Guest Reviewer: Rev. Cameron West
One of the most beautiful films I’ve seen is Xavier Beauvois’ Des hommes at des dieux (2010) about the nine Trappist monks of Tibhirine kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists and martyred in 1996. The final testimony of Dom Chrisitan de Chergé finishes with these words addressed to his murderer: “May we meet again as happy thieves in paradise, if it please God, the father of us both.”
De Chergé had become convinced of the primary claim of Miroslav Volf’s book Allah: A Christian Response – that Muslims and Christians both worship the one, true God. As a consequence of this Volf goes on to claim that the significant extent to which both faiths have a common understanding of both the nature of God and how to respond to God in worship, not only respectful dialogue but mutual cooperation should ensue. The book is then, as the author states explicitly at the outset, squarely in the category of political theology, and as such is an important work. Essentially it is an elaboration on his chapters in the volume A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on loving God and loving neighbour which he co-edited. It is also a particular instance of the framework for political theology he argues for in A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good which itself builds on the theological interpretation of scripture that he proposes and demonstrates in Captive to the Word of God: Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection. That Allah fits within the context of Volf’s overarching project is important to note, as this most challenging and ambitious of the four books may alienate admirers of his previous work if its relationships to the others aren’t recognised.
Perhaps anticipating this, Volf’s main argument – that Christians and Muslims both worship the one, true God – is closely and compellingly (if sometimes laboriously) argued, with unlikely support being found in the polemic of Martin Luther. Muslims – like Jews, Catholics, and ‘sectarian’ Protestants – Luther argues, worship the right God, but they do it wrongly. Volf only goes half as far as Luther, offering that both groups understand God’s character in ways that are similar enough to have similar demands placed upon them for their response to God (in worship) and interaction with each (politics and ethics). He doesn’t avoid or minimise the significant differences in theology such as the Trinity or whether the adjective merciful (as Muslims) or the noun love (as Christians) is the most accurate description of God’s primary orientation towards humanity. Nor does he shy away from the resulting differences in approaching to ethical questions such as the relationship of each faith to violence. In fact, Volf consistently draws from orthodox Christian thinkers (from Augustine and Nicholas of Cusa to Karl Barth and Rowan Williams) and even authoritative Christian documents (mostly from Vatican II), showing how unlike his project is to the facile sentimentalism of many hard pluralists. To the contrary: the understanding of God, worship and ethics common to both faiths demands religious exclusivism as rigorously as it does political pluralism.
At times, Volf seems to labour his point, at others to not provide enough demonstration or assumes specialist knowledge. He is sometimes too cautious in arriving at seemingly obvious conclusions (such as, that laws forbidding apostasy and freedom of religion are incompatible) and also carefully selective in his scope. In one sense this is fair enough, as his project already spans four volumes it’s unrealistic to expect such an ambitious task to be undertaken evenly and exhaustively. Yet for all its breadth and depth, richness and warmth there is something about this book that, even if not actually disappointing, nonetheless still fails to satisfy. The project that Volf has undertaken across all four volumes is a worthy one, which demonstrates both courage and creativity. And yet the minor awkwardness indicates that more of these qualities will yet be required as – hopefully – this project continues to unfold.