Alumni Conference on Globalization - Grand Rapids, MI

by Paula Olearnik

As is now becoming custom at Acton events, the real work of the first Alumni conference on Globalization was taking place behind the official setting of lectures and elective-panels. It was happening in the dining room, the corridors, and the lounge. Discussion. Wherever you went, you found people talking. There were students cornering speakers with the questions they hadn't asked in lectures, there was animated banter on topical political issues such as the E.U. constitution and third world poverty, sometimes you would even chance upon a heated discussion on philosophical definitions of human anthropology. The point is, for every word we heard spoken about globalization; many more were exchanged outside the lecture theaters.

This may not appear remarkable in itself, but consider the fact that of the 53 participants of the globalization conference there were representatives of 11 countries, including Kenya, Nigeria, Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina, Austria, Spain, and England. Calculate further, that this conference was run simultaneously with another four conferences to make up the Acton Symposium, and you get some idea of the richness and value of the post-lecture debates. There was a wealth of different perspectives of age, culture, profession and Christian denomination and by sharing our experiences and opinions with one another; there was truly a sense that we were engaging with globalization on a personal as well as an intellectual level.

But what was feeding all these spontaneous and unconstrained dialogues? Our preparations began at home with the reading of Samuel Huntingdon's The Clash of Civilizations and Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Both texts tried to sell us their own prophetic vision of the new post cold-war world. Their prophecies differed; Huntingdon argued that globalization would cause cultural walls to go up higher; Friedman claimed that it would eventually bring them down. What was clear from reading both these texts however was how confused and diverse our understandings of the term globalization really are. Huntingdon and Freidman examined globalization as social and economic phenomena - but neither of them afforded more than a cursory glance to its philosophical and religious dimensions. It is for this reason that we began our alumni conference, as we had begun our student conferences, with Dr. Samuel Gregg and a plethora of definitions.

It was important for the participants to begin to categorize globalization under various headings - economic, social, and technological - but it was even more important to see it from the perspective of human anthropology. What was lacking in Huntington and Friedman’s accounts, was man. How could we begin to describe how the world would or should be ordered without looking closely at human nature and human dignity? Of course, in this doing we naturally came to reflect upon God as the author of that nature and dignity. With this foundation in place, we then came to examine various practical issues related to globalization such as International Law, Global Economics and World Poverty. In the evening panel sessions, when we joined with the other Symposium participants, there were also several opportunities to reflect upon the interplay between business and faith, between economic growth and the Christian vocation. These proved to be highly relevant to our discussion of globalization in which the relationship between religious observance, social mores and business conduct was a central issue. Indeed it related to the wider question of the Christian contribution to a globalizing world. Is globalization something that we, as Christians, should be fighting for or against?

Globalization is often considered a dirty word by Christians. Like pollution, it is thought to contaminate a pristine world with the toxins of consumerism, materialism, brutal and exploitative capitalism while felling the age-old forests of culture, tradition and religion. But, the Acton conference proved that true globalization can simply mean, to continue the environmental analogy, cross-fertilization. To charge globalization with immorality is to confuse a tool with its wielder. Although the axe can be a deadly weapon in the hands of a murder is becomes a valuable instrument in the hands of the lumberjack. And globalization, though it can have negative effects when misused, became a valuable instrument for cross-cultural and cross-denominational enrichment in the hands of Fr. Sirico and company.