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A misplaced flourish

24 March 2016

David Martin resists special pleading about what religion could be


Flourishing: Why we need religion in a globalized world

Miroslav Volf

Yale £18.99


Church Times Bookshop £16.99


MIROSLAV VOLF was brought up in the threatened minority of Croatian Pentecostals before studying under Jürgen Moltmann. He is now at Yale, and has become one of the world’s most respected theologians, writing on forgiveness, inclusion, and what Christianity shares with Islam. This latest book is about the interaction of the world religions with globalisation, and how the often corrosive world of the international market requires transcendental perspectives that offer more than “bread” alone.

Volf is a theologian whose social commitments force him to deploy sociological arguments that he does not understand or follow through. For example, he says that secularisation theory (the idea that religion is outdated superstition) is no longer tenable. As the initial critic of secularisation, I find that a very deficient account. We are, he says, becoming increasingly pluralistic in a way that pushes members of world religions to engage seriously and respectfully one with another. I find the evidence for that exiguous.

He even says that Islam is becoming “deterritorialised”. Is he talking about Sudan, Somalia, Morocco, Libya, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Chechnya, Northern Nigeria, the Central Asian Republics, Pakistan, or Bangladesh? He cites evidence documenting increasing intolerance and persecution, before going on to argue that that if world religions consulted their “constitutive” values, they could learn both to cherish their distinctive truths and accept cultural pluralism. I gave up counting the number of times he uses words like “could” and “should”.

Volf sets out an idea of what a world religion truly would be if only its adherents recognised it. He asserts that part of the very idea of a world religion is that it appeals to all humanity in a way that would recognise how integrity depends on freedom. Each of them has the resources, and also representatives, that could enable them to realise their true selves — of course they do, if you work selectively through their normative scriptures to find validation of that idea, and choose representatives that fit your case. For Volf, the problem lies in their chronic tendency to align themselves with political communities and identities, and thus to foment violence.

The book suggests that this particular “malfunction” is giving way to another one, based on the pursuit of prosperity. But is it? And what are words such as “malfunction” doing here? How can we, as serious analysts, say what properly functioning religion or true religion is, based on a set of ideal norms defining supposed “constitutive values”? Suppose that Islam, in its origins as a world-conquering faith based on a comprehensive way of life, is closer to a political religion than its rivals, Confucianism excepted? Are there not plentiful resources for any religion to quote, even ones as opposed to violence as primitive Christianity and Buddhism, as they judge occasion demands? Why do universal religions defend identities? These questions need more than special pleading about what could be the case in the unlikely absence of “malfunctions”.


The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

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