Christian Cosmopolitanism: Reading in the Global Age
Christian Cosmopolitanism: Reading in the Global Age

Christian Cosmopolitanism: Reading in the Global Age

Cosmopolitan reading helps us live the Christian story more richly.

June 13 th 2011

This is a condensed version of Dr. VanZanten's presentation at the 2009 conference Mission, Worldview and the Christian University: Living at the Crossroads, presented by the Paideia Centre for Public Theology. We thank them for the use of the presentation, both in this article and in the recording published in 2009 in Cardus Audio.

Although "cosmopolitanism" is often associated with glamour, sex, and sophistication, with a cocktail and a women's magazine, the concept has a distinguished history originating with the fourth-century philosopher Diogenes. When Diogenes was asked where he came from, he replied, "I am a kosmopolitês"—a citizen of the world. Diogenes lived at a time when allegiance to the polis, or city-state, was paramount, so his avowal of world-citizenship was radically unconventional. The Stoics expanded on Diogenes' concept, arguing that each person belongs to two communities—the local community of birth, and the universal community of human argument and aspiration. For the Greeks, a commitment to world citizenship created a tension between the city-state and the human community, but today's citizen faces the added complication of provincial, regional, national, and global communities.

One way to be cosmopolitan is political. Extreme political cosmopolitanism advocates a worldwide government, but moderate political versions endorse the cooperation of sovereign nation-states, as in the United Nations. Another kind of cosmopolitanism is cultural. The cultural cosmopolitan acknowledges a variety of cultural traditions: listening to world music, eating ethnic cuisine, and appreciating new art forms. But cultural cosmopolitanism also prompts controversy. As the world becomes more flat (in Thomas Friedman's famous phrase), is a similar flattening of ethnic and national cultures occurring through the imperialism of American television, McDonald's, YouTube, and Hollywood? How do we give proper regard to and balance minority cultures, national identity, and cosmopolitanism?

For readers, cultural cosmopolitanism means breaking out of the rut of reading only American or European works to encounter the worlds depicted in the poems, stories, and plays from the global south and east. Economic globalization has had a huge impact on our ability to read more broadly, and literary critics have begun to consider the influential role of the textual and symbolic streams of the global cultural flow. As Giles Gunn has explained, "Cultural interactions, negotiations, and transformations have often proved at least as fateful as economic or political ones if only because the former have frequently determined the way the latter could be understood and actualized." Metaphor, symbols, and narrative have formative power, both socially and individually, so reading is a crucial way people learn about and act in our global world.

Christian readers today, I will argue, should embrace a spirit of Christian cultural cosmopolitanism. All definitions of cosmopolitanism involve two worldview questions: "who are we?" and "how can we make things right?" Our basic understanding of identity will determine how we define the universal community. For the Stoics, humanity's bond lay in the ability to reason and the ability to hope or dream. Many Enlightenment philosophers used similar definitions in defining universal human rights. But Christian cosmopolitanism is premised on the belief that all human beings share a character as special creations of God, formed in God's image, designated daughters and sons of God. The Christian concept of the universal community is not based on ethnic identity, skin colour, gender, rationality, literacy, social status, modernization, or even religious affiliation—all of which have been used throughout history to define what it means to be human.

A crucial second aspect of human identity for Christians is the fact that we are created to dwell in relationship with other human beings. We are communal, like our triune maker. Human identity is premised on relationship both with God and with other human beings. While the Enlightenment emphasized individual identity and many non-Western traditions understand identity in communal terms, the Christian story includes both components. In Jesus and the Victory of God, N.T. Wright says that within the Christian worldview, corporate meaning enhances personal meaning. While individualism and collectivism cancel each other out, corporate and personal meaning reinforce one another.

This personal/corporate character leads to a particular plot: the way we are summoned to live. The respect for all humanity grounded in their common imago dei and the love for neighbour stipulated by the Scriptures are not limited to national, religious, or even geographic proximity. When Jesus relates the story of the Good Samaritan in response to the question, "Who is my neighbour?" he tells of how those of similar religious and cultural identity ignore a man who has been assaulted and robbed, while a Samaritan, a man from an ethnic and religious group loathed by the Jews of Jesus' day, stops and assists the victim. The character who embodies neighbourliness is the ultimate outsider. All first-century Jews knew that they were to love their neighbour, but Jesus has the Samaritan doing the loving. The neighbour is not someone who lives next door, or goes to the same synagogue or church, or claims the same national identity; the neighbour is anyone in need who we encounter. This kind of neighbourliness has been made more apparent and less easy to ignore with globalization.

One way to be a neighbour is through reading. For Christians, reading literature is a way to explore, develop, and celebrate the world created by God and graciously given to us. This is a powerful and distinctive approach to reading, as is apparent if we consider the position of Harold Bloom, a leading public defender of reading. Bloom claims that literature's most important function is to teach us to be alone with ourselves. The act of reading is, he says, "a solitary praxis"; it is done in continuity with the past, but is essentially an individualistic activity. We read because it is in our own best interest; reading helps us learn who we are, how to form opinions and judgments, and how to prepare ourselves for change, especially the ultimate change that we will all face: death. A passage from Bloom's How to Read and Why (2000) is illustrative:

Ultimately we read . . . in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests . . . The pleasures of reading indeed are selfish rather than social. You cannot directly improve anyone else's life by reading better or more deeply. I remain skeptical of the traditional social hope that care for others may be stimulated by the growth of individual imagination, and I am wary of any arguments whatsoever that connect the pleasures of solitary reading to the public good.

Bloom's self-centred position is a long way from cosmopolitanism. Yet there are elements of truth in some of his statements: "You cannot directly improve anyone else's life by reading better or more deeply." Of course the word "directly" is an important hedge. Is it possible that we can improve someone else's life indirectly by reading better or more deeply? Bloom's skepticism about "the traditional social hope that care for others may be stimulated by the growth of individual imagination," also has a ring of truth. The spectre of well-educated Nazi officers reading Goethe at the concentration camps continues to haunt Western humanism. But notice Bloom's wording: he speaks of "the growth of the individual imagination." By contrast, I would argue that while reading is often a solitary act—as when I smuggled a flashlight under my blankets when I was ten in order to read Nancy Drew—reading is never solely an individualistic act. And while reading does not necessarily develop "care for others," if done in a certain spirit, it potentially can expand our sense of and care for others. Reading does not automatically make us more humane, loving, and empathetic, just as listening to the Sermon on the Mount did not prompt everyone in the crowd to follow the new way of Jesus of Nazareth. The way we engage with literature depends on how we see the world, our worldview, the story within which we live our lives. For those of us who read, delight, and think about literature from within the Christian metanarrative, reading is one way to glorify God and love our neighbours.

If we accept the premise that reading has the potential to cultivate understanding of and care for others, its relationship to cosmopolitanism becomes apparent. One articulate defender of moral and cultural cosmopolitanism is Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, who argues that we all have significant moral obligations to other human beings; Nussbaum is also a strong advocate for "imaginative empathy," believing that the novel engages our sympathy in contemplating lives different from our own and so expands our imaginative capabilities. Reading, in other words, helps to develop a moral imagination, and reading, Nussbaum contends in Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Harvard University Press, 1997), also can help us become more cosmopolitan.

Nussbaum sees the value of reading texts from a variety of cultures in both pragmatic and ethical terms. Pragmatically, reading across cultures provides valuable self-knowledge, as we see ourselves and our customs more clearly by means of contrast, and it helps us guard against the harm prompted by narrow partisanship. But globalizing our reading also allows us to see others not as opponents, aliens, or inferiors, but instead as human beings, recognizing people's "aspirations to justice and goodness and their capacities for reasoning." A moderate cosmopolitan, Nussbaum argues that we should not give up local allegiances and identities, but rather think of ourselves as surrounded by a series of concentric circles: self, family, neighbours, city, country, and world.

Nussbaum's liberal humanist position is compelling, but there are some aspects that give me pause. Like Bloom, it begins with the individual self. Like the Stoics, Nussbaum assumes that all human beings share aspirations to justice and goodness, which I think is an overly optimistic view of human nature. She also puts a high premium on universal reason, which often (unwittingly) opens the door to denying certain people the status of humanity on the alleged grounds of a lack of the ability to reason; they may be homo, but they are not sapiens. Finally, in the long run, Nussbaum still prioritizes local identity, "making all human beings like our fellow city dwellers."

While agreeing for the most part with Nussbaum's goals, I would re-draw her schema. Instead of beginning with the self at the centre, I would begin with the cosmos as the foundational circle, encompassing both the human world and the natural world. This cosmos, according to Creation theology, was formed and evolved through God's will, with human beings created in God's image. Rather than thinking of ourselves initially as free individual selves; as national citizens with political, economic, or moral obligations; or even as ethically responsible citizens of the world, we should begin with the assumption that we are a part of God's created cosmos.

Furthermore, within this cosmos, I see human identity and social groupings less rigidly than Nussbaum's concentric circles. Within God's cosmic whole, we find selves with family and community identities. But for many in today's world of migration, exile, and frequent moves, the family circle will not be confined to the geographic community. And although one's local neighbourhood is a smaller part of the national circle, in today's global world of hybridity, creolization, and border crossings, there are many cultural neighbourhoods with hazy geographic borders.

With a unique understanding of the character and plot of the human story, Christian cosmopolitans should be inspired to read beyond national or even linguistic limits. Cosmopolitan reading offers at least four ways in which to live the Christian story more richly:

  1. Reading global literature grants me access into worlds very unlike my own but nonetheless part of the human family. I am able to meet some of my more distant relatives in the pages of a book, those who share my identity as a child of God but manifest their humanity in strikingly different ways.

  2. Reading in the Western tradition has been traditionally governed, as Nicholas Wolterstorff describes it, by a central motif of liberation—reading liberates us from our parochial particularities into the great cultural heritage of humanity and universal human consciousness. But, as Wolterstorff goes on to say in Teaching for Shalom, this practice is deficient in that it does not respond "adequately to the wounds of humanity—in particular the moral wounds; none gives adequate answer to our cries and tears." Reading global literature helps us hear cries and tears of our neighbours.

  3. In works of literature from outside of our own tradition, we encounter different kinds of artistic accomplishment. A haiku, a Zulu epic, and a villanelle are all beautiful in extraordinarily different ways. Every instance of beauty points us to God. Beauty does not give us direct access to God, the transcendent, or the divine, but functions as a testimony to the glory of God, as the Bible constantly proclaims. In N.T. Wright's brilliant description in Simply Christian, such beauty "is an echo of a voice, not the voice itself." However, our aesthetic pleasure in a well-crafted plot, a vivid character, or an apt phrase is not merely a Platonic shadow of ideal Beauty, but something real and good in itself, however incomplete and un-restored. Reading global literature shows us more of the beauty of this world and God.

  4. Global reading can expand our culturally limited understanding of God, the Christian story, and eternal truths. Since human beings have been formed as social and cultural creatures, they can only apprehend the Christian message within a context. Joel Carpenter reminds us in an essay on "The Mission of Christian Scholarship in the New Millenium" that "there is no one cultural blueprint for how Jesus' salvation and his lordly demands will be played out in the world's incredible variety of cultures," and the growth of so-called world Christianity, particularly in the southern hemisphere, means there are many more cultural takes on Christian truth.

The dialogue and exchange facilitated by global reading allows us to identify our cultural limits and our cultural contributions.

Reading as a Christian cosmopolitan brings me into new worlds. It allows me to meet remote cousins who take the invisible links that connect people far more seriously than most of my twenty-first-century American neighbours. Global literature has given me fleeting glimpses of the sorrows of African AIDS orphans, for whom I lament. It has blessed me with fresh conceptions of the beauty of proverbs, and unfamiliar ways to think about family, love, gratitude, and forgiveness. Reading in a spirit of Christian cosmopolitanism thus gives me new ways both to understand and love God and my neighbour.

Susan VanZanten
Susan VanZanten

Susan VanZanten is Professor of English at Seattle Pacific University. She is the author, most recently, of Mending a Tattered Faith: Devotions with Dickinson (Cascade) and Joining the Mission: A Guide for (Mainly) New College Faculty (Eerdmans).


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?