"What in the world is going on? That's a question I began asking myself in the late 1950s and early'60s. More fully, the question was, "Is Western Christian Civilization just passing through some minor changes after which life will return to more familiar normalcy; or is the Western world in the midst of some sort of long term existential shift?" said William Van Wishard in his talk to the Westminster Forum.
Wishard is the head of World-Trend Research, a Washington Consultancy that specializes in analysis and synthesis of global trends. He has long-standing ties to the College of William & Mary.
In his address, he recalled that in 1962, he had the privilege of visiting with President Eisenhower. In their conversation, Eisenhower took the view that America and the West had come to the end of an historic period, and a new phase of life was opening up. By coincidence, that same year Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic presidential candidate, gave a speech at Columbia University in which he expressed a similar opinion.
"It is increasingly clear that America and the world are not just facing a few critical problems after which we'll return to a familiar normalcy. We appear to be at some major junction in human affairs," Wishard said.
He quoted Sir Fred Hoyle, an eminent British astronomer, who postulated that once a photograph of Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let lose. It happened in 1969. A photograph taken from the moon provided a new perspective for humanity.
"For the first time in history, the world has been in the process of forging an awareness of our existence as a single entity. Nations are incorporating the planetary dimensions of life into the fabric of their economics, politics, culture and international relations. The shorthand for this is 'globalization"" Wishard said.
He believes that as a result of the evolving global system, the full scope of Western ideas and modes of living are gradually seeping into the fabric of the world. In turn, many of the cultural and spiritual expressions of the rest of the world are seeping into the fabric of the West.
"As this happens, existing cultures, traditions, institutions and historic relationships are threatened In essence, globalization is about identity," he said.
Wishard noted that the first signs of globalization appeared in the 15th century when the Portuguese sailed down the West coast of Africa and began incorporating vast areas and land into the Portuguese empire. They were soon followed by the Spanish, Italian, Dutch and British.
"When major events occur, it takes time to integrate the meaning of it into our world view, to discern and absorb its significance. As the Economist magazine asked, "Is the speed of technology development exceeding humanity's moral and mental capacities to understand and control it? In my opinion, if pursued wisely and cooperatively, globalization represent the world's best chance to enrich the lives of the greatest number of people," he said.
Wishard pointed to India and Malaysia as prime examples of how globalization can benefit a nation. But he warned that there are inherent challenges in globalization, "It represent a shrinking of the globe that requires us to expand our worldview and sense of identity. Such an expansion of outlook happened before in America. At the time of the American Revolution, most people found their identity in relations to the state they lived in - Georgia, Virginia or Massachusetts, but not with something called the United States."
He claims that a similar process is taking place today, only on worldwide scale and at a far more rapid pace. "We may be experiencing the fledgling beginnings of what might be called a global awareness or identity. But there's a reaction. People feel a threat to an older and more habitual identity. In a time of upheaval and reorientation, people reach inward for the security of past certainties, both culturally and spiritually.
"Thus, in my view, we are confronted not so much with a crisis between civilizations as some have said, but a crisis within civilizations In the end, the test of globalization is a spiritual, not technical, challenge."
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.