Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World by Miroslav Volf

Summary: Globalization requires attention to religion.

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. 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 Christian Century.)

Volf was originally a Trinitarian specialist, but his biography has impacted much of his work over the past twenty 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 ethnic 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. A mix of Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Muslims dominated his country of origin. 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 from 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 need to pay more attention to religion, as do several of Jimmy Carter’s books and John Danforth’s Faith and Politics. While not focused on international politics, Stephen Prothero stresses the importance of understanding religions to understanding the world around us in Religious Literacy and God is not One.

Volf, while not directly drawing on the Economics of Good and Evil (review), does a good job of 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 trodden by 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 think Flourishing is a book worth reading. Miroslav Volf calls 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 can inherently move us to a more moral world without the influence of religious voices. 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 exclusivism, 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 and 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.

Because it has such a big role in Volf’s work, reconciliation is also brought up in Flourishing (quite rightly.) Volf makes the case that while many wars and other conflicts are rooted in religious differences, religion as a whole has championed peace. And while it may not feel like it, we live in one of the most peaceful periods of history, largely 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). However, the epilogue also introduced several areas 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.) However, they are not insignificant groups, and this is an area that I think 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. She answered that we should ignore those religious minorities who 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 also need to consider how to engage the reluctant to avoid that backlash that potentially will destroy the pluralist democracies that Volf, Elshain, and others are encouraging.

I listened to this on audiobook. The audiobook was well narrated, but I want to re-read it in print. I assumed this might not be a book best suited to the 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 slightly dropped in price, but it is still $14.99. I will pick it up again when it drops in price a bit (or my library gets a copy).  I have Volf’s Allah and A Public Faith, which I will read soon.

Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World by Miroslav Volf Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

0 thoughts on “Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World by Miroslav Volf”

  1. Adam, it is tough to write an accurate review without actually carefully reading the book; I cannot imagine writing a review after hearing the book read to me. You miss much what is new, and you miss the main thrust of the book. And you miss much of what is highly controversial…


Leave a Comment