Flourishing (Miroslav Volf) -- A Review

FLOURISHING: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. By Miroslav Volf. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. Xviii + 280 pages.

Miroslav Volf is one of the preeminent theological voices of our time. He has a kept a keen eye on the broad religious and cultural issues that play out in the world, with his book Allah: A Christian Response being a masterpiece of theological reflection that seeks to build bridges between Christianity and Islam.  Volf’s latest book, titled Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, continues the kind of work exemplified in Allah and Exclusion and Embrace.  More importantly, this book speaks to the moment at hand. At a time when religion is seen by many as a danger to the world’s existence, Volf offers a trenchant defense of the role religion can play (at its best) in shaping the ongoing globalization of our world.  

Volf believes that the major world religions, including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity, have the resources needed to promote flourishing in an increasingly globalized world. In fact, the world religions are "part of the dynamics of globalization -- they are in a sense, the original globalizers and still remain among the drivers of globalization processes . . . " (p. 1). While Volf engages in the conversation from a Christian perspective, he makes every effort to be fair and respectful of other faith traditions. He affirms their differences and respects them. There are commonalities, of course, but we needn’t gloss over the differences that make a religion what it is. Although these differences are central to the identity of a religion, they can all envision and contribute to the flourishing of the world.

The author approaches the relationship of world religions to the globalized world as a Christian theologian, living in the United States, who is a native of Croatia, which was once part of Yugoslavia. He experienced firsthand many of the struggles that ultimately broke up Yugoslavia. He experienced the efforts on the part of the Communist government to suppress religion as an expression of its own vision of globalization, a vision that was totalizing and destructive. It is this experience of religious suppression and conflict that gives rise to Volf’s desire to understand the ways in which religion can play a positive role in an increasingly globalized world.

He presupposes the idea that the divine-human relationship is foundational to the ability of the human community to flourish. This leads to a discussion of the relationship of faith and politics, which he understands to be “two distinct cultural systems.” While they are different systems, “authentic faith is always engaged, at work to relieve personal suffering as well as to push against social injustice, political violence, and environmental degradation" (p. 9). That is, religion has a place in the public sphere, but persons of faith need to understand that religion can and does play a destructive role in society when it becomes entangled with the state. The question is, how does faith engage public life without becoming a pawn of the state? To walk this line one must recognize that one cannot live by bread alone. The material is not enough. There must be the transcendent if we are to flourish. 

Volf divides his book into two parts, comprising five chapters, which seek to engage more broadly the relationship of the world religions to the globalization process. In addition, Volf writes an introduction he lays out his Christian vantage point. He wants the reader to know where he stands faith-wise. In the epilogue, he once again engages his own faith tradition in relationship to the challenge of nihilism to human flourishing.

In Part One Volf lays out the relationship of globalization and religion. The first chapter focuses on the challenge to globalization posed by the world religions. In chapter two, Volf reverses the conversation, addressing the challenge of globalization to the world religions. In the first chapter, he suggests that globalization is a rather ambiguous project, and that religion plays a role in forming it. Religion helps mold the process so that a flourishing life occurs when a "life being led well has primacy over life going well and life feeling good" (p. 55). As for the reverse, globalization brings the various religions into contact with each other, and that can lead to conflict. But conflict, while common, isn’t inevitable. There are ways in which the religions can engage each other positively without giving up their distinctives. In other words, there is need for a "world theology" in which the emphasis is placed on a common core in order that conflict can be eliminated. He notes that while there are overlaps the religions don’t envision the flourishing life in the same way. He believes that the religions can live in peace, even as they robustly articulate their own vision of flourishing, as long as they don’t impose these differing visions on people (especially in partnership with the state). 

Part Two of the book seeks to flesh out Volf's vision of the way in which the religions can peacefully engage with each other that is first articulated in Part One. Part Two offers three chapters, which deal with respect, pluralism, and reconciliation.

The first of these chapters (chapter 3), focuses on "mindsets of respect, regimes of respect." He offers up John Locke’s idea of religious toleration, but wants us to move beyond it to the creation of mindsets of respect. Here we recognize the importance of refraining from religious compulsion, so that there might be true freedom of religion. This requires that we take stock of both the challenge of apostasy and conversion. There are highly controversial ideas within the world religions. Key to this is embracing the “principle of respect,” which “states that we must respect adherents of a religion irrespective of whether we respect that religion itself; for the religion to be respected, it must first earn our respect by its excellence, at least in some regard” (p. 120).

In chapter four, Volf focuses on "Religious Exclusivism and Political Pluralism." This chapter is worth the price of the book. It is assumed by many that religious exclusivism is incompatible with political pluralism. Volf begs to differ. To prove his point, he points us to Roger Williams, the Puritan Baptist founder of Rhode Island, who was theologically a religious exclusivist, but he created in the colony of Rhode Island one of the most politically pluralistic communities that had ever existed to that point. Religious exclusivists believe they are on the right path to truth. This becomes a problem only when one insists that others take the same path. That was the vision of John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In Winthrop’s vision of a “city on a hill,” he believed that the community needed to be bound together by a common faith, a faith that should be enforced on the populace. Williams disagreed, believing that a true faith could not be coerced. Rhode Island became a haven for persons from all faith traditions, where they lived in harmony without fear of state interference. In the end, Volf believes that religious exclusivists are the key to true political pluralism—that is if they live up to their potential and not seek to entangle themselves with the state.

The final chapter is entitled "Conflict, Violence, and Reconciliation." Although conflict and violence do occur (he knows this well having been born in the Balkans) among the religions, this isn’t an essential element. Religions can be violent or not. His thesis in this chapter is that even though religion can be the source of violence, the different world religions have within their tenets the resources for reconciliation. In fact, he is convinced that the foundations for reconciliation are actually found within the various religions. Consider, he suggests, that South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created and led by a person of faith—Desmond Tutu. 

Having tried to keep his attention on the world religions more broadly in the five chapters, in his epilogue Volf returns to his Christian vantage point, or at least more specifically speaks from it. He addresses the growing challenge in our day of nihilism.  Engaging with Nietzsche he defines two types of nihilism: passive and active.  The passive form of nihilism expresses itself through world-denial and world-destruction. This is often the kind of nihilism present in religious expressions, such as ISIS.  The active form is the nihilism present among free spirits, who assert the primacy of arbitrary values. He notes that two forms often find themselves in conflict with each other—fundamentalists versus a-religious libertines. With nihilism meaning and pleasure are separated, but from a Christian perspective he wishes to unite them. He then argues that the process of globalization needs the visions of flourishing that the religions offer lest it fall prey to nihilism. He ends by declaring that his future work will flesh out how "the light of transcendent glory . . . turns into a theater of joy" (p. 206). 

As I read through this book, I became increasingly convinced that we all need to read it. Religion isn’t going away. Institutional forms might be experiencing decline in Europe and North America, but it is on the rise elsewhere. Living as we do in an increasingly globalized world, religions are bound to cross paths. Conflict is likely to be present. We’re already seeing the emptying out of Christians in much of the Middle East as a result of the spread of extreme forms of Islam (ISIS). Then in Europe and North America, Muslims find themselves the target of attacks by Christians. The latter may be less violent but the possibility of violence is there. At the same time there is an increasing level of nationalism that can coopt religion for nefarious purposes. With Volf I believe that the hope of creating flourishing human communities does not lie in the suppression of religion. Rather, religions need to offer a vision of flourishing that depends not on state imposition (consider the embrace of Christian nationalism in the United States).  This is a powerful book. It offers a strong critique of attempts to merge religion and politics, even as it affirms the need for public engagement in pursuit of flourishing of the entire creation. Take and read. It’s that important!  In this book a path toward peace is revealed. 


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