Saturday, September 25, 2010

Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf: Excerpts from My Review

I recently read Free of Charge by Miroslav Volf for a course on Missional Theology.  A great text that refreshes and provokes the Christian theological and missional imagination related to giving and forgiving.  Here are portions of a review I wrote for this course...

The tendency within contemporary Christian literature is to draft and publish a text that is either theologically rich and spiritually disengaged or spiritually engaged and theologically naïve. In Miroslav Volf’s work, Free of Charge, he reminds the reader that it is not only possible, but also necessary to dismiss this dichotomy and generate reflections that enter into the sacred hybrid of the heart, soul, and mind of Christian spirituality. Free of Charge illuminates two of the central disciplines of the Christian faith, giving and forgiving, and calls both Christian individuals and communities to live into their related vocations, firmly rooted in the giving and forgiving nature of the Triune God. Miroslav Volf interweaves biblical texts, orthodox and reformed traditions, cultural illustrations, and personal anecdotes in efforts to lead the reader into the redemptive and reconciliatory work of God. In so doing, the reader, be they Christian or skeptic, is invited to enter into a fresh spiritual exercise that challenges a culture hesitant about grace.

Free of Charge explores the uniqueness of the Christian faith through the lens of two focal disciplines: giving and forgiving. In a culture obsessed with self-gratification, personal success, and individual achievement, no two ethical behaviors are more subversive. Volf writes:

Far too often, power- not fairness and certainly not generosity- is the name of the game. We assert ourselves and our own interests through raw physical strength, political connections, or loads of cash; through sexual prowess, sarcastic comments, lies and half-truths; through anything that can serve as a weapon in this low-grade war called life. We fight, and we often take spoils or go away defeated” (14).
This begs the questions, how does the gospel speak to a culture saturated in the self and unconcerned about the other? What is to be said about contemporary ideals that treat the other as a commodity to be expended versus as an attestation to the imago Dei? Moreover, how should God’s people live into their call to give and forgive in a culture stripped of grace? ....

Volf furthers his discussion on Christian giving through developed reflections related to how Christians should pursue generosity. Free of Charge’s discourse hinges on the contributions of Martin Luther who noted that God’s people are not only receivers of God’s good gifts, but also channels of God’s gifts to our neighbors (50). The new self inaugurated in Christian baptism underscores the higher calling of both individuals and communities who are to hold neighbors in need at the forefront of their hearts and minds:

To the extent that we are channels of gifts, however, we can’t just do with them as we please. They come to us with an ultimate name and address other than our own. Though in our hands, they are on their way elsewhere (60).
Furthermore, Christian giving is pursued in dialectic tension between the freedom and real obligation of individuals and communities. As Volf suggests, Christians are “rubbed” by the paradoxical nature of giving as both a free act of gratitude and an obligatory response to God’s free gift in Christ (65). Moreover, Volf illustrates Christian generosity as an exercise in realized eschatology whereby believers anticipate the “perfect exchange of gifts” between God and one another that characterizes the hoped-for world to come (70). The incarnation of this new humanity for the new creation targets the establishment of parity within “pervasive” manifestations of inequality (82), all motivated and shaped by the God whose “love spills over the rim of the Trinitarian circle of reciprocity” (73). In essence, Christians are to give as participants in the Triune God’s on-going work of redemption in the present creation in anticipation of the new creation yet to come....

While Volf’s approach to Christian giving is to be commended, his portrait of forgiveness is even more insightful.  He prefaces his discourse with an indictment on contemporary, Western culture, “If we could, we’d sue God, it seems, for having created a world in which bad things happen” (125).   That is to say, we live in a “kick-ass culture” (126) whereby our index fingers are pointed in accusation and our fists raised in pursuit of vengeance and retaliation.  This makes forgiveness a subversive and somewhat offensive discipline.  Nonetheless, Volf reinforces forgiveness as the only hope for a world in desperate need of reconciliation and peace, “to keep liberty we need grace. To live humanely we must learn to forgive” (125).  This forgiveness maintains a dialectic tension that, yes, names and condemns wrongdoing, but also and especially refuses to hold wrong-doings against wrong-doers for all eternity (129-130).  It is this dialectic that moves beyond vengeance and towards reconciliation...

A discussion on forgiveness would be incomplete unless it engaged the biblical theme of God’s wrath. However, we more often than not fear the wrath of God and related theology, unaware that without God’s wrath we are left with a world bathing in its own devastation and demise. In other words, God’s wrath is redemptive in that it condemns the evil of the world and then holds the wrong-doing not against the world, rather, in the death and resurrection of Christ, liberates it from such oppressive and evil realities. Volf offers insight to his personal reformation:

Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love (139).
This brings us full circle to Volf’s initial definition of forgiveness as that which condemns wrong-doing and refuses to hold wrong-doing against the wrong-doer. In other words, forgiveness demands the condemnation of evil and injustice, but it does not rest there. Instead, God’s forgiveness, which God’s people are replicate, moves out of wrathful condemnation and towards redemptive reconciliation. Unfortunately, this is where we stray as human beings, struggling to move beyond the “vengeful imagination” (159) and, in our quest for redemptive justice, find ourselves overcome by the evil we once opposed (Romans 12:21). In that vein, Volf reminds the reader that God’s forgiveness and grace is for even our worst of enemies.

As a whole, I found Free of Charge to be an excellent reflection on the Christian disciplines of giving and forgiving.  Furthermore, I appreciated Volf’s shameless approach that went beyond the spiritual kitsch[1]  offered in local bookstores. Volf explored God’s unfolding drama of redemption and reconciliation as not only future anticipations, but also present incarnations to be pursued by individuals and communities alike.  Furthermore, Volf’s work reminds the Christian that our emphasis on giving and forgiving stems neither from cultural idealism nor trendy altruism, rather from the nature and character of the Triune God whom we worship and proclaim with our lives and our lips.  Unfortunately, pop-theology has distorted the ethical and pragmatic postures of the Church and confused our motivations for witness and mission in and for the world.[2] That being said, the Church is indebted to Volf for his contribution to Christian literature and his service as a channel for God’s revelatory grace.

One final musing related to Volf’s Free of Charge regards the potential inferences for universal redemption. I should confess, I dare to hope that all of humanity might be saved [3] and continue to explore the biblical witness’ dialectic related to the matter. However, I could not help but assume that Volf shares a similar theological posture as he explores the implications of forgiveness. He writes:
There are no unforgiveable sins…There are no unforgiveable people…God’s forgiveness is not reactive- dependent on our repentance. It’s original, preceded and conditioned by absolutely nothing on our part…One died for all. Absolutely no one is excluded (179-180).
But the Scriptures are clear, I can hear my evangelical friends mutter. I would agree. The Scriptures are clear: limited and universal redemption are both possible readings of Scripture. However, Volf reminds the reader that regardless of one’s conviction on the matter, forgiveness comes neither through the faith of a converted believer, nor the merits of committed Christian. That is, God’s forgiveness is not reactive (179). Instead, forgiveness originates in the nature and character of God who is Trinity and the giving and forgiving that comes to the whole world “free of charge” (180). That being the case, the question remains, should the unrepentant be forgiven:
Forgiving the unrepentant is not an optional extra in the Christian way of life: it’s the heart of the thing. Why? Because God is such a forgiver and Christ forgave in such a way (209).
Said differently, the real victory in Christ comes in that neither death nor life, angels nor demons, principalities nor powers, the unrepentant nor ungracious, can be separated from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). This should serve not as a threat to our theological systems. Instead, this should be our greatest hope and anticipation for even the worst of offenders, transformed participation in the new humanity and new creation that is already here and yet-to-come.

As I survey both my synopsis and related musings in response to Free of Charge, I am affirmed in my assessment that this text should be read by more congregations in journeys through Lent.  Volf’s thorough reflections on the giving and forgiving disciplines of Christian faith are fresh reminders to individuals and communities of our free obligations and missional vocations to replicate these gifts that originate in God as Trinity.  Free of Charge is neither lofty theology nor naïve spirituality.  Instead, the brilliance of this work comes in Volf’s ability to sojourn along with us in a theologically rich and spiritually engaged adventure.  Along the way, with Volf as our guide, we are encouraged to rest often as we not only digest the content, but also reform our character as participants within God’s unfolding drama of redemption and reconciliation. That being said, I look forward to future re-readings of this text, only next time within the context of a community, maybe during Lent.

[1] I love N.T. Wright’s tongue-and-cheek remark, “The church doesn’t have a monopoly on kitsch or sentimentalism, but if you want to find it, the church may well be the easiest place to start” (223).
[2] For example, the church has often pursued altruism instead of the gospel, leaning on the crutch of legislation instead of the incarnation of reciprocal giving mandated by the gospel. The law should be neither a prohibitory or motivating force behind the Church’s incarnation of the Triune God’s generosity. This is not to say that the church should not play a pivotal and prophetic role in unjust politics and social change; instead, it should pursue these very things as it moves towards the reign of God and in rhythm with the missional character of God.
[3]  I borrow this phrase in anticipation of reading Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved (1988).