Faith in the Future 5 Years Later

My second book “Faith in the Future:  Christianity’s Interface with Globalization” was released in 2008.  The book was named one of World's Top 40 books for 2008-2009 and generated some discussion. The book talked about the intersection between globalization and Christianity and suggested that a lot of our old ways of thinking about things don’t make sense anymore.  Globalization would bring both good and bad, but it would usher in a new era with new issues.  Recently, I was asked by a class studying it to reflect on the book, assess the predictions, and discuss what I might change if I re-wrote it today.

Q: Why Was the Book Written?

After the end of the Cold War, the level of global integration culturally, economically, politically, and socially began to accelerate a lot.  Globalization is always occurring to some extent—even in the Old Testament—but it was the speed and scale of this integration that caught my attention.  I wanted to write about globalization and what it meant for religion (particularly Christianity).  So I did that in my first book Passport of Faith: A Christian’s Encounter with World Religions in the appendix.”  (P. 247-278).  Ideally, this is how Faith in the Future: Christianity’s Interface with Globalization would have begun—with an explanation of the history of globalization and the inevitable counter-actions that occur amidst all the upheaval of ancient norms.  But when I wrote “Passport,” I assumed I may never get another chance to write a book, so I started the globalization conversation in that first book and continued it in the second book.  Ideally, people who like Faith in the Future should go back and read the appendix of Passport of Faith.

Q: Is Globalization good or bad for Christianity?

Overall, I argue that it is mostly great.  It allows us to share our message in a greater variety of ways in more places.  It allows us to mobilize easier around important issues and work truly internationally together. It also brings more of the world’s people and cultures to us and our communities.  It also helps us monitor Christian persecution and other injustices better.  I argue in the book that Christians should be the last people on Earth afraid of increased global interaction. 

On the other hand, periods of rapid modernization and integration always bring with them movements that challenge the rapid change; often ideologies and/or religion play a part in that counteraction.  There’s often a romanticizing of the past that occurs in political parties, religions and ideologies and the atmosphere can get poisonous easily.  We see that now in a lot of places around the world, from India to the Middle East to the U.S.A.  If churches are wise, they can do well during these periods of upheaval and counter-action against globalization as these are often periods of religious awakening. But they also can also get caught up in the reactionary conflict and waste opportunities.  It’s a time to evolve and engage—not withdraw and avoid.  That’s what Al-Qaeda is trying to do; pretend all these changes are not happening and that it can be stopped.  It can’t.

The book discusses issues that are fronts in which we should be engaged: the battle against sexual slavery, the infiltration of radical materialism into theology, the challenge of urbanization, trans-national terrorism, and abuse of the environment, but these new fronts should be challenges we face head-on, instead of demonizing all the changes as bad because many of the changes that are also occurring are good.

Q: Since the book has come out, we’ve entered into a big recession.  Did that dampen your enthusiasm?

A major economic downturn is something I predicted and wrote about in Passport of Faith in 2002 while my wife was pregnant (it was eventually published in 2006).  I wrote:

“Since our current era is one of economic interdependence, with the United States as the primary engine of growth, ultimately, the whole world is more economically dependent.  At the time of this writing, the global economy is very much dependent on the U.S. consumer and on cheap goods made in China.  If indebted U.S. consumers reduce their spending, there would be an adverse effect on the Chinese economy, which would spread to other regions as well.  A global recession or even depression could result.  The financial success of globalization is much more fragile than market experts would lead us to believe.”(271-272).

The kind or rapid integration we were experienced was matched by hubris which led to a lot of poor choices by governments and consumers.  This was mostly inevitable. There’s always a belief in times like these that the old economic rules do not apply anymore.  What was not inevitable was how long this delusion was allowed to go on.  I wrote that in 2002 and expected the crash to occur in 2003 or 2004 at the latest!  It was astounding to me that it went on until October 2008 and this bodes very badly for the future.  That was far too long to be living in an obvious bubble.

China did slow down as I was predicting, and the other emerging nations like Russia, India, and Brazil slowed down as well. 

Q: Before we talk about what you got wrong, what did you get right?

I had not looked at the book since it was published.  After receiving your question, I took a look at it again. I really think all of the chapters hold up very well, if I can be allowed to say that.  I think that’s because I understand globalization can be counter-intuitive, and straight-line projections of the future are almost always wrong. An example of a bad, straight-line projection would be:  “Muslims have a high birth-rate in Europe right now and are going to take over Europe and be the dominant majority in 50 years.”  Nope.  There are many other variables to consider and the future throws more obvious curveballs than that.  For instance, Muslims can secularize too, Islamic parties can dampen radicalism, birthrates are falling even in Southern Asia let alone in Europe, and 4% is not high enough to become 50% very soon. 

 I avoid that kind of thinking in Faith in the Future and Passport of Faith and that’s why I think both of my first 2 books are really standing the test of time well. 

The most important thing is that globalization really is raising living standards across the board.  As I predicted in the book (page 32), the divide between rich and poor was going to grow substantially (and it has), but the number of people living in absolute poverty is consistently declining at a rate it never has before in human history.  The poor are getting wealthier at a faster rate than they ever have, and millions are being raised out of absolute poverty.  Life expectancy rates are up, disease is down, and people are living better than ever before—that includes the poorest of the poor.  I think I make a joke somewhere about all the Christian apocalyptic doomsayers.  If the end of the world is coming soon, it really doesn’t look too bad.  Every period in history looked more like the Book of Revelation than this one.  People in every century would rather live now.  The planet is in a remarkably peaceful period and things would have to get catastrophically bad to get back to even the level of chaos, sickness, disease and warfare of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Maybe that will happen one day, but it’s certainly not happening now.   We can read about all the world’s problems and see them on CNN, Twitter, Facebook etc. in real time; but imagine having that capability during the War of Religions in the 18th Century or World War II, or the era of conquest in the 16th Century.  The world would look far more bloody and painful than today. 

Other things: In the book, I predicted Africa would continue to grow and it really has.  Now there are even African banks that are becoming global players and African billionaires starting philanthropic organizations.  There are African low-cost carriers, and there are quite a few countries that are democratic and peaceful. The cell phone really has proven to be a game-changer as has Chinese investment in the region.  Even though some have considered this a new era of colonialism, I think that the rise of African NGO’s and watch-dog groups is a really healthy sign.  I got to see some of this new emerging middle class on my last trip to Africa and it is amazing.  Rents can be as high as $5,000 for an apartment in some African cities.  I saw some modest, one-level homes in Zambia that were renting for $2,000 a month.

I also suggested in both books that Islamic fundamentalism was really the only significant anti-globalization movement at the moment—and one that is highly dependent on globalization.  That is still true.  It’s the only one that has an ideology that mobilizes many people to resist modernization.  It’s interesting to note that the other religions really aren’t putting up much of a fight.  There are reasons for that.

I think one of the most important statements in the whole book at this juncture (in the year 2013) is on page 32.  After discussing how the world’s poor have benefitted dramatically from globalization in many concrete ways, I wrote that:

“the majority of the world’s poor may not, however, have access to good medical services, education or capital, and that remains a serious concern and an area where Christians can focus their efforts.” 

This was, in fact, the main reason for the riots in Brazil last month.  The more people climb out of absolute poverty, and the more the middle class grows, the more they begin to demand of their government in services and quality of life issues as we see in China with the environmental groups that are rising.  “Why don’t the buses run on time?” “Why isn’t all of this wealth going into schools for my kids?” “Why is our air and water so bad?”  It’s a good sign, but it’s the next battle-field.  The new global middle-class will be making huge demands on their governments. 

Q: What things did you get wrong?

I used Vietnam as an example of a developing nation seeing rapid Christian growth.  This was mostly happening amongst the minorities in the North, but still, I was expecting them to take the stage by now.  I had been to Vietnam a couple of times and was extremely impressed with the level of commitment I saw.  I thought that this was a good country to highlight.  In hindsight, I might have chosen another one, like Mongolia.  If I wanted to highlight the complexities of a new country with a high population of Christians taking the global stage, Nigeria would have been good for that chapter.

Another thing is that I really thought all of us would be talking about the bio-tech revolution a lot more by now.  Even though it seems like we are approaching the day where we will be able to monitor our health all the time and move more toward preventive care, this has been slower than I expected.  However—it is coming, and I think it may make a lot of our debates about health care a moot point.  We will scale down technology, prices will become more competitive, and healthcare will be more readily available.

The biggest thing I would change is I would add more to Chapter 9 which deals with the dangers of transnational terrorism.  I would leave it in tact because it will continue to stay with us and we haven’t seen the worst yet, but I would also add that we have overreacted to the threat of terrorism.  The smartest thing the US and other nations could have done after September 11th was intentionally cool our economies (the central banks all knew it was overheated and so did the banks), and imposed a tax to pay down the enormous national debts which are dangerous in times of upheaval.  The Chinese have 4 trillion dollars saved up for a rainy day--most raised since September 11th.  The U.S., Europe and Japan have zero saved up.  Everyone would have been willing to pay in those days, and it would have enabled us to beat Islamic fascism where it counts: on the economic battlefield raising living standards in our country and around the world. 

Instead we fought a 21st Century post-modern assymetrical war, in a modern way, against a pre-modern enemy.  Huge miscalculation!   

I would re-write that chapter and show how we actually reacted more calmly during the Cold War (with 3 thousand nuclear missiles aimed at us) than we have to September 11th.  The way the British handled I.R.A. terrorism in the 1970’s and 1980’s and the London bombing in 2005 is something we could have learned from.  I was glad to see that American responded more calmly to the Boston Marathon bombings.  That kind of constant level of panic and fear is exhausting for a country and can’t be sustained over a long period of time.

Any new predictions for the future?

I’ve been predicting for a long time that China is not going to supplant the USA as the premier super-power, but rather will turn out to be an underperformer.  Nobody has really believed that, but it’s happening now.  The amount of talented people emigrating away from China, the amount of bad loans in the banking system, the corruption, the poor educational system, the abysmal air and water quality, the aging population, the cancer causing diet with poor healthcare, the imbalanced ratio of men to women all bode badly for the future.  I think it will level off and it started to last year.  I do not see the average Chinese person’s GDP surpassing the USA in this century.

I also think we haven’t seen the worst of the global recession.  I’m continuing to predict that we are probably not even at the half-way mark.  This is about a fundamental re-ordering of the global economy and the mess that was created between 1991-2008—an era of what I call hyper-capitalism.  It cannot be fixed in a mere 10 years.  It will take a generation and the invention of new sectors of the economy and a re-education of the work force.  It will be a long, long, drawn out process.  The news will continually suggest that it’s almost over and base things on stocks, but the stock market is mostly irrelevant at this point.  It’s become unhinged from reality.  The new economy will have an abundance of low wage jobs and jobs that require specialized skills that the average person doesn’t have.  This will be a problem until a lot of fundamentals are re-ordered

I also predict that organized, institutional religion in the United States will stagnate for a generation.  The country tends to become more secular during crisis periods—which is odd.  For most countries it’s the other way around.  But I don’t think we are headed toward a post-Christian America.  Neither do I think America has seen its best days.  We are actually in a down-period that will last a generation and set the stage for better economic days and more religious growth in the future.  I think the generation that are currently toddlers now will be a generation that takes religion very, very seriously.  But that’s the subject of my next book, so that’s all I will say now.




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