The title of his most recent book—Exclusion & Embrace: The Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon)—sounds like the scholarly work that it is. But for Croatian-born Miroslav Volf, this academic exploration of who we and our enemies are to each other was driven by a personal quest. As a young man in Communist Yugoslavia, Volf saw firsthand the ethnic frictions that turned bloody after the breakup of the country. "An important factor in the war," he says, "was the drive for pure identities—hence the term 'ethnic cleansing.' Persons belonging to the other ethnic group would be swept away like dirt so that one could have a 'clean' ethnic house. Since we live in a world that is inhabited by many groups, the desire for pure identities leads inescapably to violence and bloodshed." He began searching for a resolution to the tension that existed in him between the "natural instinct to fight for your rights" and the teaching of his Pentecostal parents "that the enemy is there to be loved."

His quest took the form of theological reflection—which soon caught the notice of the academic world. This month, Volf, 42, begins a new position as Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School, following seven years of teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary. He maintains ties to his homeland by serving as visiting professor of systematic theology on the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Osijek, Croatia, his alma mater. After studying at Osijek, Volf attended Fuller Seminary and the University of Tubingen, where he received his doctoral and postdoctoral degrees under Jurgen Moltmann. He talked with CT about the impact the story of the Prodigal has made on his thinking.

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