Sunday, May 30, 2010

Review: Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf

I think I may have found my new favorite author! And to make this even better, he will be my theology professor at Yale!! Miroslav Volf does a fantastic job of blending theology, psychology, and philosophy in this book, Exclusion and Embrace. The book is a personal response from Volf to wrestling with the issue of how to follow Jesus' command to love our enemies in the face of atrocity (he wrote this in the wake of a civil war in the Balkans in which many of his own native Croatian people were brutalized at the hand of Serbian forces). In responding to this deeply personal issue, Volf attempts to develop a distinctly Christian, Trinitarian view of how we can love others.

Here, essentially, is the argument that Volf makes: The duty to love others is an individual, not a collective duty. We cannot change society to include others unless we have changed ourselves to be willing to include and embrace them rather than exclude them. So Volf's solution to the problems associated with the sin of exclusion (a sin that he says lies at the heart of all sins) is a change in ourselves. In saying this, Volf recalls what he says is maybe one of the most controversial (from a political standpoint) of Jesus' teachings: that the victim must repent every bit as much as the perpetrator of a crime. In essence, Volf's argument is an attack on the prevailing ideologies of both Modernism and Post-modernism: as long as we insist on viewing conflicts in terms of one innocent and one guilty party, as long as we insist on justice being the vindication of the innocent (a liberation motif) at the expense of the guilty, we will only perpetuate the conflict because the innocent, once in power, will subject the guilty to equal if not worse atrocities. Instead, argues Volf, we have to recognize two things: 1) it is almost always the case both parties are guilty, at least in part; and 2) no amount of reparation will ever make up for an abuse (you cannot undue the crime done, and no payment will ever make up for the loss). Instead, Volf argues, the message of the gospel is one of reconciliation, which means both sides laying down their arms and embracing the other, forgiving the crimes committed and forgetting them, starting the relationship anew. This kind of forgiveness does not mean casting aside all our means of protection (though Volf does seem to advocate absolute pacifism, I'm not sure that is a necessary corollary of his argument), but it is an inherently risky business (but witness Jesus' ultimate embrace, the embrace of the cross, and recognize that the risk is necessary)- we cannot control the other person, we can only open ourselves up to the embrace. The risk of rejection is real, but the faith of Christianity is also a faith that in the end God will triumph and those who reject his embrace will be brought to justice!

Like I said, it’s a fantastic book and I highly recommend it. I think it should be required for every Christian in ministry to read, it does an excellent job of cutting right through the many inconsistencies in the way the Church has responded to contemporary Western culture, I believe. The language is a bit technical sometimes- he interacts a lot with Nietzsche, and the post-Modern philosophers (especially Derrida) . But, as a little bit of encouragement, I can say that I have spent very little time studying existentialist and post-Modern philosophy and still understood most of the discussion (he does a good job explaining the ideas he is interacting with). There are many points where Volf challenges our natural thinking, which is healthy whether or not we come to full agreement with him. I think that on a whole in those points where he challenges our thinking he does an excellent job explaining why the challenge is necessary and giving a good argument for why we might want to change stance. Beyond that, the book does an incredible job of highlighting the absolutely beautiful and personal significance of the message of Christianity, the message of the cross, for us. Very well written, very, very helpful!!

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Free Will and God's Sovereignty

So a while back I wrote a post that seemed extremely Calvinistic (for me) about the sovereignty of God and the way we have downplayed it in our society and our churches for our own gratification.

Now, I want to try and reconcile what I said there with what I also believe to be true- that we as people have free will. I think this is true primarily for philosophical reasons- I think the absence of free will entails a logical absurdity and would require us to all be either skeptics or completely irrational. However, I also think that belief in free will is in line with the teaching of scripture (which also supports this very strong sense of God's sovereignty that I discussed before). In essence, what I am going to say is that there is a tension between these things in scripture itself, a tension that I think is true to our life experience as well, and that tension is one that I don't feel we can resolve.

So in very, very broad terms, here is how this tension seems to play out to me:

  1. God is sovereign. He chooses whom he will to be his. This has nothing to do with their meriting being chosen, it is entirely up to God and his purposes.
  2. People are free. God's choosing us may not be up to us, but fulfilling our being chosen is. God's choosing people is not a blank check, it’s a calling with great responsibility and high expectations. Whether we will be true and faithful to that calling is what we choose. The fulfillment or working out of our salvation is up to us (at least in the sense of cooperation) even if the initial calling is not.

We see this played out in scripture, for instance, in the example of the people of Israel. Read through Deuteronomy and you will notice both these themes coming out over and over again- Moses tells the people they have been chosen by God (and not because they deserve it). Then he urges them repeatedly to choose to follow God in their calling and to be faithful to what he commands. The New Testament seems to me to suggest a similar tension. What's more, our lives seem to reflect this tension. God has worked mightily in our lives as Christians in a way that perhaps we did not seek and certainly we did not deserve. Yet, it seems all too apparent to most of us that we are responsible for how we live out and work out our lives after that (and before it). And unfortunately it is all too apparent that we frequently live and work out our lives badly. Thankfully, God is not limited by us, nor does he abandon us. The Grace that found us also wants to transform us. That has to be a process that we choose to cooperate in, however.

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