Allah: A Christian Response – Miroslav Volf
Muslim belief and practice have much in common with Christianity is the positive message about Islam that Miroslav Volf wants every Christian to hear.
Very emotional counter arguments exist. Powerful messages interpreted from Islamic sacred writings position Islam against the core values and precepts of the Christian faith. Contemporary events which demonstrate extreme actions and violence in the name of Allah present a powerful argument that Islam is a religion of violence, a “religion of the sword.” But Volf explicitly rejects claims that “violence is at the heart of Islam.” Instead people on the edge with violent proclivities use Islam to erroneously justify violence (Volf, Kindle Locations 3251-3253).
Only a small fraction of the 1.6 billion Muslims approves the terrorist agenda and only a minuscule fraction of Muslims are terrorists (Volf, Kindle Location 1806). Volf’s goal is to interject knowledge of the other to bridge the chasm between these faith traditions and ease animosity and conflict (Volf, Kindle Location 60).
Volf’s argument and embrace “is about normative Islam and normative Christianity—about what Muslims and Christians are taught to believe about God in their holy books and by their great teachers. It is not an argument about what all Muslims and all Christians, in fact, believe” (Volf, Kindle Location 1821). In this context we can establish a common ground and pursue a common good. Volf exhorts Christians to include Muslims in the community of faith in the same way that Christians include Jews.
Volf falls short of a pluralist view. He does not say there are many equal ways to God. Instead he flips the focus to say that God has many ways to manifest himself to man. And we should affirm that manifestation wherever we find it.
Volf’s first challenge is to establish that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Next he asserts that Muslims and Christians also share common beliefs about the nature of God and the relationship of God’s mercy and love to God’s justice. “They agree, roughly, on six central claims about God—that (1) God is one, (2) God is the creator, (3) God is different from the world, (4) God is good, (5) God commands love of God, and (6) God commands love of neighbor” (Volf, Kindle Location 1818).
Having a “common and similarly understood” God provides Christians and Muslims motivation to care for others and to engage in a vigorous and sustained debate about what constitutes the common good in the one world we share.” It has the hope of removing religious motivation for violence between them. The common God as understood by the normative Christian and normative Muslim traditions becomes the foundation for shared values.
Some of the practices that would allow these faith traditions to coexist peacefully in the world include: discourse about truth, acknowledgement of a common God,
and the belief that God is loving and just. (Volf, Kindle Locations 4148-4192).
According to Volf the ability to live peacefully together requires us to come to the understanding that we worship the same God and not different Gods. “The claim that Muslims and Christians worship radically different deities is good for fighting, but not for living together peacefully” (Volf, Kindle Location 167). Volf’s primary audience is Christian and his primary intent is to overcome Christian objections that place the Muslim God in the other category.
The first argument involves the constancy of the object of worship set against the conflicting goals and beliefs of warring parties. Can people in deep conflict worship the same God? And does those worshiping need to have correct understanding in order for it to be the same God. Volf uses a quote from Abraham Lincoln referencing the Civil War, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask the just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us not judge, that we not be judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes” (Volf, Kindle Location 187). The armies were both Christian and appealing to God for comfort and victory. The implication is that God is not a respecter of persons.
Muslims and Christians have much greater differences with respect their understanding of God. For the Christian it’s all about Jesus. Volf quotes the exchange between Jesus and Philip. “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ (14:7–9)” (Volf, Kindle Location 1490).
Volf is careful to explain that he is not addressing questions about salvation and eternity. He simply trying to establish that God is the same for Christians and Muslims even if the understanding is different.
Can you reject Jesus and still worship the same God? The strongest argument Volf returns is that Christians affirm that Jews worship the same God even though they rejected Jesus. In the gospel narrative “the issue was not whether Jews worshipped the God revealed by Jesus. John’s Gospel assumes they did. When it came to the question of God, in John’s Gospel Jesus’s approach was that the commonalities were more important than the differences” (Volf, Kindle Location 1502).
If differences were more important than similarities, then both Muslims and Jews would be excluded. Granted the Muslim difference is much greater. Christianity was birthed in the Jewish context. But Jesus demonstrates remarkable inclusiveness to those outside his faith tradition. Volf restates Luther’s exposition of Jesus exchange with the Samaritan woman. “You [Samaritans] worship what you do not know,” Jesus responds. He then adds, “We [Jews] worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (4:22). If similarities are more important than differences are similarities between Muslim and Christian understandings of God “sufficient?”
Volf believes there is “sufficient similarity” to declare that Muslims and Christians worship the same God even though Muslim and Christians worship in different ways. But would Muslims agree? Neither Jews or Muslims believe Christians to be true monotheists. Muslims at best see Christians as worshiping one God and two lesser gods. (Volf, Kindle Location 2061-2077, 2324).
Volf’s perspective is that Muslims misunderstand and misrepresent what Christians mean by the Trinity. Confronting this false image becomes important in dialogue with Muslims. Volf response to the Muslims challenge is to declare that “the Lord our God is One.” The Trinity is the foundation of the Christian faith because Jesus is God’s self-revelation to the world. It need not be a stumbling block in conversation between the Christian and Muslim faith traditions.
Volf passionately wants the conversation between Christians and Muslims to continue in the context of neighborly love for another. It is unclear if Volf effectively demonstrates that the Trinity does not violate Muslim scholars understanding of the One God. The Trinity remains a complex mystery.
Volf does offer much to overcome the perception that Muslims and Christians worship different Gods, but he concedes that in many contexts the same God is not worshiped by Christians and Muslims alike. Actions speak louder than words in these contexts. But living a theology that demonstrates that Christians and Muslims worship the same God is a pragmatic choice that promotes peace and understanding. I see no negative consequence.
Volf’s theology of inclusion provides support for a centered set that allows Muslims to become followers of Jesus without abandoning their Muslim context. But the call to mission for both Christians and Muslims make it very difficult to understand how long Volf’s Christian response to Allah can avoid the truth claims of each faith tradition. Salvation and eternal life invariably will need to be part of the conversation as Christians demonstrate love for their neighbors.