Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Sources of Depth in Hallowed Secularism

8/7/2007--A few years ago, Thomas Friedman, the columnist for the New York Times, wrote an influential best-seller entitled, The World is Flat.[1] The book is about globalization, which is increasingly interconnecting the world. Trade barriers are down, political tensions are lessening, technical advances are reducing the importance of distance. It is increasingly possible to do business anywhere, at any time. India and China are big winners in the new world and many economic opportunities are being created. Culture and knowledge, Friedman writes in a later updated version of the book, are increasingly generated from the bottom up, through contacts made possible in the virtual world. Humankind is, more and more, one enormous community.

It is clear that Friedman considers these trends basically beneficent and in any event unstoppable. It is unfortunate that the same forces that allow music and information to spread unimpeded around the world also assist terrorists in spreading their message and that a young person can now become a virtual-world prostitute in his home, but nothing can be done to prevent that. Whether we like it or not, Americans and everyone else will have to get used to this new, flat world.

In a later blog entry, I will return to the power of technology and the ways it is changing the world. Certainly, there are good things about this trend, as well as negative. But here, I want to point out that the most significant aspect of this new world is not that it is fast and interconnected, but that it is “flat.”

The title of Friedman’s book is one of those instances in which something intended for one purpose is turned to a quite different purpose. As Joseph says to his brothers after they have arranged for him to be kidnapped to Egypt, only to have him emerge as a powerful political force there in a position to save the family during famine, “you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good… .”[2]

Friedman meant flat as in unimpeded. But he is describing a secular world that is flat also in the sense of lacking meaning. As reviewers of the book have pointed out, religion plays little or no role in Friedman’s book except that of irrational impediment to globalization. But no other sources of meaning come into play either. The book is about the new techniques for the transfer of information. In other words, we have more capacity to speak to each other and less to say.

Friedman’s title is a helpful symbol. The secular world is flat. That is what’s wrong with it. It lacks depth. It lacks insight into the meaning of human life.

[1] The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2005).
[2] Genesis 50:20.

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