A Conversation with Miroslav Volf

Miroslav Volf is originally from Osijek, Croatia. He was raised in a home shaped by faith but in a community that, being primarily Catholic and Orthodox, was not particularly open to the Volf’s strain of Protestantism. Volf’s attempts to understand the larger Christian community and create a context for human flourishing have undergirded his work as a professor of theology and Director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Yale University, and have also led to his most recent book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. Volf recently visited San Francisco to talk about the topic of flourishing for the Newbigin House of Studies. This is an excerpt from his remarks:
I think the most controversial part of my book is actually the subtitle, “Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World,” because lots of folks don’t think we need religion. Secularists believe we need to get rid of religion because many of them, if they are more strident, feel that we need to eliminate religion or, if they’re less strident, let it peacefully go to its end because religion is irrational or violent and the irrationality and violence of religion often merge into one.
If you are an adherent of a religion you would be troubled with the singular of the book’s subtitle: We need religion as a collective noun that encompasses different religions, because religions themselves are often engaged in mutual recrimination. One religion is seen from the perspective of the other as irrational, or being violent, and probably these kinds of mutual recriminations are most visible today between Christianity and Islam. Christians are consistently claiming that Islam is a violent religion; Muslims are consistently claiming that Christians are more violent than Muslims and on top of it they’re irrational, because who has ever thought of explaining in any rational way that Christ was both human and divine, or that God is the Holy Trinity?
I illustrate this to share that both the secularists and religious folks might not like this idea that we need religion today in the global sphere. So why, with this idea of needing religion, why did I write this book?
A reminder–we live in a world that is very much a modern world and one of the definitions of modernity according to Peter Sloterdijk, a German philosopher, is that age in which only the world may be the case, or is the case. So there is no sense of transcendence. Modernity is an age in which all of us, whether we believe in transcendence or not, act as if only the world is the case. To me, that’s one of the great challenges that we’re facing today, and I personally think that this “practical” atheism, practical denial of transcendence, is more significant than the theoretical one in certain regards. This is the fundamental opposition that runs not simply between religious folks and secular, but sometimes within religions themselves.
Now, religions–and I have here in mind the great world religions such as Buddhism, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam–these great world religions are what Nietzsche has called, that was supposed to be a kind of derisive description, they have “two worlds account” of reality. By this he meant they have an account of reality in which there is a transcendent world and a mundane world. If you divide the world in this way, then the transcendent world would have primacy–the transcendent world is the origin of the mundane.
This is true of all world religions. Just think of one of the most scandalous stories in all of the Bible, and that is Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. It’s a very disturbing story, in many ways. God has dragged Abraham out of his homeland into a land that he showed him, but which Abraham did not possess, then suddenly, after Abraham just sees the fulfillment of the promise for which he sacrificed being possible to be fulfilled, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. The entirety of Abraham’s future, promised by God, is less important than the God who has promised the future. The transcendent realities are most fundamental–they are the foundation of everything; they orient the foundation of our lives. Transcendent realities have primacy.
You might ask, what does that have to do with flourishing? I’ll try to explain.
I would want to say that from the perspective of Christian faith–and from other world religions as well–the mother of all temptations, equally hard to resist in abundance and in want, is to believe and act as if human beings lived by bread alone. As if their entire lives should revolve around creation, improvement, distribution, secularization of worldly goods. From the perspective of the Christian faith–all other world religions–all other temptations, serving false gods, are the consequence of falling into this one temptation.
You recall this phrase–Jesus was being tempted and was asked by the tempter to “turn this stone into bread.” “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord,” Jesus said, quoting Moses back to the tempter. This was the lesson that the children of Israel were supposed to learn through wandering in the wilderness. They lived by bread, they needed bread to live. That was never really in doubt. And that trite truth nobody needs to learn, that we need bread. But what they needed to learn, that we as human beings are human by the fact that we don’t live by bread alone. And that this truth might not be as insistent as the hunger in our bellies but it is as real as the possibility of the curse of losing our humanity. That’s what we need to learn, especially we moderns.
Because in the course of modernity, we have made what is our greatest temptation into the chief goal of our lives. The state, the market, technology, science, education, all revolve around making more bread. Much of our energy revolved around turning stones into bread. That’s what the business of our lives is. Whether we are rich or poor we still find ourselves in wilderness, plagued by hunger or plagued by thirst. When we live in bread alone, strangely enough, there is never enough bread. When we live by bread alone, someone always goes hungry. When we live by bread alone, every bit we take leaves a bitter aftertaste, and the more we eat, the more bitter the taste. When we live by bread alone we always want more and better bread, as if the bitterness came from the bread itself and not the living by bread alone.
My point is this: Living by mundane realities and for them alone, we remain insatiably restless. And that restlessness in turn contributes to competitiveness, to social injustice, to the destruction of the environment. It also constitutes a major obstacle towards more just, generous, and caring personal practices and social arrangements. A different way to say what I’m trying to say here is that we have forgotten the virtue of contentment.
*To hear the full audio from A Conversation with Miroslav Volf, click on the SoundCloud link below:
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