I haven’t been reading much theology the last few years, but I got lured into Miroslav Volf’s brand-new Allah: A Christian Response when I heard about some of its more interesting claims, such as “A person can be both a practicing Muslim and 100 percent Christian without denying core convictions of belief and practice.” I read Volf’s greatly admired Exclusion & Embrace back during my 2007 blogging hiatus, so I never posted about it. But I could see that the new book continues some of the same themes. Volf grew up in Yugoslavia and watched his homeland disintegrate into violence. In E&E he contemplates at length how diverse peoples can live together peacefully, especially after they’ve committed horrendous crimes against each other.
Allah is preoccupied with similar questions, but with a particular focus on the relationship between the world’s two biggest religions. As Volf relates in the book, the whole thing got started back in 2006 when the Pope controversially made a speech insinuating that Islam was a violent and irrational religion. That led a group of Muslim scholars and leaders to issue a detailed open letter refuting the Pope’s points. Then a year later followed A Common Word, an offer to all Christians to live together in peace. Volf, who teaches at Yale, was party to the “Yale Response” to this document, and Allah is essentially a book-length elaboration of that response.
Volf first addresses the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. He starts off with some historical perspective, which, interestingly enough, begins exactly where Lost to the West leaves off: the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Muslim Turks. Though the Pope at the time was trying to organize another crusade to take it back, Volf is more interested in his associate, a cardinal named Nicholas of Cusa. Nicholas sounds like the kind of mega-optimist that the 18th and 19th centuries cranked out more often than the 15th. He wrote a treatise advocating a grand conference between Christian and Muslim leaders to reason their way towards the truth together. He believed that both religions worshipped the same God — indeed, that all religions in some way seek after the same God — although he believed that Christianity had the clearest view of him. He took a close look at Muslim differences with Christianity and tried to explain why they weren’t such big differences after all.
Volf is especially interested in Nicholas’ treatment of the Trinity. The Quran and other Muslim texts include several criticisms of this doctrine, on the grounds that it violates the principle of monotheism. Both Nicholas and Volf, however, argue that those criticisms are really knocking bastardized versions of the idea — such as that it describes three different gods, or envisions God begetting a son like a human or a beast, or displaces God with Jesus (and his mother!). Nicholas concedes that the language can make it sound like that, but the words are mere attempts to describe the ineffable. Christians speak of the three Persons for a reason, but not because there are three “things” to count. “When you begin to count the Trinity you depart from the truth,” he wrote.
All this might sound extremely theoretical, but for both Nicholas and Volf this has a bearing on how to think about God’s love. Muslims, Volf says, have debated whether to ascribe “love” to God at all, but that depends on the definition of the word. Volf takes Socrates’ definition of love as a starting point: “to desire something that one does not have and considers to be good.” But that can’t be God’s love, because “God lacks nothing that is good, and God has no needs.” So to speak of God’s love describes his giving, and on that Muslims agree. Volf also seems to agree with the medieval Muslim scholar Ahmad ibn Taymiyya that God doesn’t love creatures simply for their benefit, as that would subject him to the whims of their desires, and God’s love is supposed to be eternal and steadfast. But he depart from Ibn Taymiyya when he concludes that, therefore, God’s love for creatures is simply his own love for himself. Apparently, subsequent Sufi scholars took this to mean that creatures are unreal, in a theory that sounds like Hindu monism: the ultimate reality is the unity of God, or something like that. I admit I didn’t completely follow it. But anyway, Volf says that the triune God’s love is not self-oriented but other-oriented, because even before the world was created he had “others” within himself. Volf doesn’t draw any bold conclusions about the two religions from that, but leaves it hanging there suggestively.
You’re probably thinking, this is still extremely theoretical. I’ve thought about real-world connections to this doctrine, based on my experience among Christians. What divine Trinitarian love means to most Christians I know is a lot more concrete than Volf’s philosophizing. It says that God gave the world his only son, who suffered, died and rose again for us. And that is how we know God loves us.
The suffering God — such a central motif in Christian thought — never turns up in this book. That’s probably because Volf is stressing commonalities. But it also complicates the picture of an ineffable God who doesn’t want or need anything. I know it’s a Buddhist and not a Christian precept that all suffering stems from desire, but I still say it’s true. You suffer because of the lack of what you want or need, or the loss of what you have. In fact, in my experience among American Protestants, I am constantly encountering a God who desires and therefore suffers. He is the parent who has aspirations for us, which are often frustrated. He is the bridegroom who courts us, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.
I am reminded of a discussion of divine impassibility over on Jesus Creed awhile back, which spells out the connections between suffering and love:
“An impassible God can never be described as love the way the apostle John described Him. … The lover has to risk the rejection of his beloved.”
“Does He not suffer along with those who suffer, react with anger at oppression, and rejoice with good? Please say ‘yes’ because I would hate to think I’ve been worshipping a false God.”
“God is love, and this requires that he suffers. It pains him to see his children not living right. You have to ignore essentially the entire OT if you accept this (impassibility).”
“Well, we’re told not ‘to grieve the Holy Spirit’ right? Are we being commanded to avoid something that is actually impossible to do? I really doubt it. So, that’s 2 of the three persons of the Trinity that suffer. Is the Father somehow sealed off from the suffering of both Jesus and the Spirit?”
Scot claimed that people misunderstood the doctrine of divine impassibility, but all this raised issues in my own mind that were never resolved. It’s true that a pain-free God isn’t very relatable, but a desiring, suffering God brings another set of problems. I can imagine that to Muslims, this looks like a mess. Worse, it might make God look like a bit of a sad sack, subject to human whims in the manner that Taymiyya rejected. It may be cool to think of the sovereign God voluntarily surrendering power — maybe especially to us obstreperous Americans — but as we’re seeing today in Egypt, that euphoric moment doesn’t take the place of actual governance.
Volf seems to agree, as he suggests Muslims might remind Christians of this. “Currently, for instance, ‘submission to God,’ Islam’s central theme, is not a favorite ‘melody’ of many Christians in the West; it runs counter to Western egalitarian cultural sensibilities,” he writes. “But it’s an essential and often performed part of the Christian repertoire. After all, Christians believe that God is the sovereign Lord.”
Certainly, it’s clear from Volf’s Quranic quotes that Muslims don’t think of God as the Trinity mashed together; they identify God with the Father. How do Christians feel about that God? This whole thing also reminds me of the section of Telford Work’s book about our debates over the character of God (which I see is available now on Google Books, though with a few pages missing because it’s in preview.) In that chapter he first describes getting to know the God of Wahhabi Islam, and says, “I decided I would proudly go to hell rather than submit to such a tyrant.” But that God does bear some notable similarities to the God of the Bible, a problem that becomes more apparent when I come into the storyline and start questioning everything. Eventually, Telford’s basic answer to our problem is Jesus. Jesus reveals the true character of the Father and brings us into communion with him via the Holy Spirit. “Every good answer to every question about God’s character appeals to God as triune,” he writes.
It wasn’t until I read Volf that it occurred to me consciously for the first time that, by answering this way, Telford implicitly conceded that if I were facing the Father alone, I might be justified in not trusting him. But the Bible makes clear that worship was due to God before Jesus came along. Jesus reiterates the point himself. So while Volf isn’t defending Wahhabism here — he relies mainly on Sufis — I wonder if he would answer me the same way.
I also might note that the de-emphasis on submission plays a role in Western Christianity’s ability to coexist with secular liberalism, and one way that Islam riles up the West is by messing with that coexistence. But that is a subject for a later post.