So, here we are near the end of my series on Miroslav Volf’s Allah, and you may be wondering what happened to the “money quote” I mentioned at the beginning — the one about how you can be a practicing Muslim and 100% Christian at the same time. So far, Volf has argued that the differences between Christianity and Islam aren’t as big as they’re often made out to be, but he’s also acknowledged that they’re important and meaningful. So how can someone be both without melting into a pluralist soup?
Volf looks at two real-life examples. One case I remember hitting the news a few years ago: Ann Redding, an American Episcopal priest who visited a mosque one day and, for reasons even she can’t logically explain, decided she had to become a Muslim. She continued her duties as a priest until she was eventually defrocked, but she was not excommunicated.
The other example I was unfamiliar with, but has apparently been going on since the ’80s: Muslims accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior while still remaining Muslim. An article in Christianity Today explained how this works:
Ibrahim was a well-respected scholar of the Qur’an, a hafiz. When he decided to follow Jesus, he closely examined the Qur’anic verses commonly understood as denying the Trinity, denying Jesus’ divine Sonship, denying Jesus’ atoning death, and denying the textual integrity of the Bible. He concluded that each of these verses was open to alternate interpretations, and that he could therefore follow Jesus as a Muslim. Soon members of his family and community came to share his faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. Ibrahim was also imprisoned for his faith, but unlike Nabil, Ibrahim still wanted to follow Jesus as a Muslim.
This appears to be similar to the lifestyle of Messianic Jews, who retain their traditional diet and rituals and so on but accept Jesus as their Messiah.
Volf mentions elsewhere that his father was a Pentecostal minister, and his defense of these dual religionists rests heavily on his very low-Protestant definition of “Christian.” Here is his litmus test:
1. Were you baptized in the name of the triune God?
2. Do you confess that Jesus Christ, in whom God dwelled in human flesh, is the Lord?
3. Have you received the divine gift of a new life given freely through Christ?
If your answers are yes, than you are 100 percent Christian (or, if you prefer, a follower of Christ). … Now imagine that you also fasted on Ramadan, prayed five times a day by prostrating and saying Al Fatihah (the first surah of the Qur’an, the seven lines of which sum up the human relation to God in contemplation and prayer), and believe that Muhammad was a prophet (not “Seal of the Prophets”, but a prophet in the way we might designate Martin Luther King Jr. “a prophet”). If your answers are still yes to the three questions above, you would still be 100 percent Christian.
… Can you be 100 percent Muslim if you answered the three questions above with yes? That is not for Christians to answer. Muslims must answer it.
It is interesting to compare this with the reason the Episcopal Church gave for defrocking Redding: she “abandoned the Communion of the Episcopal Church by formal admission into a religious body not in communion with the Episcopal Church.” Communion, whether as a sacrament or a concept, is distinctly missing from Volf’s definition of Christianity in this entire book. This isn’t just because Pentecostals tend to be individualists, but because Volf is opposed to faith acting as a marker of group identity and loyalty. This was also a major theme in Exclusion & Embrace, and it’s not hard to see why a Yugoslavian would feel that way. The Yugoslav heartland consisted of people who look the same and speak the same language, but who are split by religion: Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbs, Bosnian Muslims. Volf gives examples of childish behavior exacerbating this conflict, such as a Croat church building a giant cross over a largely Muslim town, and a Serbian sports team celebrating victory with the sign of the Orthodox cross.
In Volf’s view, what these people could use is some literal fear of God. “Bad people, with no intention of doing good, can think alike about God and still be at each other’s throats. But fear of that common God — the one who commands love of neighbor — would make a difference. Fear of that God will nudge Muslims and Christians to emulate God and therefore pursue the common good.” By “fear,” I should note, he’s not talking about petrification but allegiance and obedience. In that respect, I can see what he’s getting at. Though they may protest otherwise, many believers seem to think God is like a politician, whose power increases with the number and influence of his supporters. The idea that God is lord of all places and times, regardless of who’s worshipping him, counteracts the idea that you have to take extreme measures in his defense.
But I have the same problem with this that I pointed out near the end of part 2, regarding how Christians are supposed to care for apostates and dissenters from other faiths. Do community interests have any moral claims on Christians? Can you care for individuals while being indifferent to their community interests? My instinctive answer to the second question is “no,” and Volf isn’t really any help in answering either. He never really defines what the “common” in the common good is, but he seems to be invoking the Enlightenment ideal of treating everyone with equal benevolence regardless of their relationship to you, which is, among other things, physically impossible.
Another very Pentecostal assumption Volf seems to be making is that everyone has some kind of direct personal relationship with God that supersedes whatever scriptures, sacraments, traditions and histories they might have. But in my experience at least, those phenomena are precisely how many Christians know God. Most people don’t get to see Jesus, but they believe they see him in his works. I am reminded of Lesslie Newbigin’s The Household of God, which pointed out that the main legacy Jesus left on Earth was not an instruction book but a fellowship. Yep, he created yet another group.
I thought of Newbigin more than once while reading Volf’s book, actually. Back in my review of Household I said that Newbigin seemed to dispose of traditional church boundaries only to make up his own, and I see Volf doing the same thing here. Like Newbigin, he has a very broad definition of “Christian,” so he frequently points out that some of the differences between orthodox Christianity and orthodox Islam aren’t any greater than the differences between Christian sects. Yet he also has a clear idea of what he’s against. At one point, he considers a medieval Crusader and a modern Muslim suicide bomber, and declares that “They are naming God very differently, and yet they are, alas, worshipping the same god — a bloodthirsty god of power, not the God of justice and mercy of the normative Christian and Muslim religious traditions.”
I have seen this desire to rally the moderates against the extremes many times since 9/11. But I wonder what this does to Newbigin’s project of unifying the body of Christ. Volf is casting a wider net, but still ends up leaving some people out that Newbigin would probably leave in. Still, despite my carping I’m glad that I read this book. As in his earlier work, Volf is unafraid to tackle the hot issues, and he does it calmly and intelligently. I hope this leads others to follow his example.