Coming Together: Miroslav Volf Addresses Cultural Conflicts

By Laura Johnson

When Miroslav Volf, Director of the Center for Faith & Culture at Yale University, taught his first session of a class on “Faith and Globalization,” he noticed that the issue of religious exclusivists, namely those who consider their faith be the one true faith, came up repeatedly. Teaching alongside former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, seven years to the day after the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001, Volf noted a central theme that emerged from the class: “How can people of very different religious persuasions live under the same roof? How can they seek and arrange their common affairs together without coming to blows, without serious conflict?”
Volf wrestled with this question in his lecture, “A Public Faith: A Christian Alternative to Secular and Religious Political Exclusivism,” the 2012 Kuyper Lecture at Gordon College on Saturday, June 2. Volf delivered the lecture as part of the Christians in Political Science conference co-sponsored by the Center for Public Justice, Gordon College. and the Institute for Global Engagement. Volf argued that religious exclusivists can be politically pluralistic; they can have a political approach that allows everyone, regardless of beliefs, to express themselves equally in the public sphere.
“We have to find a place where each person can authentically be who they are, live their faith,” Volf said in an interview before the lecture. “But, at the same time, grant to others the same rights that he or she wants for themselves.”
According to Volf, this question is relevant because there are approximately one billion exclusivists in the world, though the number is difficult to measure exactly. Volf said that because exclusivists are not likely to change their beliefs, it is important to consider how they can live peacefully in an “intermingled world.”
“I think religious exclusivists are good for the common good,” he said. “Especially for the common good in the globalized world in which you have to have sturdy convictions if you are going to move and make change.”
This is difficult for some to accept, Volf said. Historically, religious exclusivists often prevented those with different beliefs from participating in the public sphere. But as Volf pointed out, this historical legacy also included Roger Williams, who came to the U.S. with the early settlers in 1631. Williams opposed early Puritans such as John Winthrop and his idea of a “city on a hill,” where the state enforced God’s law and where punishment for heresy was death. Volf quoted Williams, who said, “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils,” and who, as Volf noted, was an exclusivist.
“My argument is that it was actually religious exclusivists who came up with the idea of pluralism as a political project,” Volf said.
Yet, Volf recognizes that it can be challenging for religious exclusivists to accept political pluralism, which can make people feel vulnerable about their beliefs and identity and therefore react in fear because they feel that their group’s identity is threatened. Volf said he also believes that people’s laziness toward learning more about others can prevent openness.
“It takes some effort to be charitable to another person and we’d rather react,” Volf said. “It takes effort to place yourself into another person’s shoes, to see with their eyes how things are and what effect you have on them.”
Still, far from the fear of one’s faith becoming “contaminated” by friendliness with those who have different beliefs, Volf believes this interchange can enrich faith.
“You realize why you believe what you believe when you encounter a person who thinks differently,” Volf said. “I have experienced for myself that often in encounters and in friendships with other people that my own faith has been strengthened and it hasn’t been weakened.”
Volf argues that identity can also be a problem because people tend to be members of a group first and Christian second. Volf’s advice for every Christian is to let Jesus’ example shape his or her sense of political duty.
“Jesus spoke the truth, stood for what is right, but gave his life also on behalf of the ungodly and the evildoers,” Volf said. “That’s the revolution of the Christian faith. You can stand firm and yet, at the same time, not exclude but embrace the other person, love the other person.”

—Laura Johnson graduated from Gordon College this spring with a B.A. in Intercultural Communications.