According to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his co-teacher for the “Faith and Globalization” seminar, Miroslav Volf, is a “a lot smarter and more knowledgeable than me.”
But questions of relative intelligence aside, Divinity School students and faculty members agree that Volf — the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at the Divinity School and founding director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture — complements Blair’s more pragmatic, policy-making background in his academic approach to the issues of faith and globalization. One of the strengths Volf brings to the seminar is his ability to unite opposing ideas, they said, most notably his emphasis of the common principles and convergences among religions as a means of reducing tensions in a globalized world.
Intellectual exchanges between Blair and Volf have added nuance to the views shared in the seminar, being taught for the second time this semester, said Scott Dolff, a Divinity School lecturer and former teaching fellow for the Faith and Globalization seminar.
Blair views globalization as a unifying force, drawing people closer together, while faiths often pull them apart, Dolff said. The challenge, according to Blair, is how to have faith function as a reconciling force rather than as a motivating force for conflict.
Volf, who has written extensively on reconciliation, “brought a subtle framing to that question and offered compelling arguments that faith and globalization are not necessarily adversaries,” Dolff said. “If we are going to be connected in proximity, then we need to learn to live together, and religion provides important resources to achieve that.”
Blair first publicly mentioned Volf in his April 2008 “Faith and Globalization” lecture presented at Westminster Cathedral 10 months after his retirement, during which he publicly introduced the mission of his foundation and announced that he would be teaching at Yale. Blair quoted a line from Volf’s book “Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation,” calling the contrast Volf drew between exclusionary and bridge-building faith “brilliant.”
In an interview Thursday with the News, Blair said he has enjoyed the opportunity to work with academics after his time in practical politics.
“I’m actually finding it fascinating,” Blair said. “And as I said to the students last year, I think I probably learned a lot more than they did.”
Before each of the five classes Blair attended last year, Blair and Volf sat down together for over an hour to discuss the topic for the week. More recently, they met twice in London with School of Management professor Douglas Rae, who will be the course’s third instructor this year.
“Mr. Blair would come prepared; and he had clear ideas about what should happen in the class,” Volf said, adding that he also communicated with Blair in between sessions via e-mail with Blair’s assistants. “Blair was personally involved in the design of the course from the very beginning.”
‘AN OUTSIDER TWICE OVER’
Volf’s upbringing on the cultural margins helped him develop the ability to find points of convergence in conflicting viewpoints, making Volf the unconventional and creative scholar he is widely considered today, research assistant Neil Arner DIV ’07 said. With a professional portfolio that includes over 150 editorials and articles and 11 books, Volf has been called “one of the most celebrated theologians of our day” by Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams.
“I was a total outsider,” Volf said of his childhood during the 1960s in Communist-controlled Yugoslavia, where his father was a pastor.
As a religious person in Communist Yugoslavia as well as a practitioner of a marginal religion, Pentecostalism, within Croatia’s small religious community of Roman Catholics, Volf was actually an outsider twice over, Arner said.
Volf, now a member of the Episcopal Church, said he formally affirmed his Christian faith at the age of 16. From then on, Volf recalls being sent to the principal’s office multiple times during high school for wearing a cross or openly discussing his religious beliefs.
“For me, it was matter of personal religious faith,” Volf said, “but it was perceived by the totalitarian state as a subversive act.”
Now, after moving to the United States in 1977 when he began studying at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., Volf maintains contact with spiritual leaders around the world. He spent hours in a discussion group with the Dalai Lama in Amritsar and gave a keynote address at the International Military Chief of Chaplains Conference in Cape Town, South Africa. And, despite the religious differences between them, he is close friends with Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, a Western-educated Muslim who has claimed Western countries are hostile to Muslims.
BONFIRES AND BREAKFAST
Volf, who Dolff describes as having a “magnetic personality,” has opened his home on multiple occasions to his students, Dolff said. One year, Dolff said, his students organized a “Schlepp und Schlaf” (literally, “to carry and sleep”) in which upward of 60 students brought their tents to Volf’s Guilford, Conn., home and spent the night in his backyard.
With Volf’s blessing, the students dug a fire pit in the lawn and spent much of the evening around the bonfire. The following morning, they queried him about his religious and academic journey while being served breakfast by the graduate students in theology.
Last year, students from the “Faith and Globalization” seminar, stymied by the rain, took the event one step further: They built a fire in the large fireplace of Volf’s 18th century home.
“Our ineptitude with the flue meant that there was perhaps more smoke than light or heat,” Dolff recalled, adding that Volf and his two sons must have suffered through the smoke for next three months. “Though we did manage to roast some Bratwurst.”
While students in this year’s seminar may not get an indoor bonfire, Volf and Blair have planned several new topics for class discussions, some of which will focus on the darker side of globalization, including the rise and fall of Enron and the debate over women wearing headscarves in Turkey.
This fall’s course drew in between 250 and 300 applicants, down from around 400 last year, this semester. Unlike last year, freshmen did not have the opportunity to apply to the course this semester. Twenty-five students — six from the Divinity School, six from the School of Management, six undergraduates and seven from the Graduate School and the other professional schools — were selected for 14 sessions, five of which were attended by Blair.