Four decades later, Miroslav Volf, a professor of systematic theology at Yale Divinity School, has written a book that teaches us that the personal is also theological.
Against the Tide: Love in a Time of Petty Dreams and Persisting Enmities is a collection of essays that moves seamlessly from the realm of personal experience to the spheres of church, culture, business, and politics, always challenging Christians to “make determined steps toward love” as they encounter evil, warfare, other faiths, and opportunities for forgiveness and reconciliation. Volf understands that good theology — like good preaching — is rooted in a personal experience of the Christian tradition, and he is unafraid to ground these powerful and eloquent essays in his life as a husband, father, son, native of Croatia, naturalized U.S. citizen, Protestant Christian, and professor of theology. In an essay titled “In My Own Voice?” he describes himself as “a theologian who believes that his calling is also to be a witness.”
Volf knows his way around Aristotle, Nietzsche, Kant, and Moltmann, but draws the most compelling insights from his own life. In “The Gift of Infertility,” he reveals that Advent is the worst season for couples unable to have children (pastors, take note) because the message of the season is “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” But after adopting two boys, Volf discovered that “nine years of desperate trying were like one long painful childbirth,” the purpose of which was to give him the boys that are now his sons. “Infertility was the condition for the possibility of these two indescribable gifts,” he reflects. “And understanding that changed my attitude toward infertility. Since it gave me what I now can’t imagine living without, poison was transmuted into a gift, God’s strange gift.”
In his final essay, “A Death of a Friend,” Volf tells the story of a friend named Toma who spent the last twenty years of his life confined to psychiatric wards. To Volf Toma was not a nobody, but an athlete-turned-evangelist who inspired a group of teenagers to become ministers, professors, and public intellectuals. Concludes Volf, “Maybe his was a truly Christian way of being somebody — being a bow for the flight of others.”
For preachers who need to speak both personally and theologically, the book is an excellent guide to Christian communication, in both form and substance. For laypeople looking for theological insights, Volf provides essays that are short, clear, and accessible — most were originally published as columns in The Christian Century.
Although such a collection of essays is bound to have a patchwork quality, Volf attempts to stitch the quilt together with the thread of love. He calls for Christians to live “against the tide” that pulls us relentlessly toward selfishness, and to practice a love that is not so much a feeling as an active way of being in the world. This conception of love poses a personal and collective challenge for followers of Christ today.
HENRY G. BRINTON is pastor of Fairfax Church, Fairfax, Va.