In Bold Defense of “I Feel Like”

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Molly Worthen wants us to quit saying “I feel like.” It’s a provocative and punchy New York Times piece that almost had me convinced—if it weren’t for a funny feeling I got that she might only be feeling like “I feel like” was a bad thing. So I got to thinking.

Here’s some bold, “I feel like”-less assertions from her column.

‘“I feel like” masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, too — but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks.’

‘Most disturbing about “I feel like”: The phrase cripples our range of expression and flattens the complex role that emotions do play in our reasoning.’

‘The phrase “I feel like” is a mundane … means of avoiding rigorous debate over structures of society that are hard to change.’

I completely DISAGREE.

Here’s why:

1) The author admits that language is always evolving. I assume she knows that meaning comes in the use, not in the words themselves. But then she immediately goes on to imply that, while in every other case a word’s evolution is benign, in this one special case, it “is not a harmless tic.” (This tic is SERIOUS. Like Orwellian serious!”)

Sorry, but it’s just a word, the meaning is evolving with common usage like every other word.

2) The author notes the global awareness and the empathy of Xers and Millennials—a reason for the way they’ve dialed back on intellectual bravado. But then she says it’s not actually humility, but hedging: we “feel” in order to remain on safe ground, as no one can attack our feelings the way they could challenge our thoughts.

Um, no. Is there anyone who actually thinks a sensible political comment that begins with “I feel like” has moved from the cognitive to the affective domains? That the speaker is using their heart or their gut instead of their mind? It’s perfectly clear to me that when a speaker omits “I feel like”, they are cognitively settled on their position, while when they include the phrase, they are expressing not their feelings, but their rather their uncertain, tentative thoughts. “I feel like” is a *wonderful* tool not for shutting down conversation, but for stoking it. If someone comes to me and says “If we elect Bernie Sanders, we’re asking for communism”, I will challenge that opinion if and only if *I feel* up to arguing with an alarmist partisan. However, if someone says “I feel like it’s odd that we’re seriously considering electing a socialist when we spent so much effort fighting communism”, *I feel like* I’m being invited into an actual exchange of ideas rather than a bunch of mindless sloganeering and line-towing.

3) The author assumes that our extra-cognitive faculties are less reliable than our intellectual faculties.

Nonsense. We’re just as capable of faulty reasoning as we are of getting our feelings mixed up. And besides, there is a fruitful interplay between our cognitive and affective faculties: I may like the content of what I’m hearing from a candidate, but still get a funny feeling about them based on how they carry themselves. Would it be shallow to disregard what they say about policy based on my funny feeling? Maybe a little. But “I feel like Sanders/Cruz/Whomever comes off a little bit out of touch with real people and their actual needs” might cause me to do some research to determine if the candidate is just kind of awkward, which I can live with, or if they’re consistently not hearing important segments of their constituency.

4) The author makes a last-ditch effort to appear concerned with actual feelings. There’s a shortage of feelings, apparently, because we’re “misusing” the word assigned to the affective domain.

Sorry, but we have a lot of other words at our disposal, and we can always make up new ones. We can describe our affective reaction to phenomena. People leave us frigid, cold, lukewarm, warm, fired up. Meals leave us satiated, content, bloated, hungry. There’s a gazillion words to describe subjective experience. Know them, love them, use them. We can “lose” *I feel* to the uncertain thinkers without losing the Republic.

5) Am I being a little too strident in my criticism of the author? Maybe. Perhaps I should have began a few of my sentences with *I feel like*—that would have made me come across as someone who is a linguistic non-expert who is curious to learn more. See how this works?

I feel like we should let language evolve, quit complaining when it does, use our imaginations to search for better words, warm up to the idea that some of the tics of Xers and Millennials might not only be harmless, but salutary, and welcome our actual feelings into the conversation alongside our tentative opinions and our settled conclusions.

Death Still Stings (For Now)

Easter is the day when we like to say “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” And it’s a line quoted from the climax of one of the best theological meditations on the resurrection found anywhere in Scripture. 

  

But here’s the thing: death still stings. Ask anyone who’s got the stinger in them: like my wife, for instance, who lost her father a couple months ago; or her mom, who just visited us here in Seoul, who lost the love of her life. 

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida recalls the occasion of his younger brother tragically dying of tubercular meningitis at the age of two: “I remember the day I saw my father, in 1940, in the garden, lighting a cigarette one week after the death of my little brother: ‘But how can he still do that? Only a week ago he was sobbing!’ I never got over it.”

You don’t ever really get over it. My mom lost a teenage brother. I have only rarely heard about Uncle Kenny, but when I do, I can tell no one has ever really gotten over it. 

This Easter, I remember that death is too big a deal to ever get over. I remember that Paul isn’t suggesting that the sting of death is gone, or that the grave has been stripped of its victory. Not yet, anyway. 

Not till the mortal puts on its immortality:

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: 

“Death is swallowed up in victory.” 

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

 – 1 Corinthians 15:51-55

Death has had a big fat bite taken out of it. And this is Eastertide’s tidings. And so we can declare these things proleptically, bringing their future facticity to bear on our present stings and sorrows. 

But death hasn’t been swallowed whole. Yet. 

When Will We Finally be Done Following Jesus?

When we talk about following Jesus, I wonder if we assume that this following is done
with when our earthly days are done; that our following will be over and our chillaxing will commence once we’re over Jordan.  

It’s like we think that spiritual and vocational effort (and aren’t these ultimately the same thing?) are a consequence of the fall, and that one day, in the sweet by and by, we won’t have to work to know Jesus and follow him faithfully.

We are allergic to effort, we champions of grace. But as Dallas Willard has told us, grace is not opposed to effort, but only to earning. In the New Creation, we’ll labor–but not just in our “work.” We’ll work to know and follow hard after Jesus in, through, and after any honest day’s labor. 

We won’t struggle against the world, the sinful flesh, and the devil as we try to know and follow Jesus in the age to come. But exhaustive theological knowledge and unabridged discipleship blueprints will not simply be downloaded into our heads when the trump resounds. Jesus is too mind-blowingly infinite and loving, and his (new) world is too full of places to venture further up and further in, for us to expect our following days to be done when the roll is called up yonder. 

And that means we’re practicing now. 

Thickening the Sermon’s Plot

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s delightful book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. If you are interested in writing short stories, novels, or even memoirs–in other words, any writing that is less expositional and more dependent on character and plot–you really need to get this book. It will demystify the writing process, while still leaving lots of room for you as a writer to lean into the real mystery: people’s lives, folks’ souls.
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I happened to get to Lamott’s section on plot the other day when I should have been writing my sermon. I decided to try and redeem my procrastinated time by trying out Lamott’s counsel for developing a good plot in the writing of my sermon.

Lamott shares a trick she learned from one Alice Adams on plot-making. It follows an ABDCE pattern. Action, background, development, climax, ending. 

You begin with action that is compelling enough to draw us in, make us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, and what was going on before the opening of the story. Then you develop these people, so that we learn what they care most about. The plot–the drama, the actions, the tension–will grow out of that. You move them along until everything comes together in the climax, after which things are different for the main characters, different in some real way. And then there is the ending: what is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean?

My experiment in sermon-plotting

I was assigned Exodus 5:22-6:12, the story of Moses confronting God for failing to deliver Israel from slavery under Pharaoh, and how God responded. Here’s how I ‘plotted’ my sermon:

Action: Easy. Moses actually says what so many of us are thinking lots of times. “God, are you on our side, or have you teamed up with our enemies?” How will God respond to this accusation? What will God do? Incinerate him? Turn his staff into a serpent and have the serpent bite him? But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. That’s enough action to pull us all into the story.

Background: What’s the history of Moses’s relationship with God up to this point? It’s had its highs: being saved from an infanticidal Pharaoh, getting a Harvard education, enjoying Egyptian courtly privilege. It’s also had its troughs: being exiled into Midian and demoted to a lowly shepherd, almost being struck down by God along the roadside for not having circumcised his son. We’re rehearsing the twists and turns of this relationship that have brought us to the current action and dialogue. The action was at first introduced as raw action. Now, each bit of background shows how the present action is freighted with significance, and shows how the stakes are higher than we would have assumed with the action alone.

Development: Development is the part of the plot that sets the stage for the big climax. In Marylynne Robinson’s Gilead this is where we feel the feel the tension in the room when Jack and Rev. Ames say 10 words with their lips and 100 more words with their tone, body language, and with all the words that aren’t said. In Exodus 5-6, this is where I want the congregation to feel the sting of Moses’s words as he accuses God (who had promised to deliver Israel) and Pharaoh (who regularly threw Hebrew infant boys into the Nile to drown) of being on the same team. It’s here that I pull my “exegetical goodies” into the story–but only those exegetical goodies which actually help tell the story. Nothing will slow the story down like a bunch of parsed Hebrew verbs at this point.

Climax: Where is the confrontation between a God who is not going to change and a character who therefore must change in one way or another? When you’ve identified this point, you’ve found your climax. What remains is to make the climax of the story the climax of your sermon. In this case, everything hinges on how God reacts to Moses’s accusation. So my climax focused on how Yahweh did not incinerate Moses, but instead reiterated his promises to him, with two particular details:

  1. Yahweh underscored the intimacy with which Moses had come to know him, based on the fact that God had revealed his personal name to Moses, though not to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
  2. Yahweh told Moses that for generations to come, Israel would constantly recall the deliverance that was about to happen–that these wild events would become Israel’s national origin story.

Ending: Here’s where you make sure to have Jesus be the real hero of each Old Testament story. The reality is that we’ve all been where Moses is from time to time: convinced that we’d answered the call of God to obediently follow his lead into some difficult task, only to begin to wonder if God had sadistically sent us on a fool’s errand. But from the cross onward, we know at least 2 things that Moses himself wouldn’t even come to know:

  1. God isn’t just God (his title). His ‘first name’ is Jesus, and this Jesus has drawn far nearer to us than Yahweh did to Moses. We have a God who invites us to call him by a personal name–a name which means what that same Jesus did: “God saves.”
  2. Jesus was sent on a ‘fool’s errand’ to fight a losing battle at the hands of sin, death, hell, Satan, Judas, the Pharisees, Sadducees, the crowds, Pilate, and the Romans. But in walking the plank like this, he saved us, and by rising again, he raised us. No matter what happens on the apparent ‘fools errands’ we seem to find ourselves on in obedience to Jesus, we can know, only because of the the cross and resurrection, that our labor in the service of Jesus is not in vain.

Let’s thicken our plots

The preaching of Old Testament narratives, in my opinion, doesn’t just lend itself to story-shaped sermons; it almost requires it. If anything, we should be taking the so-called expositional and doctrinal parts of Scripture and thinking about how to bring the impact of the text to our audience through the conventions of good storytelling. But what we’re prone to do is strip mine ready-made biblical stories, full of dramatic intrigue, for doctrines and principles. This is one of these instances in which Dorothy Sayers’s criticism of churchmen rings sadly true: Christianity is often boring through no fault of Christianity itself.

Remember, the point of preaching is not to teach doctrines. The point of preaching is to confront us with Jesus in such a way that we, like the characters after the climax of a dramatic story, are changed in a lasting way. If we’re aiming to reach a spiritual climax by preaching, why not make a plot out of our sermons?

Coffee and the Skinny Glutton

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It’s fairly easy for me to identify my favorite sins.

I’m currently teaching the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ to both a group of eleventh-graders and a group of faculty. Each capital vice is extremely nuanced in its manifestations and subtle in its habit-forming encroachment upon the soul. And each sin is a fountain from which flows a variety of discrete patterns of transgression. The most fascinating to me are, somewhat startlingly, the that are a little too close to home. Which ones? If you know me, you guessed it: sloth and gluttony.

Sloth will have to wait for another post. For now, gluttony has grabbed my attention like the mention of a cheeseburger around quitting time.

Happily, gluttony doesn’t simply effect people who would vote for pizza for president if they could. It’s satisfying to learn that gluttony embeds itself in the habits of the prissy waif just as it grips the hot dog eating champion.

According to Rebecca DeYoung, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, gluttony not only involves how you eat (ravenously, hastily, excessively, for example), but also what you eat. One type of glutton, of course, eats sumptuously–that is, she eats things that make her feel full. But the other type of glutton fixates on another type of food: exquisitely delicious food.

This fastidious glutton is fixated on taste. Rather than being enslaved by the demands of the belly, the food snob only lets the most delicious things, prepared to her precise specifications, come near her lips.

In Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape teaches his pupil Wormwood how to tempt eaters who are not prone to overeating with this alternative pattern of gluttony. The key, Wormwood learns, is to cultivate an increasing fastidiousness with respect to food and drink. When successfully tempted, the ‘patient’ habitually sends perfectly good sandwiches back to the kitchen with exasperated instructions like “Listen, all I want is …”.

You can see the pride and elitism in this sort of approach toward food. The high-brow glutton says, for all intents and purposes, “All I want is for everything to be precisely according to my tastes. Is that too much to ask?”

Is it too much to ask for a world in which all the nutritional, social, economic, and agricultural dimensions of eating–in which even the humanness of the persons making and serving your food–are bracketed out? Well, yes. It is too much to ask. It’s not difficult to see the fundamentally antisocial nature of this sin, and the god-sized pride in assuming that such a relationship to food and drink is “not too much to ask.”

And so I wonder: is it possible to be a connoisseur, an aficionado, of anything, without becoming a glutton?

I am all the other kinds of glutton in my relationship to all other kinds of food and drink. But I am decidedly high-brow in my coffee tastes. Am I an elitist?

Some have noticed that in the gospels of the New Testament, Jesus is always on his way to a meal, at a meal, or leaving a meal. He eats his way through Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Given that almost everything I do is either done with coffee in hand, or done in the strength of a post-coffee caffeinated state, or done on the way to my next coffee break, coffee is part of the warp and woof of my life in a way that almost no other person, place, or thing is.

The same is true of James Freeman, founder of the esteemed Blue Bottle Coffee–a name revered by baristas here in Seoul, even though most of them have never been in a Blue Bottle cafe. Freeman described his obsession with  coffee to a group of Stanford entrepreneurs recently. One thing that stands out from his talk, apart from his touchy-feely language about coffee culture and his against-the-grain principles of entrepreneurship:

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Freeman is obsessed, not just with coffee, but with control. Control over everything that happens from the purchase of beans to the roasting to the brewing to the tasting experience of the customer.

My friend Sooin, whose sheer knowledge of coffee is astounding (she attended a coffee college for two years), is similarly exacting in her approach to making a great cup of coffee. To watch her work is to watch a careful artist demanding the best of herself.

What’s the difference between these coffee professionals and myself? Sooin and Freeman approach their work as craft and as calling. They are professionals. When I make coffee, I’m an amateur.

I am also a consumer. And here, I think, is the heart of the matter:

What is my attitude when someone makes a cup of coffee for me? What is going on in my head and my heart when Sooin makes me an $8 pour over from a rare bean? When my wife brings me a cup of coffee in bed that she’s not super proud of? When my parents pop a K-cup in the Keurig and bring it to me in their living room? When a tea-drinker serves me instant coffee after they’ve served me a home-cooked meal?

Sooin has actually helped me think soberly about all this. Whenever we’re around her, I find myself peppering her with questions, looking for tips that will improve my coffee-making, and my coffee drinking, game. I ask about coffee origins, and what notes I should be tasting in different coffees. And usually I end up saying , in a disappointed tone, something like: “I wish I could taste the difference between a good cup of coffee and an excellent cup of coffee.”

And then she sets me straight. She reminds me that I am not a coffee professional. I have not been to coffee school. I don’t make my living trying to give people incredible coffee experiences. My relationship to coffee ought to be one of enjoyment. Especially when someone is serving it to me. For her, the professional, that’s the source of joy: when she meticulously controls as many variables as possible to yield a great cup of coffee, and people like me take our first satisfying sips.

It’s true that I am enhancing my enjoyment of coffee as I learn to distinguish and appreciate more and more nuances and subtleties from cup to cup.

But if I approach a cup of coffee, made with care and given to me in hospitality, with a critical spirit, with an air of elitism, and with a readiness to reject it if it’s not to my standards, then I have indeed become a glutton. Even when my experience of someone else’s coffee is dampened by my preoccupation with my own lack of discerning taste buds and faltering tasting-note vocabulary, I teeter on the edge of gluttony.

The vice of gluttony, whether manifested in a ravenous eater or a skinny, self-appointed food critic, consists in an antisocial, self-centered approach to what is consumed. Instead of being received with gratitude, the coffee, the food, or the wine is devoured in a stingy spirit or rejected with a stuck-up lack of gratitude. When one eats and drinks in a way that fails to acknowledge how food and drink is connected to the social act of eating and drinking , one commits gluttony.

I was raised on the slogan “food is love.” Indeed, it is. And coffee, too. May we all reject the self-love of gluttony and receive our food and drink with glad and generous hearts.

Stabs of Sorrow

It’s odd. I’m about as happy as I’ve ever been.

Big-city life is thrilling to me, and Seoul bigger than the biggest city in America. My wife and kids love living overseas. We’re all enjoying learning Korean, more or less. Work is tiring, but fulfilling. I have some fine colleagues and some generous friends. Church life is joyful and familiar: Presbyterian, liturgical, biblical, theological, communal, small, foodly. The kids are flourishing, my wife is wonderful, and the cherry blossoms will bloom in a couple weeks time.

Things really are great. Really great.

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In his memoir of his spiritual journey, CS Lewis writes about occasional, unpredictable experiences that he called “stabs of joy.” He was mostly melancholic, but every once in a great while, he was deeply moved by something otherworldly and joyous, painful because freighted with longing.

I, on the other hand, feel as though I am living in a world of enchantment—things are great, and I’m happy. But every so often I experience not the Lewisian stabs of joy, but rather their opposite: stabs of sorrow.  

I’m rather new at this.

I was new to the unforeseen disappointments of leading a group of prodigals and pilgrims in a shared and local life. I was new to having my influence rendered, in many cases, surprisingly uninfluential.

I was new to seeing families rent asunder up close, and I was certainly new to that peculiar sort of failure one feels when one knows that one’s help didn’t help—especially when help, it seemed, was so desperately needed.

I was new to opening my heart and my life and my home to so many different people. And I was most definitely new to having many of those people close their hearts and lives and homes to me.

And I’m new at the grief and melancholy that now strike unexpectedly, when the sheer awfulness of some particularly awful days in a hard season not so long ago come flooding into my consciousness. Without warning, it all comes back, but somehow stronger and more achy with the passage of time.

I make my attempts to reconcile with the apparent inevitability of it all, which blunts the force of these stabs of sorrow. But even my belated ‘acceptance’ (whatever that means) of these severe providences seems to cement this season in my past and make it always retrievable. My disappointments have become memorialized now; they’re a thing of my historical record, a chapter in my unwritten memoir that gets read aloud to me involuntarily from time to time, whether I like it or not. 

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There are books with titles like Leading With a Limp and The Wounded Healer that sound like they were probably written for punks like me; for people who find themselves—what’s the Christianese word?—humbled. I should probably read those.

There are also many people I know whose present suffering makes my reflection on these stabs of sorrow, situated as they are against a backdrop of steady happiness, feel utterly unwarranted. I should probably remember this.

My grief isn’t utterly overwhelming like the grief of many others. My vocational failure isn’t utterly catastrophic. But since my sorrows stab me every so often, perhaps my grief is a grief that nevertheless ought to be observed. I’m attending to these sorrows when they come upon me. Surely they have something to teach me, even though I suspect at times that the truths I’m meant to learn are ones I already know: fallenness, finitude, frailty.

I take these stabs of sorrow to be indicators that my knowledge of these postlapsarian conditions needs to be deeper still. More personal. It’s not “people” who are fallen, but me. It’s not “the world” that is frail, it’s me. It’s not “creation” that is finite, but me

These stabs of sorrow are no fun, but the creatureliness they underscore is true. And a reckoning with true things, however not-fun, has got to be a good thing. 

I’m the Best

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.

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From interbasket.net

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.

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from titansonlilne.com

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.

Dulcis Loquela, Dulcis Oratio, or Un-Umming Your Speech

‘If you’ve done your homework you’ll know when one of your credibility killers is just about to escape from your mouth. Then, all you’ll need to do is to keep quiet. I know, easier said than done. At first you’ll have awkward pauses in your speech, but that’s still better, actually far better, than speech peppered with “likes” and “ums.” Eventually the pauses get shorter.’ – Lisa B Marshall in Business Insider
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I once interned under Sinclair Ferguson, one of the great preachers alive today. In one of the few chances I got to sit down with him and really talk about ministry and preaching, he charged me to eliminate “umm” from my speech. He insisted that in order to get rid of it from my preaching, I would have to get rid of it from my everyday conversation. I worked hard at it, and made a lot of progress.
Lisa B Marshall calls “um” a “disfluency” and a “distraction.”  I think that might be a little harsh. They are natural from a linguistic perspective. As she says, every language has them. And perhaps 20% of our utterances in casual conversation are of this variety.
But it is true that in certain contexts these space-fillers can be “credibility killers.” They call attention to the fact that you’re still trying to form your thoughts, and maybe even your beliefs, on the fly, in your head. On the other hand, the elimination of disfluencies will make it sound like your opinions and beliefs have taken shape over time, and that you are confident in them.
I think the tricky part is, what if you actually are not sure what you think? The reason we give a negative connotation to “rhetoric” these days is because so many people have waffled back and forth, forming their “beliefs” at the drop of a hat to suit the occasion.
It’s important to make sure that one’s public speaking doesn’t project false confidence. The key, as far as I can tell, is to confidently state that we are less than certain about the things we are less than certain about. (See what I did there?)
If I had to guess, I’d say our world contains roughly:
  • 5% smooth talking and successful purveyors of empty rhetoric
  • 15% honest, quite intelligent people with unfortunate rhetorical habits, who utter lots of ummmms and leave a lot of us bored, distracted, or unconvinced
  • 30% people who are blustery, cocky, and who darken counsel with all kinds of crummy ideas and logical fallacies spewed with inarticulate garbling passed off as persuasive speech
  • 40% people who are not likely to try to persuade others, simply because they’re not disposed to leadership

That’s 90%, which leaves 10%, I suppose, who have something valuable to say to people who need to hear it, and can speak with confidence, elegance, and persuasiveness, and who probably don’t distract from the content of their thought by habitually resorting to disfluencies.

My experience, especially during this election cycle, is that the hot-headed 30% are not going to lose their unsavory rhetorical tendencies soon. It seems to be a matter of the heart, and while the heart can change, it usually takes time. I know, because I used to squarely belong in that 30%.

However, I would be difficult to overestimate the difference that could be made in our world if some of the 15%, whose voices we need to hear, would make themselves better-heard. In their case, change can begin to take place immediately. If you’re one of them — part of the 15% that ought to move into the 10% — then start small, but start today. Drop the “umm.” Embrace the silence left in its place. Gather your thoughts but keep your mouth closed while you do it.

Let’s all give up “umm” for Lent.

Is Allah Love? (Review, Part 2)

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.

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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 AllahRobinson’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.

For instance:

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.

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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. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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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.

Is Allah the Same as the Christian God? A Review of Miroslav Volf’s ‘Allah’

(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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.