Contemporary debates about religion, broadly speaking, fall into two categories. Some are theoretical in nature, dealing with the truth of certain beliefs and narratives held by religions? Do the gods or God exist? What is God like? Did a particular event happen as described in this or that text? The other set of questions is practical, dealing with the relevance or value of religion for living. Is religion relevant for living life well? Is religion a force for good or evil in the world?
This year’s Spectrum Summer Reading Group will focus on the latter set of questions and, in doing so, explore an even more basic issue: the nature of human flourishing. What does this look like? Is it possible? Can it be measured? Is there some universal standard that applies to everyone?
We’ll be exploring and discussing such questions (and more!) by engaging Miroslav Volf’s latest book, Flourshing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. In a world of rising, global fundamentalisms, politicized faith, and secular humanisms, Volf, professor of theology at Yale Divinity School and director of its Center for Faith and Culture, has his work cut out for him; despite very real challenges, he argues that “a vision of flourishing found in the quarrelling family of world religions is essential to thriving and global common good” (2) or, to quote the Bible, “One does not live by bread alone” (22). Provocatively, he claims, “Trying to live by ‘bread alone’ kills both us and our neighbors” (22).
In addition to providing an overview of the book, in the introduction Volf discloses his location as a Christian scholar, recounting his experience growing up in Yugoslavia as a Pentecostal. Considered a sect by larger, more recognized religious communities, Pentecostalism, similar to many Adventist communities, was a stigmatized minority. Interestingly, the church of Volf’s youth also placed heavy emphasis on the second coming of Jesus and this raised interesting tensions with the theme of the book. Does holding such a belief result in an otherworldly escapism that is unconcerned with doing anything about flourishing here and now?
Not if waiting is properly understood, Volf argues. He explains that there is an appropriate passive side to waiting; it’s the opposite of being a force “seeking to impose itself on the unwilling” (11). But waiting is also active. Inspired by Jesus:
We celebrate and enhance what is good in us and around us, we repair what is broken and ameliorate what can be perfected; and occasionally we pull back from what is intractably toxic and evil (12).
Christians who hope in the coming of God and understand the true nature of waiting, are to be “neither idle nor coercive but always engaged” (12).
While I appreciated Volf’s nuanced analysis, I was also left wondering if as a community, we’ve properly understood the nature of waiting. My own experience is that the second coming often serves as an excuse for not seriously doing anything other than wringing our hands. I also wondered, practically, what it looks like to be properly engaged in today’s world, with all the challenges we’re constantly made aware of and overwhelmed by.
I’m looking forward to reading what Volf might suggest regarding such issues in upcoming chapters and discussing these and other matters in upcoming weeks here as a group. Here’s the reading/posting schedule, we’re planning to follow:
July 13 - Introduction/invitation (Zane Yi)
July 22 - Chapter 1: Globalization and the Challenge of Religions (Yi Shen Ma)
July 29 - Chapter 2: Religions and the Challenge of Globalization (Brenton Reading)
August 5 - Chapter 3: Mindsets of Respect, Regimes of Respect (Keisha McKenzie)
August 12 - Chapter 4: Religious Exclusivism and Political Pluralism (Zane Yi)
August 19 - Chapter 5: Conflict, Violence, and Reconciliation (Lisa Clark Diller)
August 26 - Epilogue: God, Nihilism, and Flourishing (Ron Osborn)
As in past years, you’re invited to order or download your copy of the book and join in the discussion. Feel free to leave a comment below if you’re planning to do so.
Zane Yi is an assistant professor of religion at Loma Linda University’s School of Religion where he teaches courses in philosophy and theology. He serves as an officer in the Society of Adventist Philosophers.
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