Miroslav Volf engages alumni on concept of one God for Christians, Muslims

By Rachel Downs ’14 M.Div.

Miroslav Volf is known for his work in peace-making theology and in interfaith discussion.   At eight o’clock on a Convocation week morning, that is what alumni and others gathered in Niebuhr Hall to hear.  The specific subject was Volf’s new book, Allah: a Christian Response, which has been available since February.  Though he calls it a Christian response, Volf asserted that this book contains significance for Muslims as well.

VolfThe lecture focused on some central questions of definition.  Though both Christians and Muslims are called to love God and neighbor, questions arise:  Who is my neighbor?  And do “neighbor” and “God” mean the same thing in Islam?  According to Volf, in Christianity God is identified as reason, whereas in Islam God is a sheer pure will who must be obeyed.  In negotiating the divide in radical religion, Volf noted that the more fervent people are the less likely it is that they will get along with counterparts in another faith.  However, by focusing on the command to love others, the more Christians and Muslims can love their neighbor and be tolerant of one another.  But if they say they are loving two different Gods, then this command pulls them further apart.

In the lecture, Volf conceded that his book was written with political conceptions in mind.  Muslim and Christian dialogue  has become a very timely issue in the wake of the September 11 attacks, which spawned questions about whether both religions worship the same God.   Volf’s argument is that Christians and Muslims do worship the same God, even if they understand God in different ways.  The lecture was thought-provoking and called on Christians and Muslims to engage from a place of love and understanding.  Volf did not address the history of Christians and Muslims, but kept the conversation rooted in the search for theological similarities.

During a question-and-answer session, listeners raised some very practical questions about interfaith work.  One member of the audience asked for a specific definition of neighbor from both perspectives.  Volf answered by saying that the theological debate is whether a neighbor is the one who belongs to one’s own cultural or religious sphere or whether neighbor includes everyone. His answer was everyone.

Another asked about “the idiocies of the past,” particularly the bloodshed and harm caused in the name of religion.  Volf said that bloodshed should be used as an impetus to seek alternative ways to relate to each other.  Finally, one questioner asked if the identity of Christians is tied to Christ how this understanding of God can work in interfaith relations.  Volf responded by saying he does not want to take Christ out of the equation: Christ loved everyone, so Christians should too.  Therefore, when speaking of God, Christians must take into account what Christ says about God.

For Volf, although Christianity and Islam sometimes seem to be divided by a great gulf, it is important to remember that Christians and Muslims are neighbors and that it is not impossible to reach the other side.

View lecture here.

Posted: 11/06/2011