The Theological Challenge of Globalization

by Max L. Stackhouse

At the time this article was written, Max L. Stackhouse taught at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts. He subsequently taught at Princeton Theological Seminary.

A longer version of this article was presented at a conference on “World Order and American Religion” at Amherst, Massachusetts, which was supported by the Lilly Endowment. This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 3, 1989, pp. 468-471. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The shock of deprovincialization makes us aware that Christianity is not the only great religion. Isolated ignorance of other faiths is both socially irresponsible and religiously foolish.

Globalization is a term frequently encountered in theological circles these days. It arises from the recognition that the world is shrinking, and that tomorrow's clergy and communities of faith will encounter a new dimension of pluralism. Cross-cultural experiences of a radical kind are increasingly a part of our everyday experience.

Globalization is in this sense a fact. But the term also points to an unrealized project: making our theological perspective large and supple enough truly to comprehend the social and religious pluralism of the globe. I want, then, to identify three distinct dimensions of globalization: the experience of deprovincialization, the fact of internationalization and the search for universality.

Part of the puzzlement and confusion of globalization comes from the shock of deprovincialization. For those who have had little exposure to anything but a specific religious tradition or a denominational faith, or a religionsaturated local or national culture, an introduction to world religions and to cosmopolitan cultures makes certainties less stable. Over the centuries, theological education itself has introduced generations to aspects of tradition or biblical history that manifest shifting accents, multiple meanings and constantly. revising patterns of piety and practice. However, modern historical and developmental views, including theories of progress, have allowed historical variety to be absorbed without strain on mind or soul or social imagination.

Today, deprovincialization occurs less often through immersion in classical texts than through immediate exposure. Islam is on TV, Hinduism is in the religious section at the bookshop, Confucians are members of the PTA. The daughter of a church member marries a Buddhist, a relative converts to Judaism, a lay leader in the church becomes fascinated with the Samurai sense of duty to a corporate unit—which threatens both his sense of the superiority of the Protestant ethic and his job—while his wife signs up for yoga class and his son becomes a Marxist.

Ethnocentrism in faith is simply no longer possible. Those who did not learn from the "comparative religion" or "history of religions" scholars of the past two centuries that non-Christian religions were out there, and

were at least as subtle, coherent and devoutly held as anything homegrown, and those who did not learn from World War II and the decolonial period not to identify cultural-linguistic traditions with Christianity, are learning from contemporary cross-cultural exposures that many things thought to be unique are in fact quite common.

Each may have a preferred example. Consider this one: Christians might think that the dynamics of grace and faith in human salvation could only be worked out in Christianity—until they learn, for example, about the intricate, debates between the "cat doctrine" and the "monkey doctrine" in Bhakti Hinduism. The mother cat, wanting to save a kitten under threat, takes it by the scruff of the neck and moves it to a new place; the kitten is helpless by itself, although it trusts. In contrast, the baby monkey, hearing the warning cries of its elders, clings to the mother as she moves, and is thereby graciously saved. In the moment of true enlightenment, both movements occur.

The shock of deprovincialization makes us aware that Christianity is not the only great religion. This realization often ends, in students, with a tenuousness about what they do believe—an insecurity of faith, a doubt about the propriety of having strong convictions about anything, except as a purely personal commitment. The last thing anyone would ever want to do is to impose a view on someone else. Such an effect can bring about a proper modesty. It can also evoke a systematic loss of confidence that produces poor preachers with nothing to say beyond psychobabble or sociojargon. In mass cultures, a "wimp faith" also may evoke a militantly postured confidence—which we sometimes call "fundamentalism."

In scholars, deprovincialization takes a more subtle form. Often it appears in symposia about the relative incapacity of anyone to say much of anything with security about God, since everything we can say is a perspectival construal conditioned decisively by the sociohistorical situation from which one comes—a view that, oddly, always seems to be coupled with a plea to discuss the matter a lot more. Sometimes deprovincialization takes the form of inventive explorations of polytheism, with minimal wrestling with pertinent classical traditions. (It is intriguing, for instance, to see how little leading proponents of pluralism have engaged the doctrine of the Trinity, which long ago defined most of the problems of diversity and unity.)

Whatever we may think of these responses, however, the theological community today has come to substantive agreement on this point: isolated ignorance of other faiths is both socially irresponsible and religiously foolish. Max Mueller was surely correct when he said that whoever understands only one religion understands none.

Those who work in theological education are also aware, however, that we must also avoid intellectual or spiritual tourism—the tendency to explore the range and quaintness of the world's wondrous variety without asking about the truth-claims of various cultures, without attempting to discern the relative justice of alternative social practices, or without seeking commonalities that may overarch multiple lands and religions.

Beyond deprovincialization, beyond individual discovery of and wonder at variety and pluralism, is the fact of internationalization. This term points to the reality that some aspects of modernity have transcended national and cultural boundaries and require a new awareness of interdependency and new levels of commonality—aspects of which are likely to destroy much of the variety we have known and to produce new varieties of cross-cultural and transnational interaction.

Arend Van Leeuwen argued in his greatest work a quarter of a century ago, Christianity in World History, that the sociohistorical forces of technology, urbanization, democracy and human rights, as worldly effects of prophetic Christian presuppositions, were in fact spiritual forces in secular garb, bearing with them deep implications for social transformation. They would shatter all the particular ontocracies of hierarchy and traditionalism in Asia and Africa, as they had begun to do in the West. That would both open the horizon to evangelization and spur the development of a global community.

His views were severely criticized at the time and remained highly controversial for more than two decades; they may well be in need of modulation still. But subsequent developments suggest that he may not have been entirely misguided. As we face the 21st century, not only blue jeans and soft drinks are exported from the West to the exploding cities of the globe; technology is eagerly pursued wherever people can get access to it. By technology I mean not only machines or pills or techniques but the central praxis of modernity—the most consistent and self-consciously methodical way of using contemporary science to alter the natural order so that it will serve human desires and needs. The most remarkable thing about the international embrace of technology is that modern humanity has agreed with Christianity that we have a right, indeed a duty, to change the world—a notion many cultures do not swallow easily.

In South India, where I teach as often as possible, the racks at the front of the bookstores are no longer filled, as they were a scant decade ago, with volumes dedicated to the preservation of village life, or to the intellectual, cultural or social history of South Asia, or to the writings of spiritual and political leaders calling the people to overcome imperialism and colonialism. They are filled with books on technology, computers, management and business.

And in the villages, the rice paddies are plowed while transistor radios next to the field broadcast the changing prices of oil—which influence fertilizer and marketing costs—along with the latest pop music from all over the world. Oxen are still used for plowing, water may have to be carried from the tank, and pujahs are still said at the local shrine, but the oxen are tied with nylon rope, not hemp; the water is carried in plastic, not earthenware or brass, pots; and the donations for pujah are broadcast on a PA system. The young adults are not to be seen; they have gone to the city—to technical school if they are lucky, bright and have family support.

Nor are Indian farmers the only ones to be plunged into this technological, global society. Indiana farmers listen to the weather reports from Asia on transistor radios in their barns. The news shapes their purchase of fertilizer and their marketing also. Their sons and daughters have also left for the city, training to become technicians, computer experts, managers or engineers.

We need not rely only on examples from farming. Most news programs broadcast the changing prices on the stock exchanges of Tokyo and London as well as New York. The gold, bond and financial markets are global and continuous.

As important as such indicators of internalization are, more remarkable developments can be found in other sectors—developments that run entirely against the forecasts of the best minds of several decades. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev has followed his earlier initiatives in reducing nuclear weapons by making two announcements of momentous import: economically, socialism does not work, and politically, democracy is the road to the future.

We do not know whether he will be able to lead the Soviet Union in new directions over the long haul. But it is more than remarkable that world leaders have celebrated his efforts by declaring the end of the cold war, and that both mixed-economy nations everywhere and socialist nations in developing countries are privatizing industry as fast as possible, as well as trying to reclaim democracy. What these and other developments appear to signal is the emergence both of new, interdependent, international structures for every sector of society, and of an international consensus about what the good society might look like in the 21st century—or, to be more modest about it, a temporary vision of what is not likely to work, and a willingness to adopt and adapt at least features of the West's technological, pluralistic, democratic capitalist experiment.

If this is so, internationalization poses the question of whether the United States as a nation has the depth of character to model and to guide what is likely to be, at least for a time, a global Pax Americana.

No civilization can endure for long if it is built on technological prowess, business acumen, political power, military might or, mass-culture artistry only. It may well be that no civilization can exist without those things; but peace cannot be established on these bases alone, and none of these can, by themselves, discern truth or assure justice. The various sectors of society depend, in the long run, on a deeper foundation—a religious orientation. That is what forms the cognitive and emotive skeleton to which the deepest loyalties of the people adhere, and on which institutions depend.

If it is the case that civilizations are, in their roots, dependent on the quality of religion, and if it is the case that America, by the cunning hand of Providence, has been thrust into the leadership of a global civilization, then we should attend to the question of whether the religion that guides us is genuinely universal.

For several reasons, theology in America is not fully prepared to address this question. Many of the structures of American life have been shaped by strands of Christianity deriving from the 16th century, a century divided against itself. Not only were "Roman" and "anti-Roman" parts of the church separated, but both sides contained a "protestant element" and a "reformation element. "

The one side is based on protest, on debunking false claims to universality in the name of particularity. This is a marvelous instrument to undercut pretense and expose fraud. It can demystify domination and exploitation. It gets us out from under pharaoh, from feudalisms, from slaveries, from patriarchies, from all the Babylonian captivities to which nations, empires and human hearts are heir. The tradition of protest, centered in freedom, is a great tradition, now allied, against its earlier intent, with the dynamics of the free market.

But it has a fatal flaw. It knows no other norm. It cannot, finally, order, reconstruct and build. The other side of American theology, and of the Reformation and of Christianity generally, is "form"—the recovery and actualization of a normative vision of eternal truth, justice or righteousness. Here lies the notion of moral law, based in some relatively secure knowledge of how, so far as humans can know these things, God wants things to be. This is the motif in our heritage that forms a covenant for those wandering in the wilderness, after the escape into freedom. This is the element that turns protest into reconstruction. According to Ernst Troeltsch, it transmutes the autonomy won in the struggle against heteronomy into the discipline and restraint of theonomy. According to Paul Tillich, it weds the "Protestant Principle" to "Catholic Substance. "

This element of re-formation is, however, in poor repair today—especially among ecumenically oriented Christians who, in principle, would seem to be the logical custodians of this heritage. This element contains presuppositions about which many have doubts. It contains, for example, the suggestion that, by the grace of God, humans have a serious capacity to recognize in scriptures, traditions or experiences what is universally true or false, just or unjust.

Further, it suggests that we ought, that we have a right and indeed that we have a duty, to draw our own freedom into a disciplined constraint, on a universalist basis even when, or perhaps especially when, we are not constrained to do so by others.

These two sides of our heritage have become split into opposing schools in much of contemporary thought—with one side protesting constrictive rationalisms of all sorts in the name of freedom, and the other resisting all plunges into historicist relativism. But in most serious theology and the best sociology of religion, the mutually rejecting tendencies of Dionysius and Apollo, or of Rousseau and Kant, or of faith and science, are not taken with ultimate seriousness. The deepest orthodox, the widest catholic, the most reformed, and the best New World theology sees not opposition but complementarity in the voluntarist and intellectualist dimensions of life. Today, in America, it will be enough to try to regain a decent balance.

It may be useful to conclude, then, by suggesting some guidelines for theology as we move toward the next, inevitably global, century. Above all, theology will have to engage in a quest for norms beyond freedom and beyond a description of how things are. But even more than that is needed, both for the sake of theology and for salvation of the world. We must ensure that:

1. Our theology is public. Our guiding faith must be based in moral realities beyond private interest and beyond the privileged insights of our unique historical experience. The public which it addresses and for which it speaks cannot be that of particularity alone. If we may draw elements from these, we have to indicate why we do so beyond the fact that they accord with our interests and experience; and the criteria for such assessments have to be open and accessible to those who are not part of the experience and do not benefit from it. "Public" attached to theology means "worldwide" in a normative sense, or it is simply political.

2. To this public, we can make a case for our faith, beyond merely the confession of it. We should not expect anyone to take us seriously if we cannot do this. The dogmatic method in theology is very useful in proclaiming the faith to those who already (or almost) believe it; but in a global society, we shall have to take up the apologetic method again. That is, we shall have to make the substantive case for that which we hold to be true in the face of those who really do not know, and cannot quite imagine, what we are talking about—especially if we expect our faith to have some bearing on how we conduct public business. That means that we shall have to enter into philosophical and cultural-linguistic systems other than our own and show in their terms that what we say makes sense, or that that system is in itself confused on its own terms, and that we are prepared to abandon our beliefs if they cannot make sense in other viable systems and hence are not universal in significance.

3. Our faith leads ethically to the formation of inclusive, compassionate communities beyond particular solidarities. Communities, for instance, based on class, caste and clan exclude any who are not of the "proper" physical condition—economically or genetically or sexually. They are, by definition, not universal, and are structured to resist universal equity and rights. They produce a pluralism, but it is a pluralism of exclusion, not of mutuality and care. Solidarities of interest may have temporary roles to play in some moments of life, but communities of compassion reach beyond them and break barriers that exclude persons from participation in the common life.

If these aspects of religion can be nurtured by theology into the conscience and character of America, it is likely that God—the only real basis of all that is universally true and just—will be served. And if these aspects are vital and alive in our interactions with the peoples of the world, and if we are called to global leadership, as is likely to be the case, we may assume this temporal vocation with fear and trembling, but perhaps also with a touch of grace.