Allah: A Christian Response

by Miroslav Volf
New York: HarperOne, March 2011. Hardcover, 336 pp., $25.99.
ISBN 978-0-06-192707-2

reviewed by Douglas A. Hicks

It is hard to imagine a more timely topic than Christians’ and Muslims’ understandings of one another and of God. It is equally difficult to identify a Christian theologian better situated than Miroslav Volf to tackle the questions he raises. In brief, this book deserves all of its hype, and I recommend it heartily to every pastor, theologian, layperson, and citizen who reads the Outlook.

Volf, director of the Center for Faith & Culture and Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale, is one of the most thoughtful and creative theologians writing today. Widely respected as a bridge figure within and among Christian communions, he draws from, and draws together, themes from mainline Protestant, evangelical, Pentecostal, and Orthodox traditions.

Allah: A Christian Response is Volf’s extended reflection upon this vital question: Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Volf has already established himself as a key figure in Muslim-Christian interfaith dialogue; he was the principal author of “Loving God and Neighbor Together,” the widely discussed Christian reply to “A Common Word Between Us and You,” an open letter to Christian leaders written and signed by 138 prominent Muslim scholars in 2007. [Note: URL for Loving God… is URL for “A Common Word” is] Volf’s new book expands that conversation. Volf is writing as a theologian, but one attuned to the social and political realities and implications of his project. If Christians and Muslims could agree that they worship the same God, he argues, domestic and international clashes could be preempted or mitigated.

One of the most fascinating intellectual questions of the book concerns exactly what is required in order to claim that the God that Christians worship is the same God that Muslims worship. (Volf reminds his readers that Allah is the Arabic word for God, and Arab Christians for centuries have called God by this name.) God’s attributes and identity stand independent of how people describe God, and thus what different people or communities say about the divine could be different and they could still be talking about the same God. But what if a Christian’s and a Muslim’s respective conceptions were so vastly divergent that they could not affirm anything the other says about God? In that case, it may not matter that, if one (or both) were massively mistaken, they could still be referring to the same God. On a related note, Volf states that he simply assumes that religious people are right about God and that Feuerbach — who asserted that all religious people project their human ideals to create God — is wrong.

Volf’s project is high-minded theological analysis written in prose accessible to informed lay persons. He calls for a multipronged approach to living together peaceably in a global society in which Christians and Muslims comprise a majority of the world population. He helpfully suggests ways that this intellectual work can influence everyday relations — political, social, economic — between and among people of various faiths. God knows that we need to figure all of this out — as Christians, as Muslims, and as national and global citizens.

Douglas Hicks is professor of leadership studies and religion, Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond, Va.