Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring

To take a tangent that I hope will bring lightness to your heart:

I hope you enjoy listening to this YouTube version of
Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, by J. S. Bach. Bach's tempos are wonderful for projects such as this.

Wikipedia gives a translation of the German choral accompaniment to the music.

Well for me that I have Jesus,
O how strong I hold to him
that he might refresh my heart,
when sick and sad am I.
Jesus have I, who loves me
and gives me as his own,
ah, therefore I do not leave Jesus,
lest I should break my heart.

—from BWV 147, Chorale movement no 6

Jesus remains my joy,
my heart's comfort and essence,
Jesus resists all suffering,
He is my life's strength,
my eye's desire and sun,
my soul's love and joy;
so will I not leave Jesus
out of heart and face.

—from BWV 147, Chorale movement no. 10

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Miroslav Volf on Allah: A Christian Response

I had an unexpected opportunity to hear Miroslav Volf, Prof. of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School, speak about his new book, Allah: A Christian Response. This wonderful surprise was made possible by the fact that I'd traveled to Pennsylvania to fellowship with colleagues in ministry, and one of them mentioned that Volf was speaking only 5 minutes away. (Thank you, Matt!) I had two reasons to delay my trip home: one was the strong commendation from Fuller Prof. Charles Scalise of Volf's work on reconciliation, and the second was my long-standing commitment to the message of reconciliation through Christ and our call to be his "ambassadors." (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:16-ff.) I'll do my best to summarize Volf's remarks. Any mistakes in conveying his thoughts, the history behind his work, or in the spelling of unfamiliar names are due to my own scribbling & mental processes!

The central question we face, today, according to Volf, is "how can we combine religious exclusivism with social-political pluralism?" There are two major realities that we must contend with:

  1. Globalization – we are not simply interconnected people, any longer, but we are increasingly interdependent. We can no longer expect that actions we take in an isolated part of the world do not have repercussions or reverberations elsewhere.
    1. We live in social places which are increasingly pluralistic.
  2. It is not evident that religious adherence is decreasing, numerically; in fact, it is clear that religions are drawing more adherents.
    1. Religions are more socially assertive, too, and individuals engage with others along religious lines and outside of their own religious faiths. "Faiths cannot be sequestered, anymore."

The Common Word Initiative began in Jordan. At the behest of Prince Ghazi of Jordan, 38 Muslim scholars wrote a response to Pope Benedict XVI, after the Pope's address in Regensburg, in September, 2006. The questions they considered were, "do we espouse 'exclusive faiths'?" and "how may we treat equally those with whom God is displeased as we treat those with whom God is pleased?"

The Pope had opened his lecture by quoting a medieval discussion in which the Christian questioned the supposedly violent character of the Muslim God. The medieval claim was that the Christian God was rational and reasonable, beginning with the Word of God; this reasonableness helps to found democracy. On the other hand, the medieval dialogue contended, Allah was a God of arbitrary will and thus underwrites totalitarian forms of governance. Because some furor erupted over the Pope's use of this medieval discussion, even though the rest of the Papal speech mitigated or nuanced many of its assertions, Muslim scholars felt the need to respond openly. Their open letter to the Pope helped found some positive work in open dialogue and promotion of reconciliation between Muslims & Christians on the ground of faith we share. A Common Word Between Us & You was the result of the expanded work and collaboration of Muslim authorities and scholars from major streams of thought within Islam. Prof. Volf has participated in resulting discussions with Islamic scholars, as have other Christians committed to loving God and neighbor. The "traditional and mainstream Islamic position" of respecting Christian Scripture is reaffirmed in the work of A Common Word, and their site states, "Indeed, the most fundamental common ground between Islam and Christianity, and the best basis for future dialogue and understanding, is the love of God and the love of the neighbor."

Volf stated that the main argument in his book is that we do, Christians and Muslims, believe in the same God, but "in a qualified way." He agrees that what binds our 2 faiths together are the conjoined commands to love God and to love neighbor. From the standpoint of human societies and communities, he considers that we need to have religious reasons to live in peace, because if humans fail to act corporately, the "privatization" that resulted from the Enlightenment is insufficient to sustain a broad peace. [From my interpretation of his argument, Volf sees religious enterprises as those bonding enterprises which promote our common humanity, truth and communities within this world.] "The more religious we are, the more at peace we will be with our neighbors." (Volf) If it is true that what binds us together is love of God, and love of neighbor, then we need to consider if we share common definitions of the terms: love, neighbor, God. Volf sees religion to take "us out of our own private ways of perceiving reality."

Volf paraphrased a Sufi scholar [I believe the scholar's name is Habib Ali], who perceives and teaches that God is loving and God is justice. Per Volf, Ali has stated that all God's actions [in the world] are regulated by mercy and justice. God, as depicted in the Old Testament, is an obstacle to Muslims because God seems unjust, in many stories. [Many Christians have the same misgivings!] However, regarding the question of the Trinity, which seems to be Tritheism to many orthodox Muslims, Volf pointed out that many of the stated objections by Muslims to the Trinity would be agreed upon by orthodox Christians. In other words, orthodox Christian belief is not Tritheism and the latter is considered a heresy. Thus, Muslims could understand the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams' statement that the Trinity describes the "numerical identity of indivisible divine substance."

According to Volf, no peace in this world can be achieved at the sacrifice of people's integrity and their religious integrity. I understood him as underlining the commitment to human freedom in religious affiliation and belief. Obviously, the extent of freedom is too frequently compromised for particular persons according to particular rationales. Regarding a statement Volf made that women's bodies are "the most contested space of religious discussion", I'll soon write another blog in the series, Misogyny in Secular & Religious Traditions.

However, once that freedom is acknowledged, religious adherents can agree that worship has both "vertical and horizontal modes". The horizontal mode is how we live in this world, and takes seriously "that our lives reveal who we worship." "That from which you draw your ultimate security is your god." It is possible for Muslims to claim that they worship the same God, and for Christians to claim that they worship the same God, but "our deeds reveal otherwise!" I completely resonated with Volf's statement that "our deeds are a more significant indicator of who we worship than our words are." [From my work in reconciliation, I'd concur with Volf and then, I'd add a supplement. Words themselves are a form of deeds, scripturally, and we need to be mindful of James' & Proverbs' injunctions vs. the unruly and unloving tongue (or pen, or writing), and Paul's admonition to speak "only what is useful for building up" one another. I'd venture a guess that Volf would agree, because we're all very aware of how words are used to provoke, demean, antagonize and incite others, today.]

To illustrate Volf's contention (with which I heartily agree!) that "our deeds are a more significant indicator of who we worship than our words are", he said that it seems clear that the Crusaders who, "in the name of" Christ, slaughtered Muslims taking refuge in the Temple (until the blood was "ankle-deep" in some reports) worship the same bloodthirsty god as do the suicide bombers of today who slaughter innocents while shouting "Allahu Akbar". He also used the example of the Muslim leader, Saladin, who became a figure exemplifying principled chivalry to Muslims and Christians.

We need to look at the deeds for their testimony to whom we/others worship. While acknowledging that we who are committed to love God and love neighbor in words and deeds are worshiping the same God, yet we can accept that there are significant and important tensions in understanding the nature of the true God. Questions of salvation and of Godself can only be safely
answered when integrity and freedom of persons is honored as we love our neighbors. In order to further dialogue and promote peace, Volf distinguishes that we need not contend over differences in the ways of salvation in Islam and Christianity, when we can promote the values and common word we share of loving God and neighbor.

Volf added and refined his remarks further in a question and answer session, but I'll save those for a follow-up post.