Summer Reading Group: “Globalization and the Challenge of Religions”

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July 21, 2016

This is the second post in a seven-part series for Spectrum’s 2016 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Flourishing by Miroslav Volf. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.

We live in dark times. Wars and rumors of war are ever on the horizon. As economic globalization binds more and more people in a single garment of destiny, conflicts and struggles seem to proliferate. Environmental degradation, climate change, the instabilities of the global market place, religious intolerance, failed states, belligerent nationalism, and the mass migration these problems cause are among the hot-button issues no one can fail to notice. Even if we are not directly suffering the effects of globalization, someone we know is. 

It is within this context that I think Miroslav Volf’s latest book is especially relevant. Volf begins the first chapter with Karl Marx’s prescient description of market globalization. Now, Marx is widely known to be a harsh critic of capitalism—an economic arrangement marked by the concentration of the facilities, tools, and machines of production in the hands of a few capitalists. However, few know Marx was also a great admirer of capitalism’s internal dynamism.  

Marx celebrated market economy’s unprecedented ability to upset the old political status-quo, overturn outdated cultural values, and destroy archaic social hierarchies. The profit incentive is the energy behind innovation, expansion, and the will to transcend traditional morality and arbitrary social boundaries. The most revolutionary aspect of capitalism, for Marx, is its ability to generate new desires, desires that we do not even know we had: who would have guessed that smart phones would be consider a social necessity a mere decade ago? Volf rightly points out that regardless of what one thinks of Marx’s solution to the problems of capitalism, one could hardly deny that Marx was at least a great analyst of economic systems.

But as a good dialectician, Marx also knew that few blessings are without corresponding curses. Capitalism’s dynamics also generate tensions, struggles, and recurring problems. Problems that we are tired of witnessing today. In addition to the concentration of wealth and thus political power in the hands of the few—a possibility that even Adam Smith recognized—the primacy of market ethos is also “transmuting all values so as to place them in the service of monetary worth” (31). In other words, the market has the tendency to reach into places where it should not. Therefore, human labor and other non-economic goods, such as political power, risk being reduced to mere commodities with a price tag. This market impulse to commodify everything has, for Volf, tremendous implications for human dignity. 

To demonstrate just how integrated the world economy is, Volf discusses the production process of an iPhone. An iPhone, he writes, is “designed in the United States…assembled at a furious pace in China in a factory of a Taiwanese firm…An international workforce of some seven hundred thousand in Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States produces the parts of the device” (32). Again, there are two sides to iPhone’s success story: while the production of the iPhone generated many jobs and enriched a few people, it also made use of minerals collected by unprotected children working under shameful conditions in Congo, enriched the warlords that ruled over the same children, and created the largest sweatshops with cruel labor practices in China.

Market globalization is indeed connecting more and more people. It is generating a global civil society at an unprecedented scale. But Volf wants to remind us that this connectivity also comes with social, moral, and cultural costs. Costs that those who consider themselves religious cannot simply ignore. 

For instance, Christians have been witnessing the trivialization of religious identities. Many churches are now organized like corporations and worship programs often produced in order to generate an emotional experience rather than to spread the Gospel. Church institutions seem to be more concerned about attendance than genuine discipleship. In short, religion is becoming a market commodity. Spiritual consumerism is rendering the gospel impotent and meaningless, precisely at a time when society is falling deeper and deeper into the abyss of consumeristic nihilism. 

For Volf, the primary reason market globalization is creating these negative cultural and spiritual consequences is that the market is not morally neutral. He insightfully argues that the market, if separated from a broader moral framework that delineates its limits, also promotes a certain vision of reality that is incompatible with the vision of world religions. 

For instance, the market’s operation encourages its participants to “organize human interaction through the calculus of costs and benefits.” It also presupposes that “human beings [are] acquisitive, insatiable in their thirst for both profit and consumer goods” (40). As theologian Stephen Long also points out in Divine Economy: Theology and the Market these anthropological assumptions are not simply natural facts, but value-laden claims that capture how people are expected to operate in the capitalist marketplace, barring other moral considerations. Human beings do not naturally make the acquisition of goods and wealth the final end of their ordinary activities; they are trained by the market culture to do so. 

Volf explains that the scope and nature of the market is always socially determined. Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang made a similar point and famously wrote that “there is no such thing as a free market” in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. What Volf and Chang mean is that the market is always governed by norms and institutional consideration that go beyond the market itself. Consider the issues of child labor, labor rights, and the current debate of whether human organs should be objects of economic exchange. Markets are not given. They always exist within a social and moral context. But if the market and its ethos are allowed to colonize other areas of life, it would begin to corrode and chip away at the moral fabric of society, turning everything and everyone into a commodity. 

Market globalization promotes a set of alternative norms that can come into conflict with that of Christians and adherents of other religious traditions. Therefore, Volf believes it is paramount for Christians and members of other faiths to jointly reflect on how market globalization might be undermining our humanity precisely in and through all of its blessings and curses. More important still, Volf believes the greatest contribution world religions can make to push globalization in a more humane direction is a vision of human flourishing grounded in a transcendent end. 

Borrowing from philosopher Charles Taylor, Volf argues that a central organizing principle of market globalization is “the affirmation of ordinary life” (42). By the affirmation of ordinary life, Volf means that globalization enjoins us to devote all of our physical, intellectual, spiritual, and artistic energies to advance our earthly prosperity. Modern life is associated primarily with living a life of relative prosperity and freedom from illnesses and wants. According to Volf, this stands in sharp contrast with the vision of world religions and ancient philosophers, which subordinates the mundane world to a transcendent end. He states that world religions “are concerned with the good that goes beyond ordinary flourishing and contend that attachment to the transcendent realm is in fact the key to ordinary flourishing,” while market globalization is exclusively about ordinary life (44). 

At this point, Augustine’s City of God comes to mind. For Augustine and, I suspect, for Volf, it is only by orienting ourselves toward God—who alone is truly infinite—can we overcome our tendency to treat worldly goods as final ends and so relate to them in twisted ways. Volf argues that human insatiability and mortality render the pursuit of worldly goods as final ends futile. 

Market globalization promises that commodities and wealth would make us happy, but no matter how much wealth we acquire, we are never satisfied. Human desire is insatiable, precisely because it anticipates the transcendent. Pursuing worldly goods as ultimate ends thus “robs us of feelings of contentment and joy” and “subverts love and compassion” (53). 

Intrinsic to this never ending pursuit of worldly happiness is the illusion that abiding meaning and significance is to be found in this world. But Volf argues that human finitude and mortality renders all human achievements meaningless. In death, all that we have acquired is lost. Therefore, it is by orienting ourselves toward a transcendent goal that “abiding significance” can be found (55). 

I am largely in agreement with Volf’s analysis. But I am slightly uncomfortable with the way he treats the world religions as a unitary whole by assigning them a common denominator, namely being concerned with the transcendent—a category used in Western philosophies of religion. My discomfort notwithstanding, I think Volf is right about globalization and what Christianity might offer as part of the solution to globalization’s problems. 

In short, Volf thinks world religions confront globalization with these two questions: 1) Does globalization affirm the human dignity of every person, or does it subject some to oppression while enriching the others? 2) Does globalization distort our vision of reality and encourage us treat worldly goods as the final end of life?

The answer to the first question is obvious, given Volf’s analysis so far. While he believes globalization brings many blessings and promises, he also acknowledges the injustice and conflicts that it generates. Here, world religions are to remind us that living well means living within certain moral boundaries, because life serves a higher end than the acquisition of power and goods. Volf calls us to therefore challenge the utilitarian logic of market globalization and imagine ways to foster more solidarity and love. To make his case, Volf draws from the social ethics of John Paul II and the Dalai Lama. Both, according to Volf, urges their audience to reach beyond the ordinary and toward a “mystery that transcends our ordinary experience:” God for John Paul II or the realm beyond desire for the Dalai Lama (50). 

Although I admire Volf’s generous attitude toward other religious traditions, I am not certain we can treat every “world religion” as equal partners in the same mission without doing violence to them. I am worried that in Volf’s attempt to advance his ambitious project, he might be tempted to downplay the differences between religious traditions. There are significant tensions between the traditions he mentioned and some of them have incompatible metaphysical systems that might not support Volf’s overall moral vision. 

John Paul II’s Christian personalism, for instance, is rooted in scholastic philosophy. His metaphysical belief that everything that exists has a purpose or telos is what enables him to affirm the intrinsic worth and dignity of every human being. However, in other traditions—some of which would be reluctant, to say the least, to acknowledge the very idea of objective purposes or ends—where might the moral principles of equality, dignity, and solidarity emerge? His framing of world religions as being fundamentally about a transcendent “goal” might not sit comfortably with these other less goal oriented traditions. Perhaps, this is the topic of a later chapter.  

 

Yi Shen Ma is Assistant Pastor of L.A. Chinese Seventh-day Adventist Church and a Ph.D. candidate at Claremont School of Theology. Prior to this, he served in the United States Navy as a religious program specialist and volunteered as development director of Adventist Peace Fellowship.

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