The World to Come: From Christian Past to Global Future by Lloyd Geering
Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002). Published by Polebridge Press, 1999, Santa Rosa, California and by Bridget Williams Books Ltd, Wellington, New Zealand, 1999. This material was edited for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 7: A Post Christian Future
Whatever our future in the western world, it has already been partly shaped by the Christian tradition. Indeed, the post-Christian age we are now entering owes its very existence to the Christian civilization of the last two thousand years. The structures of the Christian church may have little or no part to play in the years ahead, but the world we live in will remain deeply influenced by Christianity, its beliefs, customs, and culture. This means, first, that the post-Christian age is to be clearly distinguished from the pre-Christian age (which Christians often referred to as pagan). Secondly, it means that the post-Christian era is not necessarily anti-Christian (as many Christians are inclined to judge it), and we can legitimately speak of a Christian ‘stream of influence’ continuing within it. 1 But how does this influence manifest itself? First we shall discuss the future of conventional Christianity in the post-Christian world.
Organized Christianity in the form of an ecclesiastical institution has already been greatly fragmented. Church structures will continue to multiply in number and to become smaller. There is no longer any place for a national church or an international ecclesiastical organization which is monolithic and authoritarian. The coming decades may well see the sudden disintegration of the Roman Catholic Church which, because of the central power wielded by the Vatican, has been described as the last great absolutist empire. The pronouncements of the Pope no longer receive from all Catholics the unquestioning and obedient response they traditionally did.
Yet the mainline churches, including Roman Catholicism, will be active for quite some time, carried along by the momentum of past centuries. These churches will increasingly depend on their inherited capital and real estate, until these resources are exhausted. More seminaries will close their doors, and it will be hard to meet any residual demand for a properly trained, professional clergy.
Ultimately there will be no need for a priesthood or ordained ministry. In the post-Christian era divine revelation is no longer seen as a source of knowledge, and the traditional organs of religious authority have become obsolete. The Word of God in the Bible, the voice of the Pope or the decisions of ecclesiastical assemblies -- all will fall more and more on deaf ears. The authority of religious leaders, like that of civil and political leaders, will depend on the emotional or intellectual appeal of what they say and not on any special gifts supposedly conferred on them by ordination. The once clear line between priesthood and laity is already blurred and will soon count for little. People no longer seek professional spiritual advice from a supposed authoritative source as they once did.
This all comes from the growth of human autonomy -- the freedom of people to think for themselves and to make their own decisions. It is not only the traditional religious institutions that are affected; there has been a rapid multiplication of social groups one may choose to join. Anecdotal evidence suggests, further, that people today are more reluctant to commit themselves permanently to any form of association -- be it a club, society, political party, church or marriage partner. Taking life-long vows was once regarded as highly virtuous. Now it may be seen as precarious and even unethical: the person one is at the present moment may not have the moral right to bind the person one has yet to become. In this age of rapid change, and with our modern understanding of the human condition, we can see how much alters in a person’s lifetime; we must remain open to what may come, and free to respond to new circumstances.
Yet, because humans are social creatures, we shall continue to value opportunities for fellowship and interpersonal activities, whether in sport, culture or spirituality. The institutions best suited for spiritual needs are those that are fluid, informal, inclusive and open to change. They must provide the fullest opportunities for people to be themselves, to participate actively and to share in decision-making. As sociologist Robert Bellah said: ‘Each individual must work out their own ultimate solutions and the most the church can do is to provide a favorable environment for doing so, without imposing on him a prefabricated set of answers.’2 But because such groups have no firm structure, they will always be more vulnerable to passing moods and fashions and will have an uncertain duration.
So what place does conventional Christianity have, in the post-Christian era we are now entering? It is no longer a community-held faith which shapes and motivates society. Instead, in its multiple forms, it is becoming one set of personal options among numerous others, including New Age religions and secular ideologies. Together they form a vast religious supermarket to which people may go when they are looking for a philosophy or way of life, and in which they are free to choose one tailored to their needs.
The more traditional practicing Christians will form part of the fundamentalist reactionary movement to be discussed further in Chapter 9. They will even grow in numbers, for their strong convictions are infectious and appear to offer some security in an otherwise frightening world. But, like the remnants of the great churches, they too will become marginalized from society and its chief decision-makers.
For most of the post-Christian world, the Bible will no longer be regarded as the Word of God, but it will continue to be of value as an historical testimony to Judeo-Christian origins and as an essential resource for the understanding of past western culture. It will take its place alongside other great religious classics from the various cultures of the past. Jesus will no longer be hailed as the savior of the world, or as a divine figure. He will stand among the great pioneering figures of the past, and his sayings and parables will continue to inspire those who take the trouble to search them out.
God will no longer be conceived widely as an objective spiritual being -- one who personally hears and answers prayers, and who guides human history from behind the scenes. God language, if used at all, will be treated as symbolic. Spiritual practices may take the form of meditation but will not be understood as conversation with an external personal being. Life in this world will be acknowledged as the only form of human existence. The expectation of conscious personal existence beyond death will gradually be abandoned.
If there is ultimately to be no authoritative ecclesiastical institution, no definitive set of doctrines and no clearly definable personal figure to hold Christianity together and promote it, it may at first appear that Christianity will simply disappear. This might well alarm even nominal Christians -- that large group who regard themselves as Christian though no longer active in the church. And this concern would be justified, for when a religious tradition ebbs away from the culture it has inspired, a spiritual vacuum is likely to emerge, leaving the society vulnerable to forces that threaten its survival.
But Christianity will not disappear without a trace. When it is understood as a ‘stream of cultural influence’, Christianity can be seen as something that already stretches far beyond its ecclesiastical institutions, and is likely to last longer than any of them. The Christian stream of influence may not be clearly identifiable as Christianity and certainly not as conventional Christianity. The Christ figure may continue as a symbol embodying various important values, such as compassion, love, and caring for one’s neighbor. The symbols, concepts, images, stories and myths of Christian origin, which remain deeply embedded in the fabric of western culture, will continue to offer the raw material from which people form their understanding of life, develop their capacity for spirituality and experience satisfaction at the deepest levels. From time to time, individuals and groups will receive fresh inspiration, and experience great delight, as they rediscover in the Bible and elsewhere the cultural treasures of the Christian past.
The decline of the old religious institutions, however, will not just open the door to a life of joyful freedom in some secular Paradise, as some are inclined to think. The great traditions of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam were, at their best, long-term civilizing forces. They were able to curb personal violence and anti-social behavior by providing value systems and goals which were accepted widely enough to bring stability and cohesion to the societies they permeated. When these traditions recede -- as they are almost everywhere in the face of globalization -- we shall see the re-emergence of the more brutal capacities of the human condition, which have long survived beneath the veneer of civilization.
Thus social unrest and anti-social behavior will increase in the coming decades. There will be heightened calls for a return to the religious or ethnic cultures of the past and for the re-introduction of stricter controls backed up by force from a higher authority. Considerable criticism will be directed towards all forms of liberalism. The Enlightenment, which opened the way to secularization, will be blamed for our current predicament. There is some truth in pointing to the Enlightenment as the door to the modern world and its freedoms, but, as with the opening of Pandora’s box, there can be no return to the pre-Enlightenment conditions, except by harsh and repressive measures.
As conventional Christianity is ending, I have chosen to look first at its place in our post-Christian future and to differentiate it from the continuing stream of Christian influence. But what happens to Christianity is no longer the primary question. Far more crucial is the future of the world itself (Perhaps the church should never have become concerned with its own future or that of Christianity, for it was the imminent future of the world that concerned the first Christians.) No nation, religion or culture can contemplate its future in isolation: as the west leaves Christendom behind, the whole world is entering a new age. All of humankind is being forced to think and act globally. The most important issues before us now (or one could refer to them as the chief religious questions) are these: what is to be the future of humankind in the post-Christian world? What is to be the future of planet earth?
The shape of the coming post-Christian world is therefore important not only to Christians. It is too often assumed (even by many who no longer have any explicit allegiance to the Christian tradition) that the values and social institutions of our cultural past will continue into the future in much the same form. This is very unlikely. As the west emerges out of Christendom, countries across the world are moving into a more unstable and unpredictable situation. The new cultural forces which have emanated from the west and which are causing the decay of traditional Christianity also threaten the future of the other great post-Axial traditions.
We are now aware, as never before, that human history has no predetermined plan. The beliefs that the earth was created especially for humankind, and that human history is providentially controlled by a divine planner, are obsolete (even though they are stoutly defended in some quarters). For all practical purposes, we humans are alone in the universe, and face an unknown and uncertain future. Further, while each of us has some small degree of choice within the tiny micro-world of our personal life, the changes going on in the human mega-world around us are not being planned or controlled even by humans. The ongoing process of planetary life and of cultural change is rushing on like a driverless juggernaut.
All this is clearly reflected in the contemporary school of thought known as post-modernism, which stands at the opposite end of the spectrum from the fundamentalists and anti-modernists. While the term ‘post-modernity’ is sometimes used as a non-judgmental description of today’s intellectual climate, post-modernism refers broadly to the ideological rejection of modernism as the way forward. Some forms of post-modernism are destructive of all unified world views; they deconstruct, or eliminate altogether, such basic terms as God, self, purpose, meaning, reality. Other kinds of post-modernism attempt to be more constructive. But all varieties of postmodernism share a critical distrust of modernity, and a conviction that the deficiencies in modernity cannot be rectified by reviving the pre-modern age. They see modernism as the legacy of the Enlightenment, with its absolute faith in human reason and its supreme confidence that human endeavor can steadily make progress towards an ultimate goal which promises final knowledge and complete human fulfillment. Post-modernists have become disillusioned with modernism and believe it now to be necessary to go beyond the individualism, scientism, mechanization, consumerism and militarism which have been the fruits of modernity.
Post-modernism rejects the modernist goal of building a new world on the basis of science, reason and human endeavor. In this, it is the anti-ideology of our time, announcing the end of ideology and even the end of history. There is no one true and absolute human history; there is no one definitive Universe Story which can unite all humankind into one global society. Literary critic Terry Eagleton wrote in 1987: ‘Post-modernism signals the death of "meta-narratives". Science and philosophy must jettison their grandiose metaphysical claims and view themselves more modestly as just another set of narratives.’3
Post-modernism signals the triumph of the subjective over the objective. Modernism, having celebrated the end of the eternal cosmic order, now finds itself unstable and impermanent as a working philosophy. Some see the emergence of post-modernism as a shift in human consciousness just as radical as the shift from mediaevalism to modernism. It is reflected in the way we use language and the new use we give to older words -- talking. for example, about spirituality instead of religion. Instead of being self-confident explorers of a mysterious external world, we first set out to find ourselves: that is, to find out who we are. Post-modernism is indifferent to consistency and continuity. It questions whether we can have strong beliefs in anything at all, for nothing lasts for ever. All our social structures, like so many of our artifacts, are here today and gone tomorrow.
Nowhere is the transition from modernism to post-modernism more visible than in the evolution of physics during the twentieth century. Modernism developed on the basis of the Newtonian universe, conceived as a complex inanimate machine, operating in absolute space and absolute time according to its own internal laws, which were also believed to be eternal and absolute.4 Understanding this ‘natural world’ was the key to everything; physicists set about uncovering the laws by which the physical world operates; Adam Smith looked for the natural laws by which the economy operates; Darwin thought he had discovered, in the law of natural selection, the origin of species. Later scientists such as Stephen Hawking are still hoping to arrive at what they call a unified ‘Theory of Everything’.
The end of the Newtonian view of reality may be said to date from 1900, when Max Planck laid the foundations of quantum physics, the concepts that introduced us to indeterminism, uncertainty and human subjectivity. No one had any idea at the time of the far-reaching significance of this, and its role in the end of modernity. The discovery of quantum physics led in turn to Einstein’s theories, sub-atomic physics and a new way of understanding reality. For example, quantum physicist David Bohm speculated in his 1954 textbook that there may be some relationship between quantum processes and thought processes.5 He later became convinced of what he called the ‘unbroken wholeness’ of reality, asserting: ‘The primary emphasis is now on undivided wholeness, in which the observing instrument is not separable from what is observed.’6 He believed that our way of seeing reality as fragmented bits with their own independent existence is an illusion, and he coined the term ‘implicate order’ to refer to this undivided wholeness. Claiming that we falsify reality if we divide it into mind and matter, into living and non-living, he said: ‘consciousness (which we take to include thought, feeling, desire, will etc.) is to be comprehended in terms of the implicate order, along with reality as a whole’.7 Thus the randomness of sub-atomic elements may be linked with the creative freedom exercised by human consciousness.
Today we are being forced to rethink the nature and origin of the universe, the nature of the human condition and the nature of scientific enterprise. Only by excluding ourselves and our consciousness from the universe can we think of it as a lifeless thing. Once we acknowledge that we are not just in the universe but a part of the universe, then the universe itself must be conceived of as alive -- as we are. And because we are part of the universe and think, the universe has the capacity for thought.
One hundred years ago there was such confidence in science that it seemed set to uncover the last secrets of the universe. Today the mood of the scientific community is much more modest. Indeed, each addition to reliable knowledge has tended to uncover more mystery and complexity. The influential philosopher of science, Karl Popper (1902-1994), has convincingly argued that science does not prove to us what is true: its real strength is to show us what is false. Even Stephen Hawking has conceded that if we did work out a Theory of Everything there would be no way of proving that it were true.
Thus science is no longer the objective activity we took it to be, uncovering the hidden eternal truth of the universe (an idea which goes back to Plato). Science is a human enterprise, which is never free from human limitation. Physics is increasingly dependent on such skills as mathematics, itself a human creation. What we assumed to be the laws of nature, which we humans cleverly discovered, turn out to be human judgements based on observation, experiment and measurement. They are continually open to revision and must be regarded as probabilities rather than as certainties. Thanks to Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Ernest Rutherford and many others, we now find that physical matter is not the static, inanimate and stable stuff we had assumed it to be. The stuff of which the real world is composed is dynamic in the extreme. Every atom is a fuzzy little cloud of incredible energy and movement. And just as matter is not solid and indestructible, so our knowledge of physical reality is not certain and infallible. Even about quantum physics itself there is no finality. Already there is some theoretical difficulty in reconciling quantum physics with chaos theory, which began to develop rapidly in the 1980s.
Of one thing we can be sure: the absolute laws of nature on which modernism was based are no more. We continue to observe the regularities of cause and effect, which the humanly constructed laws of nature were intended to encapsulate; but we are also much more aware of how many natural events seem to occur through sheer chance. The universe in which we find ourselves appears to be a mystifying mixture of both chance and necessity, to use the words of Jacques Monod.8
The way we now apprehend the world (and understand our uncertainty in it). though based on western thought, has an impact far beyond the geographic boundaries of western civilization. This is why the post-Christian and post-modern future is relevant to the world at large and not just to the west. Over the last 400 years the western world has influenced the rest of humankind (either to its advantage or disadvantage) more than any other civilization. As Samuel Huntington has said: ‘The West inaugurated the processes of modernization and industrialization that have become worldwide, and as a result societies in all other civilizations have been attempting to catch up with the West in wealth and modernity.’9 Today the old western assumption that Christendom would eventually envelop the world is no more likely than the idea of global Islam or Buddhism. However, in its spread around the world, the west did much to bring the modern global world into being. Thus the demise of Christendom, followed by the dissipation of the Christian tradition, will have a direct effect on the whole globe.
Trying to see what the future holds has become such a feature of twentieth century thought that it has earned a title of its own. The earliest form of futurology was science fiction, which usually anticipated the future with pleasurable amazement. This literature has been more than just a new form of entertainment. Like the apocalyptic writings of New Testament times, it has stretched the imagination and inspired great confidence in the future. But, whereas in ancient times the apocalyptic writers expected God to usher in the new world, the first science fiction authors described a future created by human invention. Readers were encouraged to believe in the power of human ingenuity, a power that repeatedly overcame all future problems by scientific discovery and technological expertise. Some of the best examples, such as H.G. Well’s Time Machine (1895) and War of the Worlds (1898), became classics. The genre has continued in cinema and video with such popular epics as Star Wars. Not all science fiction, however, is optimistic. Some writers, such as Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), struck an early cautionary note.
Futurology has now grown into a widespread industry for more practical purposes: looking into the future has become an essential part of social and economic planning. Some notable books have been written in this field: The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973) by Daniel Bell, The Third Wave (1980) by Alvin Toffler, The Fate of the Earth (1982) by Jonathan Schell, and The Green Machines (I98~) by Nigel Calder. But the attempt to forecast the shape of the future and the post-Christian world is fraught with difficulty. Chaos theory now helps us to understand how small and unknown factors can be instrumental in causing significant change in natural phenomena. Weather forecasting can be seriously astray even 24 hours ahead. Economic forecasting is even more problematic, for it is dependent on the uncertain factors of human choice and idiosyncrasy. How much harder it is, therefore, to look into the general human future when events and trends reflect countless billions of personal choices.
Let no one think that the coming century will present a utopia unfolding smoothly before us. Just as the great religious traditions emerged from their ethnic origins only through confusion, conflict, controversy and even violence, so it will be in the century to come. This has the potential to be the most creative and glorious century yet in human culture. But it also has the potential to be the most violent and destructive period in the long history of humankind.
The human species currently consists of some six billion individuals spread around the globe in millions of groups large and small, all focused on their own affairs without much concept of any ultimate goal, or the value of their contribution. No wonder human expectations about the shape of the future have been considerably shaken during the twentieth century.
The best we can do, in attempting to imagine the twenty-first century, is to assess the current trends in the fast-changing human cultures. As John Naisbitt has observed in Megatrends (1982), most trends are found to be interconnected and part of a worldwide process; most also occur over a period and without fanfare. If they do produce an obvious crisis (for example, the French Revolution), we usually find that the forces at work have been present for some time. Cultural change normally creeps up on us relatively unnoticed. Only when we look back can we identify patterns and turning points. That is the case with the end-times discussed in the early part of this book, and it is why so many are still unaware of what has been happening. So what matters in the coming century is not what occurs (or fails to occur) on 1 January 2000 but how the years unfold thereafter.
The most dominant trend today, and the one we must look at first, is globalization. This will not be experienced everywhere as an unqualified blessing, and it may well lead to a testing period for the human species.
1. See Chapter 5.
2. Robert Bellah, Beyond Belief pp. 43-44.
3. Quoted in David Harvey, The Condition of Post-modernity p. 9.
4. See Chapter 6.
5. David Bohm, Quantum Theory.
6. David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, p. 134.
7. Ibid., p. 196.
8. See Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity.
9. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, p. 302.