First, the problem: How can the church be a force for reconciliation when it has so often been complicit in Western imperialism? "Our coziness with the surrounding culture has made us so blind to many of its evils that, instead of calling them into question, we offer our own versions of them--in God's name and with a good conscience" (36).
"What we should turn away from seems clear: it is captivity to our own culture, coupled so often with blind self-righteousness. But what should we turn to? How should we live as Christian communities today faced with the 'new tribalism' that is fracturing our societies, separating peoples and cultural groups, and fomenting vicious conflicts? What should be the relation of the churches to the cultures they inhabit? The answer lies, I propose, in cultivating the proper relation between distance from the culture and belonging to it" (37).
Volf then discusses what distance and belonging means through theological reflection on Abraham's departure from his own land, people and culture. The key, for Volf, is in a departure without leaving which is distinguished from both modern individualism and the postmodern deferral of meaning: "And yet precisely because of the ultimate allegiance to God of all cultures and to Christ who offers his 'body' as a home for all people, Christian children of Abraham can 'depart' from their culture without having to leave it (in contrast to Abraham himself who had to leave his 'country' and 'kindred'). Departure is no longer a spatial category; it can take place within the cultural space one inhabits. And it involves neither a typically modern attempt to build a new heaven out of the worldly hell nor a typically postmodern restless movement that fears to arrive home" (49).
"The distance born out of allegiance to God and God's future...does two important services. First, it creates space in us to receive the other" (51). Second, "it entails a judgment against evil in every culture" (52).
Two or three reflections:
- My natural response is to say a vigorous "Amen" with a contemptuous glare at the Eee-vangelical church south of the border. Just war indeed. But then, of course, I am not creating space to receive the other. Perhaps not yet an "agent of war" my contempt for the evil synthesis of religion and right-wing political culture in much of the American church keeps me from being an agent of peace.
- Volf's reflections on ethnicity and on how the Gospel can be universalistic in a way that allows for difference are particularly intriguing after reading Steve Mason's almost entirely convincing argument that the Greek word normally translated "Jew" should be translated Judean. According to Mason, we should recognize that the ancients had no concept of "religion" as we understand it today; the "Judeans" were rather an ethnic group like the Greeks and the Romans and the Egyptians. More on this and its implications for the study of early "Judaism" at another time.