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.