An Incomplete Vision: Review of Volf’s Flourishing
After the horrific attacks of September 11, a contingent of four atheists charged into the public eye, calling for a New Atheism and the rise of a disillusioned generation. The acclaimed Four Horsemen—an appropriately ironic moniker—sought to delegitimize religion and its adherents until the truth became clear: religion is a parasite that plagues the human race.
The end of faith never arrived, and revitalized religious communities are elbowing their way into the global public square. In Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, Miroslav Volf conveys a vision of global human flourishing made possible through the mutual relationship between world religions and globalization. Religious communities are rediscovering their voice, and Volf argues the interconnected world is the perfect platform for the world religions to reclaim their original messages of universality and human flourishing.
Volf, the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale University, has been praised as “one of the preeminent theological voices of our time,” a necessary accolade for someone taking on a project of this scope. Speaking from his own Christian worldview, he argues each world religion (namely Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) can jointly contribute to “the common good,” while remaining true to their particular visions of human flourishing (70).
A Croat who lived through the Yugoslav Wars, Volf isn’t ignorant of the ugly side of world religions. Flourishing offers a philosophical and historical framework to understand the “malfunctions” of world religions. “When religions become markers of group identity,” Volf explains, “they tend to exacerbate conflicts by providing groups with the aura of the sacred and thus energizing and legitimizing the struggles” (188). The globalized world, he argues, provides the stage for world religions to their transcultural and transnational natures.
As the world shrinks because of technological advances, the attainment of the common good is contingent on the ability of religious communities to share the same space. To accommodate “contending particular universalisms” (as world religions are), political pluralism and religious freedom, Volf argues, are indispensable characteristics of a flourishing world. Societies cannot survive so long as followers of a world religion are jockeying for dominance.
If world religions lean into their “original” natures, they can shape and tame the beast of market-driven globalization “with a view toward the common good” and away from the very materialistic, self-seeking impulse that created it. Accordingly, religions can leaven globalization’s “flat” message of health and wealth with their vision of the transcendent, global good (81).
The vision Volf presents in Flourishing is grand and compelling but ultimately falls short of convincing the pessimistic reader. While he advertises the better angels of world religions, the world’s attention is occupied by the destruction and intolerance caused by “religious” individuals. Volf’s entreaty to foster “regimes of respect” and political toleration is drowned out by instances like the arrest and shooting of a Jordanian cartoonist after he shared images offensive to Islam.
The same stage of globalization has been co-opted by radicals whose mission seems to be very similar to the New Atheists’. Organizations like ISIS and other advocates of political Islam export their ideologies via the Internet and utilize the global market, slandering the name of faith. Volf views the globalized world as a tool to be shaped and wielded, but while he is beating it into a plowshare, others are forging it into a sword.
Omitting these imitations of religion begs the question: whom is Volf trying to convince? Surely not groups with carnal ambitions and religious pretensions; history testifies Volf will not successfully convince them to strive for the “common good,” though our common good may depend on mitigating their influence.
He might, however, be successful in convincing secularists of the goodness a flourishing religious community can contribute. Volf claims this contribution can be found in the Hebrew Bible via the words of Moses: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (22). Globalization is a siren song tempting humanity to “live by bread alone”; world religions remind humanity of the transcendent reality operating behind the scenes.
Flourishing runs against the grain of human nature. Humanity is groupish, self-deceptive, and righteous-minded. Flourishing tells us to remember our genuine universality and shared humanity. In that respect, Volf has crafted Flourishing to echo a central message of the world religions. What remains unsaid, and arguably equally important to consider, is how to confront the rollcall of religious communities currently wielding religion as a sword, and making the job of the New Atheists a lot easier.
Photo Credit: The Muslim crescent, Christian cross, and Jewish star in one area (via: Google Images).