11 min read

Strangers and identity in a global age of nationalism

Miroslav Volf is Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School and is the Founder and Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture.

Exploring inclusive and exclusive nationalism, Miroslav Volf challenges all of us to dialogue with those who may see things differently.
A person holds the vertical tall steel bars of a border fence.
Max Böhme on Unsplash.

Born in the former country of Yugoslavia and raised in both Serbia and Croatia, before they fought for their respective independence, Miroslav Volf has experienced nationalism and identity politics firsthand. The theologian, now based in the United States, examines nationalism and the Christian responses to its challenges. 


Nationalisms are surging today across the globe. A marginal phenomenon barely two decades or so ago, nationalist and populist movements have now gained political traction in many countries in response to a growing awareness of the failures and injustices of market-driven globalization. 

Christians are called to care for the well-being of their communities, and in principle, nationalism can be a way of attending to the specific needs of the neighbors who happen to be fellow citizens. Just as we care for our families, our communities, and our cities, so also we might care for our nation. We might call this form of national loyalty grounded in universal commitments to humanity “inclusive nationalism.” However, sometimes nationalist movements take a hostile turn towards outsiders. They become rooted in a sense of exceptionalism or even superiority; they become “exclusive” in the ways they think about moral commitments. 

How can we hold together our particular commitments to those around us, while also acknowledging that the command to love our neighbor is not limited to our co-citizens? 

Idols are easier to come by than we might realize. In the famous image of John Calvin, our hearts are idol factories. 

God and idols 

In giving a Christian answer to these questions concerning our fundamental loyalties, there is no better place to start than the first line of that great description of the Christian faith - the Nicene Creed:  

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.”  

Only God is God; all other would-be gods are false gods making empty promises. The law God gave to Moses demands that we have no other gods before God, and that we not make for ourselves any idols. Modern people in our cultures are not often tempted to make “graven images” for themselves, or to bow down and worship things, so this may seem like a quaint prohibition.  

However, something can be an idol without this kind of ritualized service. An idol instead can be anything that we are devoted to rather than to God. Following St. Augustine, we might think of an idol as something we love more than God, that we spend more of our energy trying to attain or to please than God. Following Martin Luther, we might also think of an idol as something we trust more than God, that we rely on for security or success when things get tough. In other words, idols are easier to come by than we might realize. In the famous image of John Calvin, our hearts are idol factories. We love to commit to people, things, and ideas first, and to God second. 

Friends, families, cultures, nations are not just things that we love, but people from whom we receive important aspects of our very selves 

Turning to the question of political allegiance, then, the prohibition of idols means that for Christians, loyalty to God must come before loyalties to families, cultures, or nations. In fact, Jesus even tells his disciples that they must hate their fathers and mothers if they are to follow him —otherwise, they are in danger of idolatry! Now, the main way we can follow Jesus in our relationships with others is by following the second greatest commandment: to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus even heightens this command still further: we are to love our enemies and pray for any who persecute us.  

Idolatry and identity 

The things that we love, the things we pledge our loyalty to, in some sense become part of who we are. They shape our identity. This might be true of a hobby or a career in a general sense. The sentences “I am a gamer” or “I am a scientist” describe not just what we do, but who we are. This is more clearly the case with the personal loyalties described above. Friends, families, cultures, nations are not just things that we love, but people from whom we receive important aspects of our very selves. In his famous book City of God, Augustine defined “a people” as a collection of persons united and oriented by a common love. Their identity as a people simply is this shared love.  

Christians therefore must let Jesus’ commands to love others shape their sense of self. To love our neighbors is to define ourselves in part by our care for those near us. To love our enemies is to define ourselves by benevolence even for those who are far from us or who would hurt us. Since Christians are called to follow Christ first, to have no other gods before God, these new self-definitions must shape even the most fundamental loyalties in our lives. Before Christians are citizens of their respective nations, they are those who love even the enemies of their nations. 

As finite creatures, we cannot serve the whole world in one lifetime; we need to make choices about where we will choose to act in love. 

Loves, idols, and nationalism 

Exclusive nationalism, however, is just one of many ways modern politics asks us to prefer members of one group to those of another. Loyalty to our own people becomes more important than love for others beyond our nation or group. In the context of our discussion so far, then, this amounts to a form of idolatry.  

To be clear, our specific relationships are given to us by God and are good things that we ought to treasure. Nevertheless, it is often the good things of the world that are the easiest to turn into idols, by devoting ourselves more to them than to God. Sometimes, in fact, religious leaders or politicians will use Christian principles to emphasize the value of these good relationships and loyalties—but subtly it turns into a scenario where faith in Christ serves the particular loyalty, rather that loyalty expressing faith in Christ. One of the most insidious results of this kind of political theology is that it can turn Christianity into a ‘prosperity religion' or a ‘political religion'— we end up trying to use God to serve our own ends.  

Instead, the command to love not just our neighbor but especially our enemy must itself shape our commitments to the communities we find ourselves within. As finite creatures, we cannot serve the whole world in one lifetime; we need to make choices about where we will choose to act in love, and these choices are governed in part by these particular identities. These identities and loyalties, then, are instances of broader commitments. One can love one’s own family or nation in some sense first, but never at the expense of those outside. If the love of nation starts to compete with love for humanity, it ultimately betrays its own foundation.  

Our national identities must not be conceived of as firmly bounded circles serving to connect us to some only by separating us from others. 

Fair enough, some will say, but don’t some nationalisms simply ask us to take care of America first or Britain first, rather than asking us to entirely dismiss the concerns of all other peoples? Here we must think more about what it might mean for concern for America or Britain to be actively shaped by love for our neighbors and our enemies. In particular, I want to argue that this shaping must take the form of opening these identities and communities outward—of reconfiguring them in ways that make them proactively ready for and open to, and even in some sense perhaps dependent on and learning from, those that are far away or strangers who come in need of our hospitality.  

It's easy to think we love humanity in general while feeling no responsibility to the concrete strangers in front of us. But a love for humanity that does not help us to feel this responsibility is worthless. It is just the love for an idea. The question, therefore, is not “how do my specific loyalties to my community remain consistent with my commitments to humanity as an ideal,” but rather, “how do my specific loyalties to my community encourage my commitments to the specific strangers in front of me, enmeshed as they are in specific loyalties of their own?” After all, we love our family members and our fellow citizens because we must love all human beings and we must start with those closest to us. Precisely the same logic underlies our responsibility to the stranger, the non-citizen or immigrant, in front of us. 

In light of the prohibition of idolatry, our national identities must not be conceived of as firmly bounded circles serving to connect us to some only by separating us from others. True, identities always operate on some logic of boundary, or at least of proximity and distance, or else they would be evacuated of all content. However, these distinctions must always be understood as depending on concrete relationships wherein love is demanded, and therefore also as always being open to, even being constituted by, constant renegotiation. The boundaries of our identities must be kept porous and flexible, ready to readjust to welcome the stranger. 

An example may help here. To live in the UK or in the US, for example, is, in some sense, just to have certain specific relationships to a person’s own culture, family, geographic neighbors, and so on. Family loyalty, cultural pride, and patriotism, insofar as they are virtues, are derivative virtues from following the demands of love towards those neighbors who are closest to us.  

The work of modern historians shows us how our cultural identities are products of long trajectories of exchange, conflict, and hybridity. 

However, in this day and age, to live in the UK or in the US is no less to have certain specific relationships to various groups of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, even if the machinations of globalization, gentrification, and so on try to hide this fact from us. Indeed, the histories of colonial power and imperial conquest that these nations are caught up in only serve to expand the scope and deepen the responsibility of the question: “And who is my neighbor?” The same duties of love apply to our non-citizen neighbors, in the same channels of concrete proximity; therefore, these relationships constitute an identity as a citizen of the UK or the US no less than the familiar relationships of culture and blood.  

Our very identities, thus, must be chastened by the warning against idolatry and the reciprocal command to love. The work of modern historians shows us how our cultural identities are products of long trajectories of exchange, conflict, and hybridity. Similarly, the Christian call to love our neighbor, and even our enemy, suggests that we must not be overly concerned with maintaining identitarian “purity.” Instead, we must always be willing to make space, not just “somewhere else” but in our very homes, even in our very identities, for real relationship with the stranger. This is what the open arms of welcoming embrace signify—an offer to renegotiate the space that we ourselves occupy in order to make room in love for the proximity of the other.  

Double vision 

This relativization of identities will also mean a relativization of our own claims to stable and secure knowledge. Nations and cultures typically have preferred ways of looking at the world, preferred values, and preferred ways of evaluating or proving claims to true belief. We can all think of various ‘British values' or 'American values’, for example. Importantly, we don’t usually experience these things (freedom, say) as only valuable for us, but as valuable in general, for everyone. Nationalism is then in danger of becoming cultural imperialism: our values are better than yours, and we will share them with you.   

The prohibition of idolatry again chastens us. Idolatry is not just the worship of a graven image of God instead of the real God, but also worshiping our own preferred ideas of God instead of God as God really is. God’s transcendence means that our ideas of God can never fully contain God, and therefore there will always be more to God than we can understand. This, in turn, means always being willing to let our visions of the world be challenged, even—and especially—by those we might consider outsiders to truth.  

This is not to say we must always try to get above or behind” our national idiosyncrasies. There is no such thing as a view from nowhere; neither would it be desirable, even if it were possible. Just as to be human is to be in relationship with a particular set of proximate neighbors, so it is also to have our perspectives on God’s truth shaped by our cultural surroundings. The solution is not to try to strip off these identities, to try to be “neutral” by standing further back from the loves that tie us to particular relationships. Rather, it is to always push ourselves into productive dialogue with those who may see things differently from us.   

For example, during the Cold War, Soviet propaganda highlighted the problem of race relationships in the US as the failure of capitalism. This critique was certainly not made in good faith—but it was still the case that a foreign and hostile power was able to see certain aspects of justice more clearly than some of us in the West were able to do at the time. Similarly, a refusal of idolatry means being willing to learn more about God’s goodness from other nations and cultures. This is an especially important attitude to maintain as regards those nations and cultures that might seem opposed to those good things we love about our own.  


Questions of identity and the stranger will only continue to grow in importance in our increasingly global age. It is important to remember that populist nationalism is responding — and responding wrongly — to real problems with market-driven globalization. However, the concern to acknowledge human finitude and to serve God concretely where God has placed us must not lead us to idolize these particular commitments. Followers of Jesus must be those who love both their enemies and citizens of their own nations.  

The sketches offered here are invitations to act prudentially, in concrete ethical commitments, in prayerful reliance on God who gives wisdom generously to those who ask. They cut across political stances and party affiliation, representing a genuine and distinct way Christians can contribute out of their faith and to the common good. They are countercultural suggestions in an age marked by nationalistic and identitarian fervor. Most importantly, however, they are ways we can follow the God who is unconstrained by human limitations and who has made space in the divine life for sinners like us.  

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6 min read

For want of better words... the impact of the indescribable

Henna Cundill is a researcher with the Centre for Autism and Theology at the University of Aberdeen, and editor of the But… Bible Study Series for Young People.

Confronted with a question about belief, Henna Cundill found herself stumbling for words. She contemplates the link between our self-identity and what we can communicate.
A woman stops in her stride down a street and pensively runs her hand through her hair as she looks to the side.
Joseph Frank on Unsplash.

I recently got into conversation with a young man who asked me, “Do you believe in God?” When I replied, “Yes,” I almost regretted it, because his next move was to ask, “Why?” and I found this question troublingly difficult to answer.  

Of course, I could have dredged up the old philosophical arguments for the logical existence of God – but none of that would have really captured the thing I have no words for. Belief is like… Oh, what is it like? A glitch… no, a glimmer… no, like a glimpse of… No. Goodness. What is it? I’m lost for a word or even a metaphor that will somehow express what it feels to say “yes” and “I believe in God” and in that moment, even if only for a moment, to feel oneself transported or transposed out of this tiresome, human existence and into something that is... well, it’s something…  

I think it's fair to say that conversations about believing in God are unusual these days, especially when the circumstance is an 18-year-old lad talking with a woman in her late 30s – albeit the lad in question was a philosophy undergraduate and we were at Cumberland Lodge, where such conversations are welcomed amongst those of all faiths and none. Even so, it still felt rather unusual to be asked a question like that, not out of hostility but just casually over dinner, and to see him genuinely and respectfully interested to hear what I might have to say in response.  

Eventually I did come up with some kind of an answer; I can’t remember what. And naturally, I turned the question back on him. Turns out he did believe in God, in fact he was Jewish, so he stumbled out some kind of answer too, but I think it's fair to say that he was hardly more erudite than I was. Eventually, we both agreed that it was rather difficult to describe the indescribable, and our conversation turned to rather easier topics - the food, the weather, geopolitics... 


There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed. 

The question of believing in God was done with. Yet here I am weeks later, still pondering why it was so hard for me to articulate what it means to live with that belief, and why that part of the conversation ended, but still felt so unfinished.  

Has faith always been so indescribable? I suspect it rather has not. These dark evenings always tend to lure me to my bookshelves, seeking out my “comfort books” that I read and reread year after year. Mostly cosy fiction of course, but alongside those, a non-fiction favourite is Sheila Fletcher's, Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttleton’s Daughters. The book is a fascinating study of a family of young women in the Victorian era, faithfully compiled from their own real letters and diaries, so that the voices of Meriel, Lucy, Lavinia and May Lyttleton themselves can all be heard clearly on every page. I just love to read this book over and over again, entering into the hopes, sorrows, loves and ambitions of these young women – so similar and yet so different to my own.  

One thing that stands out particularly is how clearly and easily they each articulate their sense of faith. They were, of course, heavily schooled in Victorian public piety, but there is most certainly a real faith there too. A favourite passage of mine is an excerpt from the teenage diary of Lucy Lyttleton, recounting the day of her Confirmation. She speaks of a ‘nice and stilling’ drive to church, with her parents either side in the carriage, and then:  

I seem to remember nothing very distinctly till I went up and knelt on that altar step, feeling the strangest thrill as I did so… and I know how I waited breathlessly for my turn, with the longing for it to be safe done, half feeling that something might yet prevent it. 

Oh, to be so thrilled by a religious ritual, and to have both the words and the courage to write about it. After all Lucy, what if someone might be reading your diary 150 years later?  

In mainstream society nowadays, most of us simply don't talk about faith, religion, and what it all means to us personally in that way. It’s not the done thing in a (presumed) secular society. Consequently, it is now very hard to write about it too. Yet, many philosophers in the past century have observed a link between our self-identity and what we can communicate. For example, philosopher Charles Taylor describes how our sense of ‘self’ is formed in “webs of interlocution” wherein what we take to be “good” relies on what we can effectively talk about, and thus have affirmed by those we talk to. If we turn Taylor’s idea around, might we say that when there are parts of ourselves that we cannot talk about, parts for which we cannot find social recognition and affirmation, then we cease to value those parts of ourselves as good, or may cease to recognise them at all? 

 With that comes a sense of isolation. There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed.   

To me it feels that, as we talk about faith less and less, and as the language of faith becomes ever more confined, not even just to private conversations but to our own inner worlds, our “webs of interlocution” are beginning to shrink and disintegrate – until believing in God can feel more like dangling on a loose and solitary strand than being part of any kind of web. It’s a lonely place to be – there is a part of me that feels important, but no one can affirm it.  

And yet, by simply asking the question of each other, and being ready to listen respectfully to whatever answer was forthcoming, it seems that me and a teenage lad managed to connect two lonely strands together. It was of no consequence that we worship in different faith traditions, or that neither of us really found the words to say what we wanted to say – a conversation took place, and a certain web of interlocution started to form. For some, reading this, there may be a feeling of resonance, or a moment of understanding, and perhaps that too adds a little to the web, as different people’s words and thoughts and experiences begin to connect across different times and places.   

Webs do more than just create connection; webs capture things too. Perhaps, as this web spreads between different readers and thinkers and speakers, that’s what will happen to this question of believing in God. After a certain point, such a web may even become large enough and robust enough to finally start to capture some useful words, or an apt metaphor, that will really help me to say something about what it means to have faith. To be able to say it is to be able to share it, and in these lonely times, being able to say something is really not nothing.  

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