Exclusion & Embrace: a theological exploration of identity, otherness and reconciliation by Miroslav Volf

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Miroslav Volf, professor in theology at Yale Divinity School, has written a “theological exploration” that illuminates a vision of what it means to live under God in a post-modern world of glaring human pluralism. Perhaps the greatest challenge that ruffles many thoughtful Christians is how to live with the otherness of others whose contempt and hostility toward one another, including the church, are real. His book is an impressive, lucid synthesis of Biblical theology, historical philosophy, post modern thinking, contemporary issues with insightful readings of the Christian’s Scripture and current global conflicts.

All peoples viscerally seek to protect their communal identity by drawing boundaries to exclude others who are different from them. This determined exclusion can easily lead people, individually and collectively, toward hatred and even violence. The natural consequence of exclusion is almost always oppression, injustice and violence. Volf responds to the problem of exclusion by proposing “embrace” as a way to live with one another in God’s grace. The only way to redeem this flawed human diversity is to accept the otherness of others, including our enemies, in forgiveness and reconciliation. Here he wrestles with gender and race, oppression and justice, deception and truth, violence and peace with acute insights and a wide breadth of research. Volf’s brilliant argument for “embrace” is convincing.

A native Croatian, with first hand exposure to the atrocities during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, Volf flirts with a personal application of his proposed “embrace” but does not. The year was 1993.  For months the Serbian fighters had been plundering his native country, “herding people into concentration camps, raping women, burning down churches, and destroying cities.” In his theological enlightenment, how would he embrace his enemies, the perpetrators of these unspeakable evils, in real time and space? What would embrace actually look like in his personal life? Where would he find the courage and strength to embrace his enemies? How would embrace impact his sense of jurisprudence?  When asked how he would embrace the Serbians, Volf conveniently gives a canned response: No, I cannot – but as a follower of Christ I think I should be able to (page 9). After more than 300 pages of impression theological exploration, he never comes around to tell us how he has applied embrace in his social and political contexts.

A failure of this book can be said of many others of the same genre. There is a serious disconnect between the clear confidence of cognitive theology and the ambivalence of soot smudged human reality. Perhaps my difficulty in plowing through his reasoning is that it lacks a sense of ground truth (a military term referring to the reality check of a theory in actual combat). Struggling to follow his argument, I agitatedly ask, so what – does embrace really work for him? I desperately want him to show me the power of embrace. If he has practiced embrace with his enemies, Volf does not tell us. The reader seriously doubts if he has found it within himself to accept, forgive and reconcile with those who have killed and raped his people. The book is deep with brilliant insights in abstract theology but shallow in applied theology. When all has been written and done, infinitely more is written than done.

Abingdon Press. 1996