Summer Reading Group: “Mindsets of Respect, Regimes of Respect”

This is the fourth 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.

Friday, August 5 marked the 4th anniversary of the day Michael Page gunned down six Sikhs at the Oak Creek gurdwara in Wisconsin. Until Dylan Roof murdered 9 worshippers at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Oak Creek was the largest mass killing at a place of worship in the US since the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.

Nothing highlights our need to establish mindsets and cultures of respect than these and so many other instances of Othering, religious exclusivism, and terrorism in the US and around the globe. People literally die when we fail to respect each other.

Chapter 3 of Miroslav Volf’s book Flourishing tackles the mutual respect that religious traditions need to give and also be given in a plural society. Volf explores two themes: (1) the “global security risk” of religious intolerance, and (2) relationships within religions, between religions, and between religions and host societies that mutually honor religious freedom.

On the question of religious intolerance, Volf cites data from 2012 and 2013 on global religious freedom, and these data present quite a dire, violent picture. While data from just a year later show an increase in religious violence, they also show a “five-year decline” in severe global restrictions on religious freedom, and the percent of people around the world living with high or very high social religious hostilities falls from 46% when Volf wrote to 23% in 2014. Volf outlines religious violence against Christians, Muslims, and others, but does not address “intolerant attitudes and practices” that Christians direct toward others (p. 98).

Volf acknowledges that the major world religions all have poor global track records with religious freedom over the centuries and within our own century. He mentions the Christians who baptized the Western hemisphere in blood at the start of the colonial globalization era, the Muslims who conduct terror campaigns or use their states to repress other religious groups today, and mutual stereotyping among some Christians, Muslims, and secular Europeans: minoritized religious groups in every culture can testify of dominant groups’ intolerance.

The religions that Volf argues share the trait of exclusivist intolerance also share the practice of universally describing and asserting moral claims about all people. “Universal claims” is one of six criteria that Volf uses throughout the book to frame his discussion of world religions (pp. 68-69), and I still have my doubts about restricting the discussion of “religions” to those religions that possess this feature.

Like most Spectrum readers, my personal experience is with intra-religious debates in Christianity, not intra-religious debate in Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, or Judaism, or inter-religious debate in non-Christian-dominant nations. From experience I know Christians don’t share the same moral assumptions. I sometimes even catch myself wondering whether Russell Moore and Franklin Graham worship the same God I do. Within Christianity, Christians don’t agree on “what is true, just, and good for all human beings,” or how to correctly diagnose and resolve humankind’s problems. That’s why our conflicts are as rigorous and perennial as they are.

Volf rightly notes that some intolerance naturally follows from adopting timeless, universal claims about all people: “When world religions are publicly engaged, they threaten to exclude all competitors; when they are pushed into privacy, they themselves are objects of exclusion (p. 101, 133). Religions and non-religious people aren’t going to vanish, so we have to establish whether, despite our substantive disagreements, we can learn to manage life together without exclusion, without marginalization, without dehumanization, and without violence.

“Can adherents of a world religion learn to respect adherents of other religious and humanistic ways of life even while strenuously disagreeing with them? Second, can adherents of world religions embrace freedom of religion and a-religion and support pluralistic democracy? Finally, can democracies be ‘religion friendly’—set up such that they are equally fair to religious as to a-religious ways of life—and therefore genuinely pluralistic?” (p. 102).

As part of his own answer, Volf reviews John Locke’s 17th Century principles of religious tolerance. Locke diverged from the dominant theocratic views of his era and proposed limits to states’ ability to advance sectarian laws, restrict religious expressions, or punish variant theologies and religious practices. He didn’t believe that piety made coerced thought or behavior permissible for religion or the state. Locke also discouraged efforts to honor sectarian religions’ universal moral claims by requiring the rest of society to comply: “True and saving religion,” he wrote, “consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God” (pp. 104-105).

Most importantly, Locke anticipated Seventh-day Adventists’ traditional distinction between the church’s authority over the spiritual/moral sphere of life and the state’s authority over the civil legal/ ethical sphere, between our right relation to a transcendent God and our right relation to one another. Our church promotes this distinction most clearly in discussions of the Decalogue.

Perhaps Paul, Tertullian, and Locke were right about free conscience and the primacy of voluntary commitment; perhaps there’s “absolutely no such thing under the Gospel as a Christian commonwealth,” a society that combines the church’s authority with the state’s authority. If so, then historical and modern efforts to reform civil law and culture to create or recover a “Christian nation” that minoritized and non-Christian populations must yield to are deeply mistaken. These state-Christianizing efforts also undermine the individual freedoms that Locke and Volf argue are fundamental to all other freedoms, including religious freedom and freedom from religion.

Volf notes two reasons that a world religion might not adopt either Locke’s model or his own: exclusive truth claims that praise people for joining a religion but punish them should they ever de-convert; and enmeshment with domineering forms of social and political power (pp. 111-117). Even within Adventism, adult converts often gain significant community credibility (e.g. Ivor Myers, Walter Veith, and Doug Batchelor), whereas adult heterodox, “heretics,” or de-converts can attract significant community opprobrium (e.g. Desmond Ford, Aubyn Fulton, and Ryan Bell). And our dynamic is bloodless; other religions’ membership policing process is not.

Unlike religious adherents who perceive membership accessions and decessions as wins, losses, achievements, or attacks, Volf encourages us to receive others’ witnessing as an invitation to weigh our beliefs’ validity. He shares his wish to hear Jewish people challenge his belief in Jesus’ deity because “[these challenges] nudge me to reexamine whether what I think is true isn’t in fact a kind of fundamental error” (p. 116). Implicit in this wish is the reciprocity principle we teach as the Golden Rule: as much as Volf wishes to hear others’ witnessing, he also wishes to be able to witness to others. Genuine openness to others’ convictions and willingness to learn from them is a great ideal. It just requires a lot less existential angst than communities with exclusivist and universal truth claims regularly produce.

Adventist community rhetoric often shows us struggling to parse the distance between people’s beliefs and their characters, or as Volf says, between people’s persons and their work (pp. 118-120). Review any comment section of your choice: Adventists who have few questions about the 28 Fundamental Beliefs or the church’s ordination policies are framed as loyal and respectful of the church’s authority; people who question how we’ve traditionally interpreted the Genesis chronologies or advocate for women ministers are framed as disloyal and untrustworthy.

On the other hand, there’s obviously a way out of the person/work dilemma because people are already living beyond it. LGBT+ parents in the film Seventh-Gay Adventists can sew Pathfinders patches on uniforms as carefully as heterosexual parents can when their congregations allow them and their children to serve; heterosexual parents who disagree with the morality of their son’s relationship can still discern ways to participate in his family life without abandoning their beliefs. As Volf puts it, “we respect persons by virtue of their humanity, but we respect their work—their actions, convictions, character, and basic orientation—by virtue of its excellence” (p. 120). Serving a local church ministry and establishing a mutual and stable home life are both works that most onlookers can perceive as excellent. Our freedom doesn’t hinge on denying that works like these positively impact the people participating in them, and so indirectly benefit the communities they’re part of.

My favorite version of the soul classic “Respect” is sung by the 1960s band Rotary Connection. Unlike Aretha Franklin's punchy celebration, the Rotary Connection’s choral/blues guitar version explains more plaintively, “All I’m asking is for a little respect.” In both cases, though, the song is only about the respect we want to be given. It never acknowledges the respect we also have to give.

And this is the basic challenge that adherents of the world religions described in Volf’s book keep confronting because of our universal claims, exclusive commitments to truth, and struggle to generously observe the positive contributions other religions and philosophies have on members’ lives or wider world. We ultimately benefit from legal contexts that are biased towards dignity, religious freedom, and civil liberty for all, for these are societies that recognize that permitting discrimination and marginalization for one group creates vulnerabilities for all groups.

From the very first chapter, I wondered whether Volf’s focus on the “major” religions to the exclusion of “local” and indigenous religions would be a disadvantage to him. This chapter may be one area of his model where It is. Non-universalizing religions have had millennia of practice in engaging the competing claims of other faiths, and they’ve often lost bitterly to religions that end arguments with the point of a sword.

After all these centuries of missional globalization, it would be curious if marginalized religions had something to teach the dominant world religions about how to live through difference with respect, and the always-centered universalizing religions couldn’t resolve this issue without the lived wisdom of the communities they’ve so often violently failed to tolerate.

Keisha E. McKenzie lives and works in Maryland, and writes at

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Keisha-- thank you for the good analysis.
Actually, from the first chapter I saw some problems with Volf’s wishful thinking.
There is incompatability with Intra- Religious groups and among External larger Religious Groups.
We see this just in the 2 Muslim divisions where one group slaughters thousands of the other group.
We have seen External Religious groups at war with each other as in Hindu and Buddhists.
In Africa we have seen Muslims capture Christian girls and sell as sex-slaves. Forcing them to become Muslim.
We see this now with Muslims and the rest of the world.
We see the tension of within the Muslim community where people want to live their own lives [women want to be free to choose their own clothes, wear make-up if desired, become educated and have careers outside the home, persons gay, lesbians want to be able to live in peace and not die a horrible death] but are micro-managed both inside and outside the home by Religious “Police”. And if live in a “Muslim” country, find their life at stake if want to change how they worship God.
In documentaries we see TWO Muslim Religions. The ones who read in their Holy Book about peace and desire to worship God from that perspective. The other of strict Rules and Regulations and to be enforced by groups like ISIS with force and guns, beatings, stonings, mutilations.
We see countries like China and Russia continue to have difficulty with “religious freedom” issues.
We see issues here in the States between Fundamental Christians wanting “restrictions” through government, and more Progressives wanting to allow more freedom of thought regarding what were once “Religious Issues”.
Even among SDAs there is Intra-Religious Conflict and the tension between the Ultra-Fundamentalist Majority and the Minority of Questioners of a number of the #28. And if one questions, like Desmond Ford, or how to put Genesis in perspective as to how the physical world appears, is it OK that Women are equally called by God as Men, is Love ONLY between a Man and Woman, or is God OK with Love between two of the same sex, what to do if the Brain and the Body do NOT match, one can easily be labeled “heretic”, or have their membership status questioned [excommunication], or be threatened about their ability to provide services to the group [I had my playing the organ every 1st Sabbath threatened over a minor incident with my former pastor, was ugly. Another incident during that time. I had taught Adult SS class every 4th week as an interim teacher. When the new SS Leader was elected others took my place [as expected]. I was in the habit of giving out extra material I would find that would be good Sabbath afternoon reading on the Lesson topic. No one complained to me. A whole year later, the Leader comes to me and says the reason I was not selected to continue was because I was bringing in non-SDA materials and handing them out.]
And ALL these SDA issues of Interpreting one’s Sacred Scriptures are in other religions also. And these interpretations are what cause fighting with other religions [to the death some times] and conflict with groups inside religions and how to dispose of “heretics”.
These are very complicated issues.
But whether inside Seventh day Adventism, or in larger Christianity, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Agnostic, or no religion, it is RESPECT for the other person to be able to find their place before God. But This is NOT going to happen either in the Seventh day Adventist church system, not in the world at large among the potential 7 billion people.
I AM my brother’s and sister’s thought “police”.

EDIT-- 8/9-- In the Preface “Flourishing” is described as A. Life well lived. B. Life goes well. C. Life feels good. C. The thriving in one’s proper environment.
Traders were the first to develop “globalization” at the dawn of history. Creating unprecedented wealth, radically transforming human lives [for good and bad]. Insatiability of goods is what drives globalization. Markets create the “wants” of the goods, Then there is the “Need” to fill the void that the “wants” created.
Our insatiability undermines the goodness of objects desired, and dampens the joy of possessing them.
However, one’s problem arises in being able to identify A. The life that is BEING well lived. b. The life that IS going well. C. Actually feel that life is “good”.
As Mac stated at the end of her post — Each Religion and EACH Expression of Religion [ Seventh day Adventists included, depending what part of the world one is in] has claims about what that means and THAT is where what we believe about our “Life” has both material costs and body counts.
Do our Needs and “wants” coming from someplace put those workers at risk, in danger?
What are all the harms that our GREED generates?

Sabbath School – Just read the Scripture texts [and use several translations, not just the KJV] and let the class members comment on them without lecturing on them by the “teacher”. Allow for the free-flow of the thought processes of the individual members to stimulate discussion from the others.

Thanks for this thoughtful commentary on this chapter, Keisha. I appreciated how you took Volf’s discussion about the relationships between different religions and applied it to the “inter-religious” relations within our own denominational family. Volf is trying to carve out an alternative to theological fundamentalism (“my way is the only one”) and theological pluralism (“we are all equally right or wrong in the end”). While I found his discussion of how one can claim their own tradition is the best or most correct AND still genuinely respect others from other traditions to be nuanced and constructive, I was left wondering if it is psychologically possible for most people, including myself. But I agree his analysis is helpful for our inter-religious squabbles.

I’m scratching my head about Volf’s political solution would apply to these debates, though. It makes sense to me that the government should be neutral toward all religions, but this does not seem to apply perfectly to church governance, because one of its interests is preserving and propagating its way of life and teachings, as it has been traditionally understood. Perhaps a big tent model of the church would mean that the church be neutral as possible on some items, while seeking to preserve its exclusive claims,i.e. the essentials, but who gets to determine what these are?

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Thanks for reading, Steve.

Zane, thanks. I wonder if part of the difficulty is ambiguity about whether religions are best understood as communities of common practice or as communities of common thinking. Contemporary Christianity seems to fracture over common and disparate thinking; the Jews I know talk to me about maintaining communities of common or at least analogous practices. But of course their communities fragment over divergent practices as well.

Within our context, while we have a global executive, we don’t have a global judiciary. Decisions are made by a sample of executive members, there’s no neutral arbiter when we do disagree, and we don’t have a robust ethic for maintaining respectful vs resentful fellowship through disagreement.

That said, I’ve never heard someone who supports, say, women’s pastoral ordination argue that people who don’t believe in it should no longer hold church membership or go find another community where they can ban all women from spiritual leadership. There may be people who believe it, but I’ve not heard it advanced seriously. So not all disagreements are equivalent.

As for the way Volf describes pluralism, well, I had thoughts about that, just not the space to get into it. There are levels to pluralism. If we’re pragmatic about things we can usually find several theological or policy routes to achieve a goal. There are very, very few cases in which it makes sense to me to say anything like “we’re all equally right or wrong.” Beliefs have real world consequences for real, live people, and real world consequences can be measured.

What I’m hoping for as we get further into the book is that Volf takes the risk of explaining precisely what he means when he writes about people flourishing or living well. Each religion and expression of religion has claims about what that means and that’s where what we believe has both material costs and body counts.

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It would seem that a liturgical form of service would work the best. This means the Bible - our common authority as Christians - would determine the essentials, while its interpretation be left to each, as lead by the Spirit. That would certainly make for more interesting and useful SS discussions, instead of canned questions, followed by canned answers.

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I’m reading two books right now alongside Flourishing that are overlapping with the issues of this chapter: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt and Stories: Mennonite Belief and Practice by John Roth.

Keisha your comment on communities of belief vs. communities of practice totally is something Roth is discussing with Anabaptists. Adventists have an interesting connection to Anabaptist tradition. Mennonites don’t have a creed or list of beliefs, but are held together by practices. Adventists often are too, but we also have lists of beliefs that hold us together. So we experience that same tension within our tradition.

Haidt’s research about how moral arguments are made has been mind-bending for me. It relates to your analysis here, Keisha, by reminding us that some people make their moral judgements around “Care/Harm” and others around “Authority/Obedience” or “Loyalty” or “Fairness” or “Sacred” or such things. And for those who are more interested in Care/Fairness, an emphasis on Sacred/Loyalty might seem outrageous and unkind. So complicated and not just about ideas or beliefs.

Thanks for this and I look forward to more conversation!


Lisa, I first heard Haidt speak on moral judgments in his TED talk years ago. It didn’t transform me into an obedience-loyalty moralist but it gives me a framework for understanding my beloved ones who are. It also, like Paul, ropes people like me in with humor before challenging us on our biases.

Haidt’s categorization of moral judgement also came up in last summer’s book, Richard Beck’s Unclean. @brentonreading wrote about that chapter.

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