Thursday, March 17, 2011
Book Review of Miroslav Volf's Allah: A Christian Response
Volf, Miroslav. (2011). Allah: A Christian Response, New York, NY: HarperOne. Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at the Yale Divinity School and founding director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.
Using "political theology", Volf's main thesis is that the God of Christians and Muslims is the same. His approach is from that of a Christian but he is able to balance that with a few quotations from the Koran and Hadith. He argues persuasively that since "normative" Christianity's description of God's attributes is similar to "normative" Islam's description of Allah's attributes, therefore both religious traditions worship the same God.
When it comes to the issue of the Trinity (Muslims believe that Christians worship three gods instead of one), Volf brings in the masterful argument set forth by theologian Nicholas of Cusa (1401 – 1464) and that of Reformer Martin Luther. Volf gave a good summary of the explanation of Nicholas of Cusa of the Trinity to the Muslim so that there is "no dispute between Christians and Muslim about God's unity" (51). One part of his explanation is that "[n]umbers are for creatures. God is not a creature. Therefore God is beyond number - beyond the number one as much as beyond the number three" (52). It must be noted that Nicholas of Cusa came up with this ingenious explanation of the Trinity after the fall and rape of Constantinople in 1453 by the Muslim armies of Sultan Mehmed II and the Christians were trying to sue for peace. The argument by Martin Luther as explained by Volf was a bit confusing except that "the main emphasis of Luther's theology: God's unconditional love" (73). However it must also be noted that Luther's thinking was in the context of Sulaimen the Magnificent capturing Hungary and laying siege to Vienna. If Vienna falls, then the whole of Europe will follow. The Christians were again trying to find common grounds.
Having set the groundwork by appealing to Nicholas of Cusa and Martin Luther, Volf set forth to argue in the second half of the book that the common attributes of the Christian God and Islam's Allah are the same thus concluding that both are the same. All other points of differences are then explained under "eternal and unconditional love". Though I appreciate Volf's attempt to set a common ground for dialogue, and suspect his affirmation that "If Muslims and Christians have a common God, are not Islam and Christianity just two versions of the same thing?" (191), I am not comfortable with his approach.
As Volf himself has pointed out, the Apostle Creed reveals two essential aspects of Christianity - who God is and what He has done. One cannot explain away so easily the Trinity- God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit in one Godhead (Christians believe in one God, not three Gods). Also the work of Jesus Christ on the cross cannot be explained away by just using the term "unconditional love" without going into atonement and Jesus' words "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). In the index of this 314 page book, there is only three references to Jesus' death on the cross.
The second sentence Volf's introduction chapter almost broke my heart. He writes, "Christian responses to Allah - understood here as the God of the Quran - will either widen the chasm or help bridge it" (1). In Malaysia, the Christians have been trying to appeal against the government who wants to restrict the use of the word Allah to Muslims only. In one sentence, Volf gives away all that the Malaysian Christians have been fighting for all these years. Volf is aware of this issue in Malaysia (80-81). Allah has been used as synonymous with God by the Bahasa Malaysia (Malay) speaking Christians in Malaysia long before Malaysia became a country. Allah is an Arabic word meaning God.
This book is an excellent scholarly monograph in bridge building between two religious traditions. If it is from the Christian perspective, then one must be careful not to give away the basic tenets of one's faith.
Addentum (18 March 2011)
How does Volf "gives away" the battle for the name "Allah" for the Christians in Malaysia. This was at the very beginning of the book. Volf in naming his significant terms gave the term "Allah" to the Muslims and "God" to the Christians. We know what he is trying to do and if his thesis is correct it does not matter.
But if he is wrong then as a Christian he have given away the term to the Muslims.
The general reading public may not understand 'significant terms". All they will know is from this book, Volf suggests Christians and Muslims worship the same God which the Muslims call "Allah, and the Christians "God". It is likely most Muslims will reject this statement. However, they will be happy to point out that a prominent Yale scholar and theologian has used the term "Allah" exclusively to refer to the God Muslims worship and differentiated the term from the Christian God.
While I appreciate that he is writing from the North American context, however he must realise that the world is very interconnected and he has to be sensitive in his use of terms. Especially when he is aware of what is happening in Malaysia.