Whose Religion? Which Flourishing?

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi wants you to flourish too. Now what?
February 17th, 2016
Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized Worldby Miroslav Volf. Yale University Press, 2016. 304pp.

I don't care for flourishing. And if we're keeping score, I don't much like shalom either. On the list of vague ideas that paper over a world of important disagreements, these have to be at the top. Who, exactly, is against flourishing? Where is the antiflourishing lobby stalking our congressional hearings and thundering from the bully pulpits of the nation? The Islamic State is for flourishing. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

Christians have been very hip to this term. In Playing God, for example, Andy Crouch talks about the proper end of power as flourishing, a term that also makes it into the subtitle of his newest book, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk and True Flourishing. And Miroslav Volf, in his latest, readable, and altogether agreeable book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, is clearly committed to the word. Happily, he also writes with awareness of its ambiguity.

Volf's quarry is how to forge a common life given the reality of deep pluralism, when all of our visions of "flourishing" are drawn from different wells. The good life, in other words, has a backdrop, or, to cite Charles Taylor (as he does), we live among inescapable horizons. But to live well in the present age, we're going to have to learn how to do politics within those horizons. As Chris Seiple has said, the challenge of our day is how to live well amid—not simply despite—our deepest diversity. A passably coherent account of flourishing that emerges from this understanding is the treasure at the end of the pluralist rainbow.

Volf tackles the problem of global pluralism with two main arguments: First, that religion is back, if it ever really left, and it's here to stay. And second, that religion is therefore an essential, perhaps the essential, "missing dimension" for building a common, overlapping, global consensus. There is not much bracingly new here, and some overgeneralizations that stretch belief, but the overall argument is increasingly accepted even outside the academy. Let's survey the two arguments.

The "Return" of Religion?

First is Volf's argument that religion is back. He builds his argument mainly on anecdotes, with requisite footnotes for the nonbeliever. Among those footnotes you will find God's Century, by Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah, the pathbreaking, popular account of how religion is resoundingly on the recovery and rise. In fact, Volf's argument could in some respects be considered a popular theological account of that social-scientific work. I'm doubtful that Volf's argument will convince any skeptics who pick up his book, but it may serve as a gateway drug to the other cited texts that do the heavy lifting of convincing through empirical research.

But the overly general import of Volf's arguments does lead to some issues in both definitions of terms and choice of data. If "specialists" (as I think Volf would categorize me because I have a penchant for being cranky about missing "details") are crabby about words like flourishing and shalom, entire academic industries now exist for academic cranks to fuss over terms like religion and globalization. Volf nips this straight in the bud. He admonishes us that in order to get a look at something this big and complex we must "step back, squint a bit to shut out distracting details, and take in its outline." He offers, he says, a charcoal sketch. Before we disagree, he begs, read the extensive endnotes. And if the specialists still don't like it, he writes, "I urge them to articulate a similarly integrative and normatively inflected alternative of their own."

Prophets and popularizers will naturally occasionally skim over things that they know have a lot more "detail" (and Volf surely does this). The question, really, is then whether by standing back, squinting, and shutting out the detail, we get a picture, however fuzzy, that educates and enlightens.

Let's use, for example, the problem of defining "religion." When we say "religion" is back, what exactly is back, and why is it so essential for "better" flourishing?

Volf argues that world religions share a set of common features. These are not a common essence, nor—he says—are they full descriptions. Instead, they constitute a "set of shared formal structural affinities" that marks them as world religions. That phrase made me sit upright. This is the list of shared formal structural affinities:

  • A "two worlds account" of reality, transcendent and mundane
  • Human beings as individuals
  • Universal claims
  • The good beyond ordinary flourishing
  • Religion as a distinct cultural system
  • Transformation of mundane realities

I expect this is where specialists in comparative religion need to be encouraged to squint more.

It is true, as Volf fairly demonstrates, that these features can indeed be found, if you go looking for them, in each of the major world religions. He is clear that he is not saying other world religions ought to have these features (plenty of oughts are coming, though, never fret) but simply that major world religions "can be plausibly interpreted" as having these features and that "some of their own prominent adherents have interpreted them in such a way."

We are merely comparing the better angels of the world's great religions, which is cathartic and encouraging, undoubtedly, but somewhat untethered from empirical reality.

Again, that can be true, but there is quite a lot of hedging in that phrase "can be plausibly interpreted." When Volf writes, for example, "A Buddhist stance toward globalization can be surprisingly close to John Paul's Christian one" (emphasis added), it is certainly plausible. Or, "At the edges of their public speeches John Paul II and the Dalai Lama gesture to the source of both global solidarity and altruism: connection to the mystery that transcends our ordinary existence" (emphasis added)—again, plausible. Volf knows the canon of world religions much better than I do, maybe better than most, and I have no reason to doubt that as he has travelled among these great religious texts and luminaries he has found a great deal of strategic overlap. But social scientists, armed with details, are begging to get a word in. Certainly, we may say to the theologian, it is plausible that such interpretations can be made, but are they often made, and are they mainstream? This is not to reduce the great world religions and their teachings to crass majoritarianism, but when we are about to have a conversation about politics, which I take as given if we are finding common cause between contested accounts of flourishing, then it is not enough to know that such pluralist teachings "can" be done, but that they are done, and often so. Otherwise we are merely comparing the better angels of the world's great religions, which is cathartic and encouraging, undoubtedly, but somewhat untethered from empirical reality.

Here again, the endnotes to God's Century will prove critical to a skeptical reader. I would refer the reader to that book's careful work on how and why religions can be "force multipliers" for social goods. Religion is on the rise, sure, but while in some places and in some times that can have a good "social-democratic" impact, it often doesn't in others. Again, the devil is in the details. What we really need to know, and what God's Century shows, is how and under what sorts of conditions religion tends to be a force for good.

God's Century includes empirically grounded predictions of what will happen if, for example, certain conditions, like freedom of religion or belief, are not met. Volf tends to use "ought" phrases. He writes, "Attempts of religions to assert dominance and exercise an integrative function in political societies are, arguably, mistaken." He continues, this is a "great opportunity for world religions today . . . to give up the self-betraying, violence inducing, and futile dream of each in association with the state controlling public life and instead embrace social and political pluralism and the public role available to them." When world religions don't do this, he uses phrases like "practice malfunctions," "distortions of convictions," "teaching malfunctions," and "belonging malfunctions." Amen and hallelujah. But of the two forms of argument—Volf's admonition that religions ought to "free themselves" of the quest for political dominance versus the argument of the authors of God's Century that if religions are tethered to political dominance or repression, then they will tend to have less free, more unstable societies—the latter seems more convincing. It is more pragmatic and utilitarian for certain, and I'm prepared to admit it is my sad, social-scientific outlook on the world that makes me lean toward the latter. But as a very Christian, very Western fellow, I have to imagine that given the choice of confronting an Iranian mullah with the "obvious contradiction" of his faith's religious repression of other faiths, or showing him that the path of religious repression and political integration will probably lead to poverty, unrest, and violence, the latter seems more convincing. I expect Brian Grim, at the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, agrees. This is a complaint about style not substance, but I do think that preaching our "better" version of someone else's religion to them is bound to meet with limited success.

Deities and Devils in the Details

Volf's second argument, that religion is necessary as a rooted source for thick, competing visions of flourishing in the world today is an important one. He writes that the most important contribution world religions can make in a globalized world is "to foreground and pursue the questions of the character of truly flourishing life and of the ultimate goal of our desires and loves." It remains a bit unclear why religion, opposed to nonreligious or atheistic worldviews, cannot also achieve flourishing visions of the good life, but that is more to the problem of "flourishing."

Preaching our "better" version of someone else's religion to them is bound to meet with limited success.

Some people, like Volf, will seize on this to talk about the necessity of interfaith work, and I suppose that's true. I would simply say it speaks to the necessity of good old-fashioned politics, the conciliation of the diversity of differences, even basic ones, to produce strong public principles we can agree on (even if we disagree on the reasons why, to paraphrase Jacques Maritain). This is, in other words, not bracingly new. The framers of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights took this approach. Advocates of so-called principled pluralism have been on about this for a while. We need the big, thick reasons. We need the why. But from there we need good politics to help us fashion the oft-repeated Rawlsian "overlapping consensus."

Volf does indeed have an idea of what this consensus should be. It pairs some classic hits with a few newish ones. First, freedom of religion. Check. Second, equal moral value of all citizens. Check. Third, separation of religion and rule. That's not exactly in an international covenant yet, so that's new, if rather ambitious. Fourth, and finally, the impartiality of the state, the meaning of which is at the root of a good deal of political science today.

These are four important ideas. And probably even more important is Volf's argument that world religions don't need to convert to watered-down, cosmopolitan universalisms in order to support them. World religions can, and should, do so for their own rooted reasons. Daniel Philpott calls this process "mutual resonance" in his book Just and Unjust Peace, which is a longer, somewhat more convincing version of chapters 4–5 of Flourishing.

But, says Volf, world religions have some hard work to do in order to be good partners in this project of global pluralism. He argues that "to shape globalization with a view toward the global common good, religions will have to learn to advocate universalistic visions in a pluralistic world without fomenting violence," and that "religions can shape globalization only if they resist being made its mere instruments, remain true to their universal visions of flourishing, and learn to promote their competing visions in a constructive way" (emphasis added). This is true and it's not. It's true that to be socially productive, in the way we've come to think about the somewhat nebulous content of flourishing, global religions will indeed need to learn to advocate universalistic visions in a pluralistic world without fomenting violence. It is, of course, not true that only if religions do this can they shape globalization. In fact, I would say it remains a rather open question whether in the blowback against the project of political secularization we have seen the end of universalistic visions fomenting violence and thus shaping globalization. Why—and under what conditions—do all these competing accounts of flourishing produce Volf's cosmopolitan global pluralism and not, for example, a slightly updated Clash of Civilizations?

I couldn't agree more passionately with Volf that it would be a good thing if world religions could be more pluralist, and maybe even that it would be good if that pluralism went majorly mainstream, but—then—like him, my particular vision of flourishing involves the peaceful conciliation of a diversity of interests, not the eradication of, say, blasphemy and apostasy. I think Volf is bang on about the potential in world religions to do this, and I hope to God that potential actually manifests itself in the kind of project Volf is describing, but I fear the "details" may overwhelm the angels of our religion's better natures.


Robert Joustra (Ph.D., University of Bath) teaches politics & international studies at Redeemer University College, where he is also Director of the Centre for Christian Scholarship. He is the author and editor of several books, most recently The Religious Problem with Religious Freedom: Why Foreign Policy Needs Political Theology (Routledge, 2017). He is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice and an Editorial Fellow with The Review of Faith & International Affairs.


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