Summer Reading Group: “Religions and the Challenge of Globalization”

This is the third 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.

Our species' global proliferation, travel, and communication have caused us to rub up against more diversity than at any point in human history. This globalization is the inevitable result of a population explosion facilitated by agricultural and industrial revolutions and catalyzed by modernity’s technological wizardry. In this chapter, Volf argues, that globalization can be good for religions, helping them, “in some regards to be truer to their original visions” (61). Just as religion can help globalization (See last week’s post.), globalization can help religion. It’s a two-way street.

Despite predictions that modernity would extinguish religion, the same religious spark that facilitated our ancestors search for meaning as it comforted and structured their private and communal practices continues to inspire billions of humans in our postmodern and secular age. Volf points out the surprising growth of religious adherents both in absolute numbers and relative terms over the past five decades (61-62). He describes this increase as evidence of the abiding relevance of world religions (63).

By “religions,” Volf has in mind world religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He distinguishes them from “local” religions, identifying six common features. I want to highlight five that are central to understanding Volf’s argument in this chapter.

1. “Two Worlds” account of reality. While local religions view gods and spirits as aspects of our one world, world religions posit two realms giving primacy to the transcendent over the mundane.

2. Universal claims. Local religions mark social boundaries and are focused on the flourishing of the group. World religions offer universal insight on the human predicament and the way out.

3. The good beyond human flourishing. Local religions are concerned with ordinary human flourishing. World religions on the other hand are more interested in the good that can be attained despite or even through “failing.”

4. Religion as a distinct cultural system. Local religions are tied to local culture while world religions transcend cultures enabling transplantation into other cultures.

5. Transformation of mundane realities. Local religions are characterized by an assent to the realities of life while world religions seek to align mundane reality with the preferred transcendent realm (67-69).

As Volf describes them, these features are present more or less in all world religions. Rightly understood, the primary religious affirmation of the transcendent leads naturally to care for the mundane and a desire to transform it in positive ways. However, when religion is discussed and debated, all too often the transcendent emphasis of religion is neglected to focus entirely on the supposed efficacy of religion to explain phenomenon just as well as science or manipulate the material world in lieu of technology and human ingenuity. Volf points out that to expect religion to compete as an explanatory and manipulative force is misdirected (80). Rather, religions at their best claim that to be “free, full, and flourishing, life must be lived in relationship to the divine [transcendent], which gives meaning, orientation, and unique pleasure to all our mundane experiences and endeavors (81).” Therefore, “World religions stand or fall on their ability to connect people to the transcendent realm and thereby make it possible for them to truly flourish, to find genuine fulfillment in both their successes and failures, and to lead lives worthy of human beings, lives marked by joyous contentment and solidarity (82).”

This aspirational description of religious flourishing is sabotaged more often by malfunctioning religions themselves than by a-religious critics. Religion generally malfunctions in one of three ways. Practice malfunctions occur when religious adherents perpetrate great evil in opposition to the very religion they represent. Teaching malfunctions are less visible but more insidious distortions and misinterpretations which lead to injustice such as Christians who have offered religious justification for slavery, suppression of women, and exclusion of outsiders. Belonging malfunctions occur when religious zealots define themselves in aggressive terms against others such the current national rhetoric against Islam in America (76-77).

These particular malfunctions may lead to the profane mixing of religion with political power. This morphs world religions into hybrid local religions seeking to spread cultural particularities as universal norms—a situation Volf describes as a serious and violent malfunction of religion (86). This is where globalization can help. It offers an opportunity for religious adherents to express the true beauty of their faith by putting them in contact with those different than themselves. In this way, globalization reminds religions of the original universal scope of their visions which extend to everyone beyond particular cultural expressions. From the Christian perspective, it is through engaging the other that our own hearts expand to the point that we may even live up to Jesus’s call to love our enemy.

Yet, while an appropriate response to our pluralistic society could save religion from its malfunctions, the global economy may prove the downfall of religion. The lure of market-driven capitalism distracts religion from a transcendent perspective to focus on the mundane. In doing so, the misnamed “prosperity gospel” eviscerates the heart of religion and turns otherwise prophetic people into chaplains for the invisible hand of the market economy (87-88).

As an Adventist, I wonder how this relates to Adventism. Being a Christian denomination, Adventism of course shares equally in the common features Volf identifies with world religions as well as the malfunctions common to all religions.

Our Adventist religious movement has historically tried to separate from the world. This separation is one of three general religious responses to globalization described by Peter Berger. When a religious tradition that has formerly been taken for granted becomes de-centered by other vibrant practices of faith, religious believers can choose to either engage with the new traditions around them, create sectarian subcultures in which they continue to take their values for granted in isolation, or attempt to forcibly restore their single religion to dominance.

Our early Adventist pioneers seem to have chosen the narrow way of sectarianism. Given the bewildering cultural and ideological pluralism surrounding our religious communities, some continue to retreat into isolated communities. Furthermore, some seem to think that members must be tightly constrained in order to maintain the necessary separation and uniformity. Others choose the first option, seeking engagement and solidarity with the many religious and a-religious traditions in the world. Still others make the third choice and conflate religion with the state leading to religious intolerance and even violence. Movement in each direction is evident in the increasing polarization between progressive and traditional Adventists.

Not surprisingly, this difference in how we relate to religious diversity mirrors the current political divide. The recent Democrat and Republican national conventions epitomize the polarized responses of pluralistic engagement and inclusion versus forced uniformity and exclusion respectively. These diverging political responses have also been intensified by expanding globalization and increasing diversity.

While the “prosperity gospel” has largely been avoided by our Adventist community, the all-encompassing influence of capitalism has blunted our radical emphasis on the past, present, and soon coming Kin-dom of God. Having built an alternative empire of hospitals, schools, camps, churches, conference offices, and church hierarchy, we have found that maintenance of these structures too often limits our opportunity to engage society. All too often, we yield to the temptation to give up on religion’s own “deepest and most salutary insight and concern—an account of the good life whose focal point transcends the flat plane of mundane existence and its concerns for ordinary flourishing (90).” In doing so, we become enamored with building and sustaining our local empire, losing sight of love.

Adventism arose at the height of the enlightenment as a renewal movement to restore religion to its original purity and correct the corrupting influence of secularism. The Enlightenment predicted that religion would become mute, marginal, and mild; but, instead Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says in The Dignity of Difference, “It is fire and, like fire, it warms, but it also burns and we are the guardians of the flame.”

If Volf is right, globalization presents our greatest challenge and opportunity. We are living so close to difference with such powers of destruction that we have very little choice. As W.H. Auden wrote, “We must love one another or die.” Some might find this hopeless; but, my friend Samir Selmanovic says that religion is all about “learning to love well.” Reminded of this, I have a great sense of hope as together we face the challenges of our time.


Brenton Reading is a board member of Adventist Forum, the parent organization of Spectrum Magazine. He lives with his wife and three children in Shawnee, KS, a suburb of Kansas City where he practices Pediatric Interventional Radiology.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I’m baffled. In talking about malfunctioning religion in all its manifestations: PRACTICE MALFUNCTION, manifesting in great evil; TEACHING MALFUNCTION- insidiously leading to injustice (slavery, suppression of women, exclusion of others); BELONGING MALFUNCTION-religious zealots aggressively turning against others, the best examples that the writer can come up with is Christian malfunctions.

Granted, all inward focusing organizations eventually malfunction, human nature being what it is. Comparing Christian perpetuated EVIL, INJUSTICE, ZEALOTS, to what is being perpetuated by Islamic malfunctions, there is no comparison; yet the best example this author can give of ZEALOTS ACTING OUT, for example, is American rhetoric against Islamic atrocities; not Islamic violence against everybody else.

When speaking of TEACHING malfunction, again, the focus on Christian malfunction in areas of slavery, treatment of women and exclusion, we are to believe the glass ceililng is worse than child brides and female genital mutilation of the Islamic religions. There is no worse malfunction currently being demonstrated in this world, than Islamic malfunction. …and GLOBALIZATION will solve the problem? “Christian hearts need to expand and accept” this stuff?

This is simply a tirade against capitalism- pure and simple, and nothing to do with “love your neighbour”. In fact, it’s a perversion of Jesus’ words, to undergird a leftist ideology. Jesus never established a church or a religion, or a political system; or an economic system. “Love your neighbour” does not include love your neighbour’s ideology; or his abarrent religion; or his economic ideology. Lov your neighbour is a one-on-one issue.

All man-made institutions malfunction - that’s a given; but to compare Christian malfunctions to Islamic generated evil as being the best example of religious malfunction is preposterous.

Does Adventism need to emerge out of the cocoon it has woven around itself, of course; but that does not mean we have to jump on the PC bandwagon that is being driven by a malevolent political faction. This is not about global enlightenment. This is an organized process to take down western democracy through western naiveté.

Adventism may be stuck in the 19th century; Islam is in the stone age, and wants to take the rest of the entire world back there with it. The ideologues responsible for the ideas in this book won’t let that happen; but by then, the damage to democracy will already have been done by the leftist claptrap, exemplified by Bernie and his clueless current generation. The current generation, and a couple of generations before it, were educated by the social misfits of the sixties. Once they were released from prisons, they ended up teaching in “progressive” universities where the leftist agendas have been couched in globalist rhetoric. This also cozies up to Christian ideas of “love everybody” - and who can object to that.

Taken to other areas of US culture, this “love your neighbour” thing is extended to the southern border where hordes of illiterate illegals are pouring into the country; and we need to accept them in the name “love your neighbour”. They must be treated with love that gives them everything, including VOTING RIGHTS without any concept what any candidate stands for, because they can’t speak or understand English. All they know is they were accepted by one particular group, and they will be politically loyal to that group forever. This will create a nation that follows whatever leader gives them everything for free. Who would turn that down… This sounds a whole lot like Dostoevski’s Grand Inquisitor where the Catholic church stands in for Christ through handouts of absolution and bread, insuring a forever following based on basic human need. It’s not about globalization based on equality of all humanity; and it’s not about Christian concerns. It’s about politics.

Jesus said, _You always have the poor with you…_and neither religion or politics will change that. It’s up to Christians to minister to the poor without getting entangled in ideological battles that are not driven by anything that resembles Christianity.


Sirje wrote:

Taken to other areas of US culture, this “love your neighbour” thing is extended to the southern border where hordes of illiterate illegals are pouring into the country; and we need to accept them in the name “love your neighbour”. They must be treated with love that gives them everything, including VOTING RIGHTS without any concept what any candidate stands for, because they can’t speak or understand English."

Those of us who have lived in the Deep South for years where there was, and still are voting laws intended to deprive the African-Americans from voting must still fight for their rights in the courts.

As a 60+year Californian, with the highest population in numbers and percent of immigrants from Mexico and Central America, they may vote when qualifications are met and are extended equal voting rights and ballots are always printed in Spanish as well as other languages in areas where there is a majority of SE Asian and others.

That “hordes” of illiterate illegals are coming across our borders is a gross exaggeration: Many are children traveling alone, escaping poverty and even put into gangs. Should this country send them back where perhaps their fathers have been killed, and mothers sent them here for a better future?

Ballots are NOT available for everyone who crossed the border; most all are anxious to become U.S. citizens, and in the meantime they are very hard workers and this state could not supply much of the food you eat were it not for their work. There is a huge backlog of those who want citizenship and who first must attend classes–which includes the U.S.Constitution–something too many voters do not know nor understand–but they can vote.

Speaking English is no guarantee of understanding the candidates; this should be realized with the political conventions and the many interviews with voters who know who they will vote for and their reasoning. Unless someone has lived where there are multiple different ethnicities and religion, all living harmoniously, it may be difficult to understand. BTW: California has the largest number of ethnicities represented in some of the largest groups of all the states, so it is something we have learned to live with, peaceably.

Just yesterday I saw a statistic: The U.S. has only 1% representation from India, but they are 10% of all the physicians! They are Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and Christians.

A note from today’s NYTimes: "Recent polling from the Pew Research Center is instructive: Fifty-nine percent of the public said immigrants “strengthen the country,” while only 33 percent said they were a burden.

I am a Seventh-day Adventist Christian writing to a predominantly Christian audience. I am taking a deal with the plank in your own eye before pointing out the speck in your neighbor’s eye approach.

Recognizing that we have malfunctions in our own religion is vital if we are to do anything about them and in no way negates any of the examples provided of Islamic malfunctions.

I think Volf makes a valid point that interactions with those different from us provides a unique opportunity for Christians to exemplify the radical love of Christ. Do you disagree with Volf’s premise?


Brenton’s piece here pairs nicely with Carmen’s piece here.

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Sirje, your straight-on expression of conviction has generated the kind of indifference-shattering conversation we need to have. Thanks to you and to respondents so far.

You say “love thy neighbor” does not entail pats on the back for violent ideology, and I agree with you. So, as we shall see in later chapters of the book, does Volf.

You also say (and here I think fearfulness clouds your ability to see) that Islamic radicalism and the “invasion” from our southern border constitute our nation’s “two main issues” today. But why would you thereby relativize the moral nihilism that, in the West, now threatens citizen character, makes questions of justice seem at once irritating and soporific, objectifies (especially) young women, turns human attention to trivial distractions, and paves the way to ever-further extremes of self-preoccupation and political demagoguery?

If I mean here to express concern about “rot from within,” I make, I think, a socially conservative point. And if that point is overlooked or relativized, then all the fear and loathing in the world will not save us from the external threats (some real and some imagined) that now seize so much of our attention.



This is true unless the author of the article (me) engages you directly. Then responding is encouraged! As time permits, I hope to engage in conversation.

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I agree. Volf is very careful to acknowledge his limited experience with other religions when he comments on them. He is a world renowned scholar and theologian who has taught university level classes on the topic of religions and globalization. If he is humble and generous when discussing other religions (while not shying away from clearly defining malfunctions which condemns violence in no uncertain terms) we should be even more so.

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Thanks for your post, Brenton. Aside from the important questions of how these ideas might play out politically and practically, which Sirje has raised, this chapter has me thinking about the “hermeneutics of malfunction.” While I appreciated Volf’s analysis, I also couldn’t help but wonder who gets to determine what is a “genuine” to a tradition and what is a “malfunction.” I think most people would think that their current understanding of their faith is the “best” or “faithful” one and that it’s others who are distorting or perverting the faith. On one level, I suppose you can appeal to the teachings of the founders or sacred texts and that some are clear departures of those, but even those have to be interpreted and can be done so in a variety of ways.

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Good question Zane. I am thinking about the way Christians in the South supported slavery from their interpretation of scripture. In retrospect this seems a clear example of a religious teaching malfunction. But, of course a Southern Christian Slave holder in 1844 would not have seen it that way.

From a Christian perspective, Alden Thompson has described the 1. (Love), the 2. (Love God and Love Neighbor), and the 10. (The 10 Commandments). These provide a way to prioritize what is/was most important to Jesus and Jesus’s followers.

The Golden rule is another hermeneutical lens to prioritize what is most important and which is held in common by several traditions.

Still, differing interpretations of what it means to love well or treat others as they would like to be treated if we were in their circumstance leaves room for wide variation on what constitutes a religious malfunction. This leads to the differences in opinion on how these ideas might play out politically and practically. Hermeneutics is messy.

Miroslav Volf just tweeted:

The New Testament calls us to be humble. . . . Heeding this call would profoundly transform our public engagement. #PublicFaithinAction

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Thanks for this effective summary of a long and complicated chapter. I love the quote you included about how world religions are assessed by how well they connect people to the transcendent. I wish we would learn to think more about that as what we’re doing, rather than feeling we’re competing with the world in terms of money and prestige. But yes, we’re so often mal-functioning. I think about how this works in my local context–the dysfunction along with the beauty of what happens when we reach beyond ourselves, when we assess the world we live in by how it connects us to human flourishing and allows us to see our fellow people as more than just functions of biology trying to survive in the world.

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