Theology Matters: What About Globalization?
“It’s a small world, after all.” That’s what Disney proclaimed way back in 1964 when the attraction made its debut at the World’s Fair. It was a time in which technological advances, media, and transportation were connecting the world in a way like never before. And yet, who could have imagined then, in 1964, the way in which the next fifty years would make the world even smaller? The personal computer, the Internet, the iPhone, Facebook—all of these have made our planet more connected, more of a “global village” than it has ever been.
Globalization is defined at Wikipedia as “the process of international integration arising from the interchange of world views, products, ideas, and other aspects of culture.” How are Christians to think about this reality of our increasingly “small, small world,” with all its challenges and opportunities?
I would first say that there is much to commend about the world’s connectedness; that our growth in faith necessitates our being challenged and enriched by connecting with people from other places and other ways of thinking.
We all begin as children by believing that the world is about us. As we grow, our parents help us understand that we are not the center of the universe, but that we exist for relationship with God and others. But we still assume our experiences of childhood, our struggles and values, are common to all humanity. Even our faith in God, at first, is self-centered; our initial interest in God is usually about our own “personal salvation project” as Thomas Merton once said, not really about loving him or loving our neighbor.
But God is patiently committed to growing us up, and that means our encountering others, knowing others, relating to others, and finding in the lives of others the larger picture of who God is and what he is doing in our world. Writing as an Episcopalian, an Anglican Christian, this is an especially important in our understanding of the faith. We say in the creed that we believe in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” Part of this has to do with our dependence on those who have faithfully gone before us down through the Church’s history. Part of this has to do with the oneness we acknowledge among brother and sister believers around the world.
The Episcopal Church finds its place in a worldwide body called the Anglican Communion: 38 provinces (or national churches) spread through more than 165 countries, made up of more than 85 million members, most of whom reside in the two-thirds world. While every culture invariably has blind-spots, it is a gift to be part of this larger, worldwide family in which we can share faith and fellowship with Christians living in very different situations than our own. American Christians can benefit from hearing how the Gospel is being shared in Asia, how poverty affects the churches of Africa, how Christians respond to trying circumstances in the Middle East. Oftentimes the insights and experiences of Anglicans living in diverse cultural and political contexts can be a challenge to Americans’ perspectives and priorities. But it is a challenge we need.
In fact, in the Bible we hear that the Church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be diverse and is supposed to be global. That is the vision of the Kingdom of God in its consummation, recorded in the book of Revelation: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10) Throughout the Scriptures we see that the Body of Christ is to be a fellowship of unity in diversity: Jews and Gentiles together, many members, many gifts, together in their love and commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. (See 1 Corinthians 12:12,f.)
And this idea of “unity in diversity” may present a particular challenge for the Christian when it comes to globalization. For folks who do not have a well-defined faith in God, “the interchange of world views, products, ideas, and other aspects of culture” may be a way of relativizing religious beliefs or value claims, that no one world view has a corner on the truth. Christianity, however, is based on an astoundingly unique message: that God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, that he died for the sins of the world, that forgiveness and life are offered in his name. For some proponents of globalization, this might be seen as cultural or religious imperialism. For the Christian, however, it is simply acknowledgement of Jesus’ unique claims about himself: that he has come to offer light and life to all, and that in him is all the fullness of God.
The Rev. David Stangebye Houk is the rector of St. John's in Dallas