truly understand much of anything else about God.
Volf further tries to open us to the idea that Christians and Muslims worship the same God by drawing another analogy with the God of heretics. He maintains that orthodox theologians debated heretics about the God they all held in common. They had the same God, differently understood. And yet, in Christian understanding, heretics are not just mistaken, they’re condemned. And they’re condemned because they’re attempting to lead the faithful away from the one true God and into the worship of mere idols–idols which, most importantly, cannot save.
Again, why is it even advisable, much less important, to hold that Jews, Muslims, and heretics “worship the same God” as orthodox Christians? For Volf, it’s necessary so that we don’t harm one another. But he knows, and even says, that this motivation is not enough to determine our doctrines. Our doctrine must come from revelation. I think the case for “sameness” is lacking, and yet I don’t want to harm anyone—whether Jew, Muslim, heretic, apostate, or atheist.
Come Freely, But Don’t Ever Leave?
Volf somewhat reluctantly reports that the vast majority of Muslims agree that apostates should be punished. They only disagree on the severity of the punishment, which in some instances is death. And yet he doesn’t seem to think that this fact negates the “sufficiently similar” belief normative Christianity and normative Islam shares–specifically a common belief that conversion and faith cannot be coerced.
But if Muslims and Christians agree that you must enter their religions freely, but Muslims say that you can’t leave freely … how is this not coercion?
Conversion is not only something that happens when you initially enter a new faith. It’s also something that happens over and over each day, when you wake up and decide to follow your God. It happens again each time you resist temptation and do what is right. It happens every time you realize you’ve done wrong, and you repent rather than justifying yourself. It happens when you choose to engage in “faith seeking understanding” rather than de-converting at the first whiff of cognitive dissonance. We are converted, and we are being converted. One day, we’ll be fully converted.
But if Islam does not allow a Muslim to leave the faith freely, then Islam does not actually allow for this dynamic, past-present-future dimension of religious conversion to work itself out. Instead, it coerces people to stay Muslim. This radical difference does not play in favor of Volf’s ‘sufficiently similar’ case, but to his credit, he does elucidate the difference, reluctantly.
These points of contention notwithstanding, Volf’s book is still incredibly valuable. He has a great burden for constructive Muslim-Christian dialogue and witnessing, and a vision for collaboration based around common understandings of human flourishing.
How to Witness
Volf drafts a very compelling code of conduct for mutual witnessing (211-12). He builds this code upon the Golden Rule, a version of which is also present in the Qu’ran:
- Witness to others only if you are prepared to let them witness to you. It is wrong to coerce others to accept faith; the recipients have to be able to receive or reject faith in freedom, rather than be forced to cave in under pressure of a superior power.
- Witness to others in the way you think others should witness to you. It is wrong to bribe or seduce others to accept faith; the faith has to be offered as valuable and attractive in itself, rather than on account of its “packaging” or the extrinsic rewards associated with it (money or status).
The most important and practical way he believes Christians can love Muslims in their discourse about Islam–whether among Muslims, Christians, or others– and obey the command of Christ to witness to Muslims, is probably this injunction from Volf: “It is wrong to compare the best practices of one’s own faith with the worst practices of the other faith.”
I am not sure if there is a more pointed critique of and challenge for Christian discourse about Islam than that. I hope I haven’t unfairly done that in these reviews.
What is love?
There are some places where Volf notes key differences between Christian and Muslim ethics, one of which, it seems to me, is the central difference, and perhaps even the best place to engage in witness with Muslims. That is in their understanding of what it means that God loves.
Christians, of course, believe that God is love. (Augustine even said, audaciously, that in a certain proper sense, love is God.) The Qu’ran says that God is loving, for sure. But it doesn’t go so far as to say that God is love.
In fact, as Volf points out, Muslims believe that Allah’s love is essentially self-love; that what comes to creatures as love is the effect of an essential self-love of the radially single deity. More astonishing yet, as a result of the radical otherness of Allah, his creatures are in a certain sense not even real. Allah does not love creatures except as such love is reducible to self-love, love for the only really real reality: Allah himself.
Christians, on the other hand, believe that God has always been giving and receiving love. The creative impulse itself comes from a desire of God to allow image-bearing creatures to enter into the love that Father, Son, and Spirit have been giving and receiving from all eternity. By the time humanity is created, God, who is love, is also very well-practiced in loving. Further, the cross of Christ is the most astonishing act of love ever displayed, and in it we find that the God who is love doesn’t just love, but loves his enemies. Christians are likewise called to love their enemies. Muslims do not tend to go this far, particularly because their doctrine of Allah’s love does not make the first move in this regard.
Could there be a sharper difference between Christianity and Islam? Between Christ and any other god?
The Pleasure of Love Vs. the Love of Pleasure
When Volf considers the areas in which Muslims and Christians can take common cause for the flourishing of the world, he comes up with a proposal that we collaborate on promoting the pleasure of love over the love of pleasure.
He notes that even the Epicurean hedonists believed in the regulation of pleasure. Similarly Freud, who wanted to get rid of guilt through therapy to make way for pleasure, believed that repression is required for the emergence and sustaining of the self, and for the maintenance of human personality. Further, Freud believed that the regulation of desire is necessary for civilization itself.
By contrast, our prevailing culture in the West has embraced pleasure without restraint. It abhors any suppression of desire, any delay in gratification. Meanwhile, it encourages hollow superficialities and does not train us to treasure transcendent beauty, or to recognize the weightiness of the good and true when it appears in simple, mundane experiences all around us.
Islam, whose very name means “submission,” acts as a call away from the ephemeral pleasures of decadence and toward an allegiance to a God whose gifts are to be received with gratitude, according to God’s own timing and will. Volf believes, I think correctly, that Christians and Muslims could both be agents together for the preservation and fostering of truth, goodness, and beauty; both can be prophets together, exposing the hollowness of pleasure-seeking of our culture props up. Volf wants us to realize we worship the same God and cooperate in this prophetic work as a result. But on my view, we can take common cause with Muslims in promoting flourishing instead of decay even if we don’t come to the theological conclusion that we worship the same God.
A Must-Read Book
Don’t you get weary of book jackets with blurbs that declare that the book is required reading for anyone and everyone? I certainly do.
But I think that, for us Christians, it’s imperative that we stop letting the media and our politicians tell us what we’re supposed to think about Muslims, and instead reckon with who Muslims are, as our neighbors, theologically, biblically, and historically.
I have no problem recommending Allah: A Christian Response to anyone, despite the fact that I continue to take issue with its central thesis. There is simply too much profundity here to pass the book over because you can’t quite go all the way with Miroslav Volf. Of course, if you tend to agree with Volf to begin with, you’ll like the book even more.
(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.
Half of us will fail to follow through with our New Years resolutions before January 7th. Less than 10% of us will integrate our resolutions into our lives permanently.
On the other hand, those who make resolutions are FAR more likely than those who merely try to change to actually experience sustained life change.
There is data. These are acts.
There are 2 takeaways from my perspective:
1. Why not identify the 1-2 life changes that will make the greatest difference in your contribution to the human community, starting with those closest to you, and seriously commit to those changes? It makes sense to do so.
2. If you don’t know and experience transcendent grace from someone who loves you (and is not you), you’re not likely to become a better person by year’s end, because you will fail to one degree or another.
The courage to resolve anew comes from the face of another–and perhaps the same person–saying both “Will you change, for me?” and “Regardless of how it pans out, I pledge my love.”
It is the gaze of another, looking you in the eye with both grace and truth, with both invitation and challenge, that provokes a true resolution and sustains it when there is not enough guts within to keep on keeping on.
I found this fantastic paragraph in our denomination’s new Book of Discipline. The essence of discipline is discipleship. The essence of discipleship is to develop a pattern of self-examination and openness to the correction of others, which consistently yields true contrition and repentance, along with assurance of, and growth in, grace. If the leaders of the church are seeking to make disciples, they must themselves be disciples, always modeling discipleship out of humility and love.
So it should be no surprise when a “church court” (a body of elders with church authority) repents.
If you are a pastor or elder, you must first and foremost be a disciple-maker. And disciple-makers repent.
If you are church planter, you have the unique opportunity to establish a culture of repentance. The people who are drawn into your new church will be drawn–whether they realize it or not–because they sense that it is a safe place to struggle with Christian practice, learn to repent, learn to forgive, and learn to apply the gospel of grace to their own, and others, hearts and lives. The potential elders that emerge from this group you’ve gathered will be watching closely, and much of their discipleship M.O. will be ‘caught’ by following your lead. So make it a priority. Be, and be seen to be, the lead repenter.
It’s the only way that chiefs of sinners can lead and make disciples–if they’re the chief repenters, too.