Globalisation & Religion: A Review Essay

March 01, 2003

Globalisation & Religion: A Review Essay

In 2001, The Evatt Foundation and Public Sector Research Centre at UNSW published a collection of papers as Globalisation: Australian Impacts (UNSW Press). Its contributors are distinguished academics, politicians and industry figures, and the book provides a comprehensive introduction to the many aspects of Australian life being affected by globalisation. Well, almost comprehensive. It was surprising to discover that no attention has been given to the impact of globalisation on religion in Australia, or the role of religion in evaluating globalisation. Apart from a brief mention of Aboriginal religious rights, Clive Hamilton comes closest. In a typically incisive chapter, he explores how the ideology of consumer capitalism, in which happiness equates with economic growth, has won a stunning victory over most hearts and souls (pp.188-191). Hamilton expands on this thesis in his recent book, Growth Fetish, (see page 12 of CASE news).

Peter Singer offers a little more, in his One world: the ethics of globalisation (Text, 2002), in which he reports on the contemporary quest for “a statement of principles that are universally accepted across all cultures” (p. 156). He surmises that the quest has barely begun, since:

[i]t would, of course, be easier to agree on common ethical principles if we could first agree on questions that are not ethical but factual, such as whether there is a god, or gods, and if there is, or are, whether he, she or they has or have expressed his, her or their will or wills in any of the various texts claimed by adherents of different religions to be divinely inspired. (p.157)

However, Singer does conclude that “it is our capacity to reason that is the universal solvent”, which to many may appear to have already jumped the gun on the question of divine revelation.

Globalization and its discontents (Penguin, 2002), by former Chief Economist at the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz, made me draw breath for its frank admissions about the ideological forces driving global economic decision-making. Far from vilifying globalisation, Stiglitz bemoans the fact that it hasn’t done as well for developing nations as it should have done. Special interests and political vetoes have stood in the way of a better world. And yet, again, among Stiglitz’s deft historical and political analyses of the mechanics of the International Monetary Fund, the East-Asia financial crisis and lost economic opportunities in the former Soviet Union, there is precious little discussion of religion. This might seem excusable in a book by an economist—he is just sticking to his field. But I would argue that Stiglitz’s ambitions for the era of globalisation—“transforming societies, improving the lives of the poor, enabling everyone to have a chance at success and access to health care and education (p.252)”—represent an undeclared (perhaps unrecognized) religious impulse.

So where is the examination of the significance for religion, or of religious perspectives on globalisation itself? CASE hopes to enter such lacunae and provide something of a Christian perspective on the subject. This newsletter reflects some of the work that has begun at CASE, and shall continue in dialogue with other intellectual groups.

Christian theology has already brought some significant resources to the globalisation debate. A three-book series, God and Globalization (Trinity Press International, 2000, 2001, 2002) has already been written, representing diverse theological traditions.[1] “Christians," explains Stackhouse in the forward to volume one, "believe that Christ redemptively reestablishes a relationship between God and the world, which is alienated from its source and norms. This relationship not only includes people, but also these powers". A longer review of this project will be posted on the CASE web site in future.

Peter Heslam has begun a more biblically attentive project at the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. As part of a major study of capitalism, Heslam applies what he calls “the Christian story” to the analysis of globalisation. He considers the influence on political and social analysis of the turning points in the biblical understanding of the world. Creation, for instance, provides the basis of human responsibility (or ‘stewardship’) for the world and its inhabitants.(The idea that Christians are to blame for environmental degradation is a furphy that ought to be discarded; the Bible gives no such justification.) The disobedience of humanity to the divine instructions (‘sin’) marrs human relationships and, as a consequence, all relational systems such as markets, corporations and governments. Heslam mentions that some commentators see globalisation as a means of redemption—the happy ending to the story—but he is not among them: “…from a Christian perspective, it is only the cross and resurrection that can bring salvation”.[2]

There is great dispute among Christian theologians—not to mention more broadly—as to what extent history will move towards an ideal state; it can at least be said that the New Testament offers hope for personal and social transformation in the here and now, based in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is unclear whether globalisation is part of that good transformation. But it is very clear that discussion of religion needs to be part of the ongoing debate over globalisation, lest it ignore one of the fundamental motivating factors for both the haves and the have-nots.

[1] The three volumes are Religion and the Powers of the Common Life; The Spirit and the Modern Authorities; and Christ and the Dominions of Civilization. A fourth volume is in preparation.

[2] Peter Heslam, Globalization: Unravelling the New Capitalism, Grove Books E125, Cambridge, 2002, p.21.

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