Saturday, July 28, 2012

Allah: A Christian Response; Chapter One


Building off the foundations of his opening about the stakes between Muslims and Christians, Volf begins with a speech delivered by Pope Benedict XVI after the crisis over the Danish caricatures of Muhammad in 2006. The relevant portion is quoted below:
"In the international context we are living in at present, the Catholic Church continues convinced that, to foster peace and understanding between peoples and men, it is necessary and urgent that religions and their symbols be respected."
Volf then begins with a historical analysis behind the initial support from Muslims for the Pope, and then the sudden backlash that followed when the Pope seemingly turned their back on him. Having not studied this issue in any real depth beyond mining the internet for the alleged cartoon, this was a real eye-opener. This is the world's most powerful Christian and he seems to be sounding tolerant and in the mood for the building of inter-religious bridges. What changed?

The Pope said:
"Intolerance and violence can never be justified as a response to offenses, as they are not compatible responses with the sacred principles of religion."
Volf believes that this reference to Muslim's rioting after the caricatures, and the Muslim backlash against the Pope's words was both productive and dissatisfying. The Pope seemed to be revoking his initial support. But the material seems far deeper than just that.

I will confess, it strikes me as both odd and amusing that caricatures would invoke such a violent response, but this coming from an American sitting in his parents house.

Muslim scholars responded with an "Open Letter" that contained a refutation of the Pope's words, a letter that in one year would become the document "A Common Word Between Us and You."

At this point, Volf has contended that the Pope has actually revealed a great chasm between both Abrahamic religions. His history lesson, build on modern principles, extrapolates from the past wars to create a tapestry of open wounds and smoldering fissions. There is a distinction made between Christianity's "God as reason" and Islam's "God as pure will" that travels back to the 14th century. Miroslav contends that historical Christianity seems to teach that God encourages reason, deliberation and persuasion; the perception of Islam is far more based on arbitrary violence and the use of the sword. In Benedict XVI's view, the Muslim God is a completely arbitrary deity, and therefore Islam is incompatible with deliberative democracy.

Now given that the Pope made comments about freedom and the "intolerance" of Islam in his speech, he inadvertently opened old wounds and showed a perceived distinction between both faiths. For me, this was illuminating. Whatever your thoughts thus far, Volf cannot be dismissed as not chasing the devil into the tall reeds of details.

From my own experience, I have noticed a great chasm between both faiths, but I had never thought to reconcile them together. I still don't think we really can, but Volf has certainly planted something in there. Away we go.


Even beyond the distinctions between Christianity and Islam (trinity being a big one), Volf contends (himself a strong trinitarian) that he has no interest in creating religious pluralism. He seems to view that as an intellectual cop-out and too easy to fall into. Christians, we are not dealing with some crazed liberal fundamentalist out to overturn everything we hold dear. Nor are we dealing with an impotent scholar who cannot recognize his beard from his nose. Miroslav Volf's work cannot be dismissed, and it ought not be. In fact, in an interview he admitted that the blurb on the back of Allah ["Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?] wasn't his doing and he did seem to express some doubt as to it's intended result.

However, Volf does seem intent on creating a sort of political pluralism. He does leave room for his being overly idealistic, and I do think he is. This is not a slam, but I'm a cynic. At this point, I'm hoping he's right but one glance at the headlines about material within our own borders doesn't give me great cause for celebration.

I'll leave it to later chapters for Volf's thesis to hopefully work it's magic.


Inspired by the Open Letter mentioned in the first section, the expressed goal of the drafters was not to create division, but to mark similarities. I will several verses (I think that is what they are called).

According to the Qur'an, "Do not contend with people of the Book except in the fairest way." (AL 'Ankabut, 29:46). 

Taking up the claim that Muhammad follows the example of many heresy hunters, Benedict mentions the famous verse from the Qur'an, "There is no compulsion in religion" (Al Baqarah, 2:256).

And the one that stuck out to me and it is according to the Open Letter, "God has many Names in Islam, including the Merciful, the Just, the Seeing, the Hearing, the Knowing, the Loving, and the Gentle. Their utter conviction in God's Openness and that "There is none like Him." (Al Ikhlas, 112:4).

"If justice, mercy and knowledge are God's own attributes, then there is no room for divine capriciousness." (Volf, pg26). I will contend that capriciousness could be compatible with such things, provided it is redefined. But, that would be a redefinition, right?


According to the Open Letter, Islam is at it's heart about love of God and love of neighbor. Though the Qur'an never explicitly states 'love for God,' a human attribute is applied to God. There is none like Him. The drafters of the Open Letter remind Muslims that their hearts must be completely devoted to God. According to the hadith, Muhammad stated, "None of you has faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself." The Common Word then goes on to bring about the two greatest commandments written to Muslims and Christs, love of God, love of neighbor.

They view it as an area of common ground, where Christians and Muslims can rejoice in similarities. This could be the bridge, Volf argues, to bring us closer together. As we found in the first post, Muslims and Christians make up a substantive percent of the world's population, and getting us to play nicely together in our respective sandboxes might be a worthy option. Even, if Volf concedes, it is overly idealistic.

I will conclude this section with a remark from Nostra Aetate, written by the Second Vatican Council:
"The Church looks upon Muslims with respect. They worship the one God living and subsistent, merciful, and almighty, creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to humanity and to whose decrees, even the hidden ones, they seek to submit themselves wholeheartedly, just as Abraham, to whom the Islamic faith readily relates itself, submitted to God."

I will confess that I didn't know this section existed anywhere. In fact, I know many Christians would say it is wrong, dangerous or even heresy to say such a thing. I know many/most Christians would never even think of such things.

I will also confess that I don't really know what to make of such things from the Second Vatican Council. I am looking forward to seeing what Volf writes and how he nuances much of his arguments. Thus far, I am unconvinced, but Volf's thoughts cannot be dismissed.


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