Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Losing the particular

I've just read an essay titled "Living with the "Other"" by Miroslav Volf (in Muslim and Christian: Reflections on Peace, University Press of America, 2005).

Miroslav Volf is a professor of theology at Yale University Divinity School. He's a bit difficult to place politically. He seems to want to commit to both a liberal view of identity (one that is inclusive, porous, open and dynamic) whilst retaining the basic goods of a traditional view.

I don't think that's likely to work out well in practice, but it does at least mean that Professor Volf isn't entirely committed to a "dissolve at all costs" view of the world.

For instance, he writes:
...in order to have an identity, you must have boundaries. Imagine a world without boundaries. You cannot! For without boundaries you would not have "a world"; everything would be jumbled up together and nothing distinct would exist, which is to say that just about nothing would exist at all. To have anything except infinite chaos, you must have boundaries. Hence when God creates, God separates. If boundaries are good, then some kind of boundary maintenance must be good too. Hence when boundaries are threatened (as they often are in a variety of ways), they must be maintained. (pp. 9-10)

Similarly, although Professor Volf advocates embracing the other, he does recognise that conditions apply:
But should we not maintain our boundaries so as to protect our cultural identities? Yes, we should. If I am crushed in the process of embrace with the other, this is no longer an embrace but an act of covert aggression. Whereas the will to embrace the other is unconditional, the embrace itself is not. It is conditioned, first, on the preservation of the integrity of the self. Boundaries are good, I argued earlier, because discrete identities themselves are a good. And because both are good, they have to be protected.

Earlier I have argued for protection of identities - of oneself and of one's group - by appealing to creation. To have anything at all and therefore to have "a world," you must have and maintain boundaries. Hence when God creates, God separates (and binds together, of course). One can argue for protection of identities also on the basis of redemption. Since God showed redeeming love in Christ for all humanity, the self cannot be excluded as a legitimate object of love. I should love myself, provided my love of self is properly related to the love of God and of the neighbour. And since I can love myself, I can certainly love my group because such love includes both the love of the neighbour and the love of the self (since my own well-being is often connected with the well-being of my group). Hence one is entitled to ensure that the embrace of the other does not endanger the self. (p.18)

There are some good arguments in that passage. To summarise:

i) You are not "embracing" the other if you are crushed in the process; rather you are submitting to an act of aggression.

ii) It is important to preserve the integrity of self.

iii) Our distinct identities are a good, and we should seek to preserve the good.

iv) Creation necessarily involves acts of separation and the making of boundaries.

v) God's redeeming love is not directed at everyone except ourselves. We too have a self that is properly an object of love. We are therefore not empty vessels which take on content only in our regard for the other. We too have a self to be considered, and our well-being is connected to the well-being of the group we belong to.

Finally, Professor Volf argues that we should pay closer attention to those we are most closely related to:
But do not people to whom we are "thickly" related demand special attention? A spouse and children seem to do so. Why not fellow members of the same ethnic group? Insisting that "every human being is my neighbour," some Christians have advocated that we should be impartial in our love, extending it to those to whom we are "thinly" related no less than to those to whom we are "thickly" related. Yet even those Christian theologians who, like Augustine in Teaching Christianity claim that "all people should be loved equally," insist that "proximity makes a difference"...Other Christian theologians, like Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica, have claimed that all neighbours should not be loved equally; we have special relations to some people and "the union arising from natural origin is prior to, and more stable than, all others." So to claim that love's scope is universal does not imply that we do not differentiate in how we ought to love those with whom we have special relations and those with whom we do not.

There is no good reason to wed the claim that love is universal in scope with what Gene Outka has called "simplified egalitarianism" which does not take into account that "our capacity for reciprocal help and harm is deeper and more varied with those closely related to us." The Christian claim that we should "love" all people, not just those with whom we have special relationships, does not imply undifferentiated cosmopolitanism, which would preclude giving special attention to our own family, ethnic group, nation, or broader culture. Not only is it right to maintain boundaries of discrete group identities, as I have argued earlier, it is also right to devote one's energies so that the group to which we belong will flourish. (pp.20-21)

 It seems to me that these kinds of theological arguments are important within Christianity; for Christianity to work there has to be an understanding of how a love that extends universally can be combined with the obvious goods of more particular relationships, such as those involving family, ethnic group, nation and broader culture.

As I mentioned at the start, I think that Professor Volf doesn't quite get it right, as his way of combining things wouldn't easily allow the particular relationships to survive. But at least he recognises the need to uphold both things: the universal and the particular.

If  you go to a Catholic church now, you are likely to hear only one side - the universal. A concern for the particular has been lost (unless it involves a group that has status within liberal politics, such as Aborigines - see here and here - but this then suggests that the Church isn't getting the universal right either - why should the Aborigines have a human status that others don't have?)

If anything, at a time when liberalism is dissolving particular relationships, the Church should be focused on the defence of the particular, rather than helping to drive liberalism forward by emphasising the universal.


  1. Miroslav Volf is a professor of theology at Yale University Divinity School. He's a bit difficult to place politically.

    Ha. He wouldn't be at Yale if he weren't a Leftist In Good Standing.

  2. One reason the Church ought to defend the particular is that the Church itself is a particularity. There are doctrines and people inside the Church that ought to be defended, and doctrines and people outside the Church that ought to be defeated (or at least held at bay). Since Volf's essay appears to have been published in a collection devoted to Christian-Islamic dialogue, one might ask whether the essence of the Church is to be found in the points where it agrees with Islam, or in the points where it disagrees. Obviously it is in the points where it disagrees, since that is what makes it the Church and not a branch of Islam. Commonalities cannot be the basis of identity since, judges solely on the basis of our commonalities, we are indistinguishable from one another.