Embracing Theology: Miroslav Volf Spans Conflicting Worlds

By Oppenheimer, Mark | The Christian Century, January 11, 2003 | Go to article overview

Embracing Theology: Miroslav Volf Spans Conflicting Worlds


Oppenheimer, Mark, The Christian Century


WHEN I TALKED to Yale theologian Miroslav Volf last summer, he was being considered as possible dean of Harvard Divinity School. He had told Harvard's president Lawrence Summers quite clearly that if he were to head the school, he would want to lead HDS back to its roots in constructive theology and the formation of Christian ministers. Not that disciplines like comparative religion or social science would be banished. But Volf had no interest in presiding over a school where the expression of evangelical belief was unchic.

As it turned out, Volf was not offered the job, so we won't know how that partnership would have worked. Volf did say, afterward, that he thought Harvard was making a mistake by going the "religious studies" route.

"I don't think analysis of religion suffices. I'm happy to benefit from sociology, anthropology, psychology. But you have a vibrant religious world, and academics sometimes aren't aware of how potent 2 billion Christians, 1 billion Muslims and all the other religious folks are. If you just analyze religion, you're doing good work, but socially you're inconsequential. You're not shaping the world."

Volf might seem like an unusual person for Harvard even to have considered. But then Volf is unusual in many settings. He is a Pentecostal among evangelicals, a mainline Christian among evangelicals, and an evangelical in the mainline. Growing up, he was a Christian among communists.

"Mine was a quieter type of Pentecostalism, one more associated with the holiness tradition," Volf told me when I asked about his Pentecostal upbringing. There was more a sense of "waiting upon the Lord, rather than taking fortresses by storm--the machine-gun type of Pentecostalism.

"My father was the general secretary of the Pentecostal movement of Croatia, and I became a Christian at 16. I attended all these camps and meetings, and we prayed late into the night for baptism in the spirit. For me, it was a meditative experience."

"Did you speak in tongues?" I asked.

Volf gave me the look of a man not often caught off guard who has suddenly been caught off guard.

"I haven't thought about this for a long time," he said after a long pause. "I have, as a young person, `spoken in tongues.' It was a result of prayer in search of words that couldn't find them. There was nothing miraculous in what I experienced. I experienced it as a freeing. It came gently, then subsided."

Pentecostals in Croatia, I learned, do not fit the American model of Pentecostals. Peter Kuzmic, Volf's brother-in-law (he married Volf's sister, Vlasta), a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, pointed out that in Croatia evangelical Christianity offered a refuge from communist mind control and from ethnoreligious ideology.

"In the U.S.," Kuzmic said, "Pentecostal churches emphasize gifts of the spirit over the apostolic spirit of the transcendent church.... But in Tito's Yugoslavia, we were part of an evangelical world that was more a subculture. We were in a unique position to become bridge builders and reconcilers. If you listen to the Croatian Catholics, you can come to think God is Catholic. The Serbian Orthodox seem to worship a Serbian god. But the evangelicals there don't have a tribal religion, they don't serve an ethnic God.

"Miroslav was born in Croatia and lived in Serbia," observed Kuzmic, who gave Volf his first theological books and founded the Pentecostal seminary Volf later attended. "His father was half-German, his mother was part of the Czech minority. He refused to buy into ethnoreligious homogenization.

"In a modest way, we Pentecostals became involved in what I call a ministry of reconciliation. So evangelicals there are not viewed, as they are here, as a rightist provincial group."

Volf has the catholicity of a refugee. He's reluctant to join any camp--military, ethnic or intellectual. His books are a conversation among diverse voices: postmodernists like Gilles Deleuze, feminists like Julia Kristeva, Anabaptists like John Howard Yoder, liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez, and political philosophers like John Rawls and Seyla Benhabib. …

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