Christians, Muslims in the double vision of Miroslav Volf

Richard Shumack reviews Miroslav Volf's Allah: a Christian response

As a “believer” I am frequently irritated by the selective and simplistic attacks on religion by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, with their deliberately provocative claims that religion poisons everything in general, and promotes conflict in particular.

Their claims are unquestionably overblown. Nonetheless, when I put aside my (most probably self-righteous) indignation, I can actually see their point. Not all conflict is essentially political or tribal.

Take two recent events: a Pakistani government minister of Christian background was assassinated for his outspokenness against his country's blasphemy laws. At the same time the State of Tennessee is seeking to “ban Sharia” in what Muslims are calling a bill that “makes it illegal to be Muslim in the state of Tennessee.” There are undeniably some serious conflicts that grow out of disputes over religious beliefs.

Unfortunately the two most common attempts at resolving religious disagreement are patently ineffective, if not repugnant.

On the one hand we witness people using some form of violence – physical, rhetorical, legal or intellectual – to enforce their belief on someone else. The problem, of course, is that violence doesn't prove truth, or necessarily change anyone's mind about what to believe.

On the other hand there is permissiveness: simply accepting that anyone else's personal beliefs are fine, whether or not they agree with your own. This latter option has great appeal for the Western pluralist. But the problem is that private beliefs cannot remain private.

Private beliefs inform one's social ethics and political policies. What are we to de when we clash over personal beliefs on refugee policy or carbon emissions or workplace behaviour? Can we just keep walking away from disagreement? Such a policy leads us down a path towards C.S. Lewis's hellish picture in The Great Divorce, where everyone lives in his or her own suburb of empty houses because no-one can get along.

If this vision is perhaps overly pessimistic in a social sense, it is not in a philosophical sense. Philosophical permissiveness denies any communal search for truth, and thus any real religious discourse. Resolution of disagreement is unlikely without real discourse.

How, then, should we handle disagreement over beliefs?

This question has long troubled renowned Yale theologian Miroslav Volf. His experiences growing up in a multi-faith context in the former Yugoslavia, has motivated his search for how Christians and Muslims might live together given their disagreements over belief.

Since the events of 11 September 2001 no one can deny the weight of this question, and Volf's attempt to provide an answer, Allah: A Christian Response, is worth serious consideration.

His goal in writing this book is clear: to find a stance on Christian and Muslim belief that creates a space to “live together well in a single and endangered world.”

His proposal is that both violent and permissive approaches should be rejected, as should approaches that focus on the disagreements. Instead, a method of dialogue that he terms “double vision” should be adopted.

This “double vision” is a recursive method that begins with recognizing your own beliefs, and then stepping outside them into the beliefs of others in order to then reflect on your beliefs from their point of view. You then return to your own, now modified, belief system and repeat the process.

His argument is that if both parties in a disagreement were to adopt this method, they may not reach agreement, but they will exhibit a real love for each other in the process that will limit any disposition to either violent conflict, or passionless disengagement.

As a method, “double vision” is attractive. It suggests working hard to understand how others came to their beliefs and considering how well your own beliefs stack up against those of your interlocutor. Surely this is a good position to hold, and one that like “mother and apple pie” is agreeable to all, at least as an ideal.

Volf, perhaps ironically given that the book is intended to limit conflict, believes his approach to be “hot and spicy,” and the book will definitely cause a stir.

As a Christian, Volf's application of a double vision approach to Islam has left him with the following controversial understanding of Muslim and Christian beliefs:

  • Muslims and Christians believe in the same creator God, who is a God of love, and loves all equally and without merit.
  • Christian and Muslim beliefs concerning the Trinity are not incompatible.
  • Both Christians and Muslims believe that they worship primarily by loving God and loving neighbour, including enemies.
  • The recognition of the primacy of love by Christians and Muslims will delegitimize motivation to religious violence and also supply a motivation to engage in pursuing common good in the world.

At face value, these results bode well for the “double vision” approach. So why would such a vision create heat? Mainly because the Islam Volf describes is not an Islam that I, or many Muslims I know, would recognize.

The Islam I have encountered in the Muslim communities in which I have lived does not understand God, or his love, in the way Volf describes. For them God is certainly loving and merciful, but Islam is clearly and unambiguously a meritocracy and God's mercy is for the obedient.

Volf suggests that “the primacy of God's love and mercy in the view of many great Muslim teachers makes the need to earn God's love superfluous and, indeed, inappropriate.” My experience is that few, if any, Muslims teach such an idea, and it is not at all clear in the Qur'an.

In the same way, most of my Muslim friends understand worship to be centred not in love of neighbour (although it does include that), let alone love of enemy, but rather in the rituals found in the pillars of Islam.

One of the reasons for this disconnect is that, for Christianity, Volf constantly refers to clear examples of Jesus' teaching in the Bible, but in the case of Islam he tends to look for deeper meanings behind the more obvious texts of the Qur'an.

So in arguing for the primacy of love of neighbour in Islam he cannot point to a single verse of the Qur'an for support, and only a few examples in the words of Muhammad (the hadith).

The problem is that Volf seeks support for his key premises from teachers who would be recognized by most traditional Muslims as marginal scholars

Most tellingly, Volf supports his argument that Muslims are called to love enemies – in the way Jesus spoke about – by appealing neither to the Qur'an nor the hadith, but instead only to an obscure parable told by a Muslim mystic.

In a revealing admission, Volf acknowledges that he is not talking about Islam as it is necessarily practiced, but rather what he sees as normative Islam as taught by some Islamic teachers.

The problem is that Volf seeks support for his key premises from teachers who would be recognized by most traditional Muslims as marginal scholars (such as the perennial philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr, popular in the West, but who believes all religions have transcendental unity), or Sufi mystics (like al-Bustami). His selectivity calls into question the normativity of the beliefs he mentions.

None of this is to suggest that Muslims are not called to, or don't, love God or their neighbours. It is just that the prominence Volf gives to these “golden rules” in Islam is unrecognizable to me. Instead, it looks to me like what a Christian would find in Islamic teaching if she went looking for it.

Don't get me wrong; I like very much Volf's idea of “double vision,” and the generosity of spirit behind it. It just seems to me that he has been unable to step far enough outside his Christian beliefs to genuinely encounter traditional Islam. In short, he didn't apply his method fully.

But what if I am wrong? What if we agree with Volf that the command to love God and neighbour are common centres of Christianity and Islam? Does this bring us to closer to agreement?

I don't think so. In fact, I suspect it brings us to an even bigger substantive disagreement between Christians and Muslims. Because even if you agree with Volf that there is a common understanding of God in Christianity and Islam, there is still a gulf between the beliefs of the two faiths concerning the nature and capacity of humans to worship God.

Christianity believes us to be powerless to fulfil God's requirements (golden or otherwise) without being renewed as people – we need to be “born again” as Jesus puts it (John 3:3). This is the Christian context for the love of God, and why Jesus speaks of God as a Father running to forgive wayward and broken people before they seek to return to Him (Luke 15:11-32) and then empowering them with His daily personal presence in their lives.

In contrast, Islam is clear that it is within human power to be religiously obedient people. God mercifully provides His commands as guidance to all who want it, but from there you are on your own.

Christians are those for whom God, in Jesus, has carried their sins; Muslims are those who are explicitly expected to answer for their own sins before God. Christians are born again sinners; Muslims are the successfully religious. Christian corporate worship is uniquely marked with joyful salvation songs; Muslim corporate worship is distinctively marked by earnest and austere prayers for guidance. The gulf here is wide.

Where does this leave us in handling religious disagreement between Christians and Muslims? Philosophers considering disagreement all agree that finding the truth in a world of plural beliefs and worldviews is not simple.

whereas Volf uses his “double vision” with a preference for seeking similarity, it seems to me that “double vision” is most productive when observing difference

There are many factors that contribute to holding and disagreeing over beliefs. These include our culture and backgrounds, our motivations, our intelligence, our training, our access to all the evidence we need to choose, as well as the fact that some truths about God – like the Trinity – are very complicated.

Similarly most agree that peer disagreement should at least cause us to pause and examine the factors that brought us to our beliefs to see if they provide us with good reasons to believe as we do.

Helpfully, some philosophers also suggest that rather than being a bad thing, a disagreement about belief should simply be seen as providing another form of evidence – that is, the different belief of a peer provides another part of the puzzle of faith to seek to understand, wrestle with, and then incorporate, reject or modify into your own beliefs. In essence, this is Volf's “double vision.”

But whereas Volf uses his “double vision” with a preference for seeking similarity, it seems to me that “double vision” is most productive when observing difference. If you and I ignore our differences in belief in order to find similarity, then neither of us will be likely to examine our own beliefs carefully enough because we will have no new evidence to consider.

If, however, we use “double vision” to consider our differing beliefs, then we will have real evidence that will push all of us to ask ourselves difficult questions concerning the adequacy of our reasons for belief.

If Christians and Muslims can reject both violence and disengagement and walk this difficult road together, then disagreement can lead, ultimately, to truth. The huge challenge is to do this in the spirit suggested by Volf, and it is modelling this generous spirit of engagement that is this book's greatest contribution.

Richard Shumack is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity, and a doctoral candidate at the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies at Melbourne University. He is also a Research Fellow at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.

This article originally appeared at ABC Religion and Ethics.