Our world can be characterized by the word ‘change’. We live in a world that is in constant change. Change has been characteristic of every age and every society. Civilization has moved from agriculture as the primary form of labour to the factory and industry as the principal area of human labour. Then there has been the change from the factory to the ‘white collared’ labour of salespersons, administrators, educators, communications, engineers, computer specialists, and so forth.
We look at change in population growth. The past century has been tremendous population growth. At the start of the previous century there were about 19 cities with over a million inhabitants. By 1960 there were 141 cities with the same situation and at the turn of the century this figure has more than doubled, nearly tripled.
Transportation too has seen immense change. From the camel that traveled at around 15kms an hour many centuries ago, or various species in the animal world to the chariot and cart with the invention of the wheel around 1600 BCE the speed of travel increased from 15kms to 30 kms an hour. The first steam locomotive introduced in 1825, with a basic speed of 20kms an hour has reached speeds of over 200kms an hour. The kinds and qualities of cars have seen a dramatic change in speed, style, size, and fuel. Airplanes changed the means and time of transportation. While reaching the moon was a dream for so long, it became a reality that today it seems that even Mars is quite reachable.
Communication has been another area where we have seen vast change. From the oral word, to the written word, to the air waves in radio and television; from Morse code to the simple telephone, to the cordless technology and now to cellular phones and further to cell phones with digital imaging, and the change goes on. The internet and web world have brought communication to a new height. Thus we can communicate with each other through satellite, standard and cable television, radio, standard and cellular phones (with more and more complex features), fax machines, e-mail, pagers, and modems, infrared facilities.
Similarly we can take so many facets of human life from our dwellings, the appliances we use, the way we live, the food we eat, the dress we wear, the literature we read, the films and the means we use to entertain ourselves, there is an amazing amount of change all around us. That change occurs is beyond dispute. The process of change continues. It is worthwhile indicating some of the elements and causes of change.
First, Science and technology:- The ‘modern world’ as we know it is understood to have begun from around 1500 CE. This was the time of the beginnings of the enlightenment, the age of reason and skepticism. Our world thus came to be shaped by the development of science and technology. Science understands the way things work, technology applies scientific knowledge to practical problems. Together they have generated all kinds of extra-ordinary changes.
Second, Mobility and communication:- The effects of science and technology can be seen in the fields of mobility and communication. The automobile and the jet planes have given the average person in economically advanced countries a mobility of the most unprecedented kind. The world of direct human experience is no longer geographically confined. We can meet people, talk with them, hear their points of view, argue with them, learn from them, teach them, influence them, be influenced by them on a scale unthinkable for those whose means of transportation were limited to the horse, the sailing ship, or their own legs.
But neither are our human contacts limited any longer to the directly personal. Because of the correlative revolution in communications we have immediate access to one another through satellite and all the means of communications listed above. Ideas and opinions have countless outlets, and they circulate more freely than ever before in human history. Through that dialogue he or she is conscious more than ever before of human inter-dependence and of the challenge of building and sustaining human unity.
Third, Material and educational growth:- If increased mobility and communications are the most significant effects of the scientific and technological revolutions, those effects have become, in turn, instruments of acceleration for the same scientific and technological revolutions which produced them. Mobility and communications are two of the principal factors in material and educational growth.
Unlike those lived before us – fifty years or, indeed, fifty thousand years ago – most people in the economically and politically advanced countries of the world can take for granted those material goods that were once the constant pre-occupation and anxious concern of every man, woman, and child: adequate food, safe and comfortable shelter, sufficient clothing, basic medicines, productive work, and opportunities for leisure. We have created what some philosophers call a ‘metacosmos’ – something over and above the natural order of things given initially by God. We have taken the raw material of the world (cosmos) and given it an order and a shape beyond (meta) what was there originally. Communications have made it possible for us to know where and how our material needs can be met, and mobility makes it possible either to gain direct access to material good or to have others deliver them to us.
Educational progress is another major by-product of the scientific and technological revolutions. We are no longer limited in our choice of religious beliefs, because we are exposed to a whole range of them, because we are brought in touch with a wide spectrum of them. We are no longer limited to our own common sense wisdom or that of a small circle of family, relatives, and friends to make sense of human existence. Because we are linked in a multimedia way with the greatest minds and greatest discoveries of present and past alike.
Education is liberating in that it frees us from illusions, from decision-making based on insufficient or erroneous information, from boredom, from dependence on the senate and the tangible, from limited choice occupation and recreation, and especially from the assumption that things cannot be other than they are. Because education is liberating, politically and religiously repressive regimes always limit access to it, lest the uninformed and the powerless begin questioning the statuesque.
Thus communications make it possible to expand our narrow individual universe of human experience by putting us in touch with persons, institutions, and scientific findings that widen our range of choice and our opportunities for growth; mobility makes it possible for us to reach people and institutions, and to be reached by them, in turn, for our mutual enrichment.
The Present Situation of Ambivalence
In spite of all the progress that change brings about, we must admit that our society is characterized by a lot of ambivalence. Material and educational progress is not without ambiguity and ambivalence. As a minority of the world’s population is lifted to the heights of material satisfaction, the gap between the relatively few rich and the many poor is sharpened. We discern more clearly not only the problems left unattended, but also the many new problems such progress creates. The present situation of millions of human beings is very disturbing. All kinds of physical and psychological illness, conflicts in human relations, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, international conflicts, civil wars, increase in brutal violence, terrorist acts, suicide missions in the name of patriotism, economic crisis, ecological disasters (oil spills), pollution, contamination of food supply, of water, and of the atmosphere (global warming, the disappearance of the ozone layer), desertisation of the earth, unbalanced distribution of resources, faulty and dangerous manufactured products, high tech and violent crime of all varieties, disintegration of persons through drug addiction, infections, disease, the enormous challenge of aids, lack of fundamental resources, and so on.
The Presence of a Powerful System at Work
Today theological reflection, especially in third world countries, realize that there is a powerful system at work. This is an evil system, the root cause of the massive poverty and misery on our planet. Theologians and sociologists call it the neo-liberal system. This system makes an idol of the goods of the market and its laws, hoping that this goods will bring salvation to the world. However, it is a fact that, year after year, the situation of the poor keeps becoming worse and unbearable. For example:- We have seen the collapse of the Asian markets that promised so much, but then collapsed. The same is true in South America. The multinational companies that made themselves gods, like Enron, have collapsed, leaving their workers and shareholders even more in debt and misery. In India we have seen the government undertaking like UTC that promised so much but did not deliver rather resulted in more misery.
This neo-liberal system, apparently, is not against religion. However, in reality, it is so in a double way. First, it is in fact anti-religion as it favours a bourgeois religion, a religion of the wealthy, which deprives human conscience of its critical sense. It favours a sacramental and festive consumerism without any prophetic or apocalyptic dimension. This kind of religion is obsessed by the search of self-realisation and individual salvation, without any social or political reference (the New Age, the new church of science attracting the rich and famous, the sects in the United States of America and now in Asia, the groups in the church too). Second, it is anti-religious because it creates in many people such a self-centeredness, which does not allow them to feel the need of the mystery of transcendence, creating in them an attitude of indifference and unbelief. This neo-liberalism is against religion precisely because it creates a type of ‘self’ that is closed in its own world. It shut out the other, the cry of the poor, the needs of the victimised, etc.
The Challenge of Globalization
Globalization is the coming together of nations and cultures in a new way, either to live together, work together, share commerce and economics in production, or even to defend each other (example:- Italy or Ireland and the mixture of people and races in these countries; the economics of sheep farming and orange production; the manufacture of goods in China and India for multinational companies; the creation of new axis to fight terrorism). It is true that globalization is bringing challenging new possibilities, as new ways of living together in solidarity emerge. However, this same fact of globalization carries with it a certain threat too and could become a vehicle of a new kind of totalitarianism, a unified fundamentalism, capable of destroying the different cultural specifications as we notice increasing racial and ethnic conflicts, criminal brutality, exploitation of the weak in this process.
A Post-modern Culture
Within our culture today we do not speak of modernism but of post-modernism. That is the time we live in. young people today are more critical today of the culture of the enlightenment, the dogmatic culture, the culture of great Cosmo-visions, as being pretentious and unfounded. The post-modernity is leading us to a culture that is less dogmatic, less simplistic, and more complex in its approach. Today commitment, stability, and tradition are questioned. ‘It depends’ is the response one hears to very deep questions (example:- euthanasia, contraception, 9/11 was it wrong?… and the response is, ‘it depends’). The amazing diffidence to commit for life in marriage or even in contracts in companies.
Fundamentalism has emerged as a major factor in the latter part of the last century. It was first seen in Protestantism, more recently is seen in Catholicism, and now in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and other religious traditions as well. The fundamentalists view religious modernists as carriers of the dreaded disease of secular modernism from the outside world. Religious modernists were regarded as more dangerous than secular modernists because they could manipulate the community’s religious symbols and practices from within. Unlike religious conservatives who are content to keep modernism at length while recommitting themselves to traditional teachings and practices, fundamentalists dig in their heels and fight back. They want to reclaim a place they feel that has been taken from them. They would restore what are presumed or claimed to be old and secure ways retrieved from a world they are losing. Fundamentalists will do what it takes to assure their future in a world of their own defining. Such a world-building endeavour requires charismatic and authoritarian leadership, as well as a disciplined inner core of staff and a larger group of sympathisers. All follow a rigorous socio-moral code that sets them apart from non-believers and from compromisers within the fold. Fundamentalists set boundaries, name and investigate enemies, seek recruits and converts, and often imitate the very forces they oppose. Fundamentalism is, in other words, a religious way of being that manifests itself as a strategy by which beleaguered believers attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people or as a group.
This is a brief presentation of the situation of our human existence and together with the good and the ambivalence the question we need to ask ourselves is, how we understand ourselves as human beings in this situation.