E s s a y s
RELIGION AND GLOBALIZATION
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Since I've been asked as a Czech sociologist to speak at the New York University in Argentina on the theme of globalization, I cannot disregard what was written about it by P.L.Berger, an American of Viennese origin. I bought one of his books in Germany, read it on a flight to Japan and a month later quoted it at a lecture in Moscow. On the flight back from Tokyo I was reading a book by the Brazilian author Paul Coelho in a Czech translation. As she was serving me tea, an Indian air-stewardess in a British Airways uniform, glanced at the cover of the book and said: 'Oh, Coelho. Is it the 'Fifth Mountain'? I'm just reading it now!'
I apologize for this over-personal beginning. Having spent 40 years 'behind the iron curtain' with very limited opportunities to travel, I am still excited by how easy it is, politically and technically speaking, to overcome the distances between countries and cultures, although I'm fully aware that this face of globalization is ambivalent. 'Technology has overcome all distances,' wrote Heidegger, 'but it has not created any nearness.'
During my first trip to the West after the fall of communism, I experienced the ambivalence of the second characteristic of globalization, namely easy access to information. When I asked in a book store for the latest literature in the field of the sociology and psychology of religion, the bookseller found me several hundred titles in the computer database. In communist Czechoslovakia that literature was banned and only a few books found their way to me after negotiating the hurdles of censorship. For years those books were my mainstay. However, my delight at the sudden accessibility of enormous quantities of information suddenly gave way to a feeling of despair and despondency: a human life was too short for one to read even a tenth of those books -- and was there any sense in writing anything and simply adding to that enormous quantity? Maybe an extremely promising occupation in the future will be a diet consultant in the field of information: to help us decide what we can permit ourselves to ignore.
We are grateful to P.L.Berger for being one of the first to predict that the key word defining the future of religion will not be secularization but pluralization. The spiritual seeker and the sociologist of religion both find themselves in a copious market of religion and have no one to advise them what they can afford to ignore.
Traditionalist and fundamentalist forms of religion, which were assumed to have finally lost their battle with modernism and to be headed for marginality, are enjoying a revival. The anxiety that large groups of people feel over the unifying pressure of global culture is becoming a source of new strength for religion -- and particularly its traditionalist and fundamentalist forms -- in one of its social roles: expressing and supporting the awareness of group identity. In this respect, certain authors speak about the 'de-privatization' and 're-politicization' of religion -- religion returning from the private sphere into public and political life. New forms of 'religious nationalism' are emerging; religions in various parts of the world are becoming instruments of political and nationalist interests, banners, which in the midst of conflict are supposed to boost feelings of devotion to one's own group and antagonism to everything foreign.
At the same time, leaders of various religious movements are coming together in affable meetings that would have been unthinkable half a century ago. Scholars seek common ground in the ethics of different religions, and Catholic and Buddhist monks sit down to meditate together. As a rule, the repeated attempts at overcoming religious plurality and creating an all-embracing religion end up by simply creating obscure sects. On the other hand, it looks as if globalization is providing fertile soil for attempts at deepening the dialogue among religions. 'Tolerance' is no longer the last word in this process: young people in particular long to share their spiritual experiences without having to abandon their own religious community. There are increasing numbers of religious figures for whom diversity is perceived more as potential enrichment than potential threat, as something interesting and attractive, rather than hostile. This trend can be expected to occur most of all among those who are younger, better educated and more self-assured.
The lack of nearness in a world where distances are overcome by technology and the profound loneliness in places with the densest populations give rise to other forms and another psychological function of religion: new religious movements come into being, as well as small groups, either within the traditional churches and religions or in parallel with them. The crisis of marriage and the family in the West also gives rise to the creation of religious groups of the spiritual family type, with intense emotional ties among the individual members and or with a powerful attachment to the authority of a spiritual father and leader
There is another type of new religious cult that makes no attempt at all to create groups with a fixed membership, but instead offers services on a therapist-client basis or influences the public via the media, especially TV and the Internet. One of the Catholic bishops who was stripped of his office by the Vatican has created a lively 'virtual diocese' on the Internet.
P.L.Berger claimed that the pluralization of religion would lead to doubt and relativism. However, the 'economic theory of religion' maintains that plurality and competition force the church to step up its activity and differentiate its offer, which will invigorate religion. State support and a too official status leads churches to behave like 'lazy firms' and gradually lose influence. The authors of this theory point to the differences between religiosity in the United States and Scandinavia.
By and large, the Christian churches in the post-communist countries were caught unawares when finding themselves in a pluralist democratic society learning to adapt its economy, politics and cultures to global trends. Incidentally, I am convinced that it was the globalization process that swept away the communist regimes. Regimes based on a rigid state-planned economy and the censorship of ideas were unable to withstand the keen blast of competition and the free market in goods and ideas. With the fall of the Soviet empire, the countries of central and eastern Europe won back their independence and with it came an increased sense of national identity and pride. However, the logic of globalization now obliges these same countries to increasingly respect decisions of supranational bodies in the economic and political fields alike. Attempts to resurrect a free culture and spiritual life of their own face competitive pressures from the media, which, for commercial reasons, opt mostly for the cheapest and most inane products of the American entertainment industry. The churches have rapidly lost their aura of martyred institutions and have become a favorite whipping boy of the media. No wonder, then, that many believers are among those who suffer in present post-communist society from 'agoraphobia' - to borrow a term from psychopathology -- namely, an abnormal fear of open spaces, or literally: fear of the market.
Having been accustomed to playing a major role in traditional society from the very distant past, the churches of eastern central Europe learnt in the course of almost half a century to stand up to totalitarian regimes and state-imposed atheism. Of course the degree to which religion was persecuted varied from country to country and the church likewise did not adopt only one strategy for survival. Within the framework of a single local church one could find a whole spectrum of responses to pressure from totalitarian regimes, ranging from collaboration and compromises to the martyrdom of hundreds of believers. Many subconsciously expected that the fall of communism would herald a return to the situation they knew before World WarII. However, instead of the traditional pre-modern situation, a complex post-modern vista has opened up. Traditional society, in which the church virtually merged with the prevailing culture of society and the subsequent totalitarian state with its militantly atheistic ideology repres ented quite distinct situations for the religious institutions and called for distinct strategies. Pluralistic democracy and the post-modern cultural climate represent a third type which requires the church to re-define once more its social role and evolve a new and quite distinct strategy.
In the churches of post-communist Europe, however, nostalgia for the expected pre-modern idyll still prevailed and with it a strategy of restoration. When that strategy was frustrated by subsequent developments, certain churches adopted vis-a-vis the liberal environment the strategy of hostility and circular defense they had learnt from their confrontation with the communist regimes. As a result, the churches alienated large groups of those who sympathized with them at the time of communism's collapse and invested great hopes in them on the threshold of democratic renewal.
Now the situation in certain post-communist societies in many respects mirrors the situation of religious organizations in the secular societies of western Europe - the only difference being that both the representatives of secular liberalism and the churches lack the experience of decades of mutual coexistence and have not yet learnt to communicate to any great extent. The Second Vatican Council allowed Catholics to conclude a 'gentleman's agreement' with secular humanism and the civilization that grew out of Enlightenment ideals. However, many of the promptings of that Council have yet to be sufficiently assimilated by the churches of the post-communist countries. Moreover, the 2nd Vatican Council did not prepare Catholics for the booming interest in religion and spirituality at the end of the 20th century. As a consequence, many spiritual seekers -- particularly young people -- sought their answers from groups and spiritual leaders espousing Eastern spiritual traditions.
However, what the 2nd Vatican Council opened the doors for, and what Pope John Paul II has vigorously set in motion, is inter-faith dialogue. Within the Catholic church, which was probably the first 'global player' in human history, there are voices calling for ecumenism, in the sense of rapprochement among Christian churches, to be radically broadened in the direction of a 'major ecumenism' of the world's religions, and for 'Catholicism' (the form of the church in modern times) to give way to genuine 'catholicity', embodying an openness toward everything positive that has developed within the other spiritual traditions. One form which those efforts have assumed is the 'Weltethos' (world ethos) project launched by Hans Küng and his colleagues. This is no syncretically-inspired utopian attempt to create a new universal religion, but instead a search for common themes and analogous standpoints and the sharing of experience, while respecting the specific characteristics and identity of each religion.
It looks as if Christianity stands on the threshold of another of its historical metamorphoses. Over the centuries it has undergone a whole series of transformations, the depths of which it was not always able or willing to acknowledge; the emphasis on the continuity of tradition -- since tradition was an important factor in its legitimacy -- somewhat overshadowed the radical nature of the paradigm shift. The difference between the sect within Hellenic Judaism that the fanatic Saul came to suppress and the civilization of the late Middle Ages that embraced every area of human life, is as great as the difference between medieval christianitas and the modern form of Christianity as a 'world view´ (Weltanschaung). In the latter years of the modern era Catholicism and Protestantism have established themselves as 'isms' among other 'isms'; they are still often regarded as ideologies tied to institutions offering scope for a particular subculture or even 'counter-culture', an alternative 'parallel polis' vis-a-vis the world of modern secular civilization. The ideologization, institutionalization and 'church-ization' (Verkirchlichung) of faith has proceeded in pace with the secularization of the West and Christians' loss of ability to 'leaven' the entire 'dough' of society; religion has now become an area of life alongside others and the church has ceased to be an all-embracing community and instead become an institution alongside others.
Christians today find themselves in the situation of a shift of paradigms, not only the paradigms of the civilization they live in, but also the paradigms of living and expressing one's faith. It looks as if the modern form of Christianity as a 'world view' alongside other philosophies will come to an end in the same way that the medieval form of Christianity -- christianitas: the Christian empire -- expired.
In my view Christians face a new task that is no less momentous than the erstwhile task of creating a civilization on the ruins of the Roman Empire. I believe the task is one of enabling communication between two worlds that are beginning to blend as part of the globalization process, although they are spiritually at opposite poles. On the one hand it is the secular civilization of the West and on the other the traditional world of religions, of which Islam is the most vigorous. I believe that Christians (and probably also certain currents of liberal Judaism) are in certain circumstances capable of understanding both those worlds, because they share certain features with them both.
Let us not forget that in the Ancient World, and particularly in Ancient Rome, people of faith, the devotees of the invisible and unnamable God, both Jews and Christians, were regarded as atheists - justifiably so in terms of the then concept of religion: religion as a cult of state-recognized gods. When the Christians of the first centuries were asked by those around them what it was they were bringing: a new religion, a new philosophy or a new school of gnosis, they had no categorical reply. Yes, it was a new path to wisdom, but it was not a Gnostic sect. It was something like a philosophy, but a 'philosophia Christi', since gnosis and philosophy being 'wisdom of this world' were regarded by Paul the Apostle as folly. Moreover the term 'religion' -- i.e. a public cult in the understanding of those days -- was also initially accepted with reservations by Christians as a description of their 'way' and regarded as at best an analogous term; for them it was 'vera religio' in contrast with all that had been regarded as religion up to then. Throughout the Middle Ages Christians preferred the word fides -- faith (articula fidei, mysteria fidei, etc.) and used it more frequently than the expression religio.
When the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, counterposed faith and 'religion' and many of his students started to speak in terms of a 'non-religious interpretation of Christianity', it was admittedly one-sided, but it did pinpoint one aspect of the question. Besides, much has been written about the influence of the Biblical understanding of the world, nature and politics on the secularization process. In my view, Christians and Jews can find many points in common with a civilization that is inconceivable without the initial input of Biblical values and the Bible's spiritual and moral impetus.
On the other hand, one cannot deny the fact that the prevailing form of Christianity in history has been religion and that Christianity has much in common, or much that is analogous, with the world religions, whether it be the shared 'legacy of Abraham' of belief in one God, or the spiritual traditions of the East (I would refer, for instance, to the literature about the similarities between 'negative theology' and certain currents of Christian mysticism, on the one hand, and certain traits of Buddhism, on the other). Most likely the same could be said of Judaism.
There is a widening gulf between the world of the traditional religions and the secular world of the West. One of the paradoxes of globalism is the fact that the efforts to prevent any religion or religious community dominating the shared world, so that 'public space' remains strictly secular, are having the effect of turning secularism into something sacred. A sort of global 'civil religion' is coming into being, that might be regarded by supporters of traditional religions as a substitute for religion (Ersatzreligion) or an anti-religion. Unless there is a will for dialogue on the part of the architects of global society (the representatives of the large supranational economic and political corporations) on the one hand, and the representatives of the world's religions on the other, many conflicts and misunderstandings could result.
If Christians (and probably Jews also) managed to be open toward both sides, and tried to understand both those worlds, they could do much to promote a culture of understanding in today's world and help transform globalization into a process of communication.
(Delivered at the international conference on globalisation at New York University in Buenos Aires, Argentina December 2000)