The recent publication of this book came from years of research and an initiative of the Tony Blair (former UK Prime Minister) Foundation on faith and globalization. Miroslav Volf, one of the foremost theologians alive today, attempts to tackle the defining phenomena of the world today: globalization. I cannot say there has been a book that I’ve been more excited to read recently than this one. Volf is surely evidence for the possibility of academic theologians making a real difference in the world and not getting overly bogged down in academic debates only a few will benefit from. I applaud Volf for all the hard work and research that went into this book, and due to its breadth, my review will be quite basic as I am unable to give an account here of all the steps within Volf’s argument.
We are all aware that the world is becoming increasingly more connected – with international trade, transportation, and modern telecommunications – and that this occurrence has had both positive effects (e.g. increasing cooperation among nations) and negative (e.g. exploitation of the “third world,” or environmental degradation). As human civilization continues to become more and more “globalized,” what role might religion play? This is the question that Volf seeks to answer, positing that religions are necessary in the face of the many problems created by globalization (though he is far from thinking of religion merely instrumentally).
Volf begins by describing many of the key features of globalization: high levels of interconnectivity, interdependence, “shrinking” of the world, accelerating technological advancements, etc (p. 35). He points out that many world religions are connected with globalization processes; think Christianity’s spread in the Roman world. In fact, world religions are arguably, due to the content of their faith and the desire to evangelize, the original “globalizers” (p. 39). Yet today, it is the market, or the economy, that is the central factor of globalization. Volf argues that the market is NOT value neutral (whether its proponents realize this). In face of the reality of the effects of the global market, how might religions provide critiques or offer up an alternative? For Volf, religion’s primary usefulness (in this case) is an advocacy for social justice and a vision of flourishing human life. Religions have always been the main proponents of a wholesome vision of human life (p. 45). The goal of this interaction between religions and globalization is not, however, one merely of conflict; rather, religions can work for transformation wherever globalization falls short.
Likewise, Volf thinks that religions’ insistence on the transcendent realm of life is one of the major things globalization lacks. Without a true humanity, what good are material gains anyways? For religion, the material world is subordinate to transcendent values or aims (even though both are necessary and good). All religions teach that one cannot be satisfied only with material goods. Moving forward, Volf identifies the challenge as “Religions can shape globalization only if they resist being made its mere instruments, remain true to their universal visions of flourishing, and learn how to promote their competing visions in a constructive way” (p. 58).
Contrary to the secularization thesis (i.e. the world is becoming less religious), religions are thriving in the twenty-first century (see the book, God’s Century). Religious people are increasing in both absolute and relative terms across the globe (p. 62). Further, religions are becoming more publicly active rather than merely reduced to individuals’ private lives. Also contrary to a popular stereotype of religion, they are not escapist, that is, they do not only try to get their adherents to disregard the world and hope for a spiritual “heaven.” The normative claims each religion make call for a transformation of society and the shape of an individual’s life. Religions offer a way of living ordinary life in the light of the transcendent (p. 72). Religions need not compete with material accounts of the world (to think so would be to misunderstand the role of religion). To summarize, Volf writes, “Accounts of the good life are the most important gifts world religions can give to the world” (p. 75).
However, Volf does recognize the malfunctions, both historical and presently, of religions when their followers use them to oppress others or legitimize violence. This primarily happens when a religion is identified with a particular state/politics (this also harms religion by making it merely a tool of the state). Identifying a political goal with a religion is grounds for disaster, and political pluralism actually (perhaps surprisingly) allows religions to be themselves much more faithfully than when they were put in service of the state (p. 86). In judging religion, we cannot do so by determining the amount of material prosperity they provide, but rather through a more wholesome lens to the degree they allow human lives to flourish (even if exactly what this amounts to is up for debate).
After deploying the concepts that provide Volf’s theoretical framework, he goes on to discuss how religions can foster a world of respect for others. Though religious (and political) intolerance are on the rise, religions actually have internal reasons for pushing against intolerance. Religions do make universal claims (and therefore seem to be a good candidate for intolerance), yet the centrality of love makes this quite undesirable on the part of religions. All the major religions decry against coercion and instead value inner persuasion to its various truth claims. For Volf, however, this tolerance does not only imply religious freedom (or freedom of conscience more broadly) but also that adherents of one religion should respect adherents of another.
Volf argues that religions are in tension with themselves when they deny others the freedom to practice their own religion. He thinks this because, like John Locke, he believes the transcendent call to faith is personal and calls individuals to be capable of answering it without coercion. Likewise, the practices associated with each religion should be free (and not merely the beliefs). A failure to make this the case is a wrong conflation of religion and politics (p. 113). More broadly in terms of respect, Volf argues that the rule to love others should determine our attitudes towards them (and their religion, if not shared by ourselves). Because all religions have an enormous interest in the truth, they should at least be interested in the universal truth claims of religions other than themselves. Volf lays out a guideline for interaction in which other religions are granted an assumed value or worth. The other major world religions likely have some important things to say about life! Yet, one way to respect another religion is to critically engage its truth claims (and thereby show that it is worthy of critical engagement and not immediate dismissal). Overall, it is possible to respect other religions’ potential to help people become better human beings.
From the political side of things, Volf thinks it is impossible to either exclude religion (at least in a globalized world) or to make a single religion the state religion (this is inconsistent with religion itself). The former because religions are not private and one cannot convince the religious to exclude themselves (or their ideas) from the public sphere; the latter because it goes against the charge to love one another.
Miroslav Volf then dedicates a chapter to the topic of religious exclusivism (“my religion is the true religion”) and political pluralism (characterized by an exchange of ideas, democracy, and debate). The question is whether exclusivistic faiths (that is, all major world religions) can support the project of political pluralism that is necessary for a globalized world. (The opposite of these categories are religious pluralism – all roads lead equally to God, and political exclusivism – totalitarian regimes and one-sided government.) Though critics may argue that the universal nature of religions (or their appeal to a single revelatory authority, e.g., the Quran or the Bible) force them to support political exclusivism, the opposite is actually the case.
By critiquing Jean Jacques Rousseau and looking at the historical case of Roger Williams (Puritan founder of Rhode Island), Volf defends the idea that religious exclusivists can easily support political pluralism. Williams, as a Puritan was perhaps the most extreme example of a religious exclusivist, yet he was one of the pioneers of political pluralism. He was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for not supporting the local government’s enforcement of religious teaching. Williams even went on to say that it was God’s will that all people should be allowed the freedom of conscience and that they should never be forced to accept or act in accordance with a particular religion. As one example among many, political pluralism was actually born out of religious exclusivism. “The reasoning was not ‘because faith is supremely important, we must impose it’ but ‘because faith is supremely important, all human beings must be allowed to live by the faith that they hold true.'” In fact, many religious virtues – love, respect, civility, reasonableness – are also conditions for healthy political pluralism.
In the final chapter, Volf tackles the issues of conflict and violence as they pertain to religion and globalization. Globalization has created many of the conditions for peace and has contributed to the decline of relative violence throughout history. Yet, this “peace” has often been created through violence. There is now extreme wealth inequality, and many countries are being exploited. These negatives are often created by an over reliance on seeking material prosperity. This, for Volf, is an area religion can help. The major world religions all teach contentment with material goods and this will remove a lot of the conditions for future conflicts if people were more religious and content.
Even in the absence of physical violence, there remains a global need for reconciliation. Globalization forces a choice to reconcile or not because people are forced to live much closer to others they may hate or disagree with. Long gone are the days when we can completely just ignore our “enemies.” Religions help us to reconcile because they value the truth, helping us to remember wrongs suffered rightly. They also teach to forgive and that revenge is self-defeating and only contributes to further violence. Though religions are bound to come into conflict (at least ideologically) this need not require violence if all sides use the visions of their respective religions faithfully to articulate to the world their own visions of flourishing.
In summary of the main arguments, Volf writes, “The argumentative thread of this book has been that globalization stands in need of the visions of flourishing that world religions offer, and that globalization and religions, as well as religions among themselves, need not clash violently but have internal resources to interact constructively and contribute to each other’s betterment (p. 206).
Volf writes as a Christian theologian. Nonetheless, he is surprisingly knowledgeable (perhaps due to his connections and research) of the facets of the other world religions, and therefore this book is broad enough to apply globally and not just in a Christian area. Volf is very good at highlighting internal features of religions that serve to make the world a better place rather than merely exerting external force upon religion in the direction one may want it to go. The few critiques I had of this book were mostly in the realm of how Volf thinks his argument will actually affect the world. It is difficult to imagine heads of state and ordinary citizens across the world widely deploying his guidelines and theories regarding religions’ role in the world. Volf is very influential, but it remains to be seen just how far-reaching the ideas presented here become. However, this book, in my mind, functions primarily as a conversation starter in the field and not necessarily the final end-of-story solution to all the world’s problems (does such a thing even exist?).
I would recommend this book to literally anyone. One does not need to be versed in religious studies or theology to comprehend or benefit from the arguments of this book as Volf writes here in an essay format for all. True to his word in this book, I hope that Volf soon publishes his own account of Christianity’s vision for the good life (I’ve also written by own very brief account of the good life here). Now that will be a volume I’d be even more eager to read than this one.
Link to purchase here.