I may never have had a more frustrating assignment than reviewing Miroslav Volf’s Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. This book provides deep theological insights on a topic where insight is urgently needed. But Volf, professor of religion at Yale University, adopts a method that forces him to leave the big question at the center of the book underdeveloped. And although Flourishing shows he has made some progress on this front—which I want to celebrate—he has not yet fully overcome his tendency to condemn all political and economic systems indiscriminately.

Make no mistake: everyone who cares about either the church or the world should read this book, and those who care about both—as we all should—will get the most out of it. As Volf puts it:

I consider God’s relation to human beings and human beings’ relation to God to be the condition of possibility for human life and flourishing in all dimensions. (9)

The judgment expressed in that sentence is the only possible starting point either for figuring out how to build a faithful life of daily discipleship or for addressing our political, economic, familial, and social problems with any serious hope of success.

Religion and globalization need one another, since neither can answer What is flourishing and why do we want it? without pointing directly to the other. Religion that doesn’t have an intense concern to promote flourishing globally becomes gnostic, chauvinistic, and Pharisaical. Forms of globalization whose concepts of flourishing are purely or even primarily materialistic become debased, unsatisfying, and oppressive.

Life marked by love for God and neighbors, flourishing human life, is the end; globalization is a means, valuable insofar as it enables us to achieve that end. (16)

The World Is God’s Gift

Even though I’ve been exploring this territory for some time, I found new depth in Flourishing. The introduction was captivating. After reading it, I closed the book and said to my wife: “If you’d told me I’d be writing a rave review of this book, I’d have said you were crazy—but it looks like I might have to do it!”

Characteristically, Volf untangles the big bunches of theological threads that have become badly snarled up in the modern church, then weaves them into coherent and very affecting theological tapestries. I was moved by his simple and powerful application of the Great Commandment to globalization, distilling the key questions we need to ask about where globalization is helping or hindering love of God and neighbor.

The introduction also lays out six excellent theses on religion and globalization. Here Volf expresses the enormous possibilities for human flourishing that could come from bringing these forces together, while carefully hedging against the possibility that we might reduce either one into a mere tool of the other. It says something about the state we’re in that merely seeing the key issues set out in this clear and coherent way produces such a sense of relief and appreciation.

In an outstanding epilogue, Volf begins to unpack the most vital question raised in this book: how do we relate our striving for transcendence (flourishing in our relationship with the invisible world) and our striving for prosperity (flourishing in our relationship with the visible world)? How can we have a faith that is intensely interested in people’s flourishing without degenerating into a “prosperity religion”?

When we experience ordinary things as God’s gifts and when we rejoice in experiencing them as such, the world, in a sense, reaches its completion, for the duration of the experience at least. The world then becomes to us what God created it to be. . . . We don’t go through the things of ordinary life to take delight in some deeper, eternal beauty and goodness in itself; we come to experience ordinary things as extraordinary—as the Lover’s gifts—and therefore rejoice in them all the more. (205)

This point that we find the invisible God through the visible creation not by leaving that creation behind, but by experiencing it as his gift to us—that we are creatures—has implications so profound that, well, it would take a book by a Yale theologian to unpack them all.

The Gospel Is Not “Religion”

If the introduction and epilogue were published together as a booklet, I’d buy a thousand copies and give them to everyone I know. However, the fact that the best material on the main topic appears in the introduction and epilogue is a symptom of a problem with Flourishing. This book should have been the book by the Yale theologian unpacking the implications of the insight that we’re creatures and flourish as creatures. I’m surprised to report that it isn’t.

Volf’s method doesn’t permit him to develop the book’s main thesis adequately. In the introduction and conclusion, he takes a distinctively Christian theological approach. In the rest of the book, though, he strives to connect globalization to “religion” (i.e. the major world religions) rather than to Christianity specifically. This method forces Volf to rely on highly abstract generalizations about “religion” that could leave one frustrated.

In Part One, Volf shows that religion and globalization need to be connected, but he doesn’t do enough to connect them. Lacking religious specifics, he can’t get much traction. He’s reduced to vague platitudes: all religions “in their own way teach the fundamental unity of humanity” (38); a human being should be treated “as an end and not a [mere] means, a subject and not an object” (47). These broad statements are true but don’t provide the specificity we’ll need when we come down to brass tacks and actually try to reform globalization.

Part Two, which is substantially longer, turns to the secondary question of how peaceful and harmonious relations can be built among the various world religions. That’s a vitally important and closely related topic, on which Volf has much of value to say. I was very impressed with this section; he even holds up the Christian Right as proof that it’s possible to be religiously exclusive and politically pluralist! I’m not sure the example really proves that, but still, it was an incredibly gutsy move and I salute him for it. However, this isn’t the purported topic of the book.

Whose God? Which Globalization?

The book’s method creates other problems. Plausibility is a big one. Reading Volf’s broad generalizations about “religion,” I kept writing in the margin, over and over again: “Is this true of Islam?” “Is this true of Buddhism?” “Is this true of Hinduism?” The method seems to assume more commonality among world religions than we’re entitled to assume.

As Volf’s own introduction and conclusion suggest, gospel Christianity isn’t just one more religion among many peers. He’s correct that “the right kind of love for the right kind of God” is the key to connecting transcendence and prosperity rightly (206). So how can we broadly generalize the world’s diverse religions in the way he does throughout Flourishing?

Just as he overgeneralizes “religion,” Volf also overgeneralizes “globalization.” He lumps all modern political and economic systems together as forms of globalization, and he describes and criticizes them—especially criticizes—with too broad a brush.

Consequently, Volf treats globalization too much as a sociological phenomenon, sidestepping all the really hard, divisive metaphysical and moral questions of politics and economics. What is justice? What is property? What is the rule of law? What is community? Who should rule? What is the common good? How do governments and economic systems relate to individuals and the community? How do we relate the common good of each particular community to the common good of the globe, given that each community has a legitimate interest in its own distinctive common good?

Volf didn’t need to answer all these questions, but he did need to show more awareness of how intractably divisive they are and how widely diverse the forms of “globalization” are as a result. At one point he affirms that religion shouldn’t be merely supportive or oppositional toward globalization, since globalization comes in many forms. He should have remembered this when writing the passages of the book that attack globalization (in all forms) for a variety of moral failures—imposing a materialistic view of life, setting rich against poor, despoiling the environment, and so on. As Volf himself acknowledges in other passages, not all forms of globalization do these things!

You Can Only Reform What You Love

The most frustrating problem with Flourishing for me is an unresolved conflict at the heart of Volf’s approach to religion and globalization. He sometimes acknowledges the interdependence of religion and globalization; more often, though, he indulges in false narratives that describe globalization as an autonomous force with no moral origin or end (telos).

The most shocking instance is when he holds up a set of passages from the Communist Manifesto as describing globalization “better than anyone before . . . and, for at least a century, better than anyone after” (29). He apparently doesn’t see how the rejection of God and the seeds of mass murder—the reduction of human beings to mere tools of class interests, the dehumanization of the “bourgeois,” the materialistic understanding of economic desires, and the assertion of a basic opposition between economics and religion—are represented in the very passages he praises so highly.

When Volf praises globalization, he does so only for its material benefits, rarely connecting globalization to moral and spiritual benefits. Many forms of globalization help us welcome the stranger, liberate women, end racial and religious oppression, recognize the dignity of ordinary people and ordinary life, make universal ethical commitments, seek justice under the rule of law, and join constructively with people around the world in common work. You can’t put globalization and religion in separate containers. Again, frustratingly, this point is emphasized by Volf himself in some parts of the book, even as it’s ignored in others.

Volf’s narrative of religion and globalization as separate and opposed forces is challenged by, for example, the six features he identifies as common to all world religions. Five point to religious origins contributing to globalization: (1) treating every individual as important, (2) making universal truth claims, (3) seeking a good beyond ordinary flourishing (which leads to the self-control and virtue globalization depends on), (4) treating religion as a distinct social system (making religious freedom possible), and (5) connecting mundane realities to the transcendent.

Globalization has been an occasion of many evils, but it contains within it, at its core, moral and spiritual commitments. That’s because globalization is, in large part, a product of the world religions, Christianity above all. Its moral commitments are the unacknowledged legacy of early modern religious movements, especially the Reformation and Wesleyanism.

Volf’s artificial separation of religion and globalization also has a tendency to reduce religion to that which is not globalization. For all his stress on the need for metaphysics and morals, Volf never shows that religion is the only possible source for these things. The moral goals he expresses for globalization—such as empowering the poor and ecological protection—are so broad and vague that everyone, including secularists, already agree.

The only contribution of religion that Volf shows to be unique—the thing that actually makes religion necessary rather than only beneficial—is that religion can provide the “robust global institutions” needed to overcome opposition to moral reform (57). In other words, while Volf professes that globalization needs religion to provide transcendence, in practice he mostly turns to religion for muscle.

Volf is eager to warn us that religion loses its identity and credibility when it’s captive to the cultural institutions of globalization. He’s not sufficiently awake to the fact that the same danger is present in reducing religion to an instrument of power politics in opposition to those institutions. Nor does he consider that if religion takes this fundamentally oppositional stance toward them, those institutions will turn against religion explicitly and intentionally in a way they’ve not yet done.

You can only reform what you love. If our starting point is a set of narratives in which globalization is simply and solely amoral until we come along to moralize it, we’re not starting from love and can’t have a transformative impact. We can only engage in power struggles.

Promising Progress

The good news is that Flourishing actually shows great promise and potential for Volf in this area. He has long advocated materialistic theories of politics and economics, drawn uncritically from sources on the secular Left like Max Weber (1864–1920) and John Rawls (1921–2002). I detailed this history in my review of his last book, A Public Faith, and will not repeat it here.

The desire for a more constructive approach to globalization expressed in some parts of Flourishing shows that Volf—like a number of other Christian thinkers of his generation—is beginning to overcome materialistic ideas about it. A big question for the future of the church is whether leaders like Volf, recovering from the influence of the secular Left, will be able to let go of cherished narratives in which the origins, motives, and intrinsic telos of political and economic systems is always purely materialistic and amoral.

If they did, and if other leaders could overcome a similar captivity to the secular Right, they could make great contributions to justice and mercy in the modern world.

Can we love globalization enough to reform it? That remains to be seen.

Miroslav Volf. Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016. 304 pp. $28.00.