Some years ago my wife, Shannon, occasionally wrote reviews of classic books for a publication for
gifted high school students. Although I don’t think there is an official genre know as the re-review, I think there probably ought to be. In a day and age when most people fail to read even one book a year, much less a relatively challenging and completely serious and comprehensive work of theology, perhaps we readers ought to take it as part of our role to reintroduce books from decades past to readers for whom they will be new, if not unheard of. It’s in that spirit that I take a few minutes to write out some thoughts on Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, a book first published in 1996. Still in print and available 22 years later from Abingdon Press, I felt Volf’s wrestling with questions of identity and the possibility of embrace spoke to our own period, if only because in the age of Trump we seem to be wrestling more starkly, and perhaps more helplessly, with the questions that drive Volf’s reflections. Can we all just get along, much less embrace, in the face of random police shootings in the name of civil order, family separations in the name of national security, lethal white unity rallies with good people on all sides on all sides, and the general belief that we are so hopelessly separated by our different identities that empathy is beside the point and, in the words of Roxane Gay, we should all just stay in our lanes?
I would like to think a work of theology could solve all this; indeed, Volf indicates that it is the real work of theologians to be about the business of helping to form subjects who could bring about the world of embrace that he imagines. There is a generosity of vision in Volf’s book that I find admirable, even compelling. His central concept of embrace is not a campfire Kumbaya version of hugging it out, but a compelling narrative of what it means, or at least ought to mean, to be a fully realized human being. For Volf, the notion of embrace is inherent in the mutual and overspilling love of the Trinity, as well as the fundamental character of God’s engagement with human beings; the incarnation is a metaphysical embrace of humanness, and the cross is an appeal to be embraced in return. Human beings are only fully realized as human beings when we actually seek to give up our separateness and embrace others as we find them. As he puts it:
the most basic thought that it [the metaphor of embrace] seeks to express is important: the will to give ourselves to others and “welcome” them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any “truth” about others and any construction of their “justice.” This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into “good” and “evil”
It is unfortunate, of course, that we often experience our religion most fundamentally as an act of exclusion, whether in the practice of shunning, hellfire and brimstone preachers, or the simple and more mundane acts of making sure our church services and gatherings for fellowship feel comfortable for the already comfortable, and uncomfortable for the already discomfited or destitute. And so Volf’s work is surely a challenge to the good and the just and the true among us. He notes with approval Nietzsche’s reminder that the crucifixion was an act of the righteous:
Nietzsche underscored the connection between the self-perceived “goodness” of Jesus’ enemeies and their pursuit of his death; crucifixion was a deed of “the good and just,” not of the wicked, as we might have thought. “The good and just” could not understand Jesus because their spirit was “imprisoned in their good conscience” and they crucified him because they construed as evil his rejection of their notions of good (61)
At the same time, Volf’s prescriptions sit only uncomfortably with current conceptions of justice and empowerment, not least because the proper goal of a world formed by the concept and practice of embrace is not freedom or self-realization, at least not as these terms have been typically thought of in both our modern and post-modern socialities. Volf’s work asks us to imagine the ideal of embrace not as the coming together of two fundamentally separate individuals “hugging it out” when it comes to their differences, but rather as a complex dance in which we realize that we cannot be what we ought to be until we learn to genuinely love those that we have despised, and even more that we find it in in ourselves to love those who have despised us. As he puts it:
At the core of the Christian faith lies the persuasion that the “others” need not be perceived as innocent in order to be loved, but ought to be embraced even when they are perceived as wrongdoers. As I read it, the story of the cross is about God who desires to embrace precisely the “sons and daughters of hell.” (85).
This kind of call sounds strange to our age of tribalism, though perhaps no stranger than any age where we find it easy to love those like us, less easy to love those unlike us, and not possible at all to love those who do not love us. On the other hand, perhaps it is not so different from the famous proclamation from Martin Luther King, Jr. that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Volf has a complicated, and I think useful, description of embrace as a fourfold process:
The four structural elements in the movement of embrace are opening the arms, waiting, closing the arms, and opening them again. For embrace to happen, all four must be there and they must follow one another on an unbroken timeline; stopping with the first two (opening the arms and waiting) would abort the embrace, and stopping with the third (closing the arms) would pervert it from an act of love to an act of oppression and, paradoxically, exclusion. The four elements are then the four essential steps of an integrated movement. (141)
This structure seems to me to both recognize and respect the integrity of others in their freedom. Embrace cannot be forced; nor is embrace limitless. Nevertheless, in Volf’s understanding, embrace is necessary to our full humanity, to forgiveness, and ultimately to justice and the task of creating the kind of society in which we might hope to live and flourish as human beings.
As I said at the outset, I think Volf’s book is worth reading since it is eerily contemporary in its impulses and in its wrestling. We can learn from him even where we disagree. I do think that if the book were written now, he might have to ask harder questions about the relationship between justice and love, between embrace and power. It’s very clear in Volf’s work that he subordinates justice to love, saying that embrace has to shape the definition of justice, that embrace is “about love shaping the very content of justice.” This is well and good, but it remains unclear that embrace is possible outside the possibility or at least the horizon of justice. From my own position situated within the matrices of power as a white male American middle class human being–all affording me pleasures and potentialities and possibilities that others do not possess in an unjust world–what does it mean for me to offer embrace in the absence of justice. Is it possible to expect embrace outside the quest or journey toward justice. Volf’s book reflects on repentance as a part of this process, but I think he could use even more thinking here in the particular ways that repentance is properly not simply a turn from the self and toward the other (ultimately God), but is also and must be a turning away from injustice–and my participation in it–toward justice, away from a life in which embrace might be colored with the expectation of inevitable betrayal and toward a life of mutuality that in some ways must accompany embrace. Although I think we would do well to wonder whether subordinating justice is any more appropriate as a Christian ethic than would be the subordinating of one person of the Trinity to another, I do think the Volf’s wrestling is worth our reckoning with. It is surely the case that 20 years later we are no closer to the beloved community that embrace would supposedly make possible than we were when Volf wrote this very good and important book. View all my reviews