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The World to Come: From Christian Past to Global Future by Lloyd Geering


Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002). Published by Polebridge Press, 1999, Santa Rosa, California and by Bridget Williams Books Ltd, Wellington, New Zealand, 1999. This material was edited for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Chapter 8: Globalization


Globalization is a word that has only recently entered our dictionaries. First used to refer to the new global economy, it now encompasses the great new phenomenon of our time -- the process by which all scientific, cultural, religious and economic human activity is being integrated into one worldwide network. Humans of all ethnic groups, all nations, all cultures and all religious traditions are being drawn together into one global community. Without exercising much individual choice, we are becoming part of a global interchange of news, knowledge and ideas; we are increasingly dependent on one global economy, and influenced by a developing global culture. This is in spite of our diversity, our frequent mutual animosity and our all too common fear and distrust of all things foreign.

But if the term globalization is new, the phenomenon which it names has been around for quite some time. With hindsight we can readily discern several causes, all present in the emergence of western modernity during the last 500 years. Familiar as these trends and developments have been, we have not seen where they were leading us.

Technology is perhaps the most obvious cause of globalization, particularly the technology that so rapidly advanced travel and communication across geographical and ethnic barriers. For many thousands of years, humans lived in relative isolation from one another on the different parts of the earth’s surface, areas to which they had slowly dispersed during long period of human biological and cultural evolution. Then, in the fifteenth century, Europeans invented the ocean-going vessels which gave them access to what they named the ‘new world’. (Such terms as ‘voyages of discovery’, ‘the new world’ and ‘the far east’ express a specifically western perspective.) Only after these voyages were humans able to draw a reasonably reliable map of the planet’s surface, showing how the various continents and islands each form part of one global world. Gradually it became clear (though this was all too slowly appreciated) that the surface of the earth is finite; eventually we reached the end of new ‘worlds’ to explore, at least on this planet.

From the sixteenth century onwards, and particularly in the nineteenth century, ocean travel led to the European colonization of the Americas, Africa and Oceania. This enabled the European nations to export their surplus population and thus begin the global intermingling of races that has continued ever since. At first, globalization seemed perilously close to being Europeanization, but in the latter half of the twentieth century European supremacy has been modified, partly by the spread of Indian, Chinese and Japanese people, and partly because some of the colonized peoples took the opportunity of their imperial citizenship to settle in Europe.

In the nineteenth century land travel was speeded up by the invention of steam locomotion and the development of railways. Coupled with the industrialization of production in factories, this brought a radical shift in people’s lives, from a predominantly rural existence to a predominantly urban one, first in Europe and later elsewhere. Whereas families had often stayed in their own village for centuries, people now began to move about in search of work or advancement. With the twentieth-century invention of the motor car, then the aeroplane, families and individuals were even less likely to be anchored to one place for life. When Europeans first began to migrate to Australia and New Zealand in the early 1800s, for example, they faced a three-month sea journey, and many never returned to the land of their birth. Now the journey takes 24 hours. Long-distance travel has become an everyday affair, and is for many young people simply a part of their general education. Even those who cannot afford travel are familiar with the experiences it offers, and often benefit indirectly. Long-distance travel has, most of all, hastened the meeting of races and cultures, and nurtured the incipient global culture.

New technology made another huge contribution to globalization by intensifying the communication of news, the spread of ideas and the transfer of information. It started with the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1437. The Protestant Reformation would not have spread so successfully had it not been for the ability to print propaganda pamphlets and multiply copies of the Bible in the vernacular. Previously the Bible had to be painstakingly copied by hand and, being in Latin (the Vulgate), was accessible only to scholars. Making the Bible available in all Protestant parish churches in the language of the people increased the desire of ordinary people to become literate so that they could read it for themselves. The idea of universal education took root at that time.

In the seventeenth century the first regular newspapers were published, thus spreading further afield the news and current opinions which were otherwise only locally known. The collection of world news and its dissemination through newsprint flourishes to this day in spite of new technological rivals. The distribution of information was greatly assisted by the invention of the telegraph by Samuel Morse in 1837. Then came the invention of the telephone in 1876: now the human voice could be transmitted across ever longer distances, and communication itself became much more personal.

The discovery of radio in the late nineteenth century led to the establishment of radio broadcasting in the I9zos. Owning a radio started as a privilege but was soon seen as a necessity, and is now almost universal, even in Third World countries. Broadcasting was extended to television by the middle of the century, and has become an enormous industry. Television exerts a powerful cultural influence, not only by sending almost instant visual news all over the globe but also by fostering cultural change. Currently it is one of the chief instruments by which globalization is being advanced.

One of the twentieth century inventions with an impact reaching far into the future is the electronic computer, which has the capacity to speed up many forms of written communication. As we are still at the beginning of the computer revolution, its consequences are hard to foretell, even within the next decade. We do know, however, that the speed of change in communications technology is such that each innovation is rendered obsolete within a few years.

The last two decades have witnessed the introduction of the internet, offering a new way of sending information almost instantaneously around the world. Electronic mail via the internet provides fast and cheap personal intercommunication on a global scale. It is bringing together different networks of people from all around the world, many of whom may never have any other contact. The computer has also made a huge difference to the collection and storage of information. All the great libraries of the world are now linked together; immense databanks for all sorts of subjects are accumulating. Computer systems and the internet now provide access to an unbelievable amount of information, both good and bad. The industrial age, only 300 years old, has now been superseded by the information age.

This has sometimes been called a knowledge explosion. However, we need to distinguish between information and knowledge. Having access to information is not the same as being knowledgeable, just as the possession of knowledge does not necessarily produce wisdom. To be knowledgeable we need to absorb and master the information. But the time has long passed since any one person could absorb more than the tiniest fragment of the total body of available, reliable information. One can now be a specialist only in a very confined area.

All this has meant that geographical distance is no longer a barrier separating individuals or groups. We may now have more regular and personal contact with someone on the other side of the world than we do with the person living next door. On the one hand, the boundary lines which separate ethnic and national groups (which were mostly geographical in origin) are now becoming blurred, indistinct and sometimes irrelevant. On the other hand, global pressures often serve to intensify ethnic identity and become the cause of conflict. Both types of response illustrate how the world is fast becoming one global city.

Speed of travel, the intensification of communication and the rise in the average level of education have also meant that the various aspects of western modernity have spread quickly around the globe. We are beginning to be aware that, no matter where we were born and whatever our culture, we share a common story -- the story of human origins within the more complex story of the evolution of life on the planet. As the once separate cultures meet and cross-fertilize one another, humankind is beginning to share more and more values -- such as the concern for human rights and personal freedom.

Today many cultures acknowledge (at least superficially) the supreme value of personal freedom and of human rights, but this dates only from the Declaration of Human Rights during the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century. ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ are commonplace ideas today. Yet the same words struck fear into most thinking Europeans of the day, including religious leaders; they appeared then to threaten the very fabric of society.

In the following 200 years, the revolutionary ideas of freedom, equality, brotherhood and human rights for all have spread further and further, inspiring a series of emancipations. First came the emancipation from absolute monarchy and its replacement by democracy. Then came the emancipation from slavery; humans had the right to personal freedom. Then came the emancipation of women from male domination; women initially claimed the right to hold property and to vote, and more recently their right to social equality and career opportunity. During the twentieth century indigenous peoples have sought emancipation from foreign imperialism, and colored races emancipation from white domination. The emancipation of homosexuals from heterosexual domination is being vigorously debated today. In all cases, the struggle for emancipation has met fierce resistance, which still continues in many quarters.

Globalization has also meant that we are moving from what may be called the closed society -- that is, one surrounded by a clear boundary -- to the open society. In a closed society, one’s freedom is significantly restricted, for one is deeply involved in the duties (or morality) of that society. Anyone outside the closed society is an outcast, an excommunicate or a foreigner: that which is outside is unknown and potentially dangerous. The closed society has a strong sense of its own identity, from which members draw their sense of security; it is held together as a social organism largely by authority, exercised from above but also supplemented by peer pressure. And it depends on such qualities in its members as loyalty, trust and an absolute respect for authority. Until the rise of the modern world, all societies, whether tribal, ethnic, national or religious, were closed societies, to a greater or lesser degree.

The open society has been emerging in the modern world along with the globalization. It is a society in which boundary lines are less distinct, so that people can leave or join with relative ease. The open society permits and fosters the growth of individualism; people enjoy greater personal freedom and, by the same token, more responsibility. Whereas membership of a closed society helped to provide personal identity (‘I’m a Scotsman’, for example, or ‘I’m a Presbyterian’), individuals in the open society are both freer and have more responsibility to establish their own identity. Closed societies, by the authority they exert, effectively cushion their members from the exercise of responsibility; decisions are largely made for people, not by them. In the open society, where external authority is greatly reduced, much more responsibility rests with each individual to promote the welfare of the society. ‘Where that responsibility is lacking, the society either disintegrates or is forced to return to the rigid authoritarianism of the closed society.

Many of our current social problems arise from the fact that, as our culture shifts from the closed to the open society, people often struggle with their new social responsibilities. And this is occurring on a grand scale, as a large number of former closed societies find themselves part of one vast, complex and (as yet) embryonic open society. The open society also has some inherent difficulties. Any vigorous human society draws its identity from a shared tradition of common beliefs, values and practices. The growth of individualism and personal freedom can damage such traditions, and this in turn endangers social cohesion. Thus globalization and the advent of the open society, while bringing great benefit to the individual, can have serious consequences for human society. These consequences are the more serious if we remember that our very humanity, as individuals, relies upon human society and what we receive from it.

Language, so essential to our culture and humanity, remains the basis of a human society. Without it there can be no social cohesion. Nonetheless, language has been (and still is) one of the main causes of humankind’s division into separate closed societies. Globalization is now throwing the spotlight on this phenomenon. If there is to be one global community, clearly it would be easier for all humankind to have one language (though that would be no guarantee of peace and unity). There are still over 6,000 living languages, but many have disappeared already, and it has been estimated that another 80 percent will die out during the twenty-first century.

But language is not solely a form of communication; it also provides an essential means of identifying our particular kind of humanity. Diversity of language among humans has provided a richness in human culture not to be undervalued. If all languages but one were to die, the rich cultural heritage of the past would be lost to all but a small scholarly elite. Already the prospect of losing of their mother tongue represents a profound loss of identity to many cultures and many peoples. The practical need for a common language in a global society has already assisted the spread of the most widely-used languages, such as English and Spanish. Yet David Crystal, an acknowledged authority in linguistics, has warned that the survival of English as the only language left in 500 years’ time would be a great intellectual disaster.

In various places and at different times in the past, a particular language has emerged as a lingua franca alongside a local language. The ideal future would be one in which everybody could converse in at least two languages -- a mother tongue sustaining their own cultural heritage, and a lingua franca providing access to other people and cultures around the globe. The creation of Esperanto was an artificial attempt to achieve this but it is unlikely to succeed. Yet something like a universal language is being provided by empirical science (for example, in mathematics), this being one of the important areas of commonality in the new global culture.

Globalization is further exemplified by the great increase in international commerce and trade. Less and less do countries live solely off the products they themselves produce; more and more, they are engaged together in a complex global economy. Production of goods, marketing, financial backing and promotion are all increasingly planned at a transnational level, with the result that national governments have less economic power (especially smaller states, or those in the so-called developing world). Globalization strategies by the major transnational organizations now dominate the corporate scene, leading to a narrow specialization in key sectors. It is widely claimed that the globalization of production helps to cut costs, and that (as long as gains are not outweighed by transport costs) everybody benefits; the truth of such claims is also strenuously challenged, and there is strong evidence that the real beneficiaries are powerful, wealthy, western countries, and the transnational companies they support. Organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have been formed by the powerful nation states to foster globalization. Initially started by the United States and Britain during World War II to assist postwar international financial and economic co-operation, these have been joined by others such as the World Trade Organization, and act as brokers for the free market. We are moving by stages to a single global economy, operating on free market principles. (The negative and possibly destructive consequences of a free market global economy will be discussed in the next chapter.)

In drawing the nations of the world into one arena, globalization can also lead to serious conflict, as the twentieth century has already demonstrated. Paradoxically, though they threatened to tear humanity apart, the two world wars led to the foundation of international organizations that may be seen as the first steps towards some global form of world government. The League of Nations was established by the victorious Allied powers at the end of World War I for the purpose of preventing another destructive global conflict. It promoted the principle of collective security, arbitration of international disputes, and reduction of armaments; it also set up a Permanent Court of International Justice. But while the League of Nations did assist with minor international disputes, it had little real power for dealing with issues such as the Japanese invasion of Asia, Italian expansion in Africa and German aggression in Europe. In 1946 it was replaced by the United Nations, which inherited many of the League’s goals. According to its charter, the United Nations aims to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, to promote worldwide co-operation in the solving of international economic, social, cultural and humanitarian problems, and to maintain international peace and security. Beginning with 51 nations, membership had grown to 80 by 1956 and to more than 180 by 1996.

Parallel to these international Organizations in government and commerce are many international societies of religious, cultural, humanitarian and sporting interests. No sooner does some new enterprise begin than, within a short time, it spreads around the world and takes root in other areas. All major sports are now linked on a global level, and world cup tournaments are the order of the day. Most notable are the Olympic Games, rejuvenated in 1896. Originally a product of Greek culture, the Olympics ran for over 1,000 years as a series of contests including music and poetry along with sport, before being abolished in 393 CE. Today their success is emulated in localized events such as the Commonwealth Games.

The phenomenon of globalization has already begun to generate what may be called global consciousness. This new and developing form of human consciousness is still far from universal, but the world that we each create in our heads1 (our mental picture of reality) is now being constructed rather differently, by absorbing innumerable bits of knowledge and information from all over the world, not just from our own small locality. In particular, as Thomas Berry has observed, the discovery of the evolutionary process is making a profound impact on human consciousness.2

In global consciousness we know that, if we go far enough back in time, we share a common origin not only with people from very different cultural and religious backgrounds, but also with all forms of life on the planet. Moreover, we now face a common planetary future with all other humans and all other creatures. Our forebears, whose lives were contained by cultural and geographical horizons, had only the haziest knowledge of people who lived in other countries, and could afford to ignore them completely -- as we can no longer do. An emerging global awareness has (as we saw in Chapter 6) forced us to see all cultures, including our own, in relative terms.

We understand too that our earthly home is a tiny planet spinning in space, and that it is strictly finite and limited. We know that if we go far enough around the world in one direction we come back to where we started. For the first time in human history we have, in the twentieth century, been able to construct a fairly clear picture of the whole globe in our mind. Space exploration and satellite photography allows us to see even what the earth looks like from outer space. Into our mental picture we slot the various bits of news we see each night on television.

Global consciousness is causing us to discover and acknowledge both cultural diversity and cultural relativity. It is making us more aware of our own cultural identity (or lack of it). Only a few years ago people never used the word ‘culture’ in the way we do today, and never thought of themselves as belonging to a particular culture. Today we continually hear discussions about cultural identity, cultural autonomy and cultural diversity. People of different cultures are meeting personally, reading about each other’s lives, or seeing one another on television. Few of us live any longer within the boundaries of only one culture, and new terms, such as bi-cultural and multi-cultural, are emerging.

All this is evidence of a massive and far-reaching change reshaping the sort of creatures we humans are. We are now conscious of the ways in which our social, cultural, economic and even our mental life is being interwoven with that of others. We are becoming more interdependent, and are having to learn how to become one global society whether we wish to or not.

Although globalization is a modern phenomenon, the idea of a global consciousness and society goes back a very long way, and originated as a religious vision. The prophets and psalmists of ancient Israel envisaged a time when the people of all languages and nations would come from the four corners of the earth and be gathered together into a re-united family. This vision was intensified in the Christian and Islamic traditions to which Judaism unwittingly gave birth. Each of these monotheistic religious traditions had, at its best, the capacity to unite humanity. Each set out with a vision of binding humankind into one community of nations. Christianity looked forward to the time when ‘all nations shall come and worship’ the one deity; Christians spoke of the Kingdom of God, which would supersede the kingdoms of this world. Islam affirmed that people of all nations are brothers one to the other. The Muslims saw it as the culmination of human brotherhood, a concept symbolized magnificently in the ceremony of the annual Hajj to Mecca. Although these visions led to two great multiethnic civilizations -- Christendom and the Islamic world -- neither of these has succeeded in becoming the new global society, partly because each encountered within itself a continual resurgence of pre-Axial ethnic tribalism, and partly because each developed an intolerant exclusiveness which turned it into another closed society, this time of a religious kind. It has been difficult to resolve the uneasy tension between loyalty to the local community, whether ethnic or religious, and that to the larger human community, which globalization requires.

Perhaps the first to grasp the full significance of globalization, and to experience global consciousness intensively, was the Jesuit priest-scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), whose seminal book The Phenomenon of Man was written before 1940 but not published until after his death. Writing at a time when the signs of globalization were not nearly as obvious as they are today, he foresaw a process he called ‘planetization’, by which ‘peoples and civilizations reach such a degree either of frontier con-tact or economic interdependence or psychic communion that they can no longer develop save by the interpenetration of one another’.3 Teilhard de Chardin wholly identified with the traditions of the Christian west, yet his visionary mind was able to lift the Christian themes and symbols out of their traditional usage and re-interpret them. In his breathtaking conceptualization of planetary life, he saw the emergence of the human species and the subsequent globalization of the planet not in terms of the conquest of the globe by Christianity but as the logical consequence of an ongoing evolutionary process.

He identified one aspect of evolution as divergence. Divergence can be seen not only in the multiplication of species over a long period of time, but also in the multiplication and diversification of languages, cultures and nations within the human species. This phenomenon of divergence functions rather like the lines of longitude on the surface of the planet, growing further apart as they move away from their point of origin at the earth’s pole. At the equator, however, the lines of longitude start to come closer together. This other aspect of evolution Teilhard de Chardin called convergence; he saw it, like divergence, as an integral part of the evolving process as it moved from the point of origin he called Alpha to the end point he called Omega. From the time the species Homo sapiens consolidated itself to become the only survivor of the various hominoid species that had evolved as a result of divergence, humankind slowly spread over the earth, moving into previously uninhabited areas.

But what was to happen when there were no more places into which to spread on this finite planet? That very point, said Teilhard de Chardin, would mark the transition in humankind from divergence to convergence. The human species would fold back upon itself, merging all ethnic groups and cultures into one unified species, one global culture. This would then produce a new, higher form of human consciousness. He foresaw the rise of global consciousness, and dared to call it super-consciousness. Teilhard de Chardin believed that the twentieth century marked the coming of that crucial time in the planet’s history.

‘What we have described as globalization is remarkably close to Teilhard de Chardin’s planetization, in which ‘[mankind, born on this planet and spread over its entire surface, come[s] gradually to form round its earthly matrix, a single, major, organic unity, enclosed upon itself.4 Thus the globalization of humankind could lead to the formation of a new kind of living entity -- a social organism -- on the same cosmic principle as that by which atoms join to form molecules, molecules join to form mega-molecules, mega-molecules unite to form living cells, and innumerable cells constitute an organism. Within this social organism there would arise ‘a spiritual center, a supreme pole of consciousness, upon which all the separate consciousnesses of the world may converge and within which they may love one another’.5 This super-consciousness would evolve in the same way that personal consciousness does within the complex physiology of the human organism.

Of course Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of the evolutionary process need not be taken too literally. It was severely criticized on publication -- by many scientists for not being truly scientific and by many theologians for not being truly Christian. Some of its details are now dated. Yet, as a total vision of the story of the planet and of the future of humanity, it is still inspiring, and shows remarkable insight.

But is such a scenario even possible, let alone probable? A tenuous global culture is now emerging, though it is still embryonic. It is relativizing all the earlier cultures, just as the trans-ethnic cultures created by Christianity and Islam each relativized the ethnic cultures of the countries into which they spread. Motivating this global culture is the growing global consciousness which we have just described. Is this anything like Teilhard de Chardin’s super-consciousness? It is far too early to say. Possibly the human species, by successfully responding to current challenges, could become so united in love and goodwill that there would be some kind of spiritual center linking all humans together in a commonality of consciousness. Martin Buber in his spiritual classic I and Thou maintained that where people are drawn together by deep personal relationships to form a true community, there emerges in their midst a spiritual center, which both reflects and continues to foster the unique quality of their relationships. Such a center could constitute a super-consciousness.

It must be conceded, however, that Teilhard de Chardin was working within an exclusively Christian framework. He was thinking very much in terms of the church as the supra-national society with Christ as the spiritual center. While globalization has been largely made possible by the Christian west, with its rapidly expanding technology and imperialistic ambitions, this does not make globalization necessarily welcome in non-Christian cultures. They welcome the new technology but often regard the associated cultural challenges not as aspects of globalization but as westernization -- and this they wish to reject. The resulting conflicts and difficulties now surfacing in the international arena were not part of Teilhard de Chardin’s planetization.

In addition, it needs to be remembered that the globalizing process, advanced by western science and technology, also gave rise to today’s secular culture. This is a product of the west, yet it was not planned by those proclaiming and defending Christianity; indeed, traditional Christian preachers often treat secularism as one of their chief enemies. Yet secularity became so much a part of western culture that the mission of bringing Christianity to the rest of the world has spread secularity as well. Today’s embryonic global culture is secular in nature, however much it may draw its values from the Christian and other cultures which have preceded it.

Globalization means that all kinds of allegiances -- personal, family, religious and national -- are increasingly subject to global concerns. We can still value, and feel some loyalty to, our own personal circle and cultural background, but these loyalties are now becoming subject to the imperatives laid upon us by globalization. The citizenship of each particular nationality must take its place alongside global citizenship, our current cultures and our religious allegiance alongside an emerging global culture. But what will be the character of this culture and will it come at all? I would venture that any coming global culture will need to be humanistic (rather than traditionally religious), naturalistic (rather than super-naturalistic) and ecological (designed to promote the health of all planetary life). But as we shall see in the next two chapters, there are strong forces -- economic, political and religious -- which will seek to prevent the coming of such a culture. Have we the wisdom, courage and motivation to become global citizens and to welcome a global culture?

An important aspect of globalization is that no human problem of any size exists in isolation. It therefore does not lend itself to any simple solution. What happens in one geographical area and/or in one aspect of life is quickly reflected elsewhere. Human life on this planet has the capacity to become a complex social organism with the kind of super-consciousness foreseen by Teilhard de Chardin. But there are also divisive and destructive forces present in the humanization of the globe.

Globalization is currently rolling along without any one person, organization or nation controlling it. Like the march of time, it is going on its way relentlessly. There is very little possibility of holding it back or of directing it. As we arrive at the year 2000 CE, the process of globalization has reached a turning point. It could lead to a form of human existence more wonderful and exciting than we can possibly imagine -- a veritable heaven on earth. Or some of the trends that have been encouraging globalization may have disastrous consequences far beyond human control.

Whichever way the future unfolds -- and this we shall tentatively explore -- the year 2000 CE in the Christian calendar may well prove a milestone in human history after all. Calendars are built around such milestones, for, as we have seen, Dionysius Exiguus changed the year 753 of the ancient Roman calendar into the year 1 CE. The year 2000 CE marks not merely the end of the second Christian millennium; it may well mark the end of Christianity as a clearly definable tradition. Globalization is bringing us into such a profoundly different era that some future generation may well be moved to discard the Christian calendar entirely, and rename the year 2000 AD as 1 GE, the first year of the Global Era.

 

Notes:

1. See the author’s Tomorrow’s God, Part I.

2. Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth, p.117.

3. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, p. 277.

4. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The Future of Man, p. 120.

5. Ibid., p. 124.

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