What does it mean to live well? Is it to have a comfortable life, with the latest iPhone and a week-long vacation every year? Or is it to live a life of faith, working to create justice in the world? And are these two worldviews necessarily opposed to each other?
These are the questions that theologian Miroslav Volf asks in his latest book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World (Yale University Press). “I have always been motivated by the idea that Christian faith is somehow not just intellectually plausible,” Volf explains, “But also, to use a strange word, believable and attractive as a way of life.”
Volf’s approach to theology stems in part from growing up in former Yugoslavia. He says, “I grew up in what was then, obviously, a Christian country, at least broadly construed. But Christian faith was suppressed and did not have space in public life. I always had the sense that Christian faith, if allowed, could be a powerful force in the public life of our society.” This is what Flourishing explores: the idea that religious faith both affects and is affected by other economic, social, and religious forces.
Volf’s book also examines how we must come to terms with globalization and the way of life it promotes. Religions do not—and cannot—live in a vacuum. But Volf also notes that human beings do not live by bread alone. There is more to life than material possessions, and it is our responsibility as people of faith to drive globalization toward justice and global solidarity.
What exactly is globalization?
I understand globalization to be this long historical process that has made our world increasingly interconnected and interdependent. We live in a world where information, goods, and services flow more and more freely. Today, we understand the world not as separate nations or states, but as one unified whole, made up of diverse cultures and religions.
Everyone’s destinies are intertwined. If you rock the boat of this world in one spot, you’re going to feel the rocking in the other spots as well. In large part, this is the case because our economic system is global in proportion.
Take the iPhone for example. The iPhone is a signature modern gadget that we all possess. It is recognized anywhere you go and shipped all over the world. Obviously, the iPhone was dreamed up somewhere in Northern California. But when it comes to the design and the production, its existence is dependent on people who work in all parts of the world.
And it’s not just the production and distribution that’s global. What happens when that iPhone is in someone’s hands? They’re suddenly in touch with the rest of the world; they can call people, browse, stream, etc. We have access to the entire world through this one little gadget.
That is a singular experience for citizens of today, compared to most of human history.
Is globalization always a positive thing for the world?
I don’t think there is such a thing as positive globalization. I don’t think there are purely positive human realities. Any great possibilities that open for us are also possibilities for harm. It’s our responsibility both to work on our individual selves and to work on a global scale.
Interconnectivity and interdependence have positive sides, but they also have profoundly negative sides. It’s inter-connectivity that makes global terrorism possible. It’s interdependence that makes world economic crises possible. It is the functioning of globalized markets that make it possible for us to benefit from sweatshops around the world.
Changing globalization processes is extremely complicated, very difficult, and very frustrating. And yet we need to limit the potential for any of these negative effects. The fact that we benefit from globalization places demands on us to have solidarity with the people around the globe from whose work we benefit, but who themselves often end up being truly exploited.
Do people of faith have a role in impacting how globalization works?
Pope Benedict XVI has this beautiful statement in his book Jesus of Nazareth: “The poor are God’s first love.” And that’s quite right; our responsibility is first of all to attend to the weakest, to the poorest among us.
One of Pope John Paul II’s signature quotes—I believe he used it when he spoke at the U.N.—is “globalization without marginalization.” Today, we are facing a huge discrepancy between those who are wealthy and everyone else. That this exists implies that there are certain forms of marginalization to which we need to attend.
For John Paul II, attention to the marginalized was rooted in the fundamental dignity of human beings and in divine love for those human beings. He was very powerful in articulating this. Pope Francis has also done an extraordinary job of emphasizing the importance of the poor and the importance of the church turning toward those who really cannot help themselves.
As individual Christians and people of faith, we must ask ourselves what it is that we fundamentally want and love. One of the basic themes of my book Flourishing is that we are profoundly mistaken if we think we can satisfy all our longing by living on bread alone, on the flat plain of an ordinary life.
Once we make that discovery, we can see and acquire new solidarity with those on the other side of the globe. We can start to connect with others, rather than being obsessed by the desire to satisfy our own desires and longings.
Where do we find meaning, if not by bread alone?
Many religious faiths have as their guiding principle the question of “What are the purposes of human existence?” Or, put differently, “How should I live today?”
For Christians, the answers are found in a way of life that is embodied in Jesus Christ—who, in fact, is a self-revelation of God. This understanding opens up the possibility of living a generous life. It opens up the possibilities of seeing the world as a gift, as a sacrament.
When we see the world this way, we are able to go outside of our self, to our neighbor and to God. We are able to connect with each other and thus enjoy ordinary life much more than we otherwise would.
We live in a society that is more interested in fun than in joy. The difference between the two can be understood in the following way: You can have fun no matter what the state of your soul or the state of the world. But joy has always had an intentional object. I rejoice over something.
If we’re just worried about having fun, we can forget about the world. We can simply live for pleasure and think that the good life consists of increasing our pleasure and decreasing our suffering. But this is a very shallow way to think about what it means to have a good life.
Instead, it’s important to keep our sense of emotional satisfaction and our ideals about what it means to live right. And our Christian faith provides us with the resources to think more deeply about what authentic human pleasure and joy and the good life really are.
In your book you refer to this joy-filled life as human flourishing. What does true flourishing look like?
I would say, as a Christian, that Jesus Christ is an example of a flourishing life. And I mean both Jesus Christ the man—on his way through impoverished Palestine, not having a place to lay his head, ending on the cross—and Jesus who was raised through the Holy Spirit and sits at the right hand of God the Father.
I would say that flourishing has three formal features. One is that life is somehow going well—that it has the ability to go well. The next is that life is being led well. Finally, the third is that life somehow feels right—there’s an emotional side to the good life. All three of these pieces belong together.
In Romans 14, the Apostle Paul describes the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not food and drink; it is righteousness, peace, and joy. Righteousness is acting and living rightly. Peace is living in circumstances that are conducive to a good life. And joy is the emotional side. For me, that’s what the good life is: righteousness, peace, and joy. That’s not to say that flourishing can’t be about satisfying basic human needs—food and drink—even in a very luxurious way. But it’s about more than that.
Can globalization, despite its flaws, help to bring about human flourishing for all?
When we talk about the good life, there is always an element of waiting. But it’s not just sitting together and doing nothing. It’s more like when someone is pregnant and waiting for a child. The entirety of life gets pulled into the orbit of the coming child. We rearrange our homes, our lives, and our patterns of behavior. The hope for the child pulls us completely into ourselves.
We have a similar hope as Christians; we have a vision of the good life that God gives us, and a promise that God is coming. This pulls us to make the world ready and to align ourselves with God. Yes, we’re waiting, but we’re busy while we wait. And one of the tools we have to use is globalization.
We use the processes and resources that we are provided in order to be actively involved. That active involvement goes all the way from shaping the interior life of the self to creating a circle of friends to projecting ourselves into more parts of the world and being engaged with global networks and processes.
We live in a world in which problems are so many that they are way beyond the abilities of any of us to attend to them, let alone attend to all of them completely. Demands are upon us from all sides, and it sometimes makes people paralyzed. That’s why it’s important to discern a particular calling and then engage in that calling.
Leave the rest, in a sense, to providence. Trust that other people will have calls to take on the problems that you can’t. There’s a great advantage to knowing that everything doesn’t depend on my own actions; I can rely on the power of God to motivate a wide range of people to get engaged in a variety of ways.
I equate this with our embrace and response to the kingdom of God. I believe in a profound sense that Jesus is the kingdom of God personified.
The presence of Christ and the power of the Spirit in our lives are signs of the kingdom that are already present. We are already experiencing in a very real way the coming kingdom. That which is not is already coming to be in small but palpable ways in our lives, communities, and in our world.
Does globalization threaten religious faith?
One way to look at globalization is to see the effects of globalization processes on religion. We must remind ourselves that religion is always a response to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. The rulers of this world have tailored religions by twisting and bending their meanings to serve their own purposes for a very long time. And the same thing is happening with globalization in some ways.
There’s this sense that globalization processes are stabilizing themselves by using religious sensibilities to defend themselves. For example, the transformation of religious traditions into prosperity religions. These religious faiths see themselves as simply helping out the market forces in their forward march toward progress. That’s a deep misconstruction of what religion really is.
At the same time, the globalization of the planet is making it increasingly difficult for our religions to identify with a particular national or political community. This isn’t always good; you have the potential to lose something profound. But the church has spoken many languages from the very beginning; there’s always been a plurality of expression in a multiplicity of cultures. Globalization may limit that a bit, but it can also enhance that. It can make it possible for us to express our faith and to celebrate other expressions of faith that are different from our own. There is loss but there is also the potential of retrieval.
We now have to answer the question of how the great world religions will live together in a pluralistic environment and under a pluralistic political order.
I am for freedom of religion. That means I am for freedom of all religions, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t embrace a steady commitment to my own faith. I just want to make sure that everybody else also has that opportunity within public spaces.
The world is becoming a more religious place. Religions are also becoming increasingly publically assertive. We all live in a pluralist environment. If that’s the case, we must ask ourselves how strongly affirmed religions can share common public space.
During Vatican II, the Catholic Church developed resources to embrace pluralism. There was a robust embrace of freedom of religion that created the possibility for having very religious people who were also advocates of political pluralism. We need to create political institutions with these same commitments: We can robustly embrace faith and also embrace the right of another person to embrace their own faith or no faith at all. Given our situation, this is a necessity; we can only live together in the context of pluralism.
Can religions ever become too powerful politically?
Throughout history, one of the most problematic aspects of religions was the close alliance between a particular political power and a given religion. Then, the religion became a force that legitimized violence by the powerful.
But as our societies get more pluralistic, this tie between religions and political power is breaking down. That doesn’t mean it has completely disappeared—take fundamentalist Islam for example. Obviously ISIS is a very good example of the aspiration to political power and the profound misuse of religion.
The relationship to Islam in the United States is an ambivalent one. Obviously we have to deal with threats of terrorism, but that’s a very separate issue from the issue of whether America should see itself as a pluralistic country or instead somehow as a Christian nation.
The same is true of Europe. Except Europe needs to see itself not as purely secular and instead as a pluralistic society that welcomes Christians, Muslims, secularists, and so forth.
I think that Islam is so threatening to people today because Islam is experiencing certain forms of conservative resurgence. It’s been repressed under secular regimes, and now the conservative form of Islam has emerged with the aspirations to be a political religion.
Political Islam is a mistake. A mistake that will not succeed. But in the process of learning as much, significant damage is being done by some Muslims.
Many people in the United States and Europe today react simply to this political Islam rather than keeping in mind that Islam is much, much broader than the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis. Islam includes wide swaths of people who do not have those kinds of aspirations. Islam is only most brutally embodied in ISIS or other conservative and more political forms of Islam.
Is religion necessary for political reconciliation?
Religion certainly has a role in the struggles between people, therefore religion must also have a significant role to play in the reconciliation between peoples. And we need to emphasize that religions have the resources to fulfill that role.
But the stronger question is whether religions are necessary for reconciliation. I’m not certain to what extent this is true. I will say that the Christian faith is significant because it’s a religion of reconciliation.
A message of reconciliation lies at the very heart of our faith. And it’s about not just reconciliation between humanity and God, but reconciliation among human beings.
We haven’t been very good at practicing this. Sometimes we’ve been better at dividing. Better at fighting than we are at uniting and reconciling. But there is a long tradition also of reconciliation in Christian circles. We need to strengthen these many movements within the Christian tradition. They need to be an inspiration for us on how to live Christian faith authentically in the contemporary world.
This article appears in the June 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 6, pages 30–33).
Image: Courtesy of Miroslav Volf