Max Stackhouse

Professor of Reformed Theology and Public Life
Princeton Theological Seminary
Faith and  Globalization

Dr. Stackhouse is currently the Rimmer & Ruth de Vries Professor of Reformed Theology and Public Life at Princeton Theological Seminary. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University, a M.Div. from the Harvard Divinity School and a B.A. from DePauw University. Dr. Stackhouse has lectured worldwide in Australia, Canada, China, Fiji, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, India, Ireland, Korea, the Philippines, Scotland and South Africa. He has published numerous articles and books. Dr. Stackhouse has a special focus on analyzing the relation of religious and ethical issues to material forces in society to see how Christian and other faiths shape cultures and the lives of persons.



Faith and Globalization

I bring to this forum a concern I have been working on for several years: globalization and the place of religion, ethics, faith and theology in it. It is rooted in the conviction that there is no greater issue facing humanity than the fact that a new public is being created by the complex dynamics of the globalization process, a new public that requires a fresh statement of key theological norms to sustain and guide it. The dynamics appear as essentially social and ethical, but they are driven by or legitimated by religious convictions, particularly some of those spread abroad by Protestant Christianity.

Many, of course, tend to believe that globalization is, essentially, driven by economic interests. That economic interests are powerful and visibly manifest in globalization I have no doubt. But economic interests are by no means new, while the current patterns of globalization are. The inquiry into why globalization is taking its present shape reveals that an economistic view is too limited. In fact, to treat it as the central cause of globalization is to obscure the scope, structure, dynamics and moral fabric of the phenomenon and to confuse cause with effect.

Globalization, I believe, is an historic shift that involves the providential growth of a world-wide technical and moral infrastructure that bears the promise of a wider civil society, one that may well comprehend all previous national, ethnic, political, economic or cultural contexts. It portends a cosmopolitan possibility that modernity promised but could not deliver on its own terms. The spread, for instance, of the ideals of democracy and human rights, of artistic styles and scientific education, of international law and mass media, of technological know-how and instantaneous world-wide communications, of medical care and management techniques and of the inclusive attitudes toward women and minorities are all parts of globalization. Together these make certain economic changes possible and others necessary. They make the growth of the middle classes more likely, extending what modernization has begun, with many peoples who were long desperately poor finding their way out of poverty by efforts to develop these complex cultural and social realities. They enable global participation, nearly always by adopting the religious or worldview presuppositions that formed or legitimated these realities, and adapting them to their own settings. This is true in spite of the fact that some peoples and traditions resist such developments or have not yet found out how to become a part of them. 

Because of the significance of religious and worldview transformations for globalization, any substantive critique or embrace of these developments will demand attention to a theology able to form or reform the inner moral fabric of the globalization process. A fuller treatment of the arguments for this view will appear in the final volume of God and Globalization. (1) The previous three volumes of the series already suggests that a major part of the impetus for the globalizing developments derive from the ways in which Christian thought has shaped cultural and social institutions and given rise to transforming patterns of life. The question that most concerns a theologian and faith-grounded ethicist, thus, is not only whether religion can shape the formation of civilizations in concert with other forces (that is beyond serious doubt); but what kind of religion should guide our thinking and action with regard to the dynamics of globalization and why? This question is especially important for our relative assessments of the three great missionizing religions, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, all of which are growing at exponential rates, with each having a distinctive sense of the "divine destiny" that is to be pursued.

There are three tendencies afoot in Western Christianity which I view as dangerous to the prospect. One has to do with the confused arguments and policies of the U.S. government. This administration has been identified with an Evangelical form of the Christian faith more than any other in the last two centuries, and many view it as a pious veneer for a Machiavellian neo-imperialism. The problem with this view is that it does not have anything like an adequate social theory, and thus cannot nurture the kind of social institutions that can support the kind of economy that does not appear to many to be simply a new imperialism or neo-colonialism.       

Second, there is a growing and already influential view of globalization in the World Council of Churches and a number of Ecumenical bodies and communions, that is proposed by, especially, Ulrich Duchrow and Franz Hinklehammert. They see the disparities as an indication that Marx had capitalism right and they thus seek to declare globalization a matter of status confessionis, that is, if one believes that economic globalization bears within it any redeeming features, one is a heretic and should be kept out or thrown out of the community of believers. In this view, globalization is obviously an immoral economic phenomenon by which the rich are creating an "economy of death."

And third is the new economistic interpretation of religion advanced by representatives of the "Chicago School" which justifies faith in terms of its ability to functionally meet people's personal needs and wants. This market-driven, neo-Liberal view of faith, is represented by a number of noted scholars, such as Lawrence Iannaccone and, using a sociological approach to history, Rodney Stark. This has a popular counterpart in the "Prosperity Gospel" advanced by TV preachers. This development is being exported around the world and generating practices likely to shape the ways faith influences cultural change.
My argument will offer a critique of all three of these on the grounds that they do not take account of the ways in which religions in general and certain theologies in particular have shaped the social ethos and social institutions of the common life and served as normative guides to the kinds of economic systems in which people actually live and work. In this regard, I think that those revisionists of Max Weber such as Peter Berger and Lawrence Harrison and, in some ways, Robert Nelson have a more accurate view than to any of the dominant three options.

My argument will draw on these and other authors who have directly confronted these views and will suggest what I believe to be a more adequate portrait of how faith, critically and constructively engaged with the best findings of politics, economics and social theory, can contribute to the development of a viable and more grace-filled earth and anticipate elements that may well indicate the reality of the Reign of God in spite of all the evils in the world.

© Copyright 2007. All rights reserved. Center for Christian Studies at Gordon College.


Max L. Stackhouse, God and Globalization, 4 vol.

Benjamin Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth

Ulrich Duchrow, Alternatives to Global Capitalism

Michael Mandelbaum, The Case for Goliath

Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Empire