In Part One Volf lays out the relationship of globalization and religion. The first chapter focuses on the challenge to globalization posed by the world religions. In chapter two, Volf reverses the conversation, addressing the challenge of globalization to the world religions. In the first chapter, he suggests that globalization is a rather ambiguous project, and that religion plays a role in forming it. Religion helps mold the process so that a flourishing life occurs when a “life being led well has primacy over life going well and life feeling good” (p. 55). As for the reverse, globalization brings the various religions into contact with each other, and that can lead to conflict. But conflict, while common, isn’t inevitable. There are ways in which the religions can engage each other positively without giving up their distinctives. In other words, there is need for a “world theology” in which the emphasis is placed on a common core in order that conflict can be eliminated. He notes that while there are overlaps the religions don’t envision the flourishing life in the same way. He believes that the religions can live in peace, even as they robustly articulate their own vision of flourishing, as long as they don’t impose these differing visions on people (especially in partnership with the state).
Part Two of the book seeks to flesh out Volf’s vision of the way in which the religions can peacefully engage with each other that is first articulated in Part One. Part Two offers three chapters, which deal with respect, pluralism, and reconciliation.
The first of these chapters (chapter 3), focuses on “mindsets of respect, regimes of respect.” He offers up John Locke’s idea of religious toleration, but wants us to move beyond it to the creation of mindsets of respect. Here we recognize the importance of refraining from religious compulsion, so that there might be true freedom of religion. This requires that we take stock of both the challenge of apostasy and conversion. There are highly controversial ideas within the world religions. Key to this is embracing the “principle of respect,” which “states that we must respect adherents of a religion irrespective of whether we respect that religion itself; for the religion to be respected, it must first earn our respect by its excellence, at least in some regard” (p. 120).
In chapter four, Volf focuses on “Religious Exclusivism and Political Pluralism.” This chapter is worth the price of the book. It is assumed by many that religious exclusivism is incompatible with political pluralism. Volf begs to differ. To prove his point, he points us to Roger Williams, the Puritan Baptist founder of Rhode Island, who was theologically a religious exclusivist, but he created in the colony of Rhode Island one of the most politically pluralistic communities that had ever existed to that point. Religious exclusivists believe they are on the right path to truth. This becomes a problem only when one insists that others take the same path. That was the vision of John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In Winthrop’s vision of a “city on a hill,” he believed that the community needed to be bound together by a common faith, a faith that should be enforced on the populace. Williams disagreed, believing that a true faith could not be coerced. Rhode Island became a haven for persons from all faith traditions, where they lived in harmony without fear of state interference. In the end, Volf believes that religious exclusivists are the key to true political pluralism—that is if they live up to their potential and not seek to entangle themselves with the state.