This is the fifth post in a seven-part series for Spectrum’s 2016 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Flourishing by Miroslav Volf. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.
This summer I took 15 undergraduates on a Holocaust Study Tour in Central Europe. The students were asking the same questions that are frequently asked in such settings: “What causes people to do such violent things to each other?” and “What can be done to prevent this?” Miroslav Volf’s personal background and much of his scholarship is taken up with such questions. Coming from the former Yugoslavia, which also went through its own genocide, he has invested a great deal of time in analyzing and proposing answers to that second question—how can reconciliation and peace be achieved in spite of deep differences and past tragedies?
Chapter Five of Flourishing, “Conflict, Violence, and Resolution” builds on Chapter Four’s assertion that religious exlusivism need not (indeed, for our world to work well, must not) negate a commitment to political pluralism. In fact, while religious exclusivism has the potential to incite violence, it isn’t inherently violent, and in a highly globalized world, we need the reconciling potential of world religions.
Volf basically accepts Steven Pinker’s work on the decline of violence in the world, though not completely his rationale for why it has occurred. Still, Volf writes, globalization has resulted in widespread agreement on the importance of the free market (Mammon), pluralistic states with representative governments (Leviathan), and human rights (Iusticia)—and all of these elements reduce both the benefit of violence and its frequency. Vitally, Volf does admit that the pacification of the world through the increased power of the state has happened at great cost and even oppression to many people groups.
While much of globalization has reduced violence, it has also caused “three dark clouds” that the contemporary world faces: diversity with competing notions of the good life, the gap between rich and poor, and ecological catastrophe (p. 168). He argues that the world’s religions can help with the latter two ”clouds” by promoting devotion to the transcendent. Having a greater sense of what matters in the world beyond the material can mitigate class war and also lessen ecological footprints. But Volf is primarily concerned in this chapter with the power of religious identity and commitment to motivate and assist with reconciliation.
Volf’s work in Exclusion and Embrace is famously effective in highlighting the elements that are needed for reconciliation and he provides a quick summary of them here. It is in the world’s religions, although not those alone, that Volf roots the models and motivations for repentance, apologies, forgiveness and then reconciliation. I highly recommend this chapter as quick survey of how Volk thinks this is best done. We live, he reminds us, in a world where demographic realities mean we live cheek by jowl with people whose visions of the good life are different from ours. How are we going to deal with the conflict that (inevitably) comes?
I am one of those people who do not believe in the myth of a secular enlightenment that invented toleration. I do not think that getting rid of religion will solve conflicts, or even most of them. The Holocaust Tour that we just finished in May was very convincing in this regard: all of the countries we visited had enforced secularism for most of the 20th century and yet continued the process of ethnic cleansing for totally “secular” reasons. Like Volf I am also optimistic about the role of religion to “attend to the wrong-doing of the past, preventing it from colonizing the future” (p. 194). We desperately need this attention to something beyond raw power and self-indulgence to mitigate these conflicts.
Volf’s description of how globalization has reduced violence is thin and contested. As a historian, I would like more evidence beyond the anecdotal, though I do not disagree with his articulation. I think another weak point is his reliance on “rightly held” religious beliefs—on the “original articulations” of the world’s religions that he thinks can somehow stand up to the threat of violence and conflict and promote reconciliation. We have ample evidence that many people don’t hold to those original articulations.
Still, as a pragmatist, I’m inspired by the idea of allowing the visions of the transcendent to counter the ugly economic challenges and ethnic conflict we daily experience in our globalized world. The diverse worldviews aren’t going away and neither is the human mash-up that is most large cities and almost all countries. I’m convinced, like Volf, that the main source of violence is a commitment to state power. Religions, with their possibility of looking beyond the state for succor, can be a great counter to political exclusivism.
For myself, the Christian vision of the Body of Christ and the language of the priesthood of all believers, has done a great deal to help me attend to the full humanity of others. As a Seventh-day Adventist, being part of a world church has dampened my nationalistic ardor enough to help me imagine having more in common with my SDA brothers and sisters in (for instance) Kenya than I might sometimes have with my atheist neighbors in Chattanooga. This doesn’t mean that I am alienated from my local neighbors who don’t share my vision of the transcendent, just that my world religion allows me to expand my heart and imagination.
And it was this same sort of imagination, often of the religious kind, that helped some people at various times during the Holocaust (as my students and I learned, over and over on our tour), resist going along with genocide and ethnic cleansing and the ceaseless round of reprisals. In this context, “love your enemy,” “turn the other cheek,” and the language of unmerited forgiveness are all powerful antidotes. Research shows that group identity based on a common focus on the sacred can make people kinder to each other, both within the group and without it. Secular identity does not allow for this level of practical kindness. Volf is arguing that we need religion to help us deal with the problems of modernity.
I wonder about the readers of this site. Has your faith contributed to your own flourishing and that of others, or has it led to barriers? I would like to say “yes” to this, though the realities of the globalized, demographically dense world Volf described to challenge me. I pray that my claims to a vision of the transcendent as seen in the life and death and forgiveness and resurrection of Jesus help me reconcile with the people I most need to each day—the ones I rub up against on the roads, at work, on my street, in my church—who offend or annoy me. And I live each day so grateful that I get to receive unconditional love and forgiveness within a local church, that expression of the Body of Christ that is practice ground for both the whole world and all eternity.
Lisa Clark Diller lives with her husband Tommy in Chattanooga, TN where she is a professor of history at Southern Adventist University.
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