Exclusion and Embrace, Part Two: Distance and Belonging

If you recall from part one, part of embracing the other is simply recognizing them as "other". As Volf puts it, we "welcome" them, prior to any judgment about them except in asserting their humanity. Volf moves into his first chapter by demonstrating that we are to follow the call of Abraham, the great biblical figure who departed from his homeland to follow his call from God, with the only assurance being that God would provide. Volf uses this story as a metaphor for the call on the Christian life and the Christian community. Volf states that our current identity is flawed from our perspective, that often we do not recognize ourselves as above all, Christian. "Still today, many black Baptists or Methodists feel closer to black Muslims than to their white fellow Christians" (pg. 36). There are of course historical reasons for this, but nonetheless there is no deep "fellowship" of those who claim Christianity. Moreover, our cultural identities define us more than our Christian ones, we fight more for causes based more on our cultural commitments than anything else. The church has become complicit to its surrounding culture. The implication of all this is that we have lost our "saltiness". We are no longer the salt and light for the world. Thus far, this is not really any news but serves instead as a context for Volf's next argument.

Volf believes that to better form our identities as Christians, we must follow Abraham and depart from our homeland. The apostle Paul recognized Abraham's faithful act because in the end, he found the only hope possible, in the presence of God. For us, our calling is this: "the ultimate allegiance of those whose father is Abraham can be only to the God of "all the families of the earth" not to any particular country, culture, or family with their local deities" (pg. 39). Implicit in this departing is risk, cutting off the ties that profoundly define us. In our culture, we must become strangers, or aliens to our homeland (39). Moreover, an implicit change occurs, and the "response to (the) call from that God entails a rearrangement of a whole network of allegiances" (p. 40). And yet, God does not call us to leave our cultures in a spatial sense, this would be an abandonment of our humanity, and our failure to recognize our relationship with others as well. And this is where Volf gets really interesting, as he comes up with the phrase of being distant while at the same time belonging. The "belonging" is best seen through the eyes of the Apostle Paul, whose worldview drastically changes after his encounter with the risen Christ. Paul is not in complete contrast to Abraham, for in some sense he leaves behind, departs, from his "strategy for living" as Dallas Willard so aptly calls it. And yet, Paul is bound and yet free to proclaim this new truth of Jesus' lordship and resurrection to Jew and Gentile alike. Volf explores Paul's thinking as he moved from the genealogical and cultural particularity of his understanding of Judaism to the "bodies united by the Spirit"- stating that,"The Pauline move is not from particularity of the body to the universality of the spirit, but from separated bodies to the community of interrelated bodies-the one body in the Spirit with many discrete members."(pg.48) 

Human differences are not erased only to provide one category for their understanding. Instead, our variegated selves are bound to the particularity of the risen Messiah, Jesus Christ. What the Spirit does erase is our socially constructed differences and social roles (48). And therefore, "departure is no longer a spatial category; it can take place within the cultural space one inhabits." (49) One foot is firmly planted in the soil of the surrounding culture while the other is planted in a response to the Gospel. As Steve has said it before, it is like having one nostril to the stench in your life while the other is to the aroma of Christ.

Here is my question:

Are we (as a church) frequently aware of what we hold as our cultural commitments? Are we willing to recognize these things or claim ignorance so that we don't have to act accordingly to the call of the gospel?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Exclusion and Embrace, Part Two: Distance and Belonging

  1. Pam

    Hi Pilgrim, I’m really glad to see you blogging on Exclusion and Embrace I’m just in the process of reading the book and finding it to be one of those seminal books that has really helped me to make theological and spiritual connections.

    I think the book poses some tough questions and some tough challenges. You pose another tough question here. I think that the church could do better in recognising the difference between culture and church.

    Understanding what it is in one’s own theology and spirituality that is ‘of the world’ rather than ‘of God’ seems to me to be an on-going process of purification in discipleship.

    One of the great ideas in Volf’s book, I think, is Plantinga’s idea that, in some senses one has to stand under the cross, tolerating one’s own sense of sin but knowing that one is forgiven. That’s actually a very tough thing to do, in my experience.

  2. Pam
    Thanks for commenting and I’m happy to hear that you are reading the same book. I have stepped away from it for awhile (as I do most books), but I am destined to return to it soon. I find Volf’s exploration into the nature of sin to be compelling. I think you make a good point about church/culture. There are definately going to be things that we cannot separate cleanly from culture, but we must at least attempt to peel back some to have more focus on what it does mean to be the church for the culture.
    Thanks again

  3. Great job guys… Thank for you work…

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