The final chapter is entitled “Conflict, Violence, and Reconciliation.” Although conflict and violence do occur (he knows this well having been born in the Balkans) among the religions, this isn’t an essential element. Religions can be violent or not. His thesis in this chapter is that even though religion can be the source of violence, the different world religions have within their tenets the resources for reconciliation. In fact, he is convinced that the foundations for reconciliation are actually found within the various religions. Consider, he suggests, that South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created and led by a person of faith—Desmond Tutu.
Having tried to keep his attention on the world religions more broadly in the five chapters, in his epilogue Volf returns to his Christian vantage point, or at least more specifically speaks from it. He addresses the growing challenge in our day of nihilism. Engaging with Nietzsche he defines two types of nihilism: passive and active. The passive form of nihilism expresses itself through world-denial and world-destruction. This is often the kind of nihilism present in religious expressions, such as ISIS. The active form is the nihilism present among free spirits, who assert the primacy of arbitrary values. He notes that two forms often find themselves in conflict with each other—fundamentalists versus a-religious libertines. With nihilism meaning and pleasure are separated, but from a Christian perspective he wishes to unite them. He then argues that the process of globalization needs the visions of flourishing that the religions offer lest it fall prey to nihilism. He ends by declaring that his future work will flesh out how “the light of transcendent glory . . . turns into a theater of joy” (p. 206).
As I read through this book, I became increasingly convinced that we all need to read it. Religion isn’t going away. Institutional forms might be experiencing decline in Europe and North America, but it is on the rise elsewhere. Living as we do in an increasingly globalized world, religions are bound to cross paths. Conflict is likely to be present. We’re already seeing the emptying out of Christians in much of the Middle East as a result of the spread of extreme forms of Islam (ISIS). Then in Europe and North America, Muslims find themselves the target of attacks by Christians. The latter may be less violent but the possibility of violence is there. At the same time there is an increasing level of nationalism that can coopt religion for nefarious purposes. With Volf I believe that the hope of creating flourishing human communities does not lie in the suppression of religion. Rather, religions need to offer a vision of flourishing that depends not on state imposition (consider the embrace of Christian nationalism in the United States). This is a powerful book. It offers a strong critique of attempts to merge religion and politics, even as it affirms the need for public engagement in pursuit of flourishing of the entire creation. Take and read. It’s that important! In this book a path toward peace is revealed.
Robert D. Cornwall is pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Troy, MI. He blogs at BobCornwall.com