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Thursday, August 9, 2012

"Allah - A Christian Response" (Miroslav Volf)

TITLE: Allah: A Christian Response
AUTHOR: Miroslav Volf
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: HarperOne, 2012, (330 pages).

In this important book, distinguished Yale professor, eminent scholar, and prominent theologian, Miroslav Volf puts forth a strong case for inter-religious dialogue and understanding. Center to the whole book is the assertion that both Muslims and Christians worship the same God. The difference lies in the convictions each hold about the way to God. Volf begins with ten bold statements that cover his personal convictions as a Christian. That he writes this book as a Christian for Christians; that he invites Muslims to listen in without any requirement to agree or disagree; for multiple ways to love one another; and for ways to seek convergent lifestyles of love and life, rather than divergent perspectives that divide and hurt one another. He calls this book "political theology" and is clear about saying issues pertaining to the afterlife, to salvation, and to various religious doctrines are outside the domain of this book. This book seeks to expand common ground for both Muslims and Christians to work closer together as common members of the human race. In Part One, Volf gives us a survey of the painful historical baggage where disputes, battles, crusades, and much harm caused by both parties on both parties. Thus, the "Great Chasm" continues to this day. He is strongly against any view that seeks to paint the God of Islam as different from the God of Christianity. This for Volf, is by far the biggest problem in any religious conflicts between the two religions. Volf openly disagrees with the famous evangelical, John Piper, but is quick to say that the book is not about responding to Piper's arguments. In a nutshell, for Volf, the biggest bridge builder is in maintaining that both Muslims and Christians worship the same God. He then strengthens his thesis by pointing to the historical religious wars that basically grew out of the failure to observe this belief. The three ways to cultivate the commonness are via:

  1. General knowledge of God
  2. Common Holy Scriptures of similar content
  3. Similarity between the two faiths.
Part Two touches on some important differences in Christian and Islamic theology. He urges all to "concentrate on what is common" without disregarding the differences. Such commonness includes acknowledging the common One Creator God, a Beneficent God, worshiping the One True God, Observing the two great Commandments, and loving our neighbours. That said, Volf is also aware that actions are needed to put these common understanding to practice. 

In Part Three, the key subject is the Trinity. It is also the central point of disagreement Muslims have of Christianity. Volf takes pains to explain to some of his Muslim and Jewish friends the doctrine of the Trinity. Much of the confusion comes from terminology that Muslims do not understand.  The chapter on love, justice, and understanding is less sticky compared to the Trinity doctrine.

After dealing with the key ideas, the common and the differences, Part Four is about how to put them all together, and to live together. Volf continues to stress the importance of focusing on the common things. He restricts concerns to practical earthly matters, rather than heavenly realms. Here, Volf proposes something rather controversial. Can one be a Muslim and a Christian at the same time? He avoids answering it directly, by asking readers to consider something more important, "right worship of God through Christ." In other words, blending one's rituals, beliefs, lifestyles are secondary. Worshiping God in Christ is primary. He writes:

"The most pressing problem among religions today is not the blurring of boundaries by mixing and matching; it's the propensity to engage others with disrespect, hostility, and violence. These often manifest themselves in deep-seated prejudices and aggressive forms of mission...." (200)
Just like how Volf begins the book with 10 rejections of bigotry and misguided beliefs on both sides, Volf offers ten resolutions that minimizes extremism in any way. He upholds freedom of belief and choice. He asserts that it is possible to live together in peace and harmony, without resorting to extreme positions. He reminds us again that all forms of extremism are never due to any one single factor, but a combination of factors. Of chief concern is the lack of love and the presence of injustice. Here, practising love and goodwill to all, and fighting for peace and justice for all, are noble callings for both Muslims and Christians.

Volf is bold to take on this topic altogether, at the risk of isolating himself from both Christians as well as Muslims. If readers fail to understand his basic premise, that both Muslims and Christians worship the same God, this whole book can be easily rejected as heresy. However, if one is prepared to consider Volf's viewpoints carefully, perhaps, show some openness to his ten pointers, this book can be fodder for inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. Volf has made a strong case for unity and commonality. Unfortunately, for all the good and careful arguments, the brilliant scholarship that is so typical of Volf, the best this book can offer is to open the door for both Christians and Muslims to treat one another with respect. Treat this book as a discussion starter. Use it as a way to work together, and to understand each other better. You can disagree with Volf's thesis, but do agree with his earnest intent to build bridges using the most important common factor: We are all human beings.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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