I bought myself the Kindle edition of Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. A Google search will quickly produce a listing of the best minds of our day falling over themselves to praise this book. My interest was piqued when N.T. Wright said that it was the best theological book he’d read in 20 years.

“Miroslav Volf” is also a really cool name. He and Dag Hammarskjöld began public life with an advantage.

Judging from the introduction and chapter 1, the thesis of the book is that:

  • our cultural identity is an inseparable part of who we are
  • that we should nevertheless maintain an internal distance from our own cultures in order to be able to offer a moral critique, and not be susceptible to its blind spots
  • that while group differences often occasion exclusion, but that we should instead embrace the Other while maintaining our ability for moral critique of other cultures

It lends no little credibility to the book that Volf was developing these ideas during a time when Serbs were slaughtering his fellow Croats (in the 1990s). [An inappropriate joke about the likelihood of learning about reconciliation from someone from the Balkans has been removed.]

I’m past the introduction and through the first chapter, so I suspect that Volf is not going to define “culture”. This is a pity, because he maintains that we need to maintain the ability to offer moral critique of cultures (i.e., both ours and others).

Here is an annotated list some of my cultural values.

  • I drive on the right side of the road. (This could be different; I don’t really care.)
  • I eat lots of gingerbread around Christmastime (I would care if this changed; but I know it has no moral significance.)
  • I buy and sell commodities based on price, irrespective of the ethnicity and nationality of the other party. (This has moral significance for me, to the point of its being self-evident; but it is by no means a cultural universal.)
  • I aspire to financial independence, so that ultimately I am secure financially, without being dependent on my parents or my children, and ideally without them being dependent on me. (This is closely held, but I feel that at least parts of it spring from sinful attitudes, and an overly individualistic culture.)
  • If I had a business and had to hire someone, I would give no preference to someone who was related to me. (This goes without saying for me, but I am gradually coming to the point ascribing some moral weight to it.)

To engage personally with Volf’s book, it would really help to know what kind of cultural values he has in mind. Liking different types of Christmas cookies? Wearing funny traditional outfits? Eating with hands? Having a different religion? Not believing that water can carry pathogenic organisms? Feeling social heterogeneity is a threat to society?

Since ethnic cleansing is on the table, I am optimistic that Volf will present a sufficiently comprehensive vision to cover the gamut of cultural values. I would feel more comfortable knowing where we were going if I had some more specific examples.