Man Cannot Live By Bread Alone

How can we promote human flourishing worldwide in the midst of expansive globalization? That’s the topic of the recent book by Yale professor Miroslav Volf Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. The book is the result of a series of talks that Volf gave with Prime Minister Tony Blair on religion and globalization.

Volf seeks to find an answer for flourishing in a biblical directive, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Volf defines globalization as “principally (not exclusively) about bread.” In this way, globalization is the worldwide expansion, sale, distribution, trade, saving, storing, evaluating, et cetera, of bread. He illustrates this in a powerful way:

“When we live by bread alone, there is never enough bread, not enough even when we make so much of it that some of it rots away; when we live by bread alone, every bite we take leaves a bitter aftertaste, and the more we eat the more bitter the taste; when we live by bread alone, we always want more and better bread, as if the bitterness came from the bread itself and not from our living by bread alone. I could continue with the analogy, but you get my point: living by ‘mundane realities’ and for them alone, we remain restless, and that restlessness in turn contributes to competitiveness, social injustice, and the destruction of the environment as well as constitutes a major obstacle to more just, generous, and caring personal practices and social arrangements.”

Volf’s thesis is that human flourishing cannot be achieved through living by mere bread. In a globablized context, where concerns of quantity and quality often overshadow the deeper needs of the soul, it is in the world religions, Volf argues, where answers will be found. The remedy is not in making more or better bread. In short, it cannot be found apart from God.

The author contrasts authentic human flourishing against a backdrop of nihilism. In his epilogue, Volf offers Christianity as the unique alternative to “passive nihilists” of false religions and the “active nihilists” who “define their own values and live according to them.” The fight between these extremes is one of the “great antagonisms of our time” he writes.

Because we intuitively know man cannot survive the death of God, we must make our own meaning somehow. Perhaps we can find better bread. But Volf knows that this too ends in despair, “after we wiped the horizon clean of transcendence we find ourselves saddled with the crushing burden of an unbearably light existence.” Man’s challenge is to find a sustainable unity between meaning on the one hand, and pleasure on the other.

Volf suggests that this unity can be found in the Christian understanding of God. “The unity of meaning and pleasure,” he writes, “which we experience as joy, is given with the God who is love.” Far from driving believers to ignoring issues related to flourishing, Volf argues, “attachment to God amplifies and deepens our enjoyment of the world.”

It is when we live by bread, but not by bread alone, when we hear and heed the Word of God, that we will enjoy bread more deeply and share it more freely. This is the path to global flourishing. Volf summarizes his argument beautifully:

“I have attempted to identify the unity of meaning and pleasure as a key wellspring of flourishing, a source of personal contentment, global solidarity, and common care for the planet that our globalized world needs and religions can foster . . . The idea can be expressed simply: the right kind of love for the right kind of God bathes our world in the light of transcendent glory and turns it into a theater of joy.”

We can live with a nihilism born from false religion or one constructed in secularism, or we can choose the unity of meaning and pleasure that is found in the Christian faith. This is the right kind of love for the right kind of God. And this is a vision for flourishing that will turn our world into a “theatre of joy.”