Thoughts on Miroslav Volf and Community

July 14, 2008

culture / spirituality / theology

From time to time, I recognize that God is attempting to speak to me about something. Typically, that something will appear in a lot of seemingly unrelated places, and from seemingly unrelated voices. He appears to be interested in telling me about community, as of late, and intensely so at Cornerstone.

Miroslav Volf is a Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School, and is also the director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. He has written a number of books, including Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation and Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. I would highly recommend any of his books. He is a native of Croatia, and is in a unique position to speak on subjects of identity, otherness, reconciliation, and so on through his various experiences in his native country.

At Cornerstone, he did a seminar on Identity & Otherness. Otherness is an important philosophical concept, by which we, and by we I mean all of us, separate others who are different from ourselves. This happens on very high levels, from the idiocy of Freedom Fries to the constant fear of attack that is cultivated in our country, and it also happens on very low levels, in my relationship with my wife and your relationship with your dog (cat, fish, sibling, etc.). Otherness is very different from honest recognition of difference, in the way that I might recognize that my wife looks very different than I do (which is wonderful), or the way that you might recognize that certain Indian foods are very spicy (which is also wonderful).

In the seminar, we looked at many of these things, from a cultural perspective (including nationalism, racisim, sexism, and so on), all the way to a spiritual, theological perspective (essentially, the ways in which Christians tend to Other those who have different beliefs and lifestyles than our own). Otherness begins with our language: we refer to the Other as “them.”

One of the most damaging ways that we as Christians do this is in the terms “lost”, or “unsaved”, or “outsiders.” We are trying to express various theological views through these terms, but in our own minds and the minds of others we make ourselves look superior. We are found, we are saved, we are insiders, and so we must be better than those who are not. In light of the grace which we have been shown, there is no room for Otherness. Everyone is on a journey, and we are all moving toward God, or away from God. Our task is to move toward God, and help others to do so (raise a glass to our friend Brad Culver for this concept).

I cannot overestimate the significance of this kind of shift in our thinking and our language, and how important this shift is in creating authentic community. When we get this, we will treat and view everyone differently: from the spouse living in our house to those our country declares to be our enemies.

As we looked at these issues with Miroslav Volf, we continued to discuss New Monasticism and creating authentic, holistic communities of faith with Brad and Peter, and it became clear to me that a theme is developing for this season of my life. I believe it will manifest itself in my marriage, in my home, in our faith community, and in my interactions with journeyers of all kinds.