Tag Archives: Miroslav Volf

Religion and Politics Book Recommendations

I apologize for the lackluster state of this blog in the past months. I’ve been struggling to figure out the proper words to say in a time like this. I certainly haven’t yet decided how to move forward with this space, but in the interim, I hope this recommendation list might be helpful to some people.

One of my favorite areas of theological research comes by way of exploring the various models for religiously-based political action. So, without wasting any more time, here’s a brief list of the works that I have found most helpful. These are all generally designed for the upper-level undergraduate or graduate student in theology or ethics, but I’ve also included some more accessible books by the same authors in parenthesis for those without as much of a theological background.


politics-of-god1. Politics of God by Kathryn Tanner (Prof. at Yale). Friends of mine will already know that I deeply cherish Tanner’s work, and this happens to be my favorite of her works (perhaps surprisingly!). It originally appeared in 1992, but to me, it remains her most underappreciated work. The theological vision within is extraordinarily powerful and nothing short of inspiring. Tanner plums the depths of Christian beliefs for their socio-political import to great success, demonstrating in the meantime their inherently radical character. This book will not provide you with a ready-made solution to any specific socio-political issue; rather, it will give you a nice framework for assessing any and all issues that may come up now or in the future. (link to purchase)

theology-of-public-life2. A Theology of Public Life by Charles Mathewes (or, his book The Republic of Grace as an intro). Charles Mathewes (Prof. at the University of Virginia) is definitely one of the best theological ethicists today, and this book is his fascinating contribution to the field. Deeply entrenched in the Augustinian tradition, Mathewes argues that the theological virtues (faith, hope, and love/charity) should be the center of theological reflection on Christian engagement in the public sphere. His account is compelling as a way forward that is distinctly Christian and refuses to give up hope. (link to purchase)

flourishing3. Flourishing by Miroslav Volf (or, his book A Public Faith as an intro). Miroslav Volf (Prof. at Yale) writes in a more accessible style, but don’t let that make you think it isn’t as hard hitting as the others. Flourishing takes up the issue of globalization, describing its inherently ambivalent character, and argues for the contribution that Christianity might be able to make for the common good. Christianity offers a vision of the good life that has the power to properly realign human life in the midst of our contemporary world marked by such profound change and disruption. Further, Volf makes a convincing case for religious tolerance, based on Christian theology, in face of the increased contact with religious difference that globalization fosters. In a time when the confrontation with difference has tended to skew towards nativism, nationalism, racism, and inequality, Volf’s contribution is sorely needed. I reviewed this book on here a while back. (link to purchase)

church state and civil society.jpg4. Church, State, and Civil Society by David Fergusson (Prof. at the University of Edinburgh). David Fergusson’s book deals largely with the issue of the Church’s proper relation to the state. He recounts how much of the history of Christian political thinking took place within societies akin to a “Christendom” that are clearly outdated for the present. In marking out the Church’s role in public life today, Fergusson makes a theological case for toleration and explores the contributions of the Barmen Declaration and Vatican II traditions for Christian political thinking. He ultimately argues that separation of Church and State is a good policy for the well-being of both the Church and the state, ultimately allowing the Church to have a more authentic, faithful voice. Fergusson’s writing style is very clear, and he does a masterful job of explaining what is at stake in the debates. (link to purchase)


In addition to these more abstract texts, in that they function on the level of theological framework, here are a few topical recommendations that I’ve found most helpful.

Economics:

  1. Economy of Grace by Kathryn Tanner. In this text, Tanner explores how the Christian story might be put in economic terms (e.g. the circulation of grace vs. money), and through this, demonstrates that the basic structure of the Christian story could have quite radical effects on the organization of our economic life. She has updated this version in here recent Gifford Lectures (which I analyzed in depth here) to reflect the shift to finance-dominated capitalism in the 2000s.
  2. The Making of the Indebted Man or Governing by Debt by Maurizio Lazzarato. An Italian social theorist, Lazzarato is at first difficult to understand but this stems mainly from a difference in writing style and his own invention of certain concepts. Nonetheless, there is no one better equipped to explore the condition of indebtedness that is now perhaps the most widespread existential condition in the developed world. He shows debt’s effect on persons’ self-understanding of themselves and the actions that it fosters. I’ve been able to think about sin and redemption using Lazzarato as a chief exponent of the economic condition we find ourselves in today.
  3. No Rising Tide by Joerg Rieger. As a (generally) liberation theologian, Rieger (Prof. at Vanderbilt) takes on the Great Recession and argues that Christians have deeply entrenched reasons to advocate for a more equitable economic arrangement.

Here are a few political philosophy books that have helped me gain a framework for assessing current institutional arrangements from the standpoint of justice. These aren’t theological works, but they should at least be on the radar of Christians reflecting on political theology.

  1. A Theory of Justice by John Rawls. Originally appearing in 1971, this book has long been recognized as the most important work of political philosophy of the 20th century. It is still the starting point for any discussion of justice. In the book, Rawls argues for a vision of social contract theory that defines justice as fairness. Further, Rawls argues that anything less than maximizing the prospects of the least well-off group of people is unjust. The book is quite large, and the writing dry, but key sections of this book are simply indispensable.
  2. Social Justice in the Liberal State by Bruce Ackerman (He is less well-known to the general public but extremely influential in political philosophy and legal theory). While Ackerman might get a bad reputation to some for being a classical liberal, his vision of justice is strikingly powerful. He takes aim at every single possible relation of power and examines it on the basis of neutrality (that is, by what right is power exercised in each case?). The result is a means to assess every relationship, both institutional and personal, on the basis of a radical equality marked by neutral reasoning – an illuminating tool to put in the Christian’s toolkit.
  3. Justice and the Politics of Difference by Iris Marion Young. Young, the paradigmatic Feminist political philosopher (and Prof. at the University of Chicago) of our time explores the dynamics of oppression in this work. Arguing that structural oppression is much more widespread than one might have imagined, her work may seem to result in an unending pessimism. However, Christians might find resources in her identification of oppression by connecting it to our concept of sin and thereby fueling our own actions partnering with God in the work of redemption.

Sociology:

  1. God’s Century by Toft, Philpott, and Shah. This book by multiple authors tackles the secularization thesis (the argument that the world is becoming increasingly secularized, leading to the ultimate decline and perhaps eradication of religion) by showing the resurgence of religion as a political force throughout the world. It’s a very helpful resource for understanding the global dynamic of politically-assertive religion and the prospects for the 21st century.
  2. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber. This originally ground-breaking work is still a must-read for those thinking about the impact religious beliefs have on economic and social life. Weber’s study from the early 1900s explored the role Reformed Christianity played in the development of capitalism. While controversial today, a familiarity with this work is a prerequisite for critical thinking about the import of Christian beliefs.
  3. The Big Squeeze by Steven Greenhouse. A New York Times reporter, Greenhouse charts the history of the worker in the United States from the late 20th century to the present. He examines the various dynamics that have increasingly exerted pressure on the worker leading to the precarious situation labor finds itself in today. This is an incredible overview of the ways in which the everyday worker has been affected by broad changes in management and economic policy in the past few decades.

I hope you find some of these helpful. Happy Reading!

My Review of “Flourishing: Why We Need Religion In A Globalized World” by Miroslav Volf

flourishingThe 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.

volf portrait

Miroslav Volf

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.

 

Christian Theological Perspectives on Joy, my review of “Joy and Human Flourishing”

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Joy and Human Flourishing: Essays on Theology, Culture, and the Good Life, eds. Justin E. Crisp and Miroslav Volf, Fortress Press, xviii + 155 pp. Link to purchase.

joy and humanThis little essay collection reflects a paradigm shift in the theological scene today. Theologians are beginning to think about the deeper questions of life rather than limit their discourse to doctrinal disputes from the past 2000 years. This edited volume brings together many of the foremost theologians and biblical scholars of this generation: Jurgen Moltmann, Charles Mathewes, N.T. Wright, Miroslav Volf, Marianne Meye Thompson and Mary Clark Moschella. Each author attempts to define joy, and then to work out a theology or framework of Christian joy from the perspective of their particular discipline.

Moltmann opens with a short chapter on the very nature of Christianity as “a religion of joy,” by emphasizing the celebratory character of one’s response to God’s blessings. It acts as an introduction to other contributor’s essays.

Marianne Meye Thompson identifies three versions of Joy in scripture that all end up centering around the idea of joy “because,” even the concept of joy “notwithstanding (some suffering)”; In this case, because of something God has done or because of who God is. N.T. Wright continues the biblical interpretation section of this book through his helpful discussion of joy as the response to God’s presence both now and in the future as a kind of hope. Yet, he is careful to distinguish the difference between the centrality of hope within second temple Judaism, in that it was always looking to what God will eventually do, with the way the first Christians aligned their perspective around joy, in that God, in Christ, has already brought his kingdom to earth. That salvation has been realized in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is the cause for the Christian’s joy in the present.

Next, Charles Mathewes, as usual, develops his theological program on the basis of some Augustinian idea; in this case, desire. Most of the readers will be familiar with Augustine’s notion of infinite human desire that is only satisfied in God. Mathewes applies this to the idea of joy which he considers to be “in the middle voice,” that is, it is not fully something that happens to us nor something we do, but in-between. He argues that real joy is only possible when our desire is rightly oriented toward God, toward cultivating lives of flourishing for others, and that we experience joylessness when we place the hopes of our desire in what is not God.

For the more pastoral-minded chapter, Mary Clark Moschella identifies what she renders a problem with modern pastoral education. Pastors are only taught how to discover the good within the bad, and not, perhaps, the joy within the good. She thinks this one-sidedness has actually contributed to a less joy-filled society than if pastors were comfortable strengthening into joy the perceived experiences of well-being within their congregants and those they care for.

Finally, Miroslav Volf adds a final summation of the theologian’s project of joy. He connects, as do all of the other authors, the idea of blessing/gift to joy. When one has the ability to experience life, including all of its goods, as “blessing,” one can have joy knowing that this is how life was designed by God.

Overall, this book is significant because, as I mentioned initially, it represents some of the firstfruits of this paradigm shift towards articulating the Christian vision of flourishing humanity. Further, the caliber of the individual contributors is another important reason why many Christians, and scholars of religion, cannot afford to miss out on the insights available here, all in one place thanks to the editorial efforts of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture as well as doctoral fellow Justin Crisp. I certainly look forward to the other books the Center publishes in the coming years as the results of their John Templeton Foundation grant to research theology and joy. You won’t want to miss those either.