Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Few More Thoughts on Exclusion and Embrace

I just finished Miroslav Volf's book Exclusion and Embrace, and on the whole, I was favorably impressed. There's a tremendous wisdom in Volf's writings: he's balanced and reasonable, widely read and explicitly Christian and orthodox. A couple very random notes on the book follow.

First, Volf certainly constructs a theology: he doesn't take the older (Protestant) view that a theology is to be discovered by comparing and contrasting the relevant Biblical texts. He certainly takes the Bible seriously, though his use of Biblical texts is creative and suggestive as well as exegetical. He doesn't so much seek to discover a theology as to create one: thoughtfully, prayerfully, with wisdom and an eye towards the Christian tradition, with a sense of how it must be used in both Christian and non-Christian frameworks, but he's nevertheless still building, and just as there is more than one way to architect a building (or a computer program), so he would presumably acknowledge that there is more than one way to construct a valid theology. (Of course, just because there is more than one way to construct something doesn't mean that every way of constructing it is legitimate.)

Second, one of the things that most impressed me about the book was the thoughtful and creative way that he engaged thinkers with whom he fundamentally disagreed. It was striking, for instance, just how often he quoted Nietzsche: some 25 or more times, if the book's index is accurate. Although Nietzsche and Volf could not be further apart in either method or worldview, Volf manages to do more than just quote Nietzsche to disagree with him. In almost every instance, he finds something to affirm about Nietzsche, some aspect of what he's saying that is true, or at least points towards the truth. I noticed Volf's frequent references to Nietzsche right away, but it took me almost halfway through the book to realize what he was doing. The point of Volf's book, of course, is that we must make space within ourselves even for our enemies, that we must will to embrace our opponents, even evil-doers, before justice can be truly served. In dealing with Nietzsche, Volf does a remarkable job of modeling just how that process can work.

And finally, as you would expect from anyone who has an interest in issues of oppression, Volf is a convinced though not a radical feminist. He makes the common claim (denied by folks like C. S. Lewis) that there is nothing of gender in God, and he moves beyond this to say that we can learn nothing about gender roles from observing the Trinity at work. Disagreeing with Karl Barth, who argued that human males image the maleness in God, Volf writes:

All specifically masculine or feminine content of the language about God stems exclusively from the creaturely realm... We can find in our notions of God only those things about femininity or masculinity that we ourselves have placed into these notions. Since God is beyond sexual difference, there is nothing in God that can correspond to the specifically fatherly relation that a man has toward his progeny. A human father can in no way read of his responsibilities as a father from God the Father... Whether we use masculine or feminine metaphors for God, God models our common humanity, not our gender specificity... Again, God does not model gender identity. (pp. 170-172)

At first I thought Volf was denying the analogia entis (a fairly common thing to do these days), but as I thought more about it, I don't think he was: he's just denying that gender is a part of it. And as to whether we can learn anything about gender roles by observing God, I was really only able to come up with one clear Scriptural counter-example. Paul is very clear that we can learn about what it means specifically to be a husband or specifically to be a wife by observing Christ's relationship to the Church, His bride:

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.  Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:22-27)

A second possible counter-example might be Ephesians 3:14-15:

For this reason, I bow my knee before the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.

This is at least one possible translation of it, and if accurate, it would imply that human fatherhood is a shadow or a reflection of God's divine fatherhood, with echoes of neo-Platonism. But you could also render "εξ ου πασα πατρια ονομαζεται" as "from whom his whole family derives its name" (as the NIV does), and that takes some of the force out of my argument.

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