The Anatomy of Embrace

I’ve been taking my time reading through Miraslov Volf‘s Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. As observer of the war between the Serbs and Croats fought between 1991-1995, this is Volf’s theological reflection on the ethnic and cultural conflicts that plague our world and he argues that these conflicts point to a much deeper human problem with “identity and otherness” (p 16).

The book description succinctly frames the problem with exclusion and the solution of embrace.

Miraslov Volf contends that if the healing word of the gospel is to be heard to day, Christian theology must find ways of speaking that address the hatred of the other. Reaching back to the New Testament metaphor of salvation as reconciliation, Volf proposes the idea of embrace as a theological response to the problem of exclusion. Increasingly we see that exclusion has become the primary sin, skewing our perceptions of reality and causing us to react out of fear and anger to all those who are not within our (ever-narrowing) circle. In light of this, Christians must learn that salvation comes, not only as we are reconciled to God, and not only as we “learn to live with one another,” but as we take the dangerous and costly step of opening ourselves to the other, of enfolding him or her in the same embrace with which we have been enfolded by God.

There is so much here that one could spend weeks just summarizing themes and highlighting the finely-tuned nuances of Volf’s thought. However, I want to limit my musings to just two posts. First I will outline the structure and anatomy of embrace and a second, longer post will feature Volf’s thoughts on the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) in which he beautifully captures the “social significance” of embrace.

The Anatomy of Embrace

Four elements make up an embrace and each one conveys a simple, yet profoundly important, message. They are: “opening the arms, waiting, closing the arms, and opening them again.” Volf contends all four are required. Stopping at any one without completing all four would be to fall into the trap of exclusion and “pervert it from an act of love.”

  1. Opening the arms is a “gesture of the body reaching for the other.” It communicates both discontent and desire: a discontent with my self-enclosed identity and a desire for the other. In some sense, open arms say “I do not want to be myself only; I want the other to be part of who I am and I want to be part of the other.” Open arms are a form of self-emptying, since “the self that is ‘full of itself’ can neither receive the other nor make a genuine movement toward the other.” With open arms I make known the fact that “I have created space in myself for the other to come in,” (p 141). Boundaries are removed and invitations are issued with opened arms.
  2. Although opened arms initiate they always wait for the invitation to be received. After all, an unwanted caress is hardly welcomed. Waiting shows respect for the other’s boundaries and serves to suspend the desire to reach fulfillment. Genuine embrace occurs when each party desires the other. “Waiting is a sign that, although embrace may have a one-sideness in its origin…, it can never reach its goal without reciprocity.
  3. The goal of embrace is closing the arms. “Each is both holding and being held by the other, both passive and active” (Volf quoting Gurevitch 1990, p 194). In an embrace “the host is the guest and the guest is the host.” This is reciprocity. Moreover, the closing must be gentle and with a “soft touch,” lest one party inadvertently overpower the other. No “bear hugs” are permitted once the embrace is received.
  4. The culmination of an embrace is the act of opening the arms again. This is important on many levels, since embrace does not make two bodies one as if the “I” disappears in the “We.” This would only serve to “exclude” those not encompassed by the embrace. With the opening of the arms again, each person’s alterity is upheld and the self takes back itself “so that its own identity, enriched by the traces that the presence of the other has left, may be preserved.”

Summing up, Volf says

The open arms that in the last act let the other go are the same open arms that in the first act signal a desire for the other’s presence, create space in oneself, open up the boundary of the self, and issue an invitation for the other to return. They are the same arms that in the second act wait for the other to reciprocate, and that in the third act encircle the other’s body. The end of an embrace is, in a sense, already a beginning of an embrace.

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1 thought on “The Anatomy of Embrace”

  1. Most proposed solutions to the problem of exclusion have focused on social arrangements—what kind of society ought we to create in order to accommodate individual or communal difference? Volf focuses, rather, on “what kind of selves we need to be in order to live in harmony with others.” In addressing the topic, Volf stresses the social implications of divine self-giving. The Christian scriptures attest that God does not abandon the godless to their evil, but gives of Godself to bring them into communion. We are called to do likewise—“whoever our enemies and whoever we may be.” The divine mandate to embrace as God has embraced is summarized in Paul’s injunction to the Romans: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you” (Romans 15:7).

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