God, Grace and Globalization

George Melloan, writing in the Wall Street Journal (January 11, 2008), noted that when Jesus warned his disciples (Matthew 6) against trying to serve two masters, God and mammon, that "An overly strict interpretation of his words seems to leave economics outside the realm of Christian theological inquiry." I concur, as readers of mine who frequent this blog site well know. We have misunderstood mammon and this warning on both sides, either by saying nothing at all or by saying many wrong things.

What Jesus clearly attacked in Matthew 6 was the worship of money, or stuff; i.e., mammon. But the pursuit of a livelihood is essential to human existence and thus a prerequisite of spiritual development. Jesus very plainly did not attack the necessity of all material stuff; food, clothing and shelter. These things are necessary for human sustenance. Money and wealth production is merely the way we provide for them. This means that economics, which is the study of how to best create wealth and to use it efficiently for human advancement, is not a "gloomy science" intended only for the unredeemed and mammon worshipers. Sadly,far too  many ordinary Christians have been made to feel this way by how this subject, and its importance, has been treated by some leaders within the Church.

In 1999 the Center of Theological Inquiry (CTI) in Princeton, N.J., launched a study project called "God and Globalization." Cti_5
Twenty participants, from a variety of disciplines, recognized that the burgeoning integration and interdependence of national and regional economies (resulting from reduced barriers to trade and finance) has had a profound social and political impact. The sheer facts of the case are clear: These changes have raised millions of human beings out of poverty. The CTI scholars are thus quite friendly toward the role that free-market capitalism has played in this remarkable transformation. George Melloan adds, "That’s a welcome relief from the style of theology that too often distrusts the normal impulses of human beings to improve their material well-being."

As of late last year, the CTI scholars had written four books for this project. The final volume, Cover
Globalization and Grace, is a wide-ranging piece of scholarship written by Max L. Stackhouse, a professor emeritus of Princeton Theological Seminary and the general editor of the series. An eloquent foreword was provided by the Cuban-born church historian Justo González, a provocative and insightful theologian who has richly added to my own Christian thought for many years.

George Melloan notes. in the Wall Street Journal article:

"These CTI scholars see globalization as far more than an economic phenomenon. The spread of new ideas, images and cultural artifacts by modern information technology, even to peoples once isolated from the main currents of human thought, is having a powerful cultural impact. It has the potential of opening minds to a broader tolerance of differing religious beliefs."Paper1_j30_2

To some readers this all may seem rather counterintuitive in an age when newscasts feature horrible examples of religious fanaticism day-by-day. But another way of looking at this picture sees these fanatics as fighting a losing battle against the threat that greater tolerance poses to their religious fundamentalism. Professor Stackhouse openly challenges the Samuel Huntington thesis of a continuing religion-centered "clash of civilizations." He believes that Huntington doesn’t allow sufficiently for the transformation of religious convictions, doctrines and practices as individuals become much more cosmopolitan. Religious conflict has a long history, but globalization is actually ameliorating the passions that fuel such religious warfare. This reading of things makes globalization both desirable and essentially good. It is this perspective that I personally share very deeply.

González writes in his foreword of this newest book in the CTI series that when he was growing up in Latin America it was common to hear people say that "I am a Catholic after my own fashion." Today, he says, "after my own fashion" is true in most major world religions. "Methodists and Presbyterians are such after their own fashion. Many Hindus are Hindus after their own fashion. Even among Muslims, an increasing number are Muslims after their own fashion. In all these traditions, so-called fundamentalism—although quite vociferous in claiming that it is the true form of religion—is in fact a reaction against the changes that are taking place as a result of globalization."

But Stackhouse seriously doubts that the "slender public theology" of the present Bush administration is sufficient enough for building the wider civil society promised by the gains of globalization. He scorns as well the Chicago school of market economists for treating religion as a "subjective want that functions by market forces and that can best be understood as a consumer commodity." Globe
I think he is saying something like this: You must continually combine Christian virtue with the free market or the result will be chaos and the resultant promotion of personal and institutional greed. Christians need to learn the differences and engage economics both formally and informally. And most churches, and the vast majority of pastors, are actually of little help in this process.

But Stackhosue is even more scathing of the "Marxist social analysis" applied by such bodies as "the World Council of Churches, the World Reformed Alliance and the Lutheran World Federation." These bodies embrace a virtual dogma that globalization is inherently immoral, driven simply by capitalist greed. "This baptism of class analysis as the guiding mode of interpreting globalization is, I think, a substantive theological mistake, a misreading of history and an inaccurate social analysis as faulty on its terms as the previous two are on theirs," adds Stackhouse.

Sadly, many young evangelicals and emergent types have bought into these same economic ideas by simplistically accepting the mantra that capitalism is inherently evil and globalization and global markers harm people and societies. The real evidence on this point is strikingly different when all the facts are carefully studied and analyzed. This is why the work of the CTI is so important. It takes significant note of these facts. This is being done by a wide range of competent Christian theologians. Thus, in the process we are provided with a thoughtfully Christian response to the real facts.

George Malloan concluded his Wall Street Journal piece by saying:

"Stackhouse believes that a public theology must offer a ‘compelling view of transcendence’ to ‘fuel the spiritual capital’ of a civilization and thereby sustain its moral fiber. He argues that Christianity is particularly adaptable as the basic component of a public philosophy that would serve the world-wide civil society that is coming into being, in part because of Christianity’s tolerance for individual belief. Www
Public theology, he believes, must embrace classical norms but also be able to ‘encounter secular, philosophical and non-Christian’ beliefs and explain its theological claims in a language that can be universally understood. It must show that it can ‘form, inform and sustain the moral and spiritual architecture of a civil society so that truth, justice and mercy are more nearly approximated in the souls of the persons and the institutions of the common life.’"

The problem Christians face in this discussion is that both the left and the right still have a very hard time rising above their prevailing orthodoxies. Our biases tend to create a universal ethos that is fierce and unwilling to listen or change. At times Malloan says this will even be "deadly." But the CTI work addresses this debate with solid insights by dealing with the profound philosophical implications of a primarily economic phenomenon, globalization. Can we raise living standards in the non-Western world without eroding ethnic and class distinctions in the process? Malloan thinks this can be done. So do I. I see no other distinctly Christian way to think and then to respond.

What this means is that we must end the old class-warfare categories of the traditional liberal vs. conservative splits over these issues. This means we must work very hard to find new ways to pay attention to the facts of the modern globalized context. Disk_2
Talking disparagingly about markets, without dealing with morality and virtue as central to public theology, will only make the pain and suffering of the global South much worse. Christians who truly care about the poor must learn to think beyond the older categories. I, for one, am very grateful for the fine work being done at the CTI and encourage my readers to study it and use it to then teach others.

Evangelicals, in particular, need this kind of mature thought since they either pay no attention to these important issues or they only see themselves as defenders of the free market without a substantive theological basis for that defense. Emergent young Christians need to be challenged as to how how they plan to alter the economic realities of non-Western peoples since they have bought into a kind of social analysis that has more in common with Marx than the tradition of robust Christianity.

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