world council of churches

The Role of Religions in a Globalized World
Abraham Oommen

Globalization is now an ubiquitous word. We hear and read it everywhere. Perhaps none of the earlier epochs that have affected the course of humanity were more spectacular and dramatic than the evolution of a highly interdependent global society -- a global village or city. The advances in technology, communication systems and trade have brought about unprecedented developments in the lives of the people on the globe. However, all these developments have not led to much improvement in the quality of life. On the one hand, many of the problems faced by humanity remain unsolved, and on the other, a lot of new problems have emerged. Nobody is sure of the consequences if the challenges posed by the global phenomena are not met. The futurologists are yet to predict the shape of things to come.

How can globalization be a problem for the religions of the world? Such a question comes out of a narrow understanding of religion. In fact, everything that is connected with human beings should be the concern of the religions. Erosion of human values, onslaught of materialism, spread of fantastic entertainment, etc., are the threats for every religious tradition. Religions too are affected by these changes. The traditional religious geography has changed. The "Christian West" and "non-Christian East" no longer exist. There are more practicing Christians in Asia and Africa than in the European countries. In the past the "West" used to send missionaries to the "East". Now the "East" is in a position to send missionaries to other parts of the world. The Arabian Middle East cannot be considered to be the largest Islamic concentration in the world. The biggest Muslim nations are found in Asia. Hinduism and Buddhism, which originated on the Indian soil, have spread to almost every country in the world. All countries in the world are pluralistic without choice.

Modern communication techniques are very helpful for the missionary activities of every religion. TV evangelists can now be heard by any number of people in any part of the world. People are attracted to mammoth meetings where they are offered sensational and emotional satisfaction rather than any real change of heart. The modern missionaries link belief with prosperity. Riches are taken as the sign of God's blessing, and poverty and sufferings as the result of his curse. This is in accordance with the pragmatic approach of globalization in which a thing has value only if it has any utility.

What is globalization?
We have to examine the process of globalization critically. Recently an international forum on globalization stated that "it is not the latest phase of human progress but rather an ideology imposed on the world by transnational corporations and their followers in governments and universities" (Jay Walljasper, 1996).

Globalization can be seen as having gone on for centuries and it is bound with capitalist modernity and the expansion of the capitalist system. Therefore it is not new. For the third- world countries it is the modern version of "colonization." I need not elaborate on the effect of globalization on the economies of the developing countries or even on some sectors of the developed countries. It is very evident to the discerning eyes of any human being. But globalization is not a mere economic or political issue. It has immense effects on the culture and values of life in each place. It is in the realm of culture that globalization is most visible and apparent. Globalization is leading to cultural homogeneity. There is a rapidly spreading consumer culture initiated by multinational companies like McDonald's and Coca-Cola. The world is now full of products, images and ideas like Madonna, rap music or Hollywood films, which are shown as "global popular" almost to the extinction of distinctive native forms of culture and entertainment. "New technologies are changing the nature of work and creating new forms of leisure, including the hyperreality of cyberspace, new virtual realities, and new modes of information and entertainment. Capital is producing a new technoculture, a new form of the entertainment and information society, and everything from education to work to politics and everyday life is dramatically changing ... Indeed a world market economy decimates throughout the planet fantasies of happiness through consumption and the goods and services that allow entry into the phantasmagoria of consumer capitalism" (Douglas Kellner 1998). The desire for material progress has gripped the world. Even the youth are running after money and enjoyments rather than ideals. There is an ideological vacuum in people's mind.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the world is now ruled by a handful of multinational corporations. Their empires are much bigger than any previous ones in history -- Greek, Roman, French or British. They cannot be controlled by any national governments, individually nor collectively. They can bring any nation to its knees if it fails to follow their norms. No community on earth can enjoy security, prosperity and satisfaction without their blessings. "... not only that corporate powers control the world's traffic in microchips and millet, but also the flow of information, entertainment, culture, and basic ideas about what constitutes the good life" (Jay Walljasper, 1996). The divisions among human beings -- "the haves and the have-nots" -- have taken new connotations: earlier they were mainly based on money and power; now they depend upon information and technology (the tools to control the world). A reviewer of the book by Dani Rodrik, a professor of International Political Economy at Harvard, Has Globalization Gone Too Far? (April 1997, ISBN 0-88132-243), has written "Globalization is exposing social fissures between those with education, skills, and mobility to flourish in an unfettered world market -- the apparent 'winners' and those without. These apparent 'losers' are increasingly anxious about their standards of living and their precarious place in an integrated world economy." Implications of competitiveness cannot be measured. The future seems to be only for those who grab. The jungle law of the survival of the fittest is coming back.

Globalization is the good news to some who are capable of international competition, but not so good news for those who fall behind. It is argued by some third-world theologians that the bride groom in "The Parable of the Ten Virgins" cannot be Christ because forsaking the "have-nots" is not in Christ's nature. It is more like the behavior of a multinational corporation's CEO (chief executive officer).

The "winners" have as much at stake from the possible consequences of social instability as the "losers." Dani Rodrik says "... social disintegration is not a spectator sport -- those on the sidelines also get splashed with mud from the field. Ultimately, the deepening of social fissures can harm all." Even advanced societies are ill-equipped to hail the consequences of globalization. It has crated a lot of myths which have been uncritically accepted by many. For example, one who is not dressed in a particular brand of world class is considered unblessed and unfashionable. "... and all those problems are intensified by the sense of inferiority and self-hate that arises in people who don't look like the svelte, blonde actors ... who can't buy all the lovely goods featured in the globalized market place of Benetton" (Jay Walljasper, 1996).

What is the role of religions?
The problems of globalization are of such magnitude that any one nation or institution cannot deal with them effectively. They are the concerns of all nations, all religions and all institutions of humankind. Science, economics, politics and religions should stand together in eliminating these threats and building a new humanity. We should note that all religions were global and transnational; they could organize people beyond national boundaries. But now they have taken the back seat and let the trading companies take the lead. This may be because religions were too slow to respond to human development. This has to change. Religions should take the lead in fostering universal fraternity.

We are really encouraged by the fact that globalization does not go unopposed. The Christian churches and other religious and secular organizations are mobilizing people against its unhealthy influences. We can see today "a conflict between growing centralization and organization of power and wealth in the hands of the few, contrasted to opposing processes exhibiting a fragmentation of power and wealth that is more plural, multiple, and open to contestation than previously" (Douglas Kellner 1997). Against the spreading homogeneity we can see the eruption of "subcultures of resistance that have attempted to preserve specific forms of culture and society against globalization and homogenization" (Douglas Kellner, 1997).

In the political field also the initial euphoria for globalization is vanishing. The tendency of fragmentation is as strong as that of globalization. Not only the Soviet Union but other big countries are in the grip of disintegration. This may be a form of protest against centralization of power in the hands of the few. Politicians who were the champions of GATT and NAFTA are now silent about these agreements. Everywhere in the world we see the emergence of youth, women, ethnic minorities and other groups who refuse to be engulfed by the hegemonic mainstream culture. People from the rest of the world are unwilling to identify modernization with westernization. All over the world the demand to sustain the identity of one's race, gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, region, nation and religion are getting stronger.

On the ideological philosophical level a wide range of "theories associated with post-structuralism, post-modernism, feminism, and multi-culturalism focuses on difference, otherness, marginality, the personal, the particular, and the concrete over more general theory and politics that aim at more global or universal conditions" (Douglas Kellner, 1997). We should identify the forces of resistance, encourage them and attempt to counteract the dangerous forces of globalization.

At this critical juncture the religions should show the way. First of all they can resolve the tensions between the universal and the particular; the individual and the communal aspects of life. Only religions can do this. They can give life its meaning and goal and restore human dignity. Thus the identity crisis can be settled. They can remove the rising pessimism about the progress of humanity. They can demonstrate with their age-old wisdom that the problems faced by men and women today are not inevitable or unassailable. The world has survived grater calamities. They can offer human beings hope in the midst of frustrations. People should be encouraged to use the potential resources of religion. Religions can show the transcendental dimension of life. They can lead men and women from fantasy to reality, from selfishness to sacrifice, from dehumanization to re-humanization. Self-actualisation or self-fulfillment is the goal of all religions. They can help people to adopt a simple life style and minimize their wants. This is the only way to fight a consumer culture. They can establish the fact that it is God who rules the world, not a few business corporations and the governments that support them. Religions should act as the conscience of the world. All religions have to cooperate with each other if we have to resist the forces of globalization and bring about a new humanity. Gone are they days of exclusivism, antagonism and rivalry. If mankind has to see the new millennium cooperation is the only way.

Global citizenship not only includes privileges but also responsibilities. The problems and challenges have to be faced by all. For solving the problems faced by the world, not only religions but all human institutions should work together. We should take a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach in this regard. Our destinies are interlinked. It is not an anthropocentric, but a cosmotheandric understanding of the reality that can save the world. It is not a homogenized global culture, but a multitude of local cultural preferences and values which can facilitate the transition from today's society to that of the third millennium. Previously the slogan was "think globally and act locally." Now it should be "think locally and act globally." It is time too for us to become globally "proactive."

Fr Dr Abraham Oommen was the Assembly advisor to the Office on Interreligious Relations and served as the NCCI secretary for Unity, Fellowship and Dialogue. He is a parish priest of the Indian Orthodox Syrian Church in Kuwait.

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