Miroslov Volf has been in the news lately because of Dr Hawkins at Wheaton College referenced his book Allah when she donned a hijab and pledged solidarity with Muslims in the wake of proposals to ban Muslims from entering the United States.
I have appreciated Volf especially with his work around grace and reconciliation. His book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (review) is excellent. And while it is still on my to read list, his 1996 book Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation is considered a modern theology classic by many (and named as one of the 100 most important books of the 20th century by Christianity Today.)
Volf was originally a Trinitarian specialist. But his biography has impacted much of his work over the past 20 years. Volf grew up in the former communist Yugoslavia. Communism, then the fall of communism and then the breaking apart of the country amid war and ethic tensions moved his focus to reconciliation, politics and interfaith religious issues.
Volf has a strange religious background. He grew up in officially godless communism, but his parents were Pentecostals. His country of origin was dominated by a mix of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Muslims. He earned two PhDs under the German Lutheran theologian Jurgen Moltmann. He came to the US and taught at the evangelical Fuller Seminary before moving to Yale, and now identifies as Anglican. But Flourishing largely comes out of several years of jointly teaching a class on globalization and faith with Tony Blair (who converted to Roman Catholicism after leaving office as the Prime Minister of the UK).
Flourishing is both fascinating and feels like I have read the book before. Madeleine Albright’s The Mighty and the Almighty makes a case for why international affairs needs to pay more attention to religion, as does several of Jimmy Carter’s books and John Danforth’s Faith and Politics. And while not focused on international politics, Stephen Prothero in Religious Literacy and God is not One stresses the importance of understanding religions to understanding the world around us.
Volf, while not directly drawing on the Economics of Good and Evil (review), does a good job teasing out the limits of our current economic and political system around morality and justice. The concepts around the need for pluralism in a globalized world felt very well trod from everyone from Thomas Friedman’s World is Flat to James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (review) and many others.
Despite previously covered ground, I do think Flourishing is a book worth reading. Miroslov Volf is calling on religious groups to step up and act right in a pluralistic world because the world needs the input of religious voices. Right now democracy and capitalism have won the day, but neither, without the influence of religious voices, can inherently move us to a more moral world. Democracy is limited to the morality of the voters and elected officials. Immoral officials and/or ignorant, cynical or prejudiced voters will trample the rights of the minority. As Volf rightly notes, the problem in the middle east is not just violent dictatorships, but constitutional democracies that are making choices that are not pluralistic.
Volf is particularly talking to other Christians in this book. He is trying to make the case that we should embrace political pluralism. But he distinguishes political pluralism from religious pluralism. This is one of the areas where I think Flourishing is unique. He has a grid of religious pluralism and religious exclusivism and political pluralism and political exclusivism. Volf thinks the healthiest place is where political pluralism and religious exclusivism intersect. The political pluralist embraces the rights of everyone, is outward looking to the rest of the world, but also is strengthened by moral stamina that comes from religious exclusivism.
Interestingly, he specifically points out the religious right in the United States as an example of this model. Citing training from religious right groups like Focus on the Family, he shows that the moral underpinning of their religious exclusivism undergirds their political action, which is inherently pluralistic. In a diverse world, no one group can make a case for particular actions relying solely on their religious language, but they must also work on adapting their argument to a secular public or a public that has different religious values than their own.
Reconciliation, because it has such a big role in Volf’s work is also brought up in Flourishing (quite rightly.) Volf makes the case that while many wars and other conflicts are rooted in religious difference, religion as a whole has championed peace. And while it may not feel like it, we are living in one of the most peaceful periods of history, in large part because of the role of religions. Volf really does speak about the important role of reconciliation better than almost anyone I have read. (Which made some of his comments about Wheaton and Dr Hawkins disappointing. Because his words took on an accusatory tone that while possibly accurate, was not particularly helpful.)
On the whole, part one felt mostly like old material. Part two mostly felt like it was fresh because even when using material from others it was in unique ways. The epilogue felt like a missed opportunity. I think introducing some of those concepts would have been helpful if introduced earlier (especially the personal stories). But also the epilogue introduced several areas that Volf will work on in the future.
One significant area that I wish has been addressed directly, is what to do with the religious anti-pluralists. Volf is not a fan of the fundamentalist elements in many religious groups that are anti-pluralist. (This is what his complaint was with Wheaton.) But they are not insignificant groups and this is an area that I think that many pluralist advocates have not addressed. I asked the same question in grad school when theologian and political theorist Jean Bethke Elshain was a guest lecturer in one of my classes back in 1995 or so. Her answer was that we should just ignore those religious minorities that refuse to engage with the broader society. But I think that is partially how we create angry backlashes like what we have now with Trump. There is a limit to how far people will be willing to feel alienated. At some point those religious minorities will either grow large enough or angry enough that the backlash is felt in the larger society. Volf and other theorists need to also need to think about how to engage the reluctant to avoid that backlash that potentially will destroy the pluralist democracies that Volf and Elshain and others are encouraging.
I listened to this on audiobook. The audiobook was well narrated but I would like to re-read it in print. I assumed that this might not be book that was best suited to audio going in, but the audiobook was a bit over half the price of the kindle book when it first came out. The kindle book has dropped in price a bit, but is still $14.99 right now. When it drops in price a bit (or my library gets a copy) I will pick it up again. I have Volf’s Allah and A Public Faith that I will read sometime in the near future.