Miroslav Volf is a theologian at Yale Divinity School and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. The Croatian-born scholar won the 2002 Grawemeyer Award for religion in 2002 for Exclusion and Embrace (Abingdon, 1992). PW named A Public Faith (Brazos) one of its top 10 religion books in 2011. Volf recently spoke at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Mich. He sat down with PW for a conversation about the themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, pluralism, and public faith.
You’ve been called a theological bridge builder. Is that a good description?
As I understand the Christian faith, it is about God’s embrace of humanity, and therefore our embrace of God and of one another in God. You might not think so if you observe the way Christians behave, and explaining the divisive and even violent behavior of Christians, which stands at odds with the character of their own faith, is one important task of a theologian. But the main task is to explicate the Christian faith in ways that illuminate how, in various settings marked by division and conflict, the authentic Christian faith is bridge building, but not in an insipid “you’re ok, I’m ok” kind of way that disregards truth and justice.
You wrote Exclusion and Embrace almost 20 years ago. How would you describe the arc of your own work and thinking?
My work has always been about ways in which faith connects with lived life. It is an explication of how convictions about God intersect with the possibilities and challenges of life. Exclusion and Embrace and The End of Memory (Eerdmans, 2006) addressed situations of conflict. In Free of Charge (Zondervan, 2005) I situated the practice of “embrace” into the larger framework of generosity as a fundamental stance of human beings. In Allah: A Christian Response (HarperOne, 2011) I tried to show what “embrace” looks like in relation to Islam’s understanding of God—how being inter-religiously “friendly” does not require one to dilute one’s own convictions. In A Public Faith I argued that authentic Christian convictions require one to embrace pluralism, and sketched a way of being publicly engaged that is willing to learn from other players on the public scene, whether Muslim, Jewish, or atheist.
In A Public Faith, you talk about finding a third way between strict exclusion of religion from the public sphere and “religious totalitarianism.” What do you mean by totalitarianism?
When people, in the name of religion or ideology or out of sheer lust for power and greed, take the reins of the state and dominate all aspects of public life as well as the private lives of its citizens, we rightly speak of totalitarianism. Historically, religions have had strong totalitarian tendencies; certainly monotheistic religions have. All totalitarianism rests on a presumed identification between religious and political systems.
You use the term “non-remembrance” in a disagreement with Elie Wiesel (in The End of Memory) when he talks about committing the Holocaust to eternal memory. People have tended to dismiss your idea as “forgive and forget.” Can you say more?
Just to be clear, I would never advise forgetting the Holocaust. If the horrors of history are no longer remembered in the world to come, their non-remembrance would come as a gift of the new and secure world, not as an act of intentional forgetting. As long as the world is not new, as long as relationships are not new and secure, remembering--but remembering rightly--is important. That’s what I argue in the book. Non-remembrance is an act of the victim. You go through remembering to forgiveness, and from forgiveness to being freed from that memory as a final fruit. My idea is, let’s restore our relationship.
You write about Christianity as characterized by self-giving love. Does hate-mongering or intolerant public discourse ever discourage you?
Sometimes I am discouraged. But I am not a Christian because of the good behavior of Christians. I am a Christian because I find Jesus Christ—and not so much the reconstructed Jesus of historians, but Jesus Christ of the classical Christian tradition, of Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther, for instance—immensely compelling. I find the account of the world and of life embedded in the Christian faith’s main convictions—about God as the Holy Trinity, about Jesus Christ as the incarnation of the Word, about salvation as rooted in the unconditional and indiscriminate love of God, about the command to love enemies—both true and deeply human.
After I finish a book on religions and globalization [developed from a course Volf taught at Yale with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, to be published by Yale University Press in 2015], I’ll devote most of my time to two things: one, keeping alive serious discussion about competing accounts of life worth living, rather than simply accepting the default position that it consists in having all our desires satisfied or living lives of as much pleasure and as little pain as possible. And second, to explicating the vision of human flourishing embedded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Part of that large project is a sustained exploration of joy as a key element of human flourishing.