Globalist Paper

Max Weber: A Modern-Day Globalization Guru? (Part V)

How can Max Weber help us understand the role religion plays in globalization?

Takeaways


  • The really existing dynamics of globalization cannot be grasped or guided without studying the relationship of faith to culture, culture to societies.
  • I doubt that we can accurately grasp, reform, correct or re-direct globalization without wrestling with these theological themes and their presuppositions.
  • In Weber's view, culture and society included the most materialistic and apparently naturalistic areas of human endeavor — economics and politics, sexuality and science.
  • What kind of religion shapes what kinds of cultures — and what is the impact of a culture generated by a distinctive religion on social and economic life?

Max Weber, the German sociologist and ethicist, as long as a century ago argued in his famous book on "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit Of Capitalism" (and in his longer works on the social contexts and effects of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Judaism) that religion was a formative influence on culture and society.

In Weber's view, culture and society included the most materialistic and apparently naturalistic areas of human endeavor — economics and politics, sexuality and science.

Weber’s arguments, to be sure, have been subject to debate and dispute for a century — and he was surely wrong in some of them, but his studies do put a key issue into full focus: What kind of religion shapes what kinds of cultures — and what is the impact of a culture generated by a distinctive religion on social and economic life?

This issue remains among the most promising lines of inquiry in a world in which the idea that secularization is the inevitable result of modernization seems quite senile. Can one understand the way India or China are developing without any reference to Hinduism, Buddhism or Confucianism?

Or the way the countries of South America and of Equatorial Africa are developing without reference to the religions that influenced colonialism in those regions and the indigenous religions which they overlaid?

And can we grasp the issues in Indonesia, Iran, Egypt or Turkey without reference to various streams of Islam? And can we, or they, accurately interpret the problems all of us face — if we do not recognize that these traditions are confronting a mighty social engine of change that derives substantially from Christian, especially Protestant, views of life in the world, its origins and destiny?

I think not. Yet the predominant political and economic modes of interpretation, capitalist or socialist, try to do just that. It won’t work — and no amount of social analysis can read our situation rightly if it does not dig to the deeper level of religious influences in civilization formation.

All this leaves us with a two-fold problem. The first is how to understand large-scale social developments, which is what I have tried to address so far.

And the second is this: What theological perspective can today allow us not only to grasp, but also to guide this massive phenomenon as we face the future?

It demands a theological response, and on this point I think that Christianity has much to offer.

I see two principal reasons for making this assertion: First, because it helped generate the worldview that shaped contemporary globalization, and second, because the three central claims of the historic faith are, in principle, universal in implication — and globalization demands attention to universal realities.

We see the promise of a renewed humanity. The eyes of faith can see in this ever new signs and signals of the making of all things new — even in the highly ambiguous, conflictual and uneven spread of globalization.

The implications of all this are clear enough for a faith-based global theory of justice, to which all believers in all fields of life can be called to shape communities of transformation.

Notions such as these are among the background beliefs that have already shaped human behavior for centuries, and I submit that we cannot understand the globalizing forces if we do not grasp the ways in which these ideas, derived directly from biblical and theological resources, have substantively shaped our history.

While these ideas may not have been held by all branches of the Christian tradition in the same measure, they are the ones that became regnant in many of the patterns of life that sustain globalization. Such ideas are today well obscured — they are not at the front of the minds of today’s business, political, legal, scientific, technological or ministerial leaders.

They are so woven into the cultural presuppositions of those in the West who are generating the forces of globalization, that these forces are enhanced by a preconscious faith in them. They continue to be able to capture the loyalty and thought of modernizing, modern and even post-modern social history — usually in secular disguise.

I doubt that we can accurately grasp, reform, correct or re-direct globalization without wrestling with these theological themes and their presuppositions and implications again.

Nor can we get an accurate read on the principles by which we need to evaluate the consequences of present trends, if we do not see whence they came and where they have been going.

The systemic amnesia about these motifs, which today besets university faculties and professional schools, and no small numbers of active theologians and pastors, means that we are driving with few mental maps as to where we came from, where we are going and how we might best get to where we want to be.

Clearly none of these ideas came from the shamanistic or Confucian, Hindu or Buddhist, Islamic or Humanist cultures — although some have roots in the tribal traditions of ancient Israel.

Still, each of these traditions has other ideas about how the world should be organized and what the ultimate future state of humanity should be like. And as Christianity has spread around the world, new developments in theology are appearing — some rather wan and fragile, others, such as the Pentecostal movement, quite robust and promising.

It is dynamics at this level that have shaped grand and complex civilizations in the past, and it is at least some of these options that must be examined as we inevitably encounter these traditions under conditions of globalization.

In short, the really existing dynamics of globalization cannot be grasped or guided without studying the relationship of faith to culture, culture to societies, and societies to the formation of civilizations — and thus to economics.

Since no civilization in the past has ever been able to sustain itself without some broadly accepted religious and ethical system at its core, we have to ask what Christianity, at its best, has to offer to the global civil society that could become a global civilization.

I think that certain themes from Christian teachings over the centuries are very helpful:

God created the world, which means that the world did not create or sustain itself. Humanity is created by God, which means that humans have a conferred dignity: Humans are commanded to create culture that accords with God’s laws and ends.

Humans are given prophets, priests and leaders who can be guides to civilizations. Jesus Christ is the model of this possibility — a faithful church is a model for us. Therefore we can hope for a New Jerusalem, a complex civilization to which all nations can bring their gifts and all religions can find fulfillment.

I think that these themes, which need much more unpacking, represent those ecumenical, orthodox, catholic, reformed and evangelical themes that may point to the best contribution Christianity can make to globalization. I invite any reader to join this pivotal discussion.

In closing, there is no denying that globalization is the theological and missiological mandate of today.

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