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【Beijing Forum 2010】Interview with Miroslav Volf: Face to Faith

NOV . 07 2010

Peking University, Nov. 6, 2010: Professor Miroslav Volf teaches theology at Yale University. In addition to the Yale Faith and Globalization Course that he co-teaches with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Professor Volf leads courses on systematic theology, Luther and Schleiermacher, and contemporary conceptions of God.


A native of Croatia, he has forged a theology of forgiveness and non-violence in the face of violence experienced in Croatia and Serbia in the 1990s. His research spans topics such as human work, the church, the Trinity, violence, reconciliation, gift-giving, and memory of wrongs. Professor Volf has argued in many contexts for Christian faith to be seen not as an additive to help people cope with this or that problem, but as a way of life. Faith, he argues, matters in all spheres of life.


On the morning of Nov. 6, Professor Volf presented his paper “Religious Exclusivism in a Globalized World” at Session 3 of the panel “Faith and Responsibilities: Spiritual Reflections on Global Issues.” Reporters of Peking University News were able to interview Professor Volf.



Q: What is your reflection on the condition of faith in China?


A:  From what I can tell, there is a strong sense that in China those expressions of faith are welcome and valued. I have experienced that people are interested in Christian ideas and they are able to discuss them intelligently, embrace them or not embrace them, in ways that suit their own needs.



Q: How can we handle the internal contradiction of justice and tolerance in the dynamics of globalization and untraditional security threats?


A: From my perspective justice and truth are socially extraordinarily important, but that is not all that people need to be concerned about. When somebody has committed a wrongdoing, our concern should not be just punishment, but also how to bring those who commit crimes back to the good from which they have fallen. The principal purpose of justice is to order right relations between people and protect them from harm. But at the same time, we need to try somehow to reform so that the problems wouldn’t continue. For me, justice is an expression of the care for the good of all people.


There are things I think that cannot be tolerated. We have to step in, in a just way, to prevent the crime and to protect the innocent. There are limits of toleration. At the same time, we need more than tolerance. We need respect, for people might tolerate others while despising them. I need to respect you as a person, even when I disagree with your views because I think they are wrong. I respect the dignity and the right to make a mistake.


Q: Next question is about terminology. You mainly discussed about religious faith. How about other kind of faiths that is “unreligious?”


A:  Mostly, my lecture was about religious traditions. But it is true that there is also humanistic faith about goodness of human beings and possibility of their improvement. In a globalized world, different faiths, including humanism, need to enter into discussions as to who we are as human beings and how to live truly good life. These ought to be respectful discussions among representatives of Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, and secular humanism. Each one will have its own standards of thinking, and when we discuss them together can each come to better understand the others and lead oneself a better life.


Q: In your book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, you stated that “We forgive because God forgives. We forgive as God forgives. We forgive by echoing God's forgiveness.” Is this “forgiveness” exclusive?


A:  In this book I write as a Christian. To those who do not share my faith, I say: “This is what I believe; see whether it makes sense to you as a way of life.” I find that forgiveness is not just a Christian idea. Many people find the idea close to them and want to participate in forgiving even if they forgive for other reasons or because of other religious reasons.


Q: What is your idea about Christians playing an active role in politics?


A:  I don’t think Christian faith is at its core political. The Christian faith is about inner heart of a person, about love and justice in relations between people. But the Christian faith has also political implications.

If and when Christian chose to participate in politics, I think they should watch, because politics has a tendency to corrupt the purity of faith and its moral vision. For instance, if politics becomes more important than faith, they have betrayed their faith. In the US, some Christians who engage in politics want to achieve certain goals, but they don’t ask about what are Christian means to achieve goals. They engage politics like anybody else does. The means to achieve political goals — respect for others, care for being truthful, using only just means, and so on — must also be informed Christian moral vision, not just political goals.


Q: Despite the political-free aspect, do you think there is a criterion as one faith (like Confucianism) in nature is more conservative, while another progressive and even aggressive? How would they dialogue with each other if such distinction exists?


A:  Different faiths have partly different (and partly similar!) understandings of self, social relations, and the good, and they take different forms under different circumstances. I think Christian faith can be expressed through many cultural forms, authoritarian and radically democratic; there are many different ways to live out the core of the faith, which is love of God and love of neighbor. I think we should think about culture and history, not just taking a “model” from somewhere and then put in other places. But the idea of freedom, and freedom of conscience — freedom to change one’s religion, and express one’s views — was central to original Christianity and is central for many Christians today. 


Q: We see you have been teaching “faith and globalization” at Yale University with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. So as regards faith education, what are your expectations towards young people?


A:  This is a course for students from the whole university and it takes perspectives of multiple faiths into account. At the university, I wear two hats, as we say. One hat is that I teach Christian theology at the Divinity School, and the other is that I teach “faith and globalization” about many religions on whether they intersect with globalization process. Both are important. What I hope from the students is that they will understand the world of faiths and will understand globalization processes; that they will understand how these two major forces in the world intersect and how they shape one another. I hope that the students will realize that faiths are significant forces for the good of the world – including reconciliation and harmonious interchange between people. In contrast to a materialistic acquisitive mode of living (“to have,” in terminology of Erich Fromm), they will think the question what is the life that is worth living, and what is the life that is worth investing energies, what does it means to succeed as a human being and not just as a doctor, businessman, or teacher (“to be”). That is what I aim in the course on “faith and globalization.” When I teach typical courses at the Divinity School, I wear a Christian “hat.” For myself, this is where I stay and what I advocate, a good way to lead one’s life is a life of following Christ, of loving God and neighbor. I state my view of life, but at the same time I am ready to hear what other people say and to learn from.


(Any “exclusiveness” in your “two hats?”)


A:  I am a Christian theologian, but always read perspectives from other people, and study some great thinkers who are not Christians. For instance, two decades ago, along with all duties and studies that I engaged in as a Christian theologian, on the side I was reading for two years the complete work of Friedrich Nietzsche. Right now, on my Kindle, I am reading complete works of Plato. Those perspectives are helpful. By reading Plato, for example, I can compare and contrast Socrates and Jesus. They are not the same, and this enriches my own thinking as a Christian theologian.


(Has your childhood experience influenced your faith and your choice?)


A:  I grew up in Yugoslavia, and sometimes I was the only openly Christian person in my whole school. My father was a minister. Everybody knew that I was a Christian, and students would often laugh at me. That is how I grew up.


When I was 14, I left faith. And then, two years later, I met some young people who led “wonderful” lives in certain communities, and started to read about Jesus again, I was attracted to Jesus. I thought, “Wow, this person is incredible.” When 16, I was completely taken back. Over the years, my faith has deepened.


(And specifically, what drives you to participate in the “faith and globalization” initiative?)


A:  My academic interest lies in the relationship between faith and other aspects of human experience, including economics, violence and reconciliation, politics, and human rights. “Faith and globalization” is a way to bundle all those interests. So when Tony Blair – patron of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation – approached Yale to teach the course, this was a natural fit for me because I have done works in many of those areas. That is how I came to teach the course with Tony Blair.





Extended Reading:

PKU News (Chinese): Interview with Miroslav Volf: Faith and Globalization

Peking University, Faith, and Globalization




Reported by: Chen Yingxin and Jacques

Edited by: Jacques