Wednesday 15 June 2011

Miroslav Volf on Soft Difference

Miroslav Volf, ‘Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter’, Ex Auditu 10 (1994), 15-30.

This is a stimulating and highly influential essay, still cited and discussed over fifteen years after its publication. Taking its cue from 1 Peter, it looks at what it means to be faithful to God as Christians in our surrounding culture.

In very basic terms, as I understand it, Volf tries to navigate between ‘no difference’ and ‘hard difference’ by reflecting on Peter’s call to be exiles in a hostile world.

In part, he’s making a contribution to the well-known debate in Petrine studies between John Elliott and David Balch as to whether Peter encourages accommodation to the culture (Balch – the ‘no difference’ option) or non-conformity to the culture (Elliott – the ‘hard difference’ option).

As might be expected, not all have been happy to draw the lines as tightly as that. David Horrell, for instance, tries to steer a middle course, arguing that 1 Peter calls for its audience to take a stance of ‘polite resistance’ to the present structures and powers.

And for Volf too, Peter doesn’t ask for a ‘hard difference’ which excludes without embracing, but nor does he want ‘no difference’ at all which simply embraces without excluding. Sometimes there might be hard differences between Christians and their neighbours, but often they are soft differences. As Peter suggests, Christians living faithfully in society may evoke persecution in some contexts and yet may also influence people to praise God in other contexts – such is the complex nature of the world in which we live.

Here are some lines from Volf’s essay:

‘Christians do not come into their social world from outside seeking either to accommodate to their new home (like second generation immigrants would), shape it in the image of the one they have left behind (like colonizers would), or establish a little haven in the strange new world reminiscent of the old (as resident aliens would). They are not outsiders who either seek to become insiders or maintain strenuously the status of outsiders. Christians are the insiders who have diverted from their culture by being born again. They are by definition those who are not what they used to be, those who do not live like they used to live. Christian difference is therefore not an insertion of something new into the old from outside, but a bursting out of the new precisely within the proper space of the old’ (18-19).

‘Wherever Christians find themselves – alone or with other believers – a Christian social difference is manifested there. Communities of those who are born anew and follow Christ live an alternative way of life within the political, ethnic, religious, and cultural institutions of the larger society... The community was to live an alternative way of life in the present social setting, transforming it, as it could, from within’ (20).

Even if you don’t finally agree with Volf, you’ll be stimulated to think more about these issues.

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