One who locks himself inside his own conviction excludes the other. Anyone who opens up gives room to be of importance to each other. For the Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf, the Balkan War was the reason for writing a book on reconciliation. The attitude to life required for this is also the basis for being able to work together.
Learning to live in the margins
Miroslav Volf was born in 1956 in Osijek, Croatia, then part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. As a 5-year-old, he moved with his parents to Novi Sad in Serbia, one of the other states in what was then Yugoslavia. His father is a priest in a small Pentecostal church there. For Volf, it means learning to live on the edge: religious in a country where Roman Catholics and Serbian Orthodox make up a majority and Protestants are a small minority. But also a political margin, because priests in a country with a Marxist ideology are viewed with suspicion. A context where believing is not a non-committal activity, but where it is about a convinced and lived out faith. It is precisely in this margin that Wolf’s quest arises to think through faith and give it word. He has already learned from his parents what it’s really about. They make him believe that the foundation of faith must first and foremost be found in a God who is love. It is these two experiences that will color Wolf’s thinking: a theology from the edge and from there words speak that connect and heal. And a theology that is deeply rooted and lived through in God himself, who sought life at the edge of Christ.
What do we know Miroslav Volf from?
Volf became famous with his book Exclusion and embrace (1996). It appeared shortly after the Balkan War between, among others, Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, which led to the dissolution of the former Republic of Yugoslavia in several states. In this book, Volf examines the cause of the terrible conflicts that took place in his homeland in the years before. Is it possible, he asks, to find a form where reconciliation can take place in a context where people are rooted in their position, and where being the perpetrator or victim is often difficult to distinguish? The easy way is exclusion (exception† As a result, people become entrenched in their own right to religion, history, and culture and will never find another. How can exclusion give way to an open attitude, where you approach and ’embrace’ the other with compassion and above all love (embrace† It is a book that gives Volf worldwide recognition. In fact, it has been voted one of the 100 most influential theological titles of the 20th century. But more important than that is the underlying message that Volf conveys with the book: Those who lock themselves into their own beliefs also exclude the other. Anyone who is able to generously approach the other, often a perpetrator in the context of Yugoslavia, opens the door to reconciliation, no matter how complicated it may be at times. A atonement that, for Wolf, is deeply rooted in the very essence of God.
What can we do with his ideas in the local church in Holland?
The situation of the Church in the Netherlands is, of course, very different from the context in which Miroslav Volf grew up with his family. Nevertheless, the discoveries that Volf included in his theology are also very relevant to the church in Holland. When you work together as churches, you are always oneIs individually involved. Whether it is about mutual cooperation in your own municipality, or cooperation between municipalities or with partners in the neighborhood: It is done by people, individuals who themselves choose how they position themselves in a (tried) cooperation. And this is where Wolf’s thinking can make sense. Deep down, says Volf, it starts with the individual, with ourselves. Those who are able to recognize the lack, the sin, in themselves and look for the change there, will be able to relate to the other in a loving way. It begins with Wolf’s words with the question ‘who must we ourselves be to live in harmony with the other’. It can mean that we give up something of ourselves, make ourselves smaller than we might like. Maybe even less than we would like to compare with the other person we work with.
When Volf talks about ’embracing’ the other, he refers to the well-known parable from Luke 15. In this story, the father suddenly becomes the father of ‘a prodigal son’, a son with scratches in life. It is no longer a perfect picture. But instead of stepping back and remaining untouched, the father diligently reconnects with his son. A new beginning for both, which would not have been possible without this step.
And this is where the collaboration starts at the most essential level. More than a method or working method that technically helps us to relate to each other, collaboration is first and foremost a matter for ourselves. What can it cost me, where can and will I change to get to an actual meeting with the other person?
Miroslav Volf has often been described as a theological bridge-builder, a connoisseur pure song† What he conveys are deeply rooted life lessons that help us as human beings and as a society to get closer to ourselves and each other.
Meet Miroslav Volf
Various books by Miroslav Volf have been published, two of which have been translated into Dutch. Three well-known titles are:
- Exclusion and embrace: A theological exploration of identity, otherness and reconciliation
The book with which Volf gained great fame, and in which he discusses the question of reconciliation between people, and what step one can take as an individual.
- Unburdened – Give and forgive in a merciless culture
Giving and forgiving helps us to reach our full potential as human beings. But how do you do that in a world where it sometimes seems to make little sense? In this book, Volf outlines how giving and forgiving help to make faith a way of life.
- Allah – A Christian’s answer
A stimulating book in which Volf downplays the statement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, and that this can be the connection to seeking the good life together in and for society.
A global introduction to Miroslav Wolf’s thinking can be found in the book Places of practice, contrarian theologians on church and ethicsk by Herman Paul and Bart Wallet, published by Boekencentrum.
For more profiles of theologians, go to >> protestantsekerk.nl/thelogen
Book Tip: Exclusion and Embrace, Theological exploration of identity, otherness and reconciliation