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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

"Flourishing" (Miroslav Volf)

TITLE: Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World
AUTHOR: Miroslav Volf
PUBLISHER: New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016, (304 pages).

Religions and globalizations have been around for a long time. Both have interacted and have influenced each other. In turn, they have affected all areas of our lives in varying degrees. The purpose of this book is to examine this relationship and offer reasons for faith in this increasingly complex world. The religions included in this book are primarily Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. For globalization, the author leads us through the various revolutions and the history of globalization. Coming from a background that was overwhelmingly Catholic and Orthodox, with a Muslim minority, the author is keenly aware of the complex relationships among the religions and the way globalization has impacted them. More importantly, the globalization model that we know in our time, is but a "moment in the grand arc of history" between creation and the new creation. He contrasts that with the two coming of Christ. The first is how Christ came into the world and dwelt among us. The second is a future-bound coming of Christ. In this light, Volf is particularly aware of opinions that are humanistic and non-religious, especially those that are calling for the abolition of religion altogether. Addressing this, in order for the world to flourish way further down the future road, religions are part of the solution and not part of the problem. This is Volf's conviction, and the book's chapters all argue in favour of this. For true flourishing, we have to deal with the age old commandment of God, to love God and to love our neighbour. While he offers a Christian perspective, he also argues that the other religions have more reasons to support his proposal. Using six formal and common features of world religions, he paints a vision of a future where religious thought can contribute to the flourishing of the world. Some key pointers are:

  • Religions should not be feared, despite the practices of some errant and extreme groups.
  • Religions generally articulate a better future
  • Together with religions, globalization can contribute to positive human flourishing
  • Globalization should be perceived as something beyond mere bread
  • The improvements to human life includes health, unity, and removal of drudgery
  • Religions help humans discover their commonness

Part One of the book deals with the relationships between religions and globalizations. In globalization, he covers the technological advancements, increased connectivities, speed of time, interdependence, and a shrinking space and time. Globalization has flattened, changed, and affected lives and social systems in many ways. Both religions and globalization say that they exist for the purpose for the advancement of human good. Volf argues with conviction that both cannot be seen as competing forces but must work together for the common good. Part Two deals with the philosophy and power of respect. Volf also covers religious extremisms and political pluralism. Eventually, regardless of conflict or violence, all human kind need to find a way to be reconciled to one another.

It has been said that no news is good news, highlighting the general pessimism of news in general. Perhaps violence and bad news sells. Perhaps, people are more interested in reading about bad things happening to other people, that classic schadenfreude syndrome where there's that unexplained enjoyment over other people's misfortunes. Perhaps, environmental disasters; all kinds of fears over global endemics; widening discrepancies between the rich and the poor; and other social ills are here to stay. For all the rationalizations of secularism, humanism, and cultural supremacies, they fail to provide the optimism that we all need. We need hope for a brighter future. We need a flourishing future. As far as author Miroslav Volf is concerned, the two most potent images about a flourishing future are from the Bible. The first is that of a vibrant garden, as depicted in Genesis. The second is that of the heavenly city of Jerusalem on a new earth as mentioned in Revelation. These images oppose the other visions espoused by the world, other beliefs, and human philosophies.

While the book started as a series of "Faith and Globalization" seminars at Yale from 2008-11, the topics in this book have been shared in similar seminars in many parts of the world. A book like this is particularly difficult to write for at least three reasons. First, he is battling hugely negative religious perceptions right now. For religions have taken a huge beating due to the problems of terrorism and religious extremists who in their misguided passion, have instead given religion a bad name. For Volf to come up in defense of religion is already an uphill task to begin with. The author makes it clear that religions are not the problem. They are part of the solution. He admits the flaws of how some people have practiced religion but argues that religions have more good to offer the world and how they are essential in a world that is gripped by globalization influences. Second, after defending religions, he tries to float up common features that all the religions share without compromising his end. Already, there are huge disagreements within any one particular religion already, let alone five! This is like the need of a highly capable skipper to navigate a large ship through dangerous icebergs. One wrong move and one could shipwreck the whole vessel. Volf's keen understanding of each religion helps. Third, trying to bring together two seemingly separate entitles like religion and globalization is an incredibly difficult task. In a post-911 era, many cultures are increasingly anti-religious and secular. Yet, it must be done. For all the economic successes of globalization will come to nought if it does not address the needs of the human heart. Here is where religion comes in strong. For Volf, it is the Christian vision of a new creation. Pleasure without meaning is nothing. In the same way, meaning without pleasure seems incomplete.

Volf is Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale University, and is a keen author on issues surrounding religion, faith, Christianity and culture. His previous books reflect a common desire for unity and reconciliation. This book carries on his mission to do just that.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Yale University Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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