Why We Need Religion In A Globalized World | Miroslav Volf | TEDxWilmingtonSalon

Translator: P Hakenberg
Reviewer: Hélène Vernet So why do I think that we need religion, that we need religious faith
in the globalized world? I believe that we need to ask afresh the most important question of our lives. And the most important
question of our lives is not how do we succeed
in this or that endeavor in the course of our lives. The most important
question of our lives is: “How do we succeed as human beings?” “How do we succeed
in the task of being human?” I believe that the great world religions are the repositories of the most enduring and most compelling ways
to answer that question, not always compatible answers
but nonetheless most compelling. Now, I will give you an answer
to the question “why we need religion?” from the standpoint of my own experience and the faith in which I share,
which is Christian faith. I bring to it two fundamental experiences. One of them was: I was giving a talk at UN at the moment when the first
airplane hit one of the towers. My topic was reconciliation. And my topic was: why it is that faith
can bring people together? And there, in front of the eyes
of the entire world, the proof to the contrary was delivered namely that faith – other things were in play as well
but certainly also faith – can have these extraordinary
devastating effects. The faith turned homicidal. My other experience
is a few years after that. I was in Dubai and I was member of one of the Global Agenda Councils
of the World Economic Forum. And this was established
in the wake of the great financial crisis, one of the greatest financial crisis
in the entire human history. Many of us descended upon Dubai and discussed from various angles, participated in what
Klaus Schwab has described as a “global redesign project.” And I’ve heard a lot about financial
regulation, about economic growth, about variety of threats to our economic
and political systems, and so on. I was part of the Global Agenda
Councils on value and on religion, I’ve heard also about inequality,
many, many things needed for solidarity. But one thing I heard
virtually nothing about, and this is about kind of the dark force, what some later called
“the dark force of passion” that often runs our soul,
that pulse our soul. Arguably, it is desire gone awry that was the cause, the immediate cause that occasions that entire crisis: desire gone awry of the lenders who wanted to replace their BMWs with really sparkling Bentley’s
or Aston Martin’s ; maybe also desire of our people who wanted to replace their rusty Corollas
with their a little bit nicer Camrys. But desire played a very
significant role in this entire collapse. And yet, it was not thematized. We never thought about: What place the things that we produce
and services that we offer, what place do they have
in the entire ecology of the good life? What does it mean in today’s world, to live well as human beings
with everything else that we do? Two experiences: One is failure, the inability of some of our major institutions to answer a very simple question
about human desire and human flourishing, but truly conduces to human flourishing. The other question is religion
itself – gone experience – religion itself which was supposed
to answer the question of the good life, gone awry and turned homicidal. Now, these are my two experiences
that I bring to the question, and one way to look at these experiences is with the help of a… … reputably most a-religious
of philosophers, who ever lived. And that is Friedrich Nietzsche, and what Friedrich Nietzsche
says about nihilism. Friedrich Nietzsche was a son
and a grandson of Lutheran ministers, studied theology for one semester
and promptly lost his faith. (Laughter) Maybe just for that reason, he has something to teach us, both about the faith but also about
societies in which we find ourselves. And one of the ideas that he has was organized around
the question of nihilism. I’ll give my own spin
to what he was saying, so don’t blame Nietzsche
for what I say right now. But let’s divide
this nihilism into two types: religious nihilism
and a-religious nihilism. Religious nihilism might be something
of an ascetic sort of nihilism, where the human beings flee
from the entanglement in ordinary life into the spheres of transcendence, leave behind everything
in order to unify their souls with God. This might be something
like an ascetic form of nihilism or of the type that’s closer
to Nietzsche’s critique of religion, where he said, religions come to the world with preset sets of laws and regulations and impose them upon life. It’s almost like giving
a chokehold to life itself because it doesn’t honor,
it doesn’t respect the very nature
of the pulsating energies of life. Its nihilistic because
it denies this kind of life. But in terms relatively violent, it can do so with crushing force, as we see in many places in the world. That’s a kind of religious nihilism. There’s this other kind of nihilism
which is not so much religious but which is a-religious. Nietzsche thought of that kind
of nihilism under the rubric of last men. It’s a bit of sexist term for it:
“last humans” you can translate it. And last humans, what are they like? They’re like a kind of… … placid creatures oriented
toward their own pleasure. They dream their little dreams,
they have their little pleasure, no great assertion
for any great kind of a cause, an entire life organized around a “couch potato” kind of existence. I’m not sure if that’s the word
but you get my point. Now, there’s this other version
of an also a-religious nihilism. And this has nothing to do
with a kind of search for comfort. It has to do something with aggression
in the world in which we find ourselves. It has to do with people who,
in different spheres of life, want to bend the course
of the entire world to serve their own purposes: wolves of Wall Street, House Of Cards
politicians, folks of this sort. There’s also nihilism at work here. In the first case, you have
a religious case. You have people who impose the structures
of meaning upon the world, and that structure of meaning
does not allow life itself to breath. It crushes life itself. In the second case, you have somebody
who affirms life with a full force and yet, just by affirming life,
does so in arbitrary ways. When we give meaning to individual things, what we give meaning to,
we can take the meaning away, and the meaning itself
cannot carry our weight. So, in a sense, we become plagued by the meaninglessness of the existence
in which we find ourselves. You recall Milan Kundera who wrote
the book “Unbearable lightness of being.” Everything that we do
does not bear weight, and we suffer from
this plague of nihilism. Now, these two nihilisms,
you can almost think that they are struggling
for our soul, individual soul, but you can almost say that they are waging their war at the world stage. On one side, you have fundamentalists who with clutched hands
hold on to transcendent meaning. On the other hand, you have libertarians, who want to lead the way of life
that they want to lead and therefore in struggle
with the fundamentalists. Fundamentalism and pleasure
oriented libertarianism: these struggles in some
ways conditioned one another, and they go almost in a circle. So you might have a fundamentalist who find himself or herself squeezed by the rigid structure of meaning
imposed upon them and wanting to escape that, going toward becoming a libertarian, living in the house of libertarians and suddenly the weight
has been lifted away, but the meaning has been lost
at the same time. Pleasure is possibly there,
but the meaning has been lost. Then, you have libertarians
turning into fundamentalists again. You have a circle going on like this. Nietzsche has a very interesting
metaphor for this. For those of you who’ve read
“Thus spoke Zarathustra”, he spoke of a camel, of a lion, and of a child. The camel is the animal
which bears everything. The weight of meaning of laws
is upon the camel. And Nietzsche said,
a camel morphs into a lion. The lion is the one who roars, frees himself from the burden,
the crushing burden of rules. But the lion doesn’t stay simply a lion,
he said, a lion turns into a child. A child is the one who wills his own will and who exists just
in the play of the moment. So his idea was: How does
the camel become a child? But Nietzsche didn’t figure out that sometimes a child
would want to become a lion. And so you’ve got
this circle that’s going on. I believe that this recursive struggle of these two types of nihilism is one of the deep problems
of the time in which we find ourselves. From pleasure-oriented libertarianism into fundamentalism and back. So my question is:
How do we find a way out of this? I want to suggest
that we’ve to find a way which will unite the meaning and pleasure, because meaning
without pleasure is crushing. Pleasure without meaning is vapid, empty. We need the unity of the two. I want to propose you
that the unity of meaning and pleasure is to be found in God
who is conceived as Love. Let me try to explain this a little bit. And again, I speak
as a Christian theologian. Why God? I believe that human beings are created
for the relationship with God. In all the longings that we long for, in all the things that we pursue, we also always already pursue God. We need not be aware of this. When we realize that we pursue God, only then can we find
meaning in our pursuits. Now we do try to find meaning
in ordinary finite things of our lives, in muscle tone of our bodies, in steamy sex, in fame,
in family, you name it. Varieties of things serve us
to give meaning to our live and yet we always
remain partly dissatisfied, because ultimately we have been created
to be in contact with infinity. God, I believe,
is the only proper foundation of the meaning of human life. I say “God is the meaning of human life”
and now, you immediately might ask: “But why is it that when
God gives meaning, why doesn’t then God
take away the pleasure?” “Where does the pleasure come if you affirm the existence
and the importance of God in human life?” I think that relationship to God, in fact, can enhance the pleasure
in ordinary things of life. I have a colleague at Yale.
His name is Paul Bloom. He has written a book called
“How pleasure works.” In that book, he argues that actually, we don’t get pleasure
from things so much, as we get pleasure of, what he calls,
“essences” that are attached to things, or what one might say,
relationship that attend to things. So for instance, somebody will pay
for John F. Kennedy’s tape measure 48,875 dollars just because the tape measure
is John F. Kennedy’s, even though it is worth
only three bucks, right? So, in many ways, this is how
we derive our pleasure. My father gave me a gold nib
Pelikan fountain pen. I love this pen. I can find
a better pen than that. I can buy myself a better pen than this,
but the pleasure of the pen is precisely the relationship
of the father that attaches to it. Now think of it this way: To believe in God means to believe
that the world is a creation of God. To believe in God means
that the world is a gift of God to us. God is the giver. World is the gift.
And you are the recipient. Now think about this also this way: The gift is not just the thing that you see. The gift is also the relationship. It’s only when something
is in relationship to me that it becomes a gift. Now, imagine that you really love God. Imagine that you are
a good Christian, Jew or Muslim. And imagine that you
then see the world as a gift, suddenly, everything
in the world becomes alive. It’s a sacrament of the relationship
between God and you. Everything becomes
like that Pelikan gold nib pen that my father has given to me, important not just
in the sheer facticity of it, but important in the fact that it comes
as a gift to me from the outside. Every gentle touch, every whiff of a fresh plowed earth, every distant star, everything that you can imagine is not just itself, but more than itself, and it is that because it is a gift
of the divine giver. Unity of meaning and pleasure is to be found in the God who is Love. That I believe is the reason why religion
matters in the world today. And that’s why I believe that religion,
properly understood religious faith, can overcome this recursive battle between two kinds of nihilisms: fundamentalist
and a-religious liberty nihilism that plague our world today. Thank you very much. (Applause)


  1. Wow, 15 minutes wasted by listening to these religious apologetics. Atheism is not nihilistic at all. Every single action becomes more meaningful when you remove the illusion of life after death. You will seek that what is the most pleasurable for you and your surroundings with you own moral compass, logic and reasoning. Therefore a humanist based atheism combines both meaning & allocentric pleasure seeking and discards all tribalistic tendencies that all religions have.

    Edited the bold parts

  2. If a person does not have religion the person does not die because of this? NO! So do we need religion? NO!
    The truth is not a monopoly solemnly for the religious. This talk is a waste of time and life. Best we just focus on people that are actually focused on this world instead of their life after this life. Ignore religious people unless they enforce religion upon you. Then just eliminate them.

    This guy talks so much bullshit it's beyond repair.

    So many assumptions he's imposing upon me, i'm disgusted by people like that.

  3. First talk of TEDx that I ever saw that is total nonsense. Quite a shame to bring this cheap apologetic that tries to reinterpret our problems in a way that keeps religion out of responsibility. Shame on you TEDx… Shame on you!

  4. I always ask my self What am i doing in this world ? and each time i see this world from a big picture i realize it must be there a creature, and it must be there a purpose for this world and especially for us as human, and i fond all my answear in ISLAM, this life is just a test for us. all what you must do is keep wondering and searching and reading till you find the real truth, and believe me if you do that sincerely HE will guide you PEACE 🙂

  5. I´m not religious and I don´t believe in a supreme being. However, I do agree that meaning is essential not only to pleasure, but, most importantly, to pain and suffering. I believe every human has the power to co-create the world and to choose the vision they are going to follow according to the purpose they feel in their heart. In other words, I´d argue the proper religion or philosophy for the future of our globalized world should be the directive to seek self-awareness.

  6. Just my observation, but his claim is a lot more modest than what many comments might suggest. He's just arguing for the value of religions which can contribute to the globalized world – and he's doing so from a distinctly Christian theological worldview. He's not arguing against other belief systems, including non-theism.

  7. I don't need to believe in a supernatural cosmic superman to give "meaning" to my existence. I don't want my life's meaning to be externally imposed, we carve our own meaning in life. The question isn't about "the meaning OF life"… it's about "the meaning IN life" and only we get to decide that.

  8. You never mention how to know the God you believe in, to compile our existence just to pay attention to little things that happen to us is a minimum area of a divine manifestation. I expected some other points that help people to know, follow, and develop a relationship with that God.

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