Flat World Faith

December 29th, 2006

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The world is flat.
Using fiber-optic cables, advanced compression technologies, and aeronautical work force software, Boeing has set up a twenty-four hour ‘round-the-world workday (two shifts in Russia and one in America). In Russia 1,000 engineers, formerly with different Russian aircraft companies like Ilyusian, Tupelov and Sukhoi, pass engineering plans back and forth with American engineers to produce the most cost-effective aircraft. This new competitive workplace is why Thomas Friedman says the world is flat.1 It’s why drive-through orders at twelve McDonald’s franchises in Missouri are handled in Colorado Springs, where the workforce is cheaper.2  The world is within reach; and the winners are those who are most competitive.

The twenty-first century religious landscape also resembles a flat world. A half-century ago, C.S. Lewis recognized the world was shifting toward a competitive, post-Christian stance. The tipping point was the 1893 Parliament of Religions held in Chicago, when many Americans for the first time became aware of competing faiths including Islam. The most dynamic figure was Swami Vivekananda, who brought “the all-religions-are-one message of his master Sri Ramakrishna.”3 Eighteen years later, at Cherbourg School, a young C.S. Lewis fell under the influence of one of Vivekananda’s disciples, an instructor named Miss Cowie. She was introducing New Age spirituality and describing a “flat” world where every faith – and any faith or no faith – was equally true. It was a wide-open planet of competitive religions. Whatever vestiges of adolescent faith Lewis had when he entered school were flattened under her spiritual subterfuge.

When as an adult Lewis embraced orthodox Christianity, he was in a better position than most to understand the implications of a flattened world. Beginning in the 1800s, the gospel had been shrinking into a privatized message about the state of our souls and How To Get To Heaven. But in a flat world, everyone assumes everyone goes to heaven. Furthermore, everyone assumes all religions are equal – and exist on a level plane. Third, we’ve become more aware of world religions in our flat world. There’s even an Islamic Study Center in my neighborhood. Kids take tours through it year-round. I never heard of Islam while I was growing up. In the flat world, it’s a wide open competitive environment that “appears to be one of confrontation between the world’s major religious systems… Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and humanism.”4

Confrontation might not be the best word. I think it’s more of a free market competition. And this is where C.S. Lewis offered a flat world faith. He embraced a gospel that could compete by better explaining life 24/7/365: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”5 In such books as Mere Christianity, Lewis highlighted the explanatory power of the gospel: (1) Creation – how things ought to be, (2) the Fall – what the real world is like as a result of our shortcomings, (3) Redemption – what we can do to make things better, and (4) the Final Restoration – what things will be like some day when life is fully restored. Lewis embraced a “four-chapter” gospel that can compete in the flat world.

This “four-chapter” gospel enjoys broad bandwidth that can engage any and every conversation. Take, for example, a recent effort to outlaw the Pledge of Allegiance. Jason Ball, student-trustee at California’s Orange Coast College backed a successful motion to ban the Pledge of Allegiance from student-government meetings because it’s rooted in Christianity (too narrow and intolerant) and offends atheists. Ball’s alternative pledge reads as follows: “While it’s great to be an American, and I’m proud to be an American, yadda-yadda-yadda, and I appreciate all the rituals, I’m done.”
In a flat world, Christians need a competitive faith that can “find words to express the common values of the West whose origins may be religious, in terms that are graspable by those who no longer go through the doors of churches or synagogues.” We need a faith that can “express these originally religious concepts in non-religious ways.”6 Granted, most of us will never be as articulate as C.S. Lewis. But when we connect Sunday to Monday – our faith to our work in specific ways – we demonstrate the explanatory power of the gospel and compete in a flat world.

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1 Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).
2 Ibid, pp.40-41
3 Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), p.39
4 Douglas Birdall is a member of the Lausanne Committee and studies new ways for Christianity to make sense in the twenty-first century. C.f., Christianity Today, October 2006, p.65
5 C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Harper Collins publishers, 1980), p.140
6 “North Atlantic Community, European Community: Divergent paths and common values in Old Europe and the United States,” a speech delivered by Michael Novak for the F.A. Hayek Foundation in Bratislava, Slovakia on July 3, 2003.

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