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.
Maybe sort of helpful, but maybe not.
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.
Now it’s time for me to find a copy of Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace, or his new book, Flourishing.