Krista's Journal: Developing a Richer, Thicker Texture of Religion

August 4, 2005

Our store of public language about religious pluralism is spare. Words and phrases like "ecumenism" and "inter-faith understanding" and "dialogue" describe exacting pursuits and laudable goals that many in our world long for. But they can sound generic and abstract, too broad and too safe. They don't convey the passionate heart of religious identity that can fuel alienation and violence. They don't evoke the specific virtues of different traditions that might have the power to animate change towards common good.

I am most grateful, after this conversation, for a fresh store of vocabulary and ideas. The richness of Miroslav Volf's thought about religion and violence comes from his personal experience of the shadow side of faith and of war. His language is robustly, specifically drawn from Christian imagery and theology. But in its vigor, it provides useful resources for approaching the larger complex of religious tensions in our world.

Volf is a realist — a Christian realist in the tradition of Reinhold Niebuhr. He knows that differences are natural and necessary among human beings. The key to reducing conflict is not to diminish identities. Strong identities, paradoxically, can make for good relationships, and strong identities include boundaries. With this assertion, he pushes back at the notion that inter-faith understanding is about denying or diminishing our divergent convictions. In recent years, some have proposed that religions — especially the three monotheistic traditions — will only cease to be a force for violence in the world if they are ready to relinquish their exclusive claims of truth. Miroslav Volf makes the counterintuitive point that the cure for religious zealotry in our world is not less religion but stronger, more intelligent practices of faith.

Religion that justifies violence, Volf says, is "thin" religion — religion reduced to a formula, that does not let the complex, "thick" texture of practice and tradition and text resonate in the soul and respond in differentiated ways to human reality. Thin religion divides the world into black and white and takes refuge in symbols and closed identities that simplify the nature of faith even further. Thin faith can be manipulated towards ends alien to its original spirit. The photo above displays a striking example Volf gives of "thin" religion: the sight of Serbian fighters in the former Yugoslavia flashing three fingers. This was an assertion of religious identity — a demonstration of the way Serbian Orthodox worshippers make the sign of the cross differently than Croatian Catholics. A common ritual of devotion became a call to war.

A "thin" religious sensibility, Volf proposes, sanctifies exclusion in a way that makes violence possible. The "thick" core of Christian belief, by contrast, calls him to develop "a will to embrace" those who are other, even his enemies. The embrace itself may be difficult, and long in coming, even practically impossible, he concedes; still, Christians are compelled to cultivate a desire and an intention towards it. This intention will not solve every problem, but it can thwart devastating cycles of violence, and can even lead to the kind of new model of public forgiveness and reconciliation that South Africa pioneered in our world. Volf finds a compelling logic behind the Christian injunction to "love one's enemies": a recognition that we are all substantially defined by our enemies. Our own identities are shaped by our interactions with them. We are, whether we wish it or not, in profound relationship with them, especially when that that relationship is a combative one.

Rhetoric about enemies abounds in our post-9/11 world and in our contemporary political climate. Miroslav Volf's theology would subvert the either/or choices often presented for debate. His faith requires him to be both realistic and compassionate, to simultaneously preserve his own strong identity and to befriend his enemies as much as is humanly possible. How we treat our enemies matters for our own souls. Volf's own wisdom, borne of bitter experience, can inform our common reflection: To respond primarily with aggression towards destructive foes, whether religious or political, is to become them.

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is the Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School and director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.