Globalist Paper

Religion as a Globalizing Force (Part IV)

In what ways was religion the first force that helped to globalize the world?

Takeaways


  • The new worldview is meant to render a comprehensive vision of morals and meaning for society — one complex enough to take account of the incredible myriad of cultures and beliefs while being sufficiently simple to shape the loyalties of the peoples.
  • The poverty of North Korea, the sad declines in Zimbabwe and Darfur, the crises of Columbia and Argentina, the failures of Russian or Lebanese oligarchic capitalism are not due to globalization.
  • The most desperate people are found in state-dominated economies, and those most exploited are the victims of local despots or rogue warlords.
  • Combinations of material and ideal interests drove merchants and adventurers, monks and literati to develop and use a variety of treks and caravans, collectively called the Silk Road.
  • Equally striking is the dramatic resurgence of old world religions and new prophecies, with some wanting to determine the destiny of globalization in accord with their faith-based values.

After humanity spread to most parts of the earth and developed distinctive local religions and cultures, some began to find ways to develop links among them.

Driven by cultural curiosity, religious zeal, hopes for new wisdom, quests for profitable trade, a desire for adventure, a chance to get away from unhappy situations and a love for the exotic, people found routes of travel between West and East, North and South.

Combinations of material and ideal interests drove merchants and adventurers, monks and literati to develop and use a variety of treks and caravans, collectively called the Silk Road.

It joined Turkey with China, with connecting routes in the West to Europe, Arabia and Africa — and in the East to India, Korea and Japan. Buddhist, Jewish, Christian and Islamic believers, driven by their universalistic religions, took their faiths to others on these routes.

For centuries, along these routes goods, ideas, gold and pieties were exchanged, and civilizations were enriched. Many died en route, while some gained handsomely. This could be considered the first proto-globalization.

Centuries later, new technologies were fostered by the faith-driven view that nature needed both repair and transformation so that life could more nearly approximate the promised New Jerusalem.

At the practical level, caravans were replaced by clipper ships and then steam ships. These accelerated the exploration of new continents and the colonization of new portions of the globe.

It also enabled the expansion of slavery, already widely practiced and approved by several religious traditions, and triggered the debates as to whether all humans had souls and were equal in God’s sight — a view that finally won the day after a long and tragic historical debate — even if human behavior has not caught up with the promise of the debate.

These practical developments also invited missionary activity in unprecedented numbers. Christians from the West took advantage of these conditions. Priests and preachers, educators and doctors, soldiers and administrators, agronomists and anthropologists brought “new” faith-shaped perspectives on God and humanity.

And they brought new interpretations of the universe and the earth, new means of nurturing the young and curing the sick, new modes of organizing the common life to peoples around the world.

The colonizers and the missionaries disputed over some major issues, but they cooperated in much and brought much with them from their home culture, which at times obscured their intended message and almost overwhelmed indigenous societies.

The “receiving” peoples, however, were not passive. They adopted only portions of what was offered, and only selectively modulated their pre-existing beliefs, practices and social organizations. They brought their older faith with them into the new faith, and in effect generated new cultural syntheses that resisted the colonialism and imperialism of European cultures.

These new syntheses are now the source of much reconstructive development in what was once called the “Third World.” Wider visions of humanity became more common.

New synthetic worldviews were created, and it became more possible to speak of a worldwide “humanity” with aspirations for human rights, emancipation, nation-building, constitutional government, development and the modernization of the economy, medicine and social life — most often in semi-Christianized cultural terms.

Today’s globalization is another such wave of development, a moment marked technologically by new means of communication from jumbo jets to the Internet, new prospects of genetic and ecological engineering and new interchanges between cultures and religions.

The increased ability to control the bio-physical world by technologies so far only available to some, and the increased ability to influence opinion by newly created media, also only available to some, forces all peoples to ask what values, principles and purposes should drive our responses to globalization’s promises and perils.

Everyone knows, for example, that some are now left out of the promises and that special attention must be paid to those who are being left behind. But equally striking is the dramatic resurgence of old world religions and new prophecies, with some wanting to determine the destiny of globalization in accord with their faith-based values.

Particularly dramatic, of course, is militant Islam in the Middle East, which is structurally parallel to some Christian forms of fundamentalism. But also we must think of the dramatic return of Buddhism to East Asia, probably growing as fast in China as is evangelical Christianity.

These developments, plus the resurgence of tribal and caste religions in other parts of the world, suggest that despite — and, in my view, because of — all the globalization pressures, a quest for a guiding, ethical and spiritual worldview is widely sought.

That worldview is meant to render a comprehensive vision of morals and meaning for society — one complex enough to take account of the incredible myriad of cultures and beliefs while being sufficiently simple to shape the loyalties of the peoples.

This matter of loyalties, of confidence, leads us back to the question of faith: What is, what has been, what can be and what should be the relation of faith to this global formation of a new worldwide civil society — and to the powers that generated and sustain it?

If we consult major economists and social theorists who have studied globalization and its effects, we get different results.

Names to be considered include British author Martin Wolf and his "Why Globalization Works," Indian economist Jagdish Bhagwati (now at Columbia University) and his "In Defense Of Globalization," Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman and his "The Moral Consequences Of Economic Growth," Boston University sociologist of economic culture Peter Berger and his "Many Globalizations," and Johns Hopkins development theorist Lawrence Harrison and his "Culture Matters."

These representative scholars are all critical of some policies that have influenced the path of globalization, but they tend to agree with the following points:

  1. Globalization is categorically not impoverishing the poor. Rather, it is raising millions who were poor for centuries into new middle classes in the most rapid gains in history — although there are populations that globalization has not reached, especially in cultures shaped by religions that are predisposed to resist changes in global directions.
  2. Yet, inequality has grown. That is usual for the early stages of a historical shift when new social values plus new methods of production and modes of organization are introduced, and vast numbers of people are drawn into urbanizing and industrializing economies.
  3. More static cultures are disrupted, bringing crisis especially to tribal and peasant populations. Governments and NGOs must make the resources required by these new modes of life available to all, and faith-based ministries must offer the possibility of conversion — the inner basis of spiritual and moral, and thus significant, social change.

  4. The most desperate people are found in state-dominated economies, and those most exploited are the victims of local despots or rogue warlords. The poverty of North Korea, the sad declines in Zimbabwe and Darfur, the crises of Columbia and Argentina, the failures of Russian or Lebanese oligarchic capitalism are not due to globalization.
  5. Confidence in state-managed economies has also been shattered by feudal, colonial, fascist, Peronist and Communist experience: Even the elaborate welfare state policies of European democratic socialism are being challenged in the Netherlands, Germany, England and the Scandinavian countries, and by the EU itself.
  6. Migration patterns of those seeking an “economy of life” flow into areas where democratic capitalist systems are dominant, not out of them.
  7. In most parts of the world, more and more people are adopting globalized patterns of life, but are doing so selectively and wedding the resources to features of their own cultures so that they can work on international and cross-cultural bases while preserving what is distinctive to their own values.

The biggest story, however, is less often told. The growth of the middle classes in East and South Asia, and in those lands where Christianity — most often in its Evangelical and Pentecostal forms — is growing fastest is utterly astounding. Brazil, South Africa and even Indonesia are manifesting new forms of religiously based ethics for the common life that are reshaping both their historical traditions and their promising futures.

Editor’s Note: Part V of this feature will be published on The Globalist tomorrow.

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