On Globalization: An Exercise in Public Theology
On Globalization: An Exercise in Public Theology

On Globalization: An Exercise in Public Theology

March 1 st 2003

God and Globalization: Religion and the Powers of the Common Life (vol. 1) by Max Stackhouse with Peter J. Paris, ed. (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000, 304 pp, $40 USD); God and Globalization: The Spirit and the Modern Authorities (vol. 2) by Max Stackhouse with Don S. Browning, ed. (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2001, 260 pp, $35 USD); God and Globalization: Christ and the Dominions of Civilizations (vol. 3) by Max Stackhouse with Diane B. Obenchain, ed. (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002, 360 pp, $40 USD)

God and globalization? Many people at the cusp of the new millennium think they have enough on their plates coming to terms with the baffling reality of globalization without bringing God into the picture as well. The stimulating debates on globalization in the last two issues of Comment still left us with our work cut out.

Can a theme as complex and seemingly technical as globalization adequately be addressed through the eyes of religious faith? The authors of this handsomely-produced series proceed from the assumption that it can only adequately be addressed through such eyes. It is a remarkable contribution to an understanding of the relationship between globalization and religion and is a goldmine of valuable insights and perspectives.

Stackhouse rightly observes that religion barely receives a passing nod in mainstream discussions of globalization. He points out the absurdity of this neglect at a time when religion is reappearing as a major player all over the global stage—often beneficially, sometimes with a vengeance.

It's worth pausing to reflect on why so many social scientists, and the policy-makers they influence, remain even today so blinkered when it comes to the influence of religion on the phenomena they engage. A main reason is that the leading centres of social science remain located in the secularized West and still operate out of dated modernist assumptions about how science and reason have displaced faith as sources of reliable knowledge. But it's now becoming clear that secularization is not a universal process to which all societies necessarily tend as soon as they become modernized.

Indeed, sociologists of religion are waking up again to the stubborn persistence of high-decibel religion in the most highly modernized nation in the world, the United States—how could they have ever slept through it!

So it is both significant and salutary that a distinguished ecumenical team of international scholars should embark on an in-depth investigation of the relation between religion and globalization. Given the threatening developments of the last two years, it's hard to imagine a more timely enterprise. These volumes—amounting to 750 pages in total—are the outcome of an innovative project based at the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton Theological Seminary (a final volume is set to appear later this year). The project was led by Max Stackhouse, a noted theological ethicist, who describes the project as an exercise in "public theology."

The subtitle of the series is "theological ethics and the spheres of life." The notion of spheres is billed as playing a central organizing role in the volumes. In his introductions to the three volumes (amounting to over 130 pages), Stackhouse sets out an imaginative framework for analyzing globalization in terms of a series of differentiated domains of social life—"spheres of dynamic activity"—which make up the modern globalized world. These spheres act as channels for powers—"moral and spiritual energies"—which drive the core principalities structuring human life in every society: the economy, the polity, the family and sexuality, culture and media, and religion. Stackhouse proposes that these are universally present; they reflect the deepest needs and capacities of human social life, and, he implies, they are grounded in our very created being.

The modern world has also seen the emergence of specific authorities which have come to be differentiated from the principalities, including the classic professions of education, law, and medicine. A newer species of authority are the regencies of late modernity. These include familiar authorities such as science and technology.

Stackhouse also suggests that nature has come to exercise an authoritative hold over the late modern mind. And the heroic personal authority of figures such as Ghandi, Mandela, Tutu—in his chapter, Peter Paris calls them "moral exemplars"—also hold regency-like sway over us. These regencies are "seats of power . . . exercised in the various spheres of life by those principalities, authorities and dominions" possessing moral and spiritual legitimacy (vol. 1, p 36).

Finally, the dominions traverse and penetrate all the above. These are civilization-wide religions like Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. A dominion is what "integrates the principalities into a working whole, and gives distinctive shape to the development of authorities in complex societies" (vol.1, p 50).

The salience and potential of this intriguing six-fold classification are considerable. Many analyses of globalization are construed too narrowly. They concentrate on one sphere of human society at the expense of others, and so fall into various forms of reductionism: they shrink the full complexity and diversity of human life down to only one of its many dimensions.

This is most evident when globalization is seen as an essentially economic process, at the cost of attention to the parallel transformations occurring in distinct social, cultural, intellectual, moral, and indeed religious dimensions, and which are not mere effects of economic change. Some recent studies go some way to recognizing the multi-dimensional character of globalization. But no study I have seen offers an analytical framework with as much potential to resist reductionism as God and Globalization. So Stackhouse is entitled to point out in his introduction to the third volume the inadequacy of even one of the more subtle recent analyses, Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture authored by a British team led by David Held (Stanford, 1999).

Stackhouse's volumes explore how globalization is operative in numerous diverse and interrelated fields and how religious resources in those fields might humanize it and steer it in wholesome directions. The first volume addresses transnational corporations (William Schweiker), war and peace (Donald Shriver), the family (Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen), and the media (David Tracy). The second volume engages education (Richard Osmer), law (John Witte), health care (Allen Verhey), science and technology (Richard Cole-Turner), ecology (Jurgen Moltmann), and morality (Peter Paris).

The exploration of the civilizational role of religious dominions and their relation to the spheres is reserved for the third volume. Following Stackhouse's introduction comes a critique of the Western Christian bias in definitions of religion operative in the "religious studies" guild (Diane Obenchain), a compelling argument for taking religion more seriously in international relations (Scott Thomas), and expert examinations of specific religions in the context of globalization: tribal religions (John Mbiti), Confucianism (Sze-kar Wan), Hinduism (Thomas Thangaraj), Buddhism (Kosuke Koyama), and Islam (Lamin Sanneh).

These chapters disclose the varied senses in which the main global religions have come historically to exercise civilizational dominion by generating distinctive customs, moralities, and institutions. The ringing title of this third volume—Christ and the Dominions of Civilization—might lead some to expect the claim that those dominions stand under the judgment of the Christ whom Christians confess as Lord of all. This claim is not advanced, raising a question I address below.

But to their credit, the authors do explore the inescapable—if politically ticklish—question of how to go about critically assessing the kind of civilization each religion has nurtured. Although the question might have been more consistently and rigorously pressed, some contributors are willing to name specific deficiencies in the particular religions they consider, and each aims to test the resources currently possessed by that religion for contributing constructively rather than destructively to globalization. The third volume makes it clear that it is not enough to revive interest in a generic thing called religion. We must attend to the particularity of each religion and then not flinch from reaching critical judgments on them, as they will on ours.

These individual studies on world religions confirm Stackhouse's crucial proposition that the plural spheres of our differentiated society have not emerged, do not function, and cannot be sustained in a spiritual vacuum. They challenge head-on the assumption that institutions such as the state, the market, the professions, and the universities must be insulated against the influence of religion.

On the contrary, whatever virtues such institutions still possess will be sustainable over the long haul only insofar as they are opened up to the moral and spiritual reorientation that only religion can supply. Allen Verhey, for example, pleads eloquently for a recovery within Western scientific medicine of the lost spiritual dimension of healing—a dimension central to some of the alternative forms of healing now brought to our doors through globalization. And he paints an appealing portrait of the church as a "community of peaceable difference" incarnating that vision within its own life.

While Stackhouse obviously affirms proposals for an overtly Christian contribution such as Verhey's, he presents these volumes as an exercise not in confessional theology or dogmatic theology but public theology, theology engaged with public issues and addressed to a public audience. Challenging those who would confine theology to the private sphere, Stackhouse and other contributors argue cogently that to disqualify theology or religion in advance from participating fully in the public square is arbitrary and intolerant. Religion is a universal human power, is deeply meaningful to many citizens across the globe, and, for many, is the primary source of their personal and public identity. Religious believers are equally entitled and equipped to shape the destiny of our national and global public life as those who claim to hold no faith.

A series with horizons as wide as this will inevitably evoke a huge range of questions. To whet readers' appetites, here are a mere six!

The first arises immediately from the point just discussed: how is public theology shaped by confessional theology? By the end of the third volume, the answer is by no means clear. If what we offer to public debate is not infused with what we confess in faith, are we not exactly where secular liberalism would like us to be, joining the Enlightenment quest for a neutral rationality in the public realm while keeping our faith out of harm's way in the private realm?

Some contributors seem less troubled by this issue than others. Yersu Kim, for example, offers an informative discussion of recent efforts to generate a universal ethic, to which, for example, theologian Hans Kung has contributed through the "Parliament of the World's Religions." Yet he makes no mention of the specific role that Christian theology might play in generating such an ethic.

No doubt, against the intentions of their sponsors, such initiatives seem to me uncomfortably close to the secular liberal requirement that religious believers check their confessional standpoints in at the door before entering the arena of public rational debate. John Witte seems nearer the mark in pointing out that when religious believers participate in debates about global human rights, they should first dig deep into their own confessional traditions to find an authentic language in which to speak about such rights. Genuine consensus on a global human rights regime may depend on the possibility that such a human rights hermeneutic within each religion can succeed. The jury may be out on that, but we should certainly bend every effort to help it along. And Witte is a leading global participant in just this exercise.

The second question is closely linked to the first. The series describes itself as an exercise in theological ethics. But how does this sub-discipline of theology relate to social sciences such as economics, political science, law, or sociology? Of the 22 contributors, 17 work in different areas of theology or religious studies, one is a philosopher, and four are social scientists. The theologians seem well-versed in relevant aspects of social science (and vice versa). Yet this under-representation of social scientists and social theorists may explain why some contributors to the project seem to utilize too hastily the results of analyses produced by the seemingly secularized social science and social theory the project aspires to challenge. For example, David Tracy adopts Jürgen Habermas's influential idea of communicative rationality without subjecting it to any critical discussion.

More significantly, several contributors invoke Roland Robertson's widely circulating account of globalization as "the compression of the world." This is a multidimensional process leading not only to increasing integration but also to the accentuation of local difference—resulting in glocalization. Robertson restates this lucidly in chapter one of the first volume. It's certainly an arresting idea, but why should it be taken at face value? Is compression a neutral process, a good thing, a bad thing? Is it inevitable, and, if so, why? Several authors notice the downside of the process, but no one directly challenges the plausibility of compression as an explanatory concept.

Various other significant claims about the character of globalization are made in the series but without being brought into critical dialogue with Robertson's approach. For example, in his introduction to the second volume, Stackhouse proposes that globalization can be understood as the "universalization of [the] authorities and regencies as they developed in the West" (p 2). This suggests that globalization is Westernization—cynics such as Benjamin Barber call it McDonaldization—but this sits uneasily with Robertson's idea of glocalization.

A possible pointer towards a distinctively Christian account of globalization appears in Stackhouse's introduction to the first volume. It arises from his posing some fundamental theological questions: are the powers, principalities, and authorities somehow based in creation? If so, how radically have they diverged from their created purpose by sin? Can they be open to redemption?

I would answer yes to the first and third questions (the second doesn't admit of a simple answer). But we also need to be able to link these basic affirmations to an account of contemporary globalization. To do this we need a biblically-based account of historical development and the norms which should govern it. Such an account seeks to trace the ways in which the created design of our social possibilities can be discerned historically through the enormous variety of particular practices and institutions in many different cultures and even amidst the deep distortions and oppressions caused by human sin.

Using this idea of historical development, the Christian social scientist Bob Goudzwaard proposed a generation ago the suggestive idea of the normative "disclosure of society" as a framework for evaluating major historical transformations in social and economic life ( Capitalism and Progress, Eerdmans, 1979). He has now applied the idea to our contemporary context in Globalization and the Kingdom of God (Baker, 2001). Goudzwaard ventures that globalization can be viewed in principle as a further normative historical disclosure of our created social possibilities, even though its present course is being profoundly warped by the gross over-extension of the economic sphere.

I think this is a promising perspective. We have been created to aspire to mutual enrichment and global interdependence within God's one world. More specifically, globalization is a disclosure of the spatial dimension of our created social possibilities, as they work themselves out in many spheres of human activity.

Note that disclosure is not just endless forward or outward movement. It is a vocation to advance human well-being by widening the circles in which we cooperate for the common good of all God's creatures. So while expanding global trade for needed goods is valuable in itself, it must not be allowed to thwart or destroy other dimensions of human well-being, such as the stability of local community or equitable access to basic resources. Understood in this way, globalization as "normative spatial disclosure" may avoid the somewhat negative connotation of a term like "the compression of the world."

But this is merely a hunch. Wisely, this series does not aspire to present a complete alternative to theories of globalization such as Robertson's but only a "God-based framework for discernment, evaluation, and transformation" of globalization (vol. 1, p 18). However, to deliver even on this more modest goal involves more than the series offers. It requires more rigorous scrutiny of how such a framework could critically test mainstream social-scientific analyses which give no evidence of being intentionally shaped by Christian presuppositions. Three of the best chapters are written by the social scientists most alert to this need (Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, John Witte, and Scott Thomas).

What the series does provide is a thematically linked series of outstanding individual studies on various facets of the relation between religion and the spheres in a context of globalization—perhaps not yet a God-based framework but certainly a religion-sensitive one. Given the current state of the debate, that is no mean achievement.

The third question gets to the substance of Stackhouse's sixfold classification of spheres. The connections between the spheres, powers, principalities, authorities, and regencies in each of the various fields are not stated precisely enough. For example, if the powers of regencies are, as Stackhouse suggests, exercised by principalities and authorities, how can they have come to be emancipated from the authorities? And how can dominions which are civilization-wide religions also exercise the power of regencies? Are spheres more basic than powers, or vice versa?

Drawing a Venn diagram of Stackhouse's six categories would be quite a challenge. Perhaps this is why many contributors either do not make explicit use of such concepts at all or only pay brief tribute to them. After all, it seems that Stackhouse's ambitious and imaginative framework situates, but does not sufficiently inform, the field-specific analyses. So Moltmann's chapter on ecology, for instance, urges that we recover a deep reverence for nature but doesn't connect this in any way with Stackhouse's claim that nature in late modernity has come to function like a regency.

Part of the reason for the conceptual slackness in the framework may be because most of the terms used to denote the six categories of sphere arise directly out of an exegesis of specific New Testament Greek words (e.g., powers is a rendition of exousia; principalities of archai). It's not clear, however, that such terms correspond sufficiently closely to the contemporary realities they purport to illuminate. Is the economy as a whole really what the word principality appropriately refers to today? Isn't a transnational corporation or a currency market a closer fit?

Such biblical language may serve well the aims of theologians whose main focus is, rightly, the overall spiritual direction of such modern spheres. But social scientists and policy-makers will want a more detailed and exact conceptual apparatus.

The fourth question arises immediately from the third. The volumes seem to circle around but do not pay consistent enough attention to the centrality of institutions. Although Stackhouse tells us that the spheres include organizations and "clusters of institutions," none of the terms in his six-fold classification correspond exactly to specific entities like states, schools, corporations, hospitals, and families, or networks of structured interactions between them, such as markets, media domains, or policy-making networks. Yet these are the actual centres of decision-making shaping globalization—or the vulnerable recipients of its effects.

Some individual chapters have an institutional focus. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen on the family is a model here. Verhey and Osmer imagine how faithful church communities could embody alternative visions of healthcare and education. William Schweiker gestures towards an institutional analysis of the transnational corporation.

But there is, for example, no adequate treatment of the modern state or its emerging global counterparts. I found Donald Shriver's chapter on war and violence ('The Taming of Mars") to be the most moving in the series. But it is not integrated with Stackhouse's classification of coercive authority as one of the principalities. The current transformations of the authority of law or the power of violence cannot properly be understood without an account of the nature and evolution of the modern state which is the institutional source of both law and military power. The final volume will, apparently, analyze the new structures of global governance. I hope it will do so on the basis of a clear grasp of the nature of political authority as an institution established to promote justice in the public realm of society—including global society.

Something like the notion of sphere sovereignty discussed in Ray Pennings' essay "Kuyper's Sphere Sovereignty and Modern Economic Institutions" ( Comment, Winter 2003) could allow a more complete and specific analysis of the role of institutions in globalization. A better term is the "irreducible responsibility" of an institution, its unique vocation to contribute to human society in a structurally specific way. This idea helps keep us alert to when institutions begin to stray from the vocation they are structured to fulfil. Van Leeuwen and Verhey implicitly appeal to this idea in their critical analyses of current distortions in family structure and health care practices.

Richard Osmer's paper might have benefited from doing so as well. He observes the ways in which public education is under pressure to adapt itself to the demands of globalization: to prepare students for flexible adaptation to the needs of a competitive global economy and to nurture a cross-disciplinary global awareness. Now, the second seems to be a thoroughly good thing, but the first seems more like a survival strategy to avoid unemployment. If schools continually refashion their curricula towards the need for training for employment, what does this do to the irreducible responsibility of the school? Osmer eloquently explores the teaching ministry of the church but not the distinct vocation of the school.

Fifth, there is no sustained critical analysis of capitalism in the volumes. Schweiker and Moltmann acutely raise some of the key questions, but a more extensive treatment is required. The series as a whole fails to convey the overwhelming power of the Western capitalist economy on globalization.

I've commended the authors for resisting the narrowly economic focus of many secular studies of globalization. And it is also a welcome relief to read a Christian study of globalization which does not condemn economic globalization wholesale but seeks a balanced appraisal of its costs and benefits. Such an appraisal, however, cannot be attained without a thorough analysis of the depth of the transformations global capitalism is undergoing, a frank assessment of the economic distortions it is causing (such as the grotesque inflation of financial as against industrial markets), and a much more comprehensive account of the devastating costs it is imposing on many vulnerable people, especially in developing countries.

Finally, a far-reaching question about the scope of the term religion is insufficiently addressed in the series. The volumes rightly consider how the traditional global religions have come to shape major civilizations. And they also record how Western civilization has to a great extent been moulded by Christian religion. Stackhouse goes so far as to claim that "the sociocultural forces that are most often associated with globalization . . . were formed in societies fundamentally stamped by Christian theological ethics (vol. 3, p 12).

Yet the volumes do not confront with sufficient robustness the question of whether the modern West has been equally, if not more, influenced by the religion of secular humanism and its offshoots in Enlightenment rationalism and liberalism (and capitalism, as noted). Many would argue that this has been the most powerful of the dominions governing the modern world. And they would reply to Stackhouse's assertion about Christianity by insisting that it is a late-modern form of secular humanism that is driving the processes of globalization.

There are some pointed but brief critical reflections on the influence of this secularist religion of modernity in individual chapters. Moltmann speaks forcefully of "the boundless will towards domination which has driven and still drives modern [people] to seize power over nature" (vol. 2, p 171). But why is there is no dedicated chapter in the third volume on the massive civilizational impact of this religion of modernity? This is a significant lacuna, especially since the main indictment of the West by many non-Western religious believers is precisely the oppressive consequences of secular modernity on their own cultures.

I've raised some provocative questions, but I must conclude on an appreciative note. Stackhouse's ambitious goal of developing an integrated, theologically-grounded assessment of the many sides of globalization may not have been comprehensively realized in these volumes. But this is not to detract either from the potency of the framework he has sketched or from the truly impressive quality and usefulness of the individual chapters. These volumes will prove extremely valuable not only to specialists in theological ethics, but also to scholars and practitioners in many different disciplines and fields. I'm already thinking about how to design a course around them.

Stackhouse's project will be a very hard act to follow. His series should be on the shelf of anyone concerned to close off the destructive potentials of religion and equip it to live up to its global vocation.

Ronald Cole-Turner states the specific challenge to the church pointedly: "It is altogether too likely that the church will marginalize itself in the role of chaplain, picking up the pieces, caring for the bruised, mopping up the damage, but never engaging the engines of transformation themselves, steering, persuading, and transforming the transformers" (vol. 2, p 143).

Topics: Globalization
Jonathan Chaplin
Jonathan Chaplin

Dr. Jonathan Chaplin is Associate Fellow at the British public theology think tank Theos, Adjunct Faculty at the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), Toronto and a member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University. He was first Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, based in Cambridge, from 2006 to 2017. He taught political theory at ICS from 1999-2006, holding the Dooyeweerd Chair in Social and Political Philosophy from 2004-2006. He was Visiting Lecturer at the VU University, Amsterdam from 2007-2011. He is author of Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity (SCM 2021) and Herman Dooyeweerd: Christian Philosopher of State and Civil Society (University of Notre Dame 2011) and two reports for Theos. He has also edited or co-edited 9 other books, most recently The Future of Brexit Britain: Anglican Reflections on British Identity and European Solidarity (SPCK 2020). He has written over 30 articles for Comment magazine. He is a member of St Paul's Anglican Church, Cambridge UK, where he chairs the Eco Church committee and serves as Diocesan Synod rep.


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