Miroslav Volf on Trends in American Religion & the Challenge of Exclusion and Embrace in Christian Practice

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1 Miroslav Volf on Trends in American Religion & the Challenge of Exclusion and Embrace in Christian Practice Interviewer: Tracy Schier Miroslav Volf is Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School. He also serves as Visiting Professor of Systematic Theology of the Evangelical-Theological Faculty in Osijek, Croatia, his undergraduate alma mater. Volf, a native of Croatia, received his M.A. from Fuller Theological Seminary and both his Dr. theol. and Dr. theol. habil. from the University of Tubingen, Germany. Volf served as co-editor ( ) and then editor ( ) of Izvori a Croatian Christian monthly and he has published numerous books and articles in the U.S., Germany, and his native country. His book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation received the 2002 Grawemeyer Award which is given annually by Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and the University of Louisville. The book focuses on exclusion between groups of people and reaches back to the New Testament metaphor of salvation as reconciliation. It offers the idea of embrace as a theological response to the problem of alienation of peoples. Other books authored by Volf include A Passion for God s Reign: Theology, Christian Learning, and The Christian Self (Eerdmans, 1997) and After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Eerdmans, 1998). The Page 1 of 1

2 latter is the inaugural volume in the Sacra Doctrina: Christian Theology for a Postmodern Age series edited by Alan G. Padgett. The series is sponsored by the Christian Theological Research Fellowship. Volf is also editor, with Dorothy C. Bass, of Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Eerdmans, 2001). This is a collection of essays by 13 theologians who, from several cultural and Christian perspectives, explore the relationship between Christian theology and practice in the daily lives of believers, in the ministry of Christian communities, and as a needed focus within Christian education. This conversation is edited. Q. As we look at America today, it is probably safe to say that religion is not the primary mediator of our culture. Yet we see religious institutions making enormously vital contributions to public life. Can you talk about this? A. Certainly media are the more prominent mediators of this culture along with the whole institutionalized way that we produce and sell goods. These are the main shapers of American culture. And I would add that law is a profound shaper as well. In America, however, religion is surprisingly vibrant, especially when compared to Western Europe. The tragedies of September 11 showed us that when a crisis occurs, when there is a sense of our own fragility and when chaos overwhelms us, Americans on the whole revert to religious language, symbols, and narrative. Religion really is not sequestered in any one place; rather it is below the surface culture and the nation as a whole draws meaning from our religious traditions. Q. Do you think this is a flash in the pan? A. Yes, in the sense that a crisis is short lived. But I believe that we have seen that America has a religious depth and that the surface currents the media, the marketplace that I talked about before are not the whole story. Actually, I am not sure that vibrancy of religion in public life is always a good thing. If we look at biblical tradition there is strong critique of the use of religion in the public arena and how religion is misused as cheap solace. So from this perspective we have to keep in mind that there needs to be discriminating use of religious phenomena and we need to be sure that we are Page 2 of 2

3 hearing genuine religious voices rather than merely religious echoes of our own private and collective desires. The voices we heard during the 9/11 crisis gave us comfort and help and offered us communal support. But few religious voices were able to steer a course that was any different from the voices of the politicians. For example, people speaking for the peace movement had little chance of being heard. And yet, arguably, this was the most genuine voice of the Christian tradition. Q. Since you bring up 9/11 I would like to hear what you think some of the lessons have been from that tragedy. Your book, Exclusion and Embrace, which won the Grawemeyer Award, was obviously written before 9/11, but what you say in the book has such meaning in light of those events. A. One of the things I point out in the book is that we all seem to like our identities pure and so we push out others who disturb the way that we have our world organized. And of course, competition for goods is an issue that enters into this discussion. When we look at the terrorists who were responsible for the 9/11 tragedy we see people who see American culture as threatening to a form of Islam that they want to keep pure. Various fundamentalist ways of thinking are dominated by desire for purity, although most do not act in a violent manner. Of course, boundaries that mark our identities are important. The world would be a swamp without boundaries and we need to nurture those boundaries in order to preserve our own identities. With that said, however, we then need to ensure that there are gates in those boundaries that can open and close in a way that we can control but also in a way that is hospitable to the others. Our personal identities need to be so structured, and so strong, that we can appreciate the fact that the gifts to us from persons who exist outside of our boundaries will enrich us. As a metaphor, I think for example of my home. I have artwork and books from numerous cultures, and I welcome to my home many items and individuals that are foreign to my own identity. These openings into my home by others enrich my family and me; in return I pray that my hospitality enriches them. Q. As you look back at the last couple of decades here in America, what are the trends in American religion that you see as holding the most promise for the future? Page 3 of 3

4 A. I think the most promising feature is something that has been part of the American religious scene for centuries. And that is the incredible ability of American religion to reinvent itself. This is something that is unique in western cultures. Certainly we do not see this in Europe, at least not on the same scale. All over this country we see people with religious motivation from all walks of life setting up their own little shop so to speak. Churches and denominations pop up all over. This shows immense vitality and it is a way that religion is passed on from generation to generation in this fast-paced culture. We academics tend to look down on this aspect of American religion. Many academics are fearful of such new religious beginnings which admittedly can be theologically unformed and sometimes even weird. The positive side of this, however, is that religion is being transmitted within the cultural medium within which specific groups of people speak and live. It is a phenomenon that is in keeping with the American way of life and its market economy. The flexibility that is a characteristic of economic life transfers to religious life and the result is constant innovation, as a blessing and as a curse. Q. What is the downside of this? A. A possible consequence is the cultural captivity of religion. Religion is sold; it becomes just another commodity. When this happens it can be empty of content and religious personages can simply peddle what people want. The customer cannot be king when it comes to religion. When the content of religion is hi-jacked the symbols and narratives of religion are emptied of their genuine meaning. Q. Would you talk about ecumenism in America what do you see as its long lasting benefits and what might be unrealistic aspects/expectations? Also, what are the greatest challenges to ecumenism in this country? A. Our churches have come a long way in a short time. Only a few decades ago the walls were up. But now we see Christians and Jews and Muslims in conversation and even sharing buildings a small, but immensely significant matter. This is a wonderful development provided it hasn t been gained at the expense of concern for the truth. In this country there is a smorgasbord Page 4 of 4

5 tendency religions as various dishes. There is an attitude of I like this and I don t like that and I m fine and you re fine. Within all of that, however, truth questions are often circumvented. If we have genuine ecumenism we will not disregard the question of truth. Moreover, genuine ecumenism will not pursue unity at the expense of diversity. Any type of unity we strive for ought not happen at the expense of diversity a diversity which is a sign both of cultural sensitivity and religious vibrancy. We sometimes think that the more unity there is the better. But formalization of unity can stifle creativity. One of the big challenges is this: where do we go from now on? Can we continue with the kind of ecumenical engagement that we have grown accustomed to into the future? One important issue is a lack of sync between the pace of ecumenical work and the ecclesiastical developments on the ground. Recently, we have witnessed some really big ecumenical events: for example, the Joint Declaration between Catholics and Lutherans. That process is not finished and we have to realize that it took 40 to 50 years to get to the statement that we have today. And even now, with the statement, there is not full agreement. It is a fruit of ecumenical engagements in form of dialogue. I believe that ecumenical engagement via dialogues works best with long-term stable denominations. But in America and even more globally, there is a phenomenon of fast growing independent churches whose membership is in hundreds of millions. Think, for example, of China. There are some fifty million new Christians there. They have not been part of the ecumenical dialogue. Think of the great number of Christians in the third world where there is bubbling energy. These parts of the world pose great challenge to us as we think about where ecumenism goes from here. We have to supplement dialogue ecumenism with other forms of ecumenism, and rethink the nature of the unity of the church. Q. What do you see as the greatest challenge to seminaries these days? A. Seminaries are very different places today than they were even a few decades ago. In those good old days students came to seminary already formed and catechized; and they lived in the seminary. Today the students are seekers and they are dispersed. One of the biggest challenges that theological faculty have is to integrate the curriculum so that all areas of Page 5 of 5

6 theology can be seen as contributing to the whole. This is all the more essential now that many students don t bring with them to seminary an integrated vision of what Christianity is all about. When a seminarian graduates and stands in the pulpit or sits behind a desk in a counseling situation all has to cohere beliefs have to cohere with beliefs and all beliefs have to cohere with practices so that the whole thing adds up to a compelling way of life. A key issue for me is that theology and theological education are not about what I call talk about talk about God. It is immensely important to say to our students that we are seeking to know God and not just what we and other religious people think of God or say about God. Don t misunderstand me: various forms of study of religion are indispensable as a component of seminary or divinity school education. But seminaries are not religious studies departments. Seminarians need to be taught to lead people to authentic acts of worship of God and service in the world and not merely to engage in critical talk about talk about God. Q. What is the return to practices bringing to the life of American Christians? Can you talk about your work with Dorothy Bass? A. This has been a wonderful experience. A group of mid-career theologians got together to ask in what way reflection on Christian practices can be useful to us as theologians. As academics we sometimes labor within a rather narrow definition of theology, concentrating on the explication of Christian beliefs. But faith is not just beliefs it is a way of life although beliefs are part and parcel of that way of life. So we looked at beliefs that we are professionally interested in explicating to see in what way these might be shapers of, as well as shaped by, the Christian practices such as keeping Sabbath, hospitality, forgiveness, healing, dying well. The results of our work are in the book Practicing Theology that I edited with Dorothy Bass. Q. Where will you take this beyond the book? A. The next stage will be to engage young faculty new hires or with persons who are in the last years of writing their dissertations, to present to them our work and see to what extent they may resonate with the emphasis on Christianity as a way of life and the relationship of the practices to theology that we have explored in the book. Page 6 of 6

7 Q. I d like to get back to your exclusion and embrace again. If you were to name the most important thing or things ordinary Christians today can do to assist in an effort of embrace, what might these be? A. Here are three things. First is to dare naming evil for what it is and to dare naming the doer of evil for who he or she is. We cannot simply reduce evil-doing to a set of prior causes. Hitler and Milosevic are evil-doers, various sets of circumstances that contributed to their actions notwithstanding. At the same time, I am very concerned with the hunting down language that is going around right now. This is language that is appropriately used with regard to animals and it devalues humans even humans who are evil-doers. When we use such language it implies that human beings can be taken out of the regular sphere of humanity and that we can do as we please with them. Second, it is equally important to stress that an evil-doer in Christian tradition is owed a particular type of treatment. It is not simply that we must seek justice while at the same time respecting their rights. Much more radically, the Christian tradition requires of us to love an evil-doer. This is very hard. Yet we believe that God loves the world and a Hitler is part of that world. Now it is possible that an evil-doer is recalcitrant and rejects attempts at reconciliation, and we have to respect this. But we should never stop trying. Love will be imaginative and strive to find a way beyond the obstacles that the other places to reconciliation. So, we need to name evil as evil and pursue justice, but do this as those who love the evil-doer. Put differently, the goal of pursuit of justice must not simply be that justice happens but that reconciliation also happens. That is one of the reasons why I oppose capital punishment. Here a kind of justice is carried out that precludes a new beginning. Finally, we need to dare to see ourselves through the eyes of the other and see the other with their own eyes. We tend to disregard the opinion of those we see as other. Especially when someone is strong and yet victimized, as Americans were after 9/11, the tendency is even more prevalent not even to try to see what your life looks like from the perception of the other. This is something that takes a lot of work, and it takes a lot of courage, but it can lead us to the kind of justice that allows for reconciliation also. Page 7 of 7

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