Miroslav Volf: Witnessing through Soft Difference
Miroslav Volf often theologizes about the relationship between gospel, church, mission, and culture. His theology has implications for us as we seek to develop a missional understanding of the church.
For Miroslav Volf, the question of how the church and the gospel relate to culture emerges from some important issues. First, cultures have a profound influence on shaping are values, perspectives, theologies, and imaginations. Second, today a multitude of cultures collide, communicate, and shape each other across the globe. Third, today we see the rapid evolution of cultures. Fourth, every generation of the church needs to wrestle with the relationship between Christ and cultures.
Cultures are the substance from within which churches emerge. We are always immersed in culture. These cultures have characteristics and expressions that the church can adopt, adapt, discard, replace, celebrate, and transform from the inside.
It is like Yeast: How the Gospel Relates to Culture
In It Is Like Yeast, Miroslav Volf says the church must reflect on its relationship with culture. “There is no single correct way to relate to a given culture as a whole, or even to its dominant thrust. There are only numerous ways of accepting, transforming, rejecting, or replacing various aspects of a given culture from within. This is what it means for Christian difference to be internal to a given culture.”
Believers make a difference from within their given culture. Our transformations are piecemeal this side of the new creation. And we need to replace accommodation to culture with an emphasis on “soft difference.”
Disruption from cultural identity is normal at conversion. Yet, our identity remains rooted in many ways to a given culture. Inculturation occurs as Christians wrestle with appropriate expressions of faith in their cultural context, and with the way that faith shapes their sense of culture and identity. “The key issue is how to maintain the Christian difference from the culture of which we are a part and how to make that difference a leaven in the culture.” Difference is essential to authentic and transforming faith, church, and witness. Without “soft difference”, the church has nothing to offer culture.
We need discernment to identify the appropriate points of difference and non-difference within a given culture. At the same time, we stay open and attentive to God’s rule and reign within our culture.
Soft Difference: How the Church Relates to Culture
The mission of the church is innate to its essence and identity. “If the church is the image of the Trinity, then the church’s very being is a form of mission.”
Exegeting 1 Peter, Miroslav Volf says that God calls the church to Soft Difference. What does he mean by this phrase?
“It might be appropriate to call the missionary distance that 1 Peter stresses soft difference. I do not mean a weak difference, for in 1 Peter the difference is anything but weak. It is strong, but it is not hard. Fear for oneself and one’s identity creates hardness. The difference that joins itself with hardness always presents the other with a choice: either submit or be rejected, either “become like me or get away from me.” In the mission to the world, hard difference operates with open or hidden pressures, manipulation, and threats. A decision for a soft difference, on the other hand, presupposes a fearlessness which 1 Peter repeatedly encourages his readers to assume (3:14; 3:6). People who are secure in themselves—more accurately, who are secure in their God—are able to live the soft difference without fear. They have no need either to subordinate or damn others, but can allow others space to be themselves. For people who live the soft difference, mission fundamentally takes the form of witness and invitation. They seek to win others without pressure or manipulation, sometimes even “without a word” (3:1) . . .
Just as gentleness is not a mere survival strategy, so the soft difference is not simply a missionary method. Rather, the soft difference is the missionary side of following in the footsteps of the crucified Messiah. It is not an optional extra, but part and parcel of Christian identity itself. To be a Christian means to live one’s own identity in the face of others in such a way that one joins inseparably the belief in the truth of one’s own convictions with a respect for the convictions of others. The softness which should characterize the very being of Christians—I am tempted to call it “ontic gentleness”—must not be given up even when we are (from our own perspective) persuaded that others are either wrong or evil. To give up the softness of our difference would be to sacrifice our identity as followers of Jesus Christ.”Soft difference isn't simply a missional method. It's following the crucified Messiah. Click To Tweet
What does this “soft difference” look like?
Continue the mission of Jesus. We do this through the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel, the new creation, the new humanity, forgiveness, transformation, trinitarian embrace, and rebirth.
Place reconciliation, grace, and justice at the heart of our mission. This means allowing healing and reconciliation and forgiveness to unfold, even while we remember the past.
Care for the entire wellbeing of people. We care for their bodies, communities, spirituality, and larger social and ecological environments. In this, we discover the presence of the Spirit going before us.
Embrace both hiddenness and openness by rejecting the lure to become one more social institution among many. This means offering an alternative vision shaped by the future and present reign of God. The church subverts, challenges, reflects, and transforms the culture around it, and in which God has immersed it. In doing so, the church pursues “the very mission at the core of the church’s identity.”
Practice “unaggressive evangelism.” We do this by recognizing that it is God who changes people’s hearts. He invigorates and transforms their social, spiritual, and religious allegiances.
Meet hostility with clarity about the distinctiveness of the gospel, and do this with grace and hospitality and welcome and love. Don’t get caught up in “hard difference” expressed in a self-righteous, angry, polarizing, or combative way.
Focus on the cross of Christ, through the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In this we choose to resist injustice, deceitfulness, and violence in our world. Remembrance of the Lord’s death “until he comes” inspires our public engagement.
Practice radical worship that is both adoration of God and vigorous action in the world. Worship and witness go hand-in-hand.
Provide a “robust alternative to the pervasive culture of late capitalism” in anticipation of the new creation.” As God’s people. “We are aliens and sojourners who engage in a soft missionary difference.” This “soft difference” involves difference to and acculturation in contemporary culture. It involves both commensurability and incommensurability. We don’t need to choose between “affirmation of the world” versus “denial of the world.” We can surprise people with strange combinations of difference and acculturation. The church is both a prophetic community and a sign of hope in our cultures. The church we see in 1 Peter “was sure of her mission to proclaim the mighty deeds of God for the salvation of the world, but refused to use either pressure or manipulation. Rather, she lived fearlessly her soft difference. She was not surprised by the various reactions of individuals and communities among whom she lived because she was aware of the bewildering complexity of social worlds in which values are partly the same, partly different, sometimes complementary, and sometimes contradictory. And so it gradually became clear that the child who was born again through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead into a living hope was not a sect at all. The unusual child who looked like a sect, but did not act like a sect, was a Christian community—a church that can serve as a model even for us today as we reflect on the nature of Christian presence in modern, rapidly changing, pluralistic societies that resist being shaped by moral norms.”
Move from sectarianism to witness. “The Petrine community was no aggressive sect in the sense of Ernst Troeltsch. It did not wish to impose itself or the kingdom of God on the world, but to live in faithfulness to God and to the values of God’s kingdom, inviting others to do the same. It had no desire to do for others what they did not want done for them. They had no covert totalitarian agenda. Rather, the community was to live an alternative way of life in the present social setting, transforming it, as it could, from within. In any case, the community did not seek to exert social or political pressure, but to give public witness to a new way of life.”
Forge true Christian identity. As Christians, we must consider the relationship between difference and identity. “The crucial question is not to what degree one stresses difference, but rather on what basis Christian identity is established. Identity can be forged through two related but clearly distinct processes: either through a negative process of rejecting the beliefs and practices of others, or through a positive process of giving allegiance to something distinctive. It is significant that 1 Peter consistently establishes the difference positively, not negatively. There are no direct injunctions not to behave as non-Christians do. Rather, the exhortation to be different centers primarily on the positive example of a holy God (l:15f) and of the suffering Christ (2:21ff).”
Volf’s insights into the relationship between church, mission, and culture are challenging. They invite us to new theologies, relationships, and practices. The invite us to join with God in his mission, forming identities and practices of soft difference.
Miroslav Volf, “‘It is Like Yeast’: How the Gospel Should Relate to Culture.” Theology News and Notes (October 1994).
Dr Graham Hill is the Founding Director of The GlobalChurch Project – www.theglobalchurchproject.com. He’s the author of “GlobalChurch: Reshaping Our Conversations, Renewing Our Mission, Revitalizing Our Churches” (IVP, 2016), and 3 other books.
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