Book Review: Miroslav Volf’s Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World

Editor’s Note: This review is by Hans Gustafson, PhD, associate director of the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at Saint John’s University and the University of St. Thomas.

If the book under review interests you, join us for this year’s Holmer Lecture, when Miroslav Volf will be speaking on this topic: “Religion and Human Flourishing in a Globalized World,” on Thursday, March 30 at 7 p.m. in Coffman Theater, Coffman Memorial Union. Learn more about the event here.


Miroslav Volf, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World
By Hans Gustafson

In the introduction to this text Miroslav Volf states, “This book would be the document I would bring to the discussion at the global common table – my construal of the features of my own Christian faith and of corresponding features of other world religions that underpin a vision of how world religions can constructively relate to globalization and to one another in a single interconnected and interdependent world” (20). In addition to practitioners of other religious traditions, I wonder whether this book is also for, and perhaps mostly so, Volf’s fellow Christians, especially those who consider themselves religious exclusivists. To be sure, this book covers a lot of ground and sets out to accomplish many things. In the introduction alone, Volf alerts the reader to several of these (including the aim already noted above). He writes,

  • “The goals of this book are to shed light on how religions and globalization have interacted over the centuries and to suggest what their relationship ought to be in the future” (2)
  • “the main thrust of my argument is that a vision of flourishing found in the quarreling family of world religions is essential to individual thriving and global common good” (2).
  • This book “contains a dual proposal: how people with Christian convictions could relate to other religions and to globalization as well as how adherents of other world religions should relate to one another and globalization” (19).

 
Volf’s main thesis, however, seems to be that in order for a socially just and cohesive world, visions of flourishing must come the great religious traditions of the world since they promote visions that go beyond the simple reduction of the world to materialism or to mere “mundane realities” (22). For Volf, globalization refers to “the primarily market-driven and market-values-embodying-and-promoting form of planetary interconnectivity and interdependence and a growing sense of humanity’s unity” (42). Further, by “world religions” he has mind Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He claims that these religions “establish networks that connect people on the basis of shared visions of the good life across the globe (38),” “in their own way teach the fundamental unity of all humanity (38),” are “culture-shaping forces with distinctive accounts of what they deem to be universal values” (39) and are therefore “the original globalizers and are major roots of contemporary globalization” (39). The main thesis of the text emerges clearly in this opening chapter: globalization is “a thing of promise and peril” that produces both benefit and hardship, and we need “world religions to deliver it from its shadows” (55).

Volf’s “world religions” are set in contrast to “primary,” “indigenous,” or “local,” religions (Volf’s words), which he has admittedly “left aside” (3). Chapter two picks up on this by examining the character, global vibrancy, and assertiveness of world religions. He asks about how these religions are energized, subverted, and transformed by globalization, and “how it helps them in some regards to be truer to their own original visions” (61). He identifies six features of world religions relevant for the topic of religions and globalization, and for their distinction from “local religion.”1 In short, Volf believes that these world religions have the resources necessary for flourishing and the promotion of the good life. According to his own Christian tradition, he posits three formal components: 1) life being led well, 2) life going well, and 3) life feeling good, all of which he finds in the life of Jesus and also present in all the other world religions. To be sure, Volf does not gloss over the very real malfunctions of religion that lead to injustice, oppression, and violence. Despite this, Volf robustly argues for the necessity of religious visions to deliver a flourishing world, not only for individual lives but for the collective community of nation states and the global economy, both of which he elaborates on by showing how religions relate to, and enhance, them. For Volf, the world “religions’ common convictions can underpin a set of global rules and commitments necessary for global order, civility, and the pursuit of common good” (93).

Chapter three turns to the global security risk of religious intolerance and the need for respectful religious tolerance in order “to change culture and rearrange political institutions” (97). To those religious individuals who make universal truth claims, Volf suggests they should respect religions other than their own by honoring their integrity, engaging their truth claims, and recognizing their positive moral teachings and actions. Drawing on Joceyln MacLure and Charles Taylor, he remarks that the world religions contain the key building blocks to establish a healthy pluralistic political order, the four foundational features of which are:

  1. freedom of religion
  2. the equal moral value of all citizens
  3. the separation of religion and rule
  4. impartiality of the state

 
Skepticism for such a formula being endorsed by religious exclusivists, Volf suggests, comes from “the observation that most adherents of world religions are religious exclusivists” (136), a claim that sets up chapter four and cries out for significant clarity, defense, and substantiation (especially in light of David Campbell’s and Robert Putnam’s research which clearly negates this claim for the overwhelming majority of Americans).2

Chapter four address the question of “whether exclusivist versions of world religions are compatible with the affirmation of political pluralism” (137), and answers with an enthusiastic affirmation of yes, indeed. In short, Volf, it seems, is pleading to two groups here: 1) religious adherents with exclusivist notions of their religious truth who might not see the value of political pluralism or who might believe that political pluralism betrays their religious exclusivism, and 2) non-religious people and non-exclusivist religious adherents who may not view religious exclusivists as allies in the promotion of political pluralism. Volf succeeds in speaking to both convincingly. However, a shortcoming of this chapter is his oversimplification of the religious and theological positions of exclusivism and pluralism (referred to as “theologies of religions” in academia). Volf admits that his “sketch … is rough and deliberately simple” (138). Despite this disclaimer, some further mention of the rather diverse positions within both the exclusivist and pluralist camps would be helpful. Also, there is simply no mention of the major middle position of inclusivism, which I understand to be an implicit default position of most people in the mainline Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church in the West (not to mention that inclusivism and pluralism are probably also more popular, even if implicit, than exclusivism for most Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists as well).3 With no mention of inclusivism in this chapter, one might wonder whether Volf is aware of it as a category or whether he considers it an illegitimate or dead option. In any case, by leaving out the inclusivist position, Volf ignores a major group of Christians while making the questionable claim that most adherents of world religions are religious exclusivists. A drawback to this claim is that it reinforces the misconception that Christianity and other religions simply are, and always have been and will be, exclusivist. Why not address the many ways of being Christian in approaching the truth claims of other religions? More nuance is needed in this chapter, to be sure.4 Perhaps this is only a minor gripe having to do with theology, especially considering that the main thrust of the book is not necessarily theological. This chapter remains, nonetheless, relevant and forceful. The urgency of Volf’s message, especially to exclusivist Christians, is refreshing. He argues “there is no incompatibility between religious exclusivism and political pluralism” and that “a consistent religious exclusivist can be a political pluralist” (151). Further, he argues: that “religious exclusivists are good for globalization” because they “hold onto what they believe to be the truth with a firm and enduring grip. … And perhaps what a globalized world needs from world religions is not a loose grip on truth about the good life but a firm one” (159), and this is favorable to those who maintain only “provisionally held beliefs” (160), in other words, the non-exclusivists. It is not clear why people who may hold provisional beliefs about religion will be weak or provisional in the face of beliefs and convictions about seeking the common good and fostering flourishing in the world. Further, it is by no means the case that non-exclusivist religious adherents do not also hold onto what they believe to be the truth with a firm and enduring grip. Although they may not share the same convictions about revelation from, and experience of, the divine, and about who achieves salvation and how, non-exclusivists most certainly can hold to truths with a firm grip. Volf seems to underestimate the firm resolve and conviction that non-exclusivist and non-religious people can and do have. Further, at a more basic level, he has not demonstrated why those who hold firm religious beliefs will also do so in the face of fostering the common good in the geopolitical arena at the national and international levels. I wish he had said more here. Perhaps for the next book?

Chapter five appropriately concludes the book by arguing that even though globalization is ambiguous with regard to violence and peace, and even though religion is often a culprit of violence due to its entanglement with power, a globalized world still most certainly needs the world religions’ resources for reconciliation to foster sustainable peace. In so doing, Volf offers five basic elements of reconciliation, inspired by his Christian faith: remember, forgive, apologize, repair, and embrace. Volf is clear that religions “need not be breeding grounds for violence” (if properly disentangled from political power) and “are also primarily drivers of reconciliation” (193).

Despite its over-simplification of various theological positions and common features of universal religions set in distinction to “local” religions, which are perhaps only rather minor gripes to the overall importance of this work, this book is an important text to be sure. In particular, this text will prove valuable to those Christians who identify as religious exclusivists uneasy about promoting political pluralism and/or constructively engaging their neighbors of different faiths. It will also help, to some extent, in convincing non-exclusivists to embrace religious exclusivists as allies in the promotion of religious freedom for all and political pluralism. If Volf is sincere when he writes that this would be the book he would bring to the global common table of how his faith tradition underpins a vision of flourishing for all, it would be appropriate to employ this text in an interfaith reading group made up of persons with various religious identities. Equally important, especially in Christian majority societies, is the need to form intra-Christian reading groups on this text to reveal the many ways of being (and believing as) a Christian in an effort to promote both intra- and inter-religious acceptance and engagement (e.g., political pluralism). This book would also appeal to undergraduate, graduate, and seminary students wrestling with the role of religious conviction in the globalized world.

Footnotes

  1. Volf’s six relevant features of world religions:
    1. posit two categorically distinct realms, transcendent and mundane, and give priority to the former
    2. treat human beings as individuals who relate to God as such as opposed to being primarily linked to the social life of the group
    3. make universal claims to what is true and good for all people regardless of place, time, or culture
    4. posit a good that transcends ordinary worldly goods (e.g., health, wealth, longevity)
    5. are “autonomous systems, distinct (not necessarily separate) from a given culture and political community” (69) and thus transcend political and ethnic borders, and
    6. express a disquiet with mundane realities, that is an uneasy affirmation of reality and an effort to transcend mundane realities.

    Comparativists are likely to accuse Volf here of essentialism and oversimplification of these traditions, despite Volf’s disclaimer for avoiding the task of naming some common essence among religions. These features are indeed oversimplified and I suspect one could find exceptions with all of them in both world and local religions (i.e., some variants of world religions do not exhibit one or more of these features and some local religions most certainly do).

  2. In “America’s Grace: How a Tolerant Nation Bridges Its Religious Divides” in Political Science Quarterly 126, no, 4 (2011-12), political scientists David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame and Robert Putnam of Harvard University quantitatively demonstrate that the majority of Americans are not exclusivists. They report that a “whopping 89 percent of Americans believe that heaven is not reserved for those who share their religious faith” (626) and that “most Americans do not believe that those with a different religious faith ae damned” (631).
  3. See previous footnote.
  4. Much ink has been spilled on the differences, which can significant and complex, between and among exclusivisms, inclusivisms, pluralisms and beyond. I encourage the reader to consult texts devoted to this field, especially Alan Race’s Christians and Religious Pluralism: Patterns in the Christian Theology of Religions (Orbis, 1983), Paul Knitter’s Introducing Theologies of Religions (Orbis, 2002), Paul Hedge’s Christian Approaches to Other Faiths (SCM, 2008), and David Cheetham’s Ways of Meeting and the Theology of Religions (Routledge, 2013). These texts will show that Volf has oversimplified, and perhaps misrepresented, the pluralist position by reducing it to a singular version that sounds a lot like religious relativism. Though Volf cites John Hick, I am not sure Hick would even agree with Volf’s definition. Volf defines pluralism as “the conviction that all world religions are roughly equally true, provide equally valid access to the divine, foster human flourishing equally well, and are equally effective means for reaching the hope-for everlasting life” (140). Most forms of pluralism and most pluralists, as I understand them, would reject this definition on several levels.

Matt Kaul

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