I am a part of all that I have met; Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades For ever and for ever when I move.

Month: November 2012

Embracing ambiguity in moral judgments

In my big picture posting about Exclusion and Embrace, I was unable to decide what Volf believes about his audience. Modern? Believers? Postmodern? Unbelievers? Mainline? Evangelical? Some combination of the above? Part of that uncertainty stems from statements like this, on the subject of justice:

To reconstruct the past as it actually happened, independent from a particular standpoint, is impossible. To presume otherwise is not only naively mistaken but positively dangerous.

And like this:

From the basic distinction between God’s justice and the human idea of God’s justice it follows that all Christian accounts of justice are particular and that they must make judgments about what is just in a provisional way (Mouw and Griffioen 1993, 158ff.).

And like this:

Is wrath against injustice appropriate? Yes! Must the perpetrator be restrained? By all means! Is punishment for the violation necessary? Probably. But all these indispensable actions against injustice must be situated in the framework of the will to embrace the unjust. For only in our mutual embrace within the embrace of the triune God can we find redemption and experience perfect justice.

(Once more I feel compelled to affirm that, yes, all of these quotes are from the same book!)

I praised Volf previously for taking postmodern thought seriously. (This post will reflect, to some extent, my own inability to do so myself.) He engages with the challenges that postmodernism brings, without being seduced by them. As I outline his approach below, I will ultimately agree with what he says – though I don’t consider it to be original – while still taking issue with how he presents the case. In fact, I suspect that he is being somewhat disingenuous in pretending to agonize over the problem of (the potential impossibility of) neutrality in making moral judgments, because it’s not really a challenge to his thought, and indeed should not be a challenge to anybody’s.

First, Volf’s proposal. His synthesis of the aforementioned strands of thought is to advocate “double vision”. This is not from the passage in which he introduces this idea, but it serves as a reasonably succinct summary:

I suggest that we keep the double vision, but that, at least when it comes to knowing the social world, we replace “the view from nowhere” with “the view from there.” We should try to see the world “from there” and “from here” (see Taylor 1985b, 116-33). To view others “from nowhere” would mean to neutralize both our perspective and their perspective. This, as I have argued earlier (and as Nagel agrees), cannot be done. Moreover, even if it could be done it should not be done; we can never adequately understand human beings from a purely objective standpoint. Instead of seeing the self and the other or the two cultures and their common history from no perspective we should try to see them from both perspectives, both “from here” and “from there.”

Volf is writing in an intellectual climate in which many intellectuals would rather swallow broken glass than have to admit that one can record facts about the past, and would rather then regurgitate that glass before admitting that we can make a moral judgment about the past: we cannot know objectively; perhaps there is nothing to know objectively; neutrality in making moral judgments is impossible; perhaps no there is no morality at all. In the passage quoted above, Volf accredits postmodern despair of finding a neutral standpoint. But he also maintains that by approaching any particular question of justice (or even fact), we can grope towards the truth. Volf indeed believes in this truth:

The argument that there is a single truth about some important matters and that one should strive to find it should be plausible to Christians. After all, do we not believe that the day will come when the secrets of the hearts will be revealed and when God will say out loud the way things really were-who did what to whom and by what means? No doubt, there is more to divine judgment than setting the records straight; the One who judges at the end of history is the same One who “justifies sinners” in the middle of history. But can divine judgment be anything less than setting the records straight? Anyone who holds to the classical Christian doctrine of God will be compelled to search in some sense for “the way things really were.” As Richard Mouw and Sander Griffioen argue, if there is an all-wise and all-knowing divine Person whose perspective on what happens matters, then it is difficult to see how Christians could deny that there is “objective” truth about history and that it is important to try to find it out (Mouw and Griffioen 1993, 101ff.)

This is tempered by a belief in human frailty, yes, but that is a necessary qualification to any account of justice:

Trying is not the same as succeeding, however. Though God knows the way things were and will one day say it out aloud, human beings know only partially and can say it only inadequately. There is no way to climb up to God’s judgment seat to make infallible pronouncements, so to speak, in God’s stead as God’s vicars on earth.

And finally comes to a position that looks nearly identical to critical realism:

The belief in an all-knowing God should inspire the search for truth; the awareness of our human limitations should make us modest about the claims that we have found it, however.

I will make three observations below, which relate solely to how Volf makes his case, not to the case itself. The first point is that I believe that Volf takes the challenge to objective moral judgment too seriously – given his own commitments and facts that are readily available to him. The second point is that Volf’s commitment to the teachings of Christ should actually make these moral judgments quite simple, but that his simultaneous commitment to a social (and practical) perspective on morality blurs these judgments. The third point is that is that his ultimate synthesis is not really very novel, and has in fact been discussed and even labeled in the literature, quite extensively.

Pretended hang wringing (?)

The concrete example from this chapter is the existence rival accounts of atrocities and body counts from the various factions in the Balkans, in the 20th century. Who killed how many of the other side, and under what circumstances? Which killings were justified? What counts as ethnic cleansing? The facts are disputed and politically charged, let alone the subsequent moral judgments. If I had to devise a hypothetical example of how historical facts can become controversial and almost impossible to reconstruct accurately, I would probably come up with a situation resembling the Balkans in the 20th century. Is all of history really what the postmoderns say it is: rival discourses advanced for the purpose of seizing power, with the victors trying to cover their atrocities, and the victims trying to capitalize on the deaths of their countrymen? Certainly nothing in the Balkans will provide us with a counter-example.

But here is a shot at a counter-example from a different context: on October 9, Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head while she was taking the bus to school. Now, either a massive conspiracy is at work, or there really is a little girl in Birmingham, UK, recovering from this gunshot injury. I don’t believe there is serious dispute about that… at least not yet. Now suppose that you are unaware of the political context, and are instead are confronted with the fact of a 15-year-old with a gunshot wound to the head. For the sake of the example let us also assume that there is a school bus full of witnesses who can testify to the bare fact that the girl was shot, and that it was neither a self-inflicted wound nor an accident.

What more do you need to know to make a moral judgment in this case? Do you need to know Malala Yousafzai’s ethnicity? Whether she was politically active? What she stood for? What complaint the shooter had, i.e., whether it was a personal vendetta or a politically motivated attack? Suppose it was politically motivated. Do you need to understand the political climate in Pakistan in 2012? Do you need to know something about the colonial history of Pakistan? Of the political history of the Northwest Frontier Province? Or the particular plight of the Pashtuns under Punjabi hegemony? Or how the BBC was involved, encouraging Malala in her advocacy activities? Do you need to reflect on the extent to which women’s education is a hegemonic Western value? Do you need to consider the extent to which the Beeb is in a way the neocolonial manifestation of the Raj? Do you need to hold a seminar considering whether Malala was using the BBC or being used by the BBC?

Even from my fallible human perspective, I don’t feel bound to pursue all of those rabbit trails. The fact of a 15-year-old with a gunshot wound to the head is sufficient for me – in all my arrogance and presumption! – to conclude that something bad happened to Malala Yousafzai. Obviously I don’t know who did it or why; neither that nor any of the other questions above are germane to my moral judgment.

Now, as I wrote earlier, it’s not at all clear to me that I need to be making this point to Volf. He believes in objective truth and an absolute perspective on justice, and therefore cases like Malala’s should be an easy one. And indeed, I’m sure it is an easy one for him. The question is why we should start wringing our hands and talking about ideology and identity, etc., when we start talking about thousands of people in the Balkans. This is the subject of my next point.

The practical social perspective blurs easy moral judgments

Do you know how to sideline yourself in any conversation about ethics and morality? Say something like this, “But I tell you, love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you. Then you will be children of your father in heaven.” There will be a half-beat of silence in the room, and then the discussion will proceed without your being troubled again.

I know that Volf believes that – I could look up the references in the book to prove it. But as I wrote previously, a tension in this book is that Volf wants his solutions to be practically applicable to modern society, which is not to say, to be politically and culturally acceptable.

From the gospel perspective, moral judgments about the Balkans are not difficult. There were atrocities on all sides, and if you hurt someone you are guilty. If you covered up someone’s injury, you are guilty. If you failed to love your enemy and do good to your persecutor, you are guilty.

It’s obvious that we’re not going to be reading UN reports about victims’ failure to help their persecutors any time soon. The gospel message doesn’t always play well individually, let alone at the social level. When we start to play at governing society, we feel the need to set Christ’s teachings to one side, and find something practical. We need to work revenge into the system at some level; otherwise it feels wrong.

I really can’t add anything to this, other than to reiterate that Volf’s commitment to find a socially acceptable solution is at odds with his simultaneous commitment to Christ’s teachings. This is not a new problem, of course, but one might have hoped for better.

By any other name

As I noted above, Volf eventually comes to a position that looks nearly identical to critical realism:

The belief in an all-knowing God should inspire the search for truth; the awareness of our human limitations should make us modest about the claims that we have found it, however.

What is critical realism? It has two parts, and is best explained in reverse order.

  • Realism: there is an objective reality.
  • Critical: I could be wrong about that reality.

I am a committed critical-realist, largely because of the writings of Michael Polanyi. The joint commitments to reality and to a critical approach are, for me, the basis of any worthwhile epistemology, by which I mean one that addresses the fundamental problems of knowing, and can offer some reasonable approximation of how we actually live. (In fact, I believe that any philosopher, be s/he Cartesian, Humean, postmodern, or whatever, ultimately is a critical realist, because that is the only way to actually live one’s life.) There is much more to say about critical realism, and I certainly plan to write more about it on this blog. For now, I register my irritation that Volf didn’t set the accepted label to his position, and my further irritation that he didn’t cite my guy in so doing. 😉

Exclusion and Embrace: the big-picture review

I have finished Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf’s roundly praised 1996 work on forgiveness, justice, and reconciliation. I’ve previously written about some ambiguities I detected early in the book, and also criticized Volf’s thesis that “nonremembering” of violence is necessary for the final redemption. This post will take a broader view of the book. I plan to address more specific issues in subsequent posts.

This is a book that I want very much to like. I am a pacifist, and Volf is either a pacifist or has very strong leanings in that direction. I picked up the book because N.T. Wright had recommended it in a interview as the best theological book he’d read in 20 years – and he reads a lot. There is much in Exclusion and Embrace to appreciate. Volf is deeply committed to the Bible and the Christian faith. The tone of the book is often lively, if uneven. There are beautifully written passages. Volf often pauses to summarize his argument, which is a wonderful courtesy to the reader (and makes him quotable in ways that many other authors are not).

A more substantive praise for the book is that Volf takes seriously modern and postmodern critiques of Christian thought. It takes patience to engage with the likes of Nietzsche and Derrida – Volf disagrees with them vehemently on nearly all important points, but in spite of that he is able to take their ideas seriously. I appreciate this all the more, because I am sure I could not do the same myself!

But, in spite of these strong points, I find myself uncertain of the book’s contribution. My key question is: what is Volf trying to accomplish? This question has three components:

  1. Who is Volf’s audience?

  2. What is his message, be it positive or negative?

  3. What new contribution does he make?

Who is the audience? I am nearly at a loss in trying to answer this. At times Volf is enjoins the reader to nonviolence on the basis of the teachings of Christ (i.e., presuming the reader to accept these teachings as normative). In other places the book is a diplomatic defense for aspects of Christian belief against postmodern misgivings. Much of the intellectual book will be difficult to follow if one is not at least passingly familiar with names such as Nietzsche, Habermas, Moltman, Ratzinger, Kung, Derrida – a list to which many more names, and a few umlauts, could be added. Yet in the penultimate chapter there is a brief summary and rapid critique of Michel Foucalt’s thoughts on truth and power – which is too little too late, if you’re not already familiar with the basic postmodern critique of knowledge and truth. The most consistent impression sense I got of who Volf expects to be reading the book is a left-of-center mainline Protestant, with at least a passing awareness of modern philosophy. I get this impression from little things: the social issues to which he takes care pay lip service, the questions about the historicity of the biblical text that he raises as a matter of course. (But even this is not entirely satisfying: how many of these people really need a lesson in the value of nonviolence?)

What is Volf’s message? Volf’s message is the Christian message, a message of nonviolence. In my earlier post I noted that Volf seems to be trying to cast Christ’s teachings into modern and postmodern language; to that I would also now add that he is defending Christ’s teachings against modern and postmodern critique. As I’ll note further below, Volf evidently wants this message to have some broader application in the public sphere – he wants it not just to be a matter of private morality or belief, but really wants to see these ideas realized in the public sphere. I will comment more on this below.

What is the new contribution? I am having trouble putting my finger on an answer to this question. Volf is bringing together a lot of sources, ranging from the Bible to modern and postmodern philosophers and theologians of all persuasions. It is certainly a personal intellectual achievement in that respect. Still I am somewhat at a loss to express what new synthesis he achieves. Which chapter, if removed, would do significant damage to the arguments of the other chapters? Which citation, if removed, would detract from the logical development of Volf’s ideas. I am going to leave these questions unanswered, because I am not quite at a stage in my own reflections to conclude that there is nothing new here. Such a position would certainly be premature, given the reflections the book has prompted for me. Still, it is striking to have read such a tome without a clear sense of what its contribution is.

Unresolved tensions

Here are a few tightly related tensions in the book that, in my opinion, remain unresolved in the book, and perhaps went unnoticed. Many of these points will come up again in subsequent discussion.

  • Are we talking about private belief or new cultural norms? I feel that Volf blunts the edge of Christ’s teaching with his desire to find expressions of Christ’s teachings that will be acceptable to a wider audience. I see the tension, for instance, on Volf’s insistence on forgiveness on the one hand, with a simultaneous insistence on remembering and memorializing victims on the other. (Two bullet points down I cite passages that would also be relevant for this point.) He advocated nonviolence, but seems to avoid making this case directly, perhaps because of a sense of the impracticality of nonviolent practices.

  • Are these ideas for believers or nonbelievers? I ask this because it seems to me that Volf wants desperately for the conclusions he draws to be acceptable to modern, left-of-center public opinion. It’s not always clear that he is aware that “Love your enemies and do good to those who mistreat you” is simply not going to be attractive to most people.

  • What is the relationship between our present day activities and the final redemption? Again, Volf desperately wants answers that are applicable to present-day crises, and acceptable to the modern sensibility that requires remembrance as a sort of moral revenge. This leads to odd pairings of statements such as these. In eternity: “Since I do not believe that a theodicy can succeed, I continue to believe that all those who want heaven cannot want the memory of horrors.” But in the present: “Erase memory and you wash away the blood from the perpetrator’s hands, you undo the done deed, make it disappear from history. Erase memories of the atrocities and you tempt future perpetrators with immunity. Inversely, remember the misdeeds and you erect a barrier against future misdeeds.” Can we really hold such contrary attitudes about normative practice in the present age and normative practice in the age to come, without considering it at leas to be a loose end?

Final tentative thoughts

I complained earlier that the abstraction of Volf’s language (and, one would suppose, his thought) made it difficult to get at what he was saying. Having now finished the book, I’m unable to change that assessment. The book is filled with generalities, often at the expense of clarity. Volf will often refer to the Serbs, Croats, Rwandans, etc., but for the most part he might as well refer to the Montagues and the Capulets, for as deep as the analysis goes. Are there no historical events to be brought to bear on these questions beyond establishing the basic background of “Group A really, really hates Group B”?

The chapter on gender is a case in point. The entire chapter focuses on the conflict between men and and women, masculinity and femininity, i.e., the conflict between two categories. There is a need for reconciliation between women-in-general and men-in-general. But speaking for myself, I have no interaction with women-in-general. I have a wife, female friends, and female co-workers. And, if any of these individual women are interacting with men-in-general, then I must have been left off that email list and I must not have been invited to those meetings. Is the generality necessary for a theological book? Perhaps at some level, but I do note that I read an entire chapter on exclusion and embrace of the genders – heavy moral topics – without the mention of any particular moral agent. That is odd. But the darker hermeneutic implication is that a reader will set the book down with a fervent desire to embrace women-in-general, but with no specific exhortation to embrace the particular women in his life.

In this respect I would contrast Exclusion and Embrace with the work of John Paul Lederach, another peace enthusiast, whose books Building Peace and The Moral Imagination both take care to look at the sociological structures which underlie conflicts, so as to avoid the perspective that achieving peace is merely a matter of reconciling categories of individuals.


This is not a conclusion, because I have discussed just a few of the strong and weak points of the book as a whole (pace my criticism above of only dealing in generalities!). Further posts will address specific issues. But it goes without saying that a book that prompts three or four or five lengthy blog postings carries my recommendation, and that you won’t regret spending fifteen bucks on this book.

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