After reading Exclusion and Embrace and Free of Charge, I was very pleased to see that our first session would focus on theological method and imagination. Because reading Volf is a multi-sensory experience, and an exercise in mind-expansion: he is doing theology, and ethics, and sociology, and history, and philosophy, and spirituality, and psychology. And it is all knit together with a light touch and poetic pen. Moreover, it is personal, and costly: he has paid a high price to say this and live it. I’m no physicist, so this is as close to a Theory of Everything as I need.
Some of my notes from the first session.
In the communist context where Volf cut his theological teeth, ‘theology’ is seen as subversive, for it critiques government, and philosophy, and culture, and absolutely everything else. Not a new thought, but one which gets my heart pumping, and makes me wonder why in my context theology is seen as ‘conservative’ and ‘traditional’ and an endorsement of the status quo.
Volf sees the best theology as not descriptive, but prescriptive, and constructive. It is, at it’s best, intertwined with spirituality. And later in the evening, in his comments on Derrida, Volf’s main critique seemed to be that the postmodernist philosopher was so interested in tearing down boundaries that he ended up with ‘nothing– chaos’. Instead, we are to erect positive boundaries.
In terms of method, Volf enjoys embarking on an exhaustive study of a particular topic (so, in his latest book, ‘giving and forgiveness’, and in his next, ‘memory’). He begins with the Apostolic Creeds, then moves on to the Scriptures. The Bible can offer some ‘inconsistencies’ with regard to particular issues, but he does not attempt to minimize this tendency. “Throw all of these discordant things into the suitcase; let them be. If everything doesn’t fit so neatly inside, don’t worry. I’ll need all of those pieces tomorrow.” It is important that we not domesticate or truncate any of the ideas found therein. Let the tensions and conflicts remain.
Such a theological method favors the curious mind, and a robust doctrine of creation. Here he floated out the most wonderful metaphor: “Don’t melt down all of the gold of the Egyptians– some of it is quite beautiful”. Nothing is outside of God’s scope, all truth belongs to him, and so we can be courageous in our attempts to understand him. So Volf reads (and extensively quotes) Marx and Nietzsche, Paul and Jesus, and his two young sons.