Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Free of Charge

Highly recommended
What is a gift? What does it mean to be a giver? How can giving be more than a business transaction? How ought we to forgive? Does repentence need to precede forgiveness? How can we forgive? Is it possible to be a little bit like God in our giving and forgiving?

Crotian theologian Miroslav Volf (author of the highly stimulating Exclusion and Embrace) wrote a popular level book for Lent 2006 called Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Jessica and I have been reading it slowly over the last couple of weeks and have really appeciated the straightforward ways he lays out the connections and distinctions between giving and forgiving with both theological depth and a light and accessible touch. These two basic modes of interpersonal interaction are at the heart of what it is to be Christian because they are very much on God's heart. Whether or not you're a believer, this book will gently stretch you and invite you into a way of life and of the heart that gets beyond the destructiveness of revenge and taking, even beyond mere justice and earning, all the way into giving and forgiving.

Revenge multiples evil. Retributive justice contains evil - and threatens the world with destruction. Forgiveness overcomes evil with good. Forgiveness mirrors the generosity of God whose ultimate goal is neither to satisfy injured pride nor to justly apportion reward and punishment, but to free sinful humanity from evil and thereby reestablish communion with us. This is the gospel in its stark simplicity - as radically countercultural and at the same time as beautifully human as anything one can imagine.

- Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, 161. More on this book.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Byron - thanks for the recommendation. I bought this book just before moving house so gave it to my father-in-law to read and safekeep! Have to get it back (he's a slow reader too!).

Miroslav Volf gave the Laing Lectures at Regent College this year, the topic being 'A Voice of One's Own: Public Faith in a Pluralistic World'. It is downloadable (at cost) at http://www.regentaudio.com/product_details.php?item_id=336. Another thing to add to the 'must get around to doing' list!

byron said...

Yeah, we gave out a number of copies for Christmas - since the first half of the book is about generosity and giving, it only seemed appropriate. It's been really valuable for us over the last couple of weeks to think about how abundantly and freely God gives us so many good things.

Thanks for the heads up about the lectures - they sound interesting. Here is the link for those who couldn't be bothered cutting and pasting. Cost is US$16 for four hours of lectures. Anyone who has heard it, let us know if it's worth it.

Anonymous said...

Great recommendation Byron...thanks. I've been hailing Volf's book left, right, and centre, to anyone that'll listen. It's so nice when a theologian bases our response on God's character. It shouldn't be quite so refreshing! interestingly, i'm waiting for my copy back from my father! he's not a slow reader, but i think has too much to read (i also just sent him my thesis so i'm not going to complain!)

Anonymous said...

I like Volf's work very much, but hadn't gotten to this one, yet. The part you quote, Byron, seems to stand in tension with his conclusions at the end of Exclusion and Embrace. I'm not unhappy about that--I was unhappy about the last chapter of that otherwise fine book! But what do you think? Does Volf here contradict his previous conclusion that Christians can be nonviolent and forgive others only because GOD sometimes doesn't? We can forbear vengeance only because vengeance is God's? I never liked that conclusion and if Volf is changing his mind, I'm happy.

One of Freedom said...

This was my first foray into Volf, an excellent book. I loved Exclusion and Embrace, which is more theologically oriented. I got After Our Likeness for Christmas from my loving wife who has to listen to me rave about Volf.

byron said...

It's so nice when a theologian bases our response on God's character. It shouldn't be quite so refreshing!
An astute observation Theoblogian. Volf is, however, careful to outline both the similarities and significant differences between God's (for)giving and ours. This is actually one of the highlights theologically of the book so far (I'm 5/6ths of the way through), and helps him make a number of pastorally and personally very insightful tips about these practices.

byron said...

Michael - I had a similar feeling and will have to go back and re-read the final chapter of E&E in the light of this one when I'm finished. He certainly hasn't abandoned the idea that reconciliation (which is the goal forgiveness serves) must begin with naming and condemnation of the wrong. However, he does explicitly reject any further satisfaction of punishment is needed after Christ. Thus, he thinks that while a private citizen can allow the state to incarcerate a criminal whom they have forgiven, this should remain against their wishes insofar as it is understood as punitive (though there may be a legitimate secular function of restraining future wrong that is not punitive).

So it seems that Volf locates the cross as where God's vengeance is located, in which he says he is following Luther. Indeed, it is clear that Luther is the primary theological influence on the whole text, being frequently quoted in each chapter.

byron said...

Frank - I've been meaning to get to After Our Likeness for the last couple of years. I was going to read it in a course on ecclesiology, but it never quite made it onto my desk. Let me know how you like it. E&E was indeed more theological, though I've still been impressed at the depth he's included in Free of Charge without losing accessibility. Exclusion also had a number of wonderfully rich extended exegetical reflections. I remember Cain and Abel being a highlight.

michael jensen said...

YEs, I have been reading this book too! Wondering whether I should give it to some inquiring non-believer friends - what do you think?

Actually, I really liked that chapter in E and E... to my mind the Gender Identity one was the weakest one. Perhaps universalism is now more Volf's position.

byron said...

MPJ - Yes, I think it's a great little book to give to inquirers - gets into the heart of the gospel in a very personal way.

I agree that the gender chapter of E&E was the weirdest - didn't seem to really be necessary in the flow of the book. I too quite liked the final chapter - I just wanted to re-read it in light of FoC.

Universalism? I don't think so. He's pretty clear that it's possible to reject forgiveness, just as it's possible to reject a gift, which can then get 'stuck', abandoned between giver and recipient.

One of Freedom said...

Even though the chapter on gender was a bit wierd, I still find that I come back to it in discussions about the naming of God. For all its wierdness Volf does provide some useful dialogue on the subject.

michael jensen said...

In his new book about Memory, (I can hear you licking your lips Byron) my understanding is that he comes closer to universalism...

dan said...

Hey Byron,

I actually attended the Laing Lectures at Regent this year and heard Volf speak. It was good to hear Volf speak and I enjoyed the dialogue a great deal but, if you've read his books (which I think you have) then I think you might be better off saving your money. As far as I can tell, Volf didn't say anything too new, at best he made explicit certain points that were implicit in his previous arguments.

Michael,

I have no problem holding off on vengeance with the knowledge that vengeance belongs to God. Of course, I do this with a sneaking (and rather happy) suspicion that vengeance belongs to God because, in the end, it looks nothing like what we would be inclined to call "vengeance." I get this happy suspicion because, as Byron suggests following Volf and Luther, I really do think the cross is the manifestation of God's "vengeance." Vengeance belongs to God because, although we mistakenly want to enact it upon others, God is willing to take it upon himself.

Grace and peace.

michael jensen said...

Yeah, I am with you:

leave it God. He just might surprise us.

Anonymous said...

according to a recent podcast i heard volf sounds more like he'd buy the possibility of conversion offered after death (2nd chance)

byron said...

For those wondering about Volf's take on universalism, you might be interested in this review of a recent heavier book: The End of Memory.