Faith, community and identity

In Part Five of our interview with Miroslav Volf we asked him what Christian communities offer people.



In Part Five of our interview with Miroslav Volf we asked him what Christian communities offer people.

Miroslav Volf is the Henry B. Wright professor of theology at Yale Divinity School. He is also the Director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Yale. Volf is the author of a 150 editorials and 11 books including Exclusion and Embrace as well as The End of Memory – Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. At Yale he teaches a class with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on ‘Faith and Globalization.’ Volf has been described as “one of the most celebrated theologians of our day,” by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

A victim of intense and sustained interrogation by the government of then communist Yugoslavia, Volf’s work focuses on forgiveness and reconciliation and remembering wrongs sustained in the past. He maintains that the Christian vision of the world entails the possibility of overcoming the past for both the victim and the perpetrator of wrongs.

In this five-part interview conducted at Yale, Volf explains his ideas on forgiveness, memory and identity. He also talks about religion and violence and why he thinks, contra Dawkins and Hitchens, more religion (of a particular kind) not less can lead the way to a peaceful future.


SIMON SMART: It seems to me that much of your writing is essentially about relationship and community. Is there something that Christian communities can offer that other communities can’t?

MIROSLAV VOLF: Yes. A lot of my writing is about community because that’s who God is. The character of God is one who is also somehow mysteriously three, so that the communion, which is simply to say love, stands at the heart of the being itself.

And therefore also, communion is the goal of human beings, which is to say loving relationship, not only with God, but also with one’s neighbours, is at the heart of human Christian life and that’s why it’s such an unthinkable thought, though not un-doable as a practice, to have a Christian who is by herself or by himself a Christian.

“Solus Christianus, nullus Christianus”, said Tertullian. “A lone Christian is no Christian”. And that’s a very simple consequence of the very character of God as love and as communion.

SIMON SMART: Yes, I guess a big part of that is identity. What identity are people taking on when they adopt Christian faith?

MIROSLAV VOLF: Yes, it is very much a question of identity. So that I, my own identity is not self-defined. I am part and parcel of a larger group and my identity is identity of… is enmeshed with the identity of that community, and for Christians that community is a community called ‘church’.

And the church’s own identity is not self-constituting identity from groups of people who comprise that, but rather it ought to be and it should be identity that is acquired through the very presence of God in the church, through the very presence of Christ. And I think that’s what I understand the meaning of the term… of the metaphor, the church is the bride of Christ, the church is the body of Christ, so that there’s something Christlike in the very being of that community.

SIMON SMART: And finally, what has Christian faith given you over the many, many years that you’ve been a believer?

MIROSLAV VOLF: Wow, that’s a very interesting and very difficult question, because I wouldn’t know how to kind of parse it apart it’s become so much a part of my own self, my own being. I think it has given me… maybe that’s the way to put it… I think it has given me a kind of a vision of human flourishing, a sense of what it means to live one’s life well. Even when I don’t live it well, nonetheless there is this story of Jesus Christ, this story is inserted into the larger story of God’s dealings with humanity and it has given me a sense of what it means to do that.

It has in some sense also given me a motivation to live in such ways. It has given me, you know, I suppose you might want to put it this way: it has given me my own self. That’s what in Christian terms means a new birth, right? That’s what it means to be a new creature in Christ. So I feel in profound ways that I am who I am on account of that faith. Even when I fail that faith, nonetheless, I am on account of that faith what I am.

So, I am… the older I get, the more attracted I think I get to faith as eloquently as expressed in the life of this extraordinary human being who was also the incarnation of God, namely Jesus Christ.

SIMON SMART: Miroslav Volf, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking with you and thanks so much for your time.

MIROSLAV VOLF: It was a delight. Thank you.