I love Miroslav Volf. Yale Divinity School’s illustrious professor is rightly regarded as one of the shining theological lights in Protestantism today. I love much of his writing, am in awe of his intellect and the irenic manner in which he navigates a complex secular world, and I quote him er, religiously.
Aside from all of his great books, his key work for me is a 1995 essay entitled Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1Peter. I’ve read it, reread it, quoted it, used it in essays, built sermons on 1Peter around it. It’s a prophetic piece of work. Volf exegetes 1Peter in the light of the gathering storm of post-Christian hard secularism. He offers the challenge for Christians to create loving communities of soft difference in the face of hostility , rather than the self-righteous, religious anger that could so easily rise up, and which indeed has risen up towards the culture by many who suddenly feel disenfranchised. The lesson of soft difference is that it was ever thus; disenfranchisement from the culture comes with alignment with Jesus as Lord.
So it pains me to say that Prof Volf’s recent accusation that Wheaton College suspended one of its associate professors, Larycia Hawkins, purely on the basis of bigotry, is a betrayal of his famous essay’s central tenet. In short, Prof Volf appears to have forgotten that the soft difference exhibited in 1Peter can only exist in the ploughed and fertile soil of the “hard difference” that led to 1Peter being written in the first place. And what is that “hard difference”? It is a singular commitment to Jesus as Lord in the face of a culture that required you to state that Caesar is Lord.
Prof Volf’s statement about Wheaton suspending Hawkins for her public announcement that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, is reprinted in full here in the Washington Post. It includes these words:
There isn’t any theological justification for Hawkins’s forced administrative leave. Her suspension is not about theology and orthodoxy. It is about enmity toward Muslims. More precisely, her suspension reflects enmity toward Muslims, taking on a theological guise of concern for Christian orthodoxy.
The key words in Hawkins public statement that led to Wheaton’s decision were this:
I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.
The response inside and outside Wheaton to the suspension has been strong, and this article in The Atlantic gives a good overview.
You can read Wheaton’s full statement here, but note these words:
Wheaton College believes the freedom to express one’s religion and live out one’s faith is vital to maintaining a pluralistic society and is central to the very reason our nation was founded, enabling us to live together despite our deepest differences. Equally important is the freedom of religious organizations to embody their deeply held convictions.
Wheaton College rejects religious prejudice and unequivocally condemns acts of aggression and intimidation against anyone. Our Community Covenant upholds our obligations as Christ-followers to treat and speak about our neighbors with love and respect, as Jesus commanded us to do. But our compassion must be infused with theological clarity.
The freedom to wear a head scarf as a gesture of care and compassion for individuals in Muslim or other religious communities that may face discrimination or persecution is afforded to Dr. Hawkins as a faculty member of Wheaton College. Yet her recently expressed views, including that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, appear to be in conflict with the College’s Statement of Faith.
Yet Prof Volf’s statement rejects these reasons outright as a plausible and credible position, claiming they are merely a smokescreen for bigotry. Now that is a huge call to make and a call that is problematic on at least two levels.
First, as Prof Volf well knows, there is much theological justification for Wheaton’s position, and theirs is a position well attested in Christian theology, tradition and practice. He would not have written a book called Allah: A Christian Response, in which he calls for a recognition of a unified understanding of Christianity and Islam, if he was not aware that other people – just as theologically well educated as he – thought quite differently about this. It’s part of the theological cut and thrust of which he is part.
Or at least it was. With his statement Prof Volf is in danger of giving credence to an already strident liberal secular voice that equates any distinctions within religion as grounds for bigotry and hatred. He is simply doing what the hard secular elite constantly does; shutting down his opponents with extreme language. That is a disingenuous argument and a non-academic refusal to take the theological claims of his rivals seriously.
But it goes deeper than that for me, and that is why I question the premise of soft difference existing outside the grounds of hard difference. In the West today the dividing line is not whether Jesus is Lord or whether Allah is Lord, as if Allah is the modern day equivalent of Caesar in this argument.
No, the modern day equivalent of Caesar is still Caesar. And Caesar today is still who Caesar was back then. Caesar is the over-arching, intolerant state that brooks no rival and that has a keen interest in compliance to its particular version of Pax Romana. Sure, believe what you want in private, but don’t dare bring it into the public square and act as if it is a rival to the accepted truth.
Caesar today is the hard, secular cultural hegemony that allows you to worship who you want, as long as you pay homage to Caesar as the true power. As long as you acknowledge with all of our cultural elites that all religions must bow before the greater god, acquiesce to its agenda and values.
In dismissing the possibility of Wheaton holding to a humble, conviction-driven hard difference about the peculiarity of Jesus, Volf is, ironically, in danger of forfeiting soft difference himself. His attitude towards Wheaton looks exactly like what one would expect of a Yale Professor in any other faculty; dismissive and contemptuous.
Peter’s epistle is written in the context of the excruciatingly costly and difficult decision by followers of Jesus to refute the cultural narrative. His readers are not called exiles and strangers for no good reason. They have built their lives on the stone that the builders rejected, and hence they too will be rejected – for now.
The early Christians maddened their contemporaries by stating that “Jesus is Lord” and by inference, that Caesar is not. They then lived as if that were true. There was huge pressure to conform to the overarching cultural and social framework, established and maintained by the cultural elite. Their decision to reject that pressure cost them comfort, friendship, status, identity, security, and even their lives.
Without this “hard difference” soft difference wouldn’t have mattered a hoot. It was the Christians’ ultimate and united commitment to Jesus as Lord that placed them in the firing line of the culture. And that was a lonely, exposed place to be.
In response to this threat Peter called on the early disciples to navigate the culture carefully, living godly, peaceable and loving lives, knowing that even as they did so, they would suffer for it. But without that hard difference in the first place, there was no need for their soft difference strategy
Wheaton has displayed “hard difference”. You may not like it, Wheaton students may not like it, Miroslav Volf may not like it, but the college took a stand on the issue that the gods are not all the same, refusing to put of pinch of incense on the cultural Caesar’s altar. They took a deep breath, fully aware of the storm it would create, and called a staff member to account for it on the basis of an orthodox Christian statement of faith. And when that happens in our secular context, especially in relation to the strained relationship between Islam and the West, then keep your head down.
In a supreme irony Prof Volf is now in danger of aligning himself with the very Caesar 1Peter’s readers rejected as lord. How? By discrediting a long-held and orthodox position as pure bigotry, maligning the integrity of fellow believers before the watching cultural emperor. He has not permitted the college the same theological space he occupies. His statement does no honour to the whole theological conversation.
It seems to me that Prof Volf, the very man who so skilfully articulates the cultural blinders that Christians face, may in this instance be blinded to the dangers of reflecting the hard secular culture’s continual pressure that boxes orthodox theology into a corner.
There is certainly pressure on Prof Volf. Living and working as he does among the cultural elite, the seat of Caesar in our day, he will constantly be tempted to fall into line, and for that we should pray for him to be faithful in his task. After all there would be a certain amount of shame, not to mention loss of academic respect, in giving Wheaton any credence at all, that’s for sure. And it’s something from which none of us is immune. I want to honour him that he holds his perspective about Christian and Muslim theological unity with integrity, whether I agree with him or not. At the very least he ought to give Wheaton the same right, because, in a world in which Caesar continues to be proclaimed as Lord, the secular press certainly won’t.