Although we often speak of it as a new thing, attentive and reflective humans have been aware of the forces of globalization since at least the 16th century. The exploration, discovery, missionary and colonization movements initiated a dramatic process of shrinking the world. However, after centuries of cultures and peoples butting up against one another, feeling each other out and more often than not clashing over who plays the dominate role, the human race is entering two new chapters.
In the first chapter, the ease of travel and communication, massive immigration, and the absorption of local economies into a multinational monetary web are changing the dynamics of the globalization process, making it impossible for the local to avoid the global, and forcing the global to adjust to the local. The terms “glocal” or “glocalization” have been used to describe this interpenetration of global standards or values into local ones. Sociologist Roland Robertson, who popularized the term in his text, Glocalization: Time-Space and Homogeneity-Heterogeneity, emphasized the importance of the local in interpreting global forces, not just reacting against them. Local standards and values also interpenetrate global realities. We all live in a glocal reality, whether we are aware of it or not.
This intersection of global and local realities has produced an overload of accessibility to information about our human condition and an industry of pundits trying to interpret the data. The violence, poverty, brokenness, messiness and incompleteness of our individual and communitarian lives on the local level have been eclipsed by images, stories and data on the dysfunction of an entire planetary reality. Many people, including people of faith, interpret this information as signs of the human race moving toward irrevocable decline and destruction. A body of apocalyptic literature is evolving, as it always does in times of massive change, in response to the dislocation brought about by our new awareness of the full scope of the human condition.
Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, a visiting professor at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, gave a talk at the World Council of Churches two weeks ago and challenged these apocalyptic interpretations. Listing positive research findings over the past few decades throughout the world on a raft of issues from education and health care to access to water and women’s issues, Dr. Kinnamon suggested the negative reading of global forces of change is more a matter of ideology than religious faith. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker did a similar thing by crunching hard numbers in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, to show that our intuitive sense that violence in the world is increasing in frightening ways is wrong. Although access at the local level to the violence of an entire world can convince us the human race is becoming more barbaric, it is actually becoming less violent. As we get pushed closer together across the globe and our local and global realities become more dynamically related, we are humanizing the globe more than we are dehumanizing it.
We can debate these issues, of course, and there are sophisticated theologies for both interpretations. Looking for patterns in the aggregate data of an entire world is complex. However, if we do not get our head around the dynamics of glocalization we are not going to understand our world. We are not even going to understand our local reality.
A second chapter in the story of the human race has to do with our getting “networked.” It is becoming increasingly more difficult to avoid the differences dividing the human race. Networking connects everything to everything else. There are lots of implications for this networking, but one of the most significant is that we can no longer run from our differences. Those differences are coming into our families through friendships, marriage and adoption; they are intruding in our businesses with co-workers, customers and clients, and into our university systems through international student and employee recruiting efforts; they are even coming into our homes through the arts, sports and the Internet.
Some scholars have tested the thesis that the 6.6 billion people on the earth are now only separated by six degrees of separation, and there is some validity to this assertion, although it may “feel” wrong to someone living an insulated life. (See here). Despite appearances to the contrary in some communities, it is becoming increasingly impossible to think of ourselves in isolation of people on the planet who look, feel and think very differently than us.
Even 30 years ago it would have taken months for the details of the devastation in the Philippines to become known throughout the world. Now we have instantaneous information, devastating images and even heart-wrenching interviews with survivors, all within hours of the tragedy. With the wonders of the Internet, most regions of the world are now only a mouse click away. We can even visit face-to-face without leaving the comfort of our own home. All of this is changing the world, and it is changing each of us – how we think and feel – and in ways we cannot measure or articulate.
The travel guru, Rick Steves, wrote an interesting book a number of years ago called, Travel as a Political Act. He noted that travel broadens our world and helps us to think more critically of own political ideas and beliefs. But, travel is also a religious act – it broadens our understanding of God’s activity in the world, and forces us to surface our own assumptions about the nature of God, religion, our own religious community or communion, and our own identity as a person of faith and belief. For someone hoping to serve humanity in religious leadership or as a spirituality-informed agent of social change, the context shaking experiences of travel outside our safe spaces is not only desire but essential.
Is my image of the world big enough? Is my image of the “other,” however defined, big enough? We should all be asking ourselves this question if we want to remain relevant, let along functional, in our world.
Paul Coutinho, a Christian spiritual author from India who will join us at the February 15, 2014 Search for Meaning Book Festival, explores the religious consequences of our glocal, networked reality. His book, Is Your God Big Enough: The Freedom to Experience the Divine?, challenges all of us to take measure of the way we conceptualize the Divine, as well as the restrictions such a conceptualization could create in our ability to experience the Divine in our life.
Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry takes the “glocalization” and “networking” of our world very seriously. We are engaged in the diverse local communities in the Pacific Northwest in many ways – through student internships, faculty involvement in congregational life through preaching, and teaching and serving in local leadership. One of the school’s most challenging courses, Ministry in a Multicultural Context, is part of our core curriculum, and for the third straight year we are working on family homelessness with 14 congregations serving different ethnic, racial and religious communities and a total of 18,000 people. The school is trying to help these congregations figure out how to move the needle on family homelessness in western Washington. (For more information on this exciting program funded through the Gates Foundation, see here!)
In the same way, the School’s student body has become increasingly diverse, including students from different parts of the world and different ethnic, racial and religious communities. We currently have students from Africa and Asia, and even one from Indonesia, who heard about our school while he was doing mission work in Ethiopia. I recently met a young woman in Vietnam, who has heard about Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry for several years and is deeply committed to becoming one of our students. Her goal: to become an expert in religion and public policy so she can help Vietnam learn to make more room for religious belief and practice. Such anecdotes are more common in a glocal and networked world.
For years now, Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry has been trying to expand our image of our world, God, and the once so very different “other.” We are doing this is by engaging local communities, and by seeking out and welcoming students from other parts of the world. We are also trying to get our faculty to leave U.S. airspace and engage people from other parts of the world as often as we can.
You’ll notice in this newsletter that two of our faculty – Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon and Dr. Mark Taylor, along with one of our alumni, Maggie Breen, attended the 10-day World Council of Churches in Seoul, Korea, where Dr. Kinnamon gave the talk referenced above. Dr. Taylor blogged about his experiences at the historic event on the school worship blog site, which you can access here. In the past few years we’ve also had faculty presenting papers or attending conferences in the Middle East, different parts of Europe and Asia.
This is resulting in an international network of friends and colleagues that is impacting not only how we think about ministry and faith-informed social activism. It is also forcing us to re-imagine how we educate and how we prioritize our curriculum. Because of the forces of glocalization and networking, we dream differently about strategic initiatives. We dream both bigger and more local.
At the same time our School had a faculty contingent in Korea, I had the honor of attending one of the first religion and culture conferences ever held in Vietnam. The event occurred in Hanoi at Vietnam National University, and had 65 scholars from Vietnam, the U.S., France and Germany. My own talk, “Why Religion Persists: Research from the Cognitive Science of Religion,” explored why religious ideas will not go away and the futility of trying to expunge those thoughts and beliefs. Symbolizing the world of contradiction in which we now live, the talk was given standing next to a life-sized bust of Ho Chi Minh, someone who distrusted religion and remains a hero of the communist nation.
This was probably not an easy message to hear for some of the communist party members in the room, but it did elicit a lot of critical thinking about religion. But, a glocalized, networked world does not follow the simple patterns of thinking that ruled our planet even 30 or 40 years ago. A Vietnamese philosophy professor who is agnostic or atheistic in orientation organized the religion and culture event. He is a friend with a Christian religious leader who lived many years under house arrest, and together they dream of a day when Vietnam with make more room for the role of religious faith in the life of the nation.
To prepare for ministerial leadership or to become an effective change agent in society, many practical skills are required – preaching or dynamic oratory, institutional savvy, the theory and practice of leadership, conflict resolution, social analysis, a raft of social and emotional skills, the effective use of symbolism and communication, strategic and critical thinking … and the list goes on. But, such leadership also requires one skill that is even harder to master – learning how to think about local realities through the lens of global interconnectedness, and learning how to understand and engage a truly networked world.
While Google Glasses are now the rage, it is becoming increasingly important for those of us with a vibrant faith life to spend more time wearing “Glocal Glasses” and reflecting on how our networked world is changing us, others and the communities of faith and organizations we seek to serve.