Evan Rosa: For The Life of The World is a production of the Yale Center For Faith and Culture. Visit us online at faith.yale.edu.
David Brooks: And I observe in my own life, a lot of religious people I know are completely wonderful. And a lot of religious people I know are complete shmucks. Uh, and a lot of atheists are wonderful, and a lot of atheists are schmucks. And it's, it's harder than it should be to draw the line, uh, and so if you think if you have no consciousness of any transcendent realm, do you think you're at a disadvantage in leading a flourishing life?
Miroslav Volf: I hope I'm not converting people to pluralism, right, pluralism-- pluralism. Right? I don't think that would be, that would be the right way, but I think we live in a situation of contending particular universalisms. And my sense of myself is that I am a member of one of these contending particular universalisms, right?
I think we have a challenge of how to make fruitful for our lives together just such inhabiting of particular religious or secular traditions in a way that can make for peace of living, living together and contributes to something, something robust-- robust discussion, and therefore improve the relations between and enrich the traditions.
Evan Rosa: This is For The Life of The World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. I'm Evan Rosa with the Yale Center For Faith and Culture. What is the shape of a flourishing human life? Once upon a time, this question came pre answered by either your culture or your tribe; by religion or philosophy; by tradition or way of life.
But these days, given our increasingly individualized world and its emphasis on autonomy and self-expression, given the breakdown of social trust and the increasing degree of polarization and suspicion of the other, we have to ask and answer these questions for ourselves. What is the good life? What does it mean to live a flourishing life and how can we actually do it? How can we actually be it?
These are difficult questions on their own. They require intellectual muscles we've long let atrophy. They require reading deeply and at length. They require a willingness to listen across the chasm of disagreement. But one begins to wonder: if each of us must answer these questions for ourselves, how do we even begin to have this conversation together? The fact is we need one another, not just to answer them well, but to ask them well. For the coming two weeks, we'll be airing a 2016 conversation between the New York Times columnist David Brooks and theologian Miroslav Volf. In this first part of the dialogue, David interviews Miroslav about his book, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. And in next week's follow up, Miroslav asks Miroslav about his book, The Road to Character. Thanks for listening.
David Brooks: Thank you. Uh, welcome to today's debate on human flourishing. Miroslav is for it. I'm against it.
David Brooks: I actually come from a series of institutions that have been hostile to U.S. flourishing for decades uh, the New York Times where I'm the conservative columnist, the job I'd liken to being the chief rabbi at Mecca uh, and uh, the University of Chicago, uh, which has been hostile to my flourishing for four years.
Um, my favorite saying about Chicago is it's a Baptist school where atheist professors teach Jewish students St. Thomas Aquinas. Okay. Uh, so we'll start with a simple and obvious question. Uh, your book is called Flourishing. What does it look like?
Miroslav Volf: That's a great question to start. So I think of flourishing as having three formal components.
One component is life is going well for one. The other component is life is being led well. And the third one, in some sense, life feels also good. The first life going well, that describes the circumstances of our lives. We need to have a certain level of peace in social settings. We need to have our bodies nourished in certain ways for us to be able to say that we flourish.
Uh, second is um, a life being led well. We need to act in ways that are appropriate. We need to have a form of character that is, uh, that is appropriate. And the third component, probably very popular these days in the wider culture, is life has to feel good, feel right. And that can be --generally-- sometimes people think of it as unimportant in some ways, but at the same time, without the sense of life feeling right, we cannot be said to flourish. In the biblical traditions, both Jewish and Christian these are summed up in, uh, terms like uh, peace for life going well, righteousness for life being led well, and joy for life feeling just right.
David Brooks: Oh, so as you're speaking, I'm thinking of Kanye west uh, he, he would say my life was going well. I got a lot of money. My life is being led well uh, Taylor Swift hates me uh, and I'm certainly feeling good about myself. Uh, So that seems maybe a, not as tight a definition as one you would want.
Miroslav Volf: Well, I think those are formal components of it, right?
So everything depends, not so much of uh, all these three things being present, but everything depends, I think on giving these components uh, their, the kind of robust, robust character. Uh, if you think of it, simply as our subjective understanding of it, uh, you might feel okay for a while and then you might not quite feel away, uh, okay for, for awhile.
Flourishing, I think, is something also that extends over a period of time. Flourishing is something uh, that characterizes our entire, entire lives. And there are these rich traditions of thinking about what it means for circumstances to be right; what it means to inhabit for instance, a just, and peaceful social order, there are whole traditions of thinking of what does righteousness actually mean?
What does it mean? Acting rightly-- so that it isn't simply a kind of a subjectively felt act.
David Brooks: So for you, flourishing, does it involve some internal or external standard?
Miroslav Volf: I think it does. It does. Uh, I think that's really where the great traditions come-- whether they're philosophical or whether they're religious traditions, they kind of map for us, uh, the account of who the self is, uh, what the social relations are and what the good is that we ought to aspire.
And these traditions are almost like, um, a kind of repositories of the standards by which we evaluate our lives. Uh, and obviously there are multiple traditions and they sometimes conflict, and that's really what the course, "A Life Worth Living" is about. That's partly also what my book is about-- is trying to figure out how among these major traditions that hold, uh, not just uh, opinions of people, but the affections of people and shape their practices, how we can engage in meaningful debate in the very much uh, uh, pluralistic world that globalization has created.
David Brooks: Right. But in the book, the book and even the title of the book um, it's not just traditions you're talking about in the book. In the course, you've got secular traditions. In the title you've got religion. So the title, subtitle, is "why we need religion in a globalized world," which raises the question: why do we need religion in a globalized world?
Miroslav Volf: It does raise that question and hopefully the book provides a certain answers for it, I think. Um, so the purpose of the book in that-- in a sense generally people, when people think today of religion in a globalized world, what comes to mind immediately is the ways in which religions, I would put it, profoundly misfunction. In the ways in which religions are highly inimical to life, to flourishing life and their whole set of uh, uh, precepts and practices and authorities are meant to kind of suppress uh, life. Obviously that happens as well. I tried to look at religious tradition from the other end. There's this other side, that highly ambiguous ambivalent phenomenon, but there's this other side of religions.
And I think that, uh, great religious traditions are probably our most potent repositories of the visions of the good life, of the visions of flourishing life. And that's why I concentrate on them. My suggestion is not that there are not other alternatives to religions. Indeed, uh, religions have been criticized even in their best form, and I think those criticisms are significant, ought to be taken into account, but religions bring something significant. And I think equally importantly, religions in fact are embraced by majority of the world's population and the world is becoming, for ill or for good, more of a religious place than it ever was, both in absolute and in relative terms.
And so we have to take these accounts, work with them and see, in what ways they can be actually sources of significant wisdom for us
David Brooks: So I'm a Yale undergrad. I'm being sucked inexorably to Goldman Sachs and into a world of the global economy uh, and a certain value system. What is, what is a religion-- pick any one or all of them in general: what is it offering me?
Miroslav Volf: I think religion will offer you a sense that your life is not primarily about yourself. That you're joining, going to Goldman Sachs or whatever other firms might be, might be a good option for you, but you better think in what ways it will serve something larger than just your individual needs. In what ways it can be tied to a sense of solidarity; solidarity at national level, but really also solidarity at the global level. It kind of frames, I think your, your life by challenging you to ask uh, to what end am I working for Goldman? And so, what are the purposes of my existence and therefore purposes of this particular activity that I undertake.
I can be stellar at a variety of activities that I do, but what ends do they serve? And I think that's the fundamental religious question in many ways, fundamental philosophical questions: purposes of human existence. This is what religions provide.
David Brooks: So what's equally as good as working at Goldman Sachs that religions can offer me? What's the compelling counterculture? Like what's the substance of that counterculture?
Miroslav Volf: I think it will depend on individual callings that people might have, but I don't see any reason why Uh, washing the feet of uh, the destitutes uh, and uh, um, helping them raise their children; why digging wells in Africa or you name variety of things in which we engage our fellow human beings, the poorest of the poor; why that might not be as noble, indeed why that wouldn't be even more noble, uh, job than working for Goldman Sachs.
David Brooks: So you said it-- religions make us think of a context bigger than themselves and serving the poor in Africa, but every U2 song does that. And so why, why do you need the, it seems to me, aren't you taking God out of the equation in the religious conversation?
Miroslav Volf: Um, um, no, I think there, there are multiple ways in which uh, encouragements of this sort uh, can uh, can take place. So the question might be, so why, why what, what role does God uh, does God play? I think we live in the kind of environment-- and again, a variety of ways one can probably get at certain, certain of the goals that I'm describing-- but certainly in religious religious traditions um, in the context, say, of market economy in which we find ourselves today, uh, in which new consumer goods are created, the new desires are being generated in which we seem to be running, uh, faster and faster to stay in the same place. A kind of sense of relativization of ordinary life's goods, at least as portrayed in these kinds of uh, economic, our economic imagination is extraordinarily important thing.
Uh, religious traditions, take us out of ourselves. Take us into something that is, that is transcendent and free us from uh, being compelled to pursue um, new gadgets in order to satisfy the craving of the self.
David Brooks: Can you be good without God?
Miroslav Volf: I think you can be good uh, good without uh, without God in the same-- in this sense:
but I'm, I'm obviously a religious person. I'm a Christian. Um, you can be good without believing in God, but that does not quite mean that you are good without God. Right? If you are, as I do, if you believe that God created the world, the God created everything that, that is, indeed that every breath of ours is dependent upon the existence of God, then you really can't be without God. But if you can be without God, you can be also good without a God. So in a sense, the goodness, and if you postulate that God is good, God, goodness has its source-- truth and beauty and goodness have their source in God. And therefore, whether you actually believe God or not you are good on the count of there being.
David Brooks: Yeah. But, but you know, you're, the book is about this, the uses that religion serves in providing a counter-culture to global capitalism, really. and, And so someone who's not conscious of any transcendence. I mean, I observe in my own life, a lot of religious people I know are completely wonderful. And a lot of religious people I know are complete shmucks.
Uh, and a lot of atheists are wonderful, and a lot of atheists are schmucks. And it's, it's harder than it should be to draw the line. And so if you think, if you have no consciousness of any transcendent realm, do you think you're at a disadvantage in leading a flourishing life?
Miroslav Volf: Well, I mean, be-- depending on what you think about transcendent realm, right, there, there are these um, as you say a lot of religious people aren't complete shmucks.
Uh, and a lot of religious people also indeed, that's the pervasive propensity of religions. And that's why religions deserve a critique-- is to kind of instrumentalize religions for goals that are extraneous to the uh, original teachings of the religious tradition. And so religions become, uh, kind of prosperity religions, religions become "political religions" in the sense that their entire purpose is there to stabilize a kind of, uh, ordinary and secular, secular order.
In some ways you can say this is already first step at the secularization of religion, at undermining what religion indeed ought to be about. Unfortunately, it happens very often and to a large degree.
David Brooks: Yeah, I've been asking you a series of questions, really at the personal level of how one's, one's individual life is influenced by religion or can be.
But the book is mostly on the realm of systems, on the realm of the global ethos of the global world. Uh, could you sort of step back on and describe to us right now, right. Uh, the world seems to be uh, being torn apart, both by globalization and by religions. Would you, would you say it's uh, the order seems to be falling apart under the both influences?
Is it, I'm just really asking you to step back and describe the state of the world you describe in the book.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah. In some ways, in some ways I feel that both the globalization processes and religions-- that religions are really global phenomenon. Indeed, I tried to argue in the book that uh, religions are-- the world religions-- are some of the original globalizers. It's in world religions that um, human beings qua human beings are thematized and that universal ideologies are being articulated. So both of them are global, a global phenomena and both of them in some ways are in a profound, in a profound crisis.
Uh, religion, certainly um, um, partly because they identify with particular-- particularist projects. They get embroiled in conflicts that exist between people as a result, partly of globalization uh, globalization processes. And so globalization uh, it seems to me by bringing the world together, in some ways also accentuates the differences. Living in proximity becomes uh, becomes difficult for people and religions participate just in those kinds of tensions.
David Brooks: Right. Let's start with the globalization piece. My uh, and remember in 1990 or so, after the Berlin Wall fell, I think I'm right in this, a guy named Kenichi Ohmae wrote a book called The Borderless World or argued that borders were disappearing. There's another guy whose name I've forgotten, wrote a book called The World is Flat. Um, and do you, do you think global capitalism has, has not turned out to fulfill those hopeful expectations?
Miroslav Volf: Um, those are hopeful uh, expectation is it has turned out not to fulfill those uh, hopeful expectations, and partly, it hasn't fulfilled those hopeful expectations because it is increasingly, increasingly not delivering. Not simply not on the, on the creation of wealth, but on the ability to distribute the wealth in any kind of a fair way.
We see huge immense discrepancies of wealth uh, today. And I think they are some of the major causes of tension, they're causes of tensions in my reading, I'm not an expert in this, but in my reading they're causes of tensions in this country, but they are causes of even greater tensions, tensions globally.
David Brooks: You think they distort flourishing up and down, that those inequalities? We're here at Yale, we're at a very unequal place.
Miroslav Volf: Um, I think they distort uh, flourishing in significant ways. I think we can not properly flourish um, ourselves when other people aren't flourishing. In some ways I think of flourishing as um, not individual simply thing. It's a social flourishing. Uh, flourishing of one person is tied to the flourishing of others.
And therefore my flourishing is tied to the flourishing of the entire planet. And I think this kind of flourishing is being uh, being significantly eroded uh, and in some places radically destroyed, by the present form of capitalism
David Brooks: So, uh, let me challenge you on that. Religion is based on love uh, as you write it here, and love is problematic because it's particular and it's preferential. And so when you start making a-- saying, my flourishing depends on the flourishing of the whole world it seems to me, aren't you watering it down and sort of having a vague global human humanism and not any actual religion as we know it and see it?
Miroslav Volf: I'm not sure-- I think that global, at least the, the religions like Buddhism or Christianity or, or Islam in certain respect, Judaism as well, though Judaism is a particular case. Um, they are global religions. They address individual and address potentially every individual in the same way, who is my neighbor was a classical question. The neighbor turns out not to be my core religion. It's-- neighbor turns out to be a person who isn't my core religion. So a kind of fundamental stance is actually to uh, treat every human being as equal, whether one belongs to my group, in group or out-group. And that I think is a very important dimension of uh, of the great religious traditions.
David Brooks: But w- would it be accurate to say that the most religions of the world are turning more particularistic? In Judaism, the Orthodox flourishing over the conservative and the reform and Protestantism, obviously for at least for awhile, evangelicals and Pentecostals flourishing over the mainstream. Uh, and Islam, it seems, seems to be moving in also in a more Orthodox or even radical direction.
Miroslav Volf: Well, I distinguish moving in Orthodox directions and being universalistic in a sense, right. Universalistic in the sense of treating all human beings as not, not distinguishing clearly ingroup and out, and outgroup in the sense of a responsibility that we have, toward toward them. And there you have some very conservative religions who, where religionists who would do just that because of the commitments that they have, they have to to their own to their own faith.
Uh, think of Buddha, for instance uh, I mean, it seems to me that uh, you can't be more specific in terms of Buddha-- Buddhism than who Buddha was, right, in terms of articulating the, the precepts of the religion. Nonetheless, it has a, uh, had universalistic message in that sense for everyone and not just to be for the in-group.
David Brooks: And uh in general, what do you see, trends in religion, I mean, obviously the secularization that people expected has not happened. So what, what is the reality? Uh, trend just the evolution of religion and the globalized world.
Miroslav Volf: You know, If I see any uh, any trends uh, I see, I see religion uh, in some ways thriving, right?
It doesn't mean that secular-- number of seculars is increasing. In fact, it is, I think the function of religion, striving and secularism, striving is, is a function of, of uh, population growth uh, into significant degree. There are differences among religions in terms of conversationist religious or simply population growth, religion, religions, but you do see growth.
You do see uh, political engagements and where I see actually what I see actually happening, I think is that increasingly religions are uh, being pushed to become, uh, less political religions, but more "prosperity" religions so that their own religious teachings are functionalized with regard to individual uh, may be communal, but primarily individual prosperity.
The more religions are aligned with a kind of economic system, the more they become servants of that economic system. And I think in some ways, in a different way than when they align themselves with political systems, betray their original uh, original calling. Which is not to say that religions ought not to be politically engaged or have nothing to say contribute to the stability of economic system. But if you functionalize them with regard to political systems or economic systems, you fundamentally betray character of religions.
David Brooks: I mean, I gather you want them to be a counterpressure. Um, And that--
Miroslav Volf: I'm hopeful that they can be that. Sometimes I'm despairing a little bit.
David Brooks: So in the 1950s, there was Reinhold Neibur, there was Martin Buber, there was Abraham Joshua Heschel. There was Martin Luther King in the sixties-- a series of religious leaders and theologians who took a very active role in the public square, introducing concepts like sin and grace and redemption into public debate. It seems to me that there are very few of those such people around today.
Uh, Theologians or clergy who are real public figures, public intellectuals, in the way Reinhold Neibur was, do you end-- this book is sort of an attempt to get back in that world. So why why, first of all, why did those sort of secular Shermans go away? Uh, and is this indeed an attempt to bring some of the religious thinking to public question?
Miroslav Volf: We find ourselves in a difference in a significantly different situation. We were at the time of Neibur's we were in a uh, country that was an indeed in the kind of, not just country, but uh, but the Western world that was still uh, though nominally culturally in a significant, to a significant degree, of degree, Christian. Uh, when you have that kind of cultural environment, you can address with Christian conceptualities, you can introduce some of these concepts and they will do some significant cultural work.
If as the culture becomes more pluralistic uh, you have less chance of doing this, and in a sense, in a different way what I'm trying to do in this book is to kind of name a pluralistic context for us and to plead for the uh, for the role of varieties of religions, including secularism in the public public sphere, bringing their visions of the good life.
So what's similar that you have all the traditions, the visions of a good life uh, teased out across those traditions, are being brought into public sphere. I think this can be done and ought to be done in the pluralistic way. And I, the argument of the book is that actually religious traditions have internal resources to approach the issue in just such pluralistic a pluralistic way.
David Brooks: Yeah. Well, this sort of brings us back to the course. Is the purpose of the course to present to students, "there's a range of moral traditions. I'm um, I'm at a secular university. I'm not going to tell you which one to believe in, but pick one?" Or is it just is, is, are you just trying to introduce students to moral categories, moral ecologies, different moral traditions.
Miroslav Volf: Actually, we are doing something something different than either of these, these two options. It's not introducing a simple, simple students have uh, two options. Uh, and it's not certainly um, uh, kind of advocating for uh, one particular uh, tradition. I think it's important to introduce these traditions, not simply as the content, here's the tradition now, now choose, but rather to uh, have an interface between student and the tradition, as some, as a tradition that makes claim to truth and therefore also a claim on their lives to, in a sense, figure out how might life look like.
If it was lived from that uh, perspective uh, what if I take seriously those claims. Provisionally, I take them seriously. Wrestle with them um, and then I will have opportunity to reflect about my own life and to what extent that might or might not fit what I imagined myself to be.
David Brooks: What, what, would life be like, if I really lived like Jesus, if I really lived like Buddha, if I really lived like Nietzsche--
Miroslav Volf: Or something of the sort, right. So obviously we can't introduce students into uh, the entirety of the religious tradition or into the entirety of the life of uh, of uh, the great founders, a founder, but we asked certain forms of questions, which when it gets my turn to ask you, I will, I will articulate. Uh, so as to focus the discussion uh, around the questions of the good life and then ask students given what they have read, try to imagine yourself what it would look like. Try to explore your own life, life uh, around you and figure out whether that contributes somehow to you living more truthful life, meaning uh, fitting to what we know about the rest of the reality, a more beautiful life uh, and good life.
David Brooks: So are they meaner to each other on Nietzsche week? Or like they, like--
Miroslav Volf: You know, it's, it's very interesting. We do try to figure out, so, so what might, what might it be to actually kind of engage in uh, in the interchanges as Nietzsche might uh, might do? Or what might actually, the interesting question was, so let's try not to uh, imagine and think of Nietzsche simply as you know, we know what the problem is with Nietzsche, uh, will to power and stuff like that. We try to ask students now, imagine that you took that are what will be good about this? What kind of good is Nietzsche articulating and how might it apply to the set of relationships in which you find yourself in, in the life you'll live? So in a sense, we want those traditions to become alive for them.
David Brooks: So let me come back to a theme, which has undergirded a number of my questions and that's about pluralism. You've been even in the last half hour and in the book, extremely respectful of pluralism. Uh, and is there a danger that uh, you're watering down the message that, I mean, nobody goes to a game nobody goes to church on Sunday morning or a synagogue or mosque to worship pluralism. Uh, they want a particular thing. Uh, and that in, in sort of stepping back and having a stepping back stance that all religions offer different things, you're losing some of the focus maybe that you feel personally in your own faith or that any Muslim would feel or any Jew would feel or any atheist would feel-- that you're sort of making it more nebulous than it needs to be?
Miroslav Volf: Well um, I hope I'm not converting people to pluralism, right? Pluralism, pluralism. Right. I don't think that would be, that would be the right way. I think we live in a situation of contending particular universalisms. Right? Those religious traditions and philosophical traditions. They are contending particular universalisms. They're particular.
And my sense of myself is that I am a member of one of these contending particular universalisms, right. I think we have a challenge of how to make fruitful for our lives together just such inhabiting of particular religious or secular traditions in a way that can make for peace of living, living together and contributes to something, something robust, robust discussion, and therefore improve the relations between enrich the traditions.
And I feel that I when I have dialogue with my Muslim friends or when I have dialogue, with Martin Hegland uh, was sitting, sitting here, I don't feel like I need to sacrifice anything. I feel that I can be particular and just as particular person engage in this debate, but you have to know, you're talking to a person who for an entire year-- as a Christian, committed Christian, Christian theologian, what do you expect of me? --Had Nietzsche on his nightstand. And read Nietzsche for devotions. And I was deeply enriched by that because it was kind of extraordinary to interface this immensely smart and sensitive, even though in my perspectives, majorly, misguided uh, intellectual uh, with my own perspectives, it was wonderful. I became kind of a Nietzsche devotee in some ways when I was teaching in my previous teaching position, I taught a course, "Nietzsche for Theologians" and for entire course, I made the stipulation that students cannot say one negative thing about Nietzsche. They need to think about what might be right about Nietzsche which was very difficult for someone to--
David Brooks: --give us an example--
Miroslav Volf: Of what might be right about Nietzhe?
David Brooks: Like how does it help you as a Christian to read niche it?
Miroslav Volf: Um, well, let me just, just think of, think of the critiques of uh, or just think of will to power, or think of the critiques critiques of religion uh, as kind of expressions of resentment. Uh, it's very easy to indicate how Nietzhe might be right. And how I might uh, as, as a Christian or as a religious person, more generally, whether I'm Buddhist or Christian or Jew for that matter, how I might be enriched by, by reading anti-Christ right.
But reading the, kind of the, this shrill critique but immensely perceptive about uh, discrepancies about twists of my own religion. I think it's tremendously important.
David Brooks: Yeah.
Miroslav Volf: And I, you know, my, my sense is the kind of the first uh, critics of religion in many ways in the, certainly in the, in the, in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian: prophets. They were relentless!
And I think religions without prophetic critique of religion uh, they will uh, do a lot of harm.
David Brooks: Yeah. I want to get to a, your epilogue, which is so wonderful. Uh, you talked about you quote Nietzsche and you talk about nihilism uh, and it, it might be useful to describe those forms of nihilism. You see, the reason religion is necessary as an antidote is because of, because of this and it might be useful for you to describe those forms of nihilism, you see particularly threatening and prevalent in the world.
Miroslav Volf: Well, you know, so, so one of the ways in which Nietzsche has uh, uh, has a critique of religion and religion is a form of nihilism. We always uh, kind of religious people think of Nietzsche as being kind of nihilistic uh, philosopher.
And there are certain sense in which he is, but he sees in religion, something profoundly inimical to life and therefore nihilistic. Right. And so you can see some forms of fundamentalist religions that, that they're just like of claws coming from above and squelching anything that's underneath this thing, it's extraordinary.
So you have this tender plant of life that's not nourished, but that kind of squelched, squeezed into uh molds. And obviously people, people rebelled, you know, the famous three metamorphoses in Thus Spoke Arathustra. Uh, you know, Camel the bears, that's your conservative uh, oppressive uh, religion, why and roars rebels against uh, that kind of uh, kind of religion.
And then the next metamorphosis is, is a child. And in some ways, Nietzsche has this sense of, um, uh, kind of for the play, but play itself now from my vantage point, ended up being also a meaningful, meaningless play unbearable lightness of being. And I think we move between these kind of, two nihilisms. And almost displayed the, at the world stage kind of oppressive religious nihilism, and nihilism of the kind of absence of meaning um, nihilism of. Um, well, unbearable lightness of that which we do, something that profoundly attracts, but is not significant in our lives.
David Brooks: And so globalization is creating that-- is encouraging that second form of nihilism.
Miroslav Volf: It's encouraging that second form and it's encouraging then also reaction to that second form in form of oppressive religious tradition.
So it's a flight from meaninglessness into crashing and oppressive meaning. And of course, a flight from crushing and oppressive meaning back into the other one. So the pendulum kind of swings between these two uh, that that's how it seems to me.
David Brooks: Which is actually what you see in the, if you read about the suicide bombers or the guys who joined ISIS, they were like bodybuilders just worshiping their body.
And then they flip over and become ISIS members um, back and forth. Uh, And so, and then finally the uh, the sweet spot. So you've described these two nihilisms...
Miroslav Volf: And obviously the, the big question then becomes is, is it possible somehow to combine um, the kind of the, the, the freedom and pleasure with the uh with the belief, robust belief in God.
And my argument uh, that toward the end of the book, it's my, I give my own reading of things uh, is that uh, properly understood if you think of God as a creator, a properly understood the appreciation of the world as creation actually enhances the joy in the world uh, joy of the world itself, right, rather than taking away from it.
The famous critiques of uh, how Dante, when he was led to uh, behold God by Beatrice, suddenly leaves Beatrice and their love by the way side, in order to be completely immersed in the beauties of God, the world disappears. And God is only the object object, of love I think if you think of God as a creator, and if you think of how our how, how we read creation, not simply as things, or, or how we relate to things in the world. They're not things for us, primarily, they are almost like, a like relations. And I give example of uh, my father's um, uh, ink pen that he gave me. It's a, it's an object, but it isn't an object. When I touch it, it's infused with the presence of my uh, of my father. And in some ways that's how we religious people properly, who believe in God, relate to ordinary things in life.
They aren't just things. They're infused by presence, they're sacraments of relationships. And in that sense, affirmation of God is affirmation of the joy and the goodness of the world.
David Brooks: So I've been admiring your silk handkerchief in your pocket. Uh, and how is that an affirmation of--
Miroslav Volf: --this is a good --
David Brooks: --it seems to me. I get what you're saying, but it seems to be, you're asking too much of some of our everyday pleasures.
So I read a book recently that said there are four levels of happiness. Uh, there's the uh, just material gratification. Very nice suit. Nice handkerchief, a nice car. That's fine. That's least happiness. Then there's um, ego, comparative happiness. The pleasure we get being better than other people at things. Then there's a generative happiness, the pleasure we get from giving back to each other, then finally, there's transcendence some sense of one's place in the cosmic order.
Uh, and it seems to me that we can have gradations of happiness, but we don't have to invest every Snickers bar in sort of, uh, God's, in transcendence, which it seems to me maybe what you're doing now.
Miroslav Volf: Well, I think, uh, If I'm just investing in the transcendence uh, my investments are going to dissipate very quickly. So, so I think if there's anything, there is a kind of perception of the world as, as a gift. And obviously there are gradations, so of one, one perceived gradations of one one's, one's awareness, but that doesn't take away from the possibility of the, the intense pleasures that we have, seeing them as something imbued with more than just the thing itself and its particular relationship to me.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured journalist David Brooks and theologian Miroslav Volf. Production assistance by Martin Chan and Nathan Jowers. I'm Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. New episodes drop every Saturday with the occasional midweek.
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