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 12: A Faith for the Future
Globalization is a process that cannot now be held back. With it come, however, extremely serious threats, both to the well-being of the human species and to the future of planetary life. The human species may bring about its own demise by waning with its own kind and with the planet. In this highly sophisticated, industrialized, technological civilization we possess a great deal more knowledge than the tribal cultures of the pre-Axial Period. Yet perhaps we possess less real wisdom, relative to our time. As T.S. Eliot wrote:
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
As ancient humanity slowly accumulated its knowledge, the early cultures learned to accommodate themselves to the forces and pressures of the natural environment. Contemporary humankind has now to relearn this -- on a global scale, and with the benefit of immense scientific knowledge. We also have to counter the momentum of destructive forces which, unknowingly, we have set in motion.
By the same token, globalization also offers great opportunities. If the human species is not to self-destruct (be it with a ‘bang’ or ‘whimper’ to use T.S. Eliot’s phrase),2 it must develop into a global society which will find cohesion in its own distinctive life, in what may be called a global human culture. The very idea of a global society is, of course, a religious vision which has already had a long history. The Israelite prophets looked hopefully towards it. Christians spoke of it as the coming of the Kingdom of God. Muslims expected it when Islam embraced all peoples in a brotherhood. Karl Marx hailed the coming of the classless society. What now follows is simply my personal vision and hope for a global society in the world to come.
Humans currently exist in a large number of societies, each with its own identity and culture. These each retain aspects of tribalism, which is showing more vigorous tendencies as people fear that the globalizing process will destroy their cultural identity. Different cultures need not be obliterated by the formation of any global society, but they do need to be relativized. Regional tribalism must give way, where necessary, to globalism. Just as in tribalism the destiny of the tribe is more important than that of the individual, so the destiny and well-being of humanity as a whole must now take precedence over that of any tribe, nation or regional culture.
The culture in which the global society finds its cohesion needs to be able to draw all human groups and individuals into some form of shared life, a degree of commonality that allows for harmony between peoples and also with the planetary environment. This global culture need not replace existing cultures but it should provide an umbrella to cover them. Each human culture needs to continue with some independence in its own locality, in a way that enables it to relate to the whole. This global culture will rest on a shared view of the universe, a common story of human origins, a shared set of values and goals, and a basic set of behavioral patterns to be practiced in common.
A future global culture will need to evolve of its own accord. It will not be achieved simply by implementing a grandiose plan designed by a body such as the United Nations; even less can it be imposed by the dictates of one or more strong leaders. Repressive measures taken by powerful human authorities, however well intentioned, can do no more than delay global disasters, and may instead exacerbate them. A global culture implies a wide-spread recognition that the coming crises threaten all humans equally, and requires an urgent collective response to the imminent threats to human survival. For this new culture to emerge, there must be a willingness for most cultures and most people in the world to work together to achieve a common global goal.
The global culture will evolve, if it evolves at all, out of the spread of global consciousness (as described in Chapter 8) -- a consciousness of the human predicament, an appreciation of humanity’s dependence on the earth, and a willingness to act jointly in response. These are the very things which may be said to constitute the raw material of the spirituality of the coming global culture. For like all earlier cultures, global culture will depend for its goals, values, motivation and creative energy on the possession of a religious dimension.
Emile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, wrote in 1915:
There is something eternal in religion which is destined to survive all the particular symbols in which religious thought has successively enveloped itself. There can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and the collective ideas which make its unity and its personality.3
Historian Arnold Toynbee agreed, understanding religion to be ‘an intrinsic and distinctive trait of human nature. It is a human being’s necessary response to the challenge of mysteriousness of the phenomena that he encounters in virtue of his uniquely human faculty of consciousness.’4 In his late work, Mankind and Mother Earth, he foresaw that the present threat to humankind’s survival could be removed only by a revolutionary change of heart in individual human beings, and that only religion could generate the willpower needed for such a task. Toynbee observed that since the dawn of civilization there has been a growing ‘morality gap’ between humankind’s physical power over nature and the level of its spirituality -- a gap that has increased rapidly in the last 200 years. So he closed his book with the alarming question: ‘Will mankind murder Mother Earth or will he redeem her?’
Can there be some global form of spirituality which does for the whole of humankind what the previous religions did for their cultures? And if it is possible, how will it arise? It will not be based on any one race or ethnic tradition, as religion was in the pre-Axial age; it must arise from and involve the whole human race. Nor will it emerge from some new divine revelation, like the post-Axial religions; it will need to be naturalistic and humanistic in origin and form. It is unlikely to originate with one charismatic person and then spread to different parts of the world, as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam did. It will not be built on some external authority, since people live today more by internalized authority. The vision, goals and values to be found in any global religion must possess their own inherent power to win conviction; they must appear to be self-evidently true to all humans irrespective of their cultural past.
Whereas the religious traditions from the Axial Period onwards each arose at one point and then radiated outwards, the global religion (if it comes at all) will probably arise more or less spontaneously out of the common human predicament. It will arise simply because its time has come. Just as the cultural change of the Axial Period occurred more or less simultaneously and independently at several points on the earth’s surface, so the new global form of spirituality may well germinate at many different points and then take more visible form as those points form a network. In other words, the coming global religion may evolve out of the diversity of the past, as more and more people become alert to the common threats and dangers ahead. Out of a growing shared experience, human creativity may collectively rise to the occasion. However, none of these things is certain, and the future remains an open question.
In the evolution of culture there are often crises and radical changes, but there are never complete breaks. There will be both continuity and discontinuity with the religious past. Whatever evolves (or is collectively created) in response to the new global situation will grow partly from past traditions. It will not be simply a new and more extensive version of an earlier religion; the exclusive claims so dominant in Christianity and Islam, for example, have become inappropriate for the pluralistic future and may well be judged offensive. All religious traditions will contribute to the future, and those that can respond most flexibly and freely to the current challenges are likely to offer the most.
Each religious tradition must be left free to work out the best way to share in the new global future. Speaking from within the Christian tradition, Harvard theologian Gordon Kaufman in 1993 said something like this: since we are moving very rapidly toward one world, and a global consciousness is already beginning to enter into us, our religious practices and thinking must reflect this great historical fact; all the particular religious traditions have become outmoded and can no longer meet the needs of our new cultural situation in their traditional form.5
Similarly, Jürgen Moltmann has proposed that the great task for the religions of the world, and above all for the Christian church, is to be reformed so profoundly that they can contribute to the ‘religion of modern times’.6 Although we are not in a position to predict, let alone prescribe, the shape of the global religion, we can say that it will evolve out of preceding cultural traditions. Since death and resurrection have long been central Christian themes, Christianity is well prepared for the task of letting its old conventional self die, in order to rise again as a facet of a new global religion.7
The introduction noted that some of those who were silenced or marginalized by orthodoxy in the past now seem prophetic. Feuerbach, for example, was one of the first to understand the positive value of religion in society, even when religion is understood as a human creation and expressed in naturalistic terms. He led us back to the old nature religions as the base from which religion must start once again. Feuerbach agreed with his theological teacher, Schleiermacher, that ‘[t]he basis of religion is the feeling of dependency’, but went on to assert that ‘that upon which human beings are fully dependent is originally, nothing other than Nature. Nature is the first, original object of religion’.8
Our dependence upon nature is very basic. We share with the other animals the need for air, drink, food, shelter, survival and the regeneration of the species. Built into every species, including the human species, are the instincts to survive and to procreate. These simple needs and animal instincts were the starting point from which our primitive human ancestors set out slowly and unconsciously to create human culture and all the various forms in which they expressed their devotion.
We too must go back to that simplicity. The need for pure air, clean water, healthy food, adequate shelter, the regeneration of the species and the overcoming of all threats to human survival -- these have once again become the central issues to which we must ‘devote’ ourselves. They are genuinely ‘religious’ issues. In spite of all our modern sophistication, scientific knowledge, technological expertise, philosophical wisdom and traditional forms of spirituality, it is from these basic instincts for survival and regeneration that the new path of faith will come. Thus the new global religion will draw not only from the more ideological and intellectualized faiths of the Axial Period but from the preceding nature religions. These not only survived until modern times in many indigenous cultures, such as those of the New Zealand Maori and the North American Indians, but they often continued beneath the surface of the post-Axial faiths, despite strenuous efforts over the centuries to destroy them.
Our ancient forebears stood in such awe of the forces of nature that they created concepts, symbols and a language by which to understand them. These concepts and symbols constituted the raw material not only of their religion but also of their ‘science’ (or knowledge). The basic realities they conceptualized in order to explain the phenomena and natural events of their world they spoke of as gods and spirits. Cycles of stories or myths told how the gods came to be and what they controlled. The Maori creation myth, for example, related how Rangi the sky-god was forced out of his embrace of Papa the earth-mother by the gods of nature whom they had procreated. Maori religion, as everywhere in pre-Axial times, consisted of showing proper devotion to these forces of nature, of acknowledging their obligations to the gods. Our ancestors did this by devising and performing the appropriate rituals.
We now understand the natural world differently and we have developed a different set of concepts. Where they talked about spirit, we talk about physical energy. Where they explained the phenomena in terms of gods and spirits, we do so in terms of electrons and quarks, gravity and nuclear forces, DNA and chromosomes, immune systems and amino acids, neurons and synapses. For us these are the components of reality that explain the nature of the world, the phenomenon of life within it, and even how we human organisms think through our brains. Even Feuerbach defined nature as ‘everything which man . . . experiences directly and sensuously as the ground and substance of his life. Nature is light, electricity, magnetism, air, water, fire, earth, animals, plants; nature is man, insofar as he is a being who acts instinctively and unconsciously.’9
In the last two or three centuries, this new way of understanding the natural world has been emerging alongside the traditional religious superstructure. For many the traditional religious perspective continued to provide a meaning for human life. For others the competing claims of science and religion led to profound inner conflict. Some abandoned traditional religion altogether, only to find that scientific knowledge of the natural world does not in itself provide answers to the meaning and purpose of life.
Those who practiced the earlier nature religions saw the natural world operating with some meaning and purpose because they unconsciously projected their own thoughts and feelings into the supposed gods of nature, including Mother Earth and the Sky Father. Our modem understanding leads us to see the natural world as lacking any ultimate purpose. It operates according to both chance and necessity.10 The only area in which we find any real evidence of purposeful behavior is human activity. One of the great mysteries of the natural world is that out of it has evolved the human species, which has the capacity to think, to ask questions, to look for meaning and to be creative. It was part of the genius of Teilhard de Chardin, in The Phenomenon of Man, to relocate the chief mystery of nature in humankind itself.
There are now signs that we are beginning to recover some of the awe our ancestors felt towards the natural world. We are regaining some of their sense of dependence on the forces of nature. We are learning to appreciate the positive value in the nature religion of indigenous peoples; we see it as a genuine form of spirituality, no longer to be arrogantly dismissed as primitive magic. In addition, however, we also recognize ourselves as a part of nature in all its complexity and mystery. It is in the human species and its many cultures that meaning and purpose have become explicit aspects of nature. As some have already observed, it is through humankind that the universe has become conscious of itself.
Thus there are differences between us and the ancient worshippers of the gods of nature. We, including modern indigenous peoples, treat the gods of nature as symbolic rather than as objective realities. Whereas the ancients simply had to obey the dictates of their gods (as known within their traditions), we now find that, as a very important part of nature ourselves, an increasing measure of responsibility lies upon our species for the future of all planetary life.
All this has led us to question the brash, domineering attitude towards nature which characterized western thought increasingly in the twentieth century. Some suggest that we should re-symbolize, as Mother Earth, the mystery and complexity of nature on which we depend; and that this should replace the way monotheism related all forces, natural and supernatural, to the Sky Father. Mother Earth would not now be some external spiritual being (as Gaia was in an earlier religion); rather, Mother Earth would be a consciously chosen symbol referring to everything about the earth’s eco-system at which we can marvel and on which we depend.
Many of the particular aspects of nature, as we have seen, which ancient humans found awesome can be readily explained now in quite mundane ways, but our new picture of the universe is, in other ways, just as awe-inspiring. While the world we inhabit is confined to planet earth, we know that this is only the tiniest speck in a universe so vast that our minds can barely imagine it. We know very little indeed about what takes place in the rest of this universe. We may never know whether there is life in any other part of it. Life on our planet has apparently evolved over some three billion years; our human species emerged only very recently, relative to the story of the earth, and more by accident than by any design. There is no obvious reason why we have evolved as we have, nor why there should be any life at all on this planet, since none of our planetary neighbors shows signs of life. The origin and purpose of human existence is itself a mystery.
In the religion of the coming global society, the forces of nature, the process of evolution and the existence of life itself will be the objects of respect and veneration. Thomas Berry, an American Catholic priest, wrote:
Our new sense of the universe is itself a type of revelatory experience. Presently we are moving beyond any religious expression so far known to the human into a meta-religious age, that seems to be a new comprehensive context for all religions . . . The natural world itself is the primary economic reality, the primary educator, the primary governance, the primary technologist, the primary healer, the primary presence of the sacred, the primary moral value . . . The primary sacred community is the earth community. The human community becomes sacred through its participation in the larger planetary community.11
Some steps towards acknowledging the sacred character of the earth have already been taken. We no longer restrict the concept of ‘sanctuary’ to the church building or temple but are giving it back to the earth, in bird sanctuaries, fish sanctuaries and so on. The eco-sphere itself is gradually being re-sanctified. The loving care of Mother Earth is in many quarters replacing the former sense of obedience to the Heavenly Father. In her book The Body of God, theologian Sallie McFague goes further, suggesting that the combined influence of post-modem science and Christian faith requires the construction of a new model in which we see the universe as the body of God.12
The universe is itself so vast and mysterious that it is more than enough to induce the sense of awe and joyful gratitude that characterized earlier religious experience. The religious rituals of the future will celebrate the wonder of the universe and the mystery of life. They will revolve around the natural processes which have brought life into being and continue to sustain it. It is salutary to remember that the great annual Christian festivals (mostly inherited from Judaism) all originated as festivals for the changing seasons. The Jewish festivals of Passover and Unleavened Bread, which later became the Christian Easter, originated as early spring festivals celebrating the resurrection of nature to new life after the death of winter.13 The Feast of Pentecost began as the early harvest festival, the Jewish Feast of Booths as the vintage festival, Christmas as a New Year festival to mark the passing of the shortest day and the return of the sun. As humankind begins to appreciate again how much our earthly life depends upon the conditions and processes of the earth itself, we will re-create the appropriate festivals to celebrate the earth’s role in our lives.
The new religious rituals will be based not only on our relationship to the natural world, they will also celebrate everything we have come to value in human existence, such as the importance of healthy human relationships, and the rich inheritance of human culture. This can already be seen in the way Christians celebrate their chief ritual, known variously as Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. For some time this has been interpreted less as the commemoration of a sacrifice offered on an altar to God and more as the sharing of a common meal around a table to celebrate the rich and sacred character of human fellowship. That indeed is how it began.
Christmas, which is just as popular as ever, is already changing from being a commemoration of the birthday of a supposed savior to a celebration of family life. Much to the chagrin of traditional Christian clergy, the widespread celebration of Easter survives primarily in the form of Easter eggs and Easter bunnies, which point back to a very ancient spring festival long before the Jewish Passover and the Christian commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps the new institutions of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day should not be dismissed as commercial gimmicks but interpreted as a more spontaneous desire to acknowledge specific roles in family relationships. Indeed, our new practice of devoting a particular day of the year, whether nationally or internationally, to some special feature of human society indicates a trend towards the making of new and appropriate rituals.
What then will this new faith, the religion of the future, look like? It is far too early to tell, but some broad outlines can be seen. I suggest that being religious in the global era will be:
• to be devoted to maximizing the future for all living creatures whose destiny is increasingly in our hands;
• to place the needs of the coming global society before those of our own immediate family, tribe or nation;
• to develop a lifestyle consistent with preserving the balance of the planetary eco-system on which all living creatures depend;
• to refrain from all activities which endanger the future of all species;
• to set a high value on the total cultural legacy we have received from the past and which enables us to develop our potential to become human;
• to value the importance of the human relationships which bind us together into social groups and which enable us to become fully human;
• to promote the virtues of love, goodwill and peacefulness.
These general principles do no more than set the parameters of a global spirituality. For its detail, the new faith will need to draw on the cultures of the past, allowing for both the universality and the diversity of a rich global culture. There will not be ‘only one way’ of being religious (as Christian exclusivists love to assert) but a great variety of ways. There will not be one religious organization operating globally, but rather a host of relatively small and somewhat diverse social groups, in which the members are bonded to one another on a personal basis. But if religion is to flourish in the global era, these groups must learn to be inclusive; they must be ready to welcome anyone wishing to join them and, even in their diversity, they will need to acknowledge a broad set of common goals and values, such as concern for the earth’s future. Exclusivity, whether religious or ethnic, will be damaging to the future of the human race.
How much or how little of the traditional religious ritual and terminology is retained in new, transformed religious forms we cannot predict. That will depend on how ready people are to reshape their spiritual inheritance in response to the new global culture, for in the coming global era, new terms and concepts will be created, along with new rituals and patterns of social behavior. As Don Cupitt says: We do not yet have any global religious vocabulary.’14 In a future that draws on the diversity and richness of our past cultures, we should not expect one set of symbols and concepts to provide the ‘religiously correct’ language of a global religion. Each culture must be free to draw from its own tradition, but always in such a way as to direct it towards the needs of an ecologically sensitive global society. There is no one religious symbol or concept from the past which it is essential to retain for the spirituality of the global society, any more than the language of the whole world ought to be English, Arabic, Chinese or Latin. All languages and all symbols are humanly created. They have no permanence. They come and go, and change continually. So it is with religious symbols and concepts.
The word ‘God’, for example, may or may not continue to be used -- though it has been so central to the Christian and other monotheistic traditions. If it does remain a significant religious symbol, it will no longer refer to an objective spiritual being. Theologian Gordon Kaufman has suggested that the function of this symbolic word ‘God’ is to serve as ‘an ultimate point of reference’. It enables us to unify and order our experience of reality in our mental world. This leads him to say in In Face of Mystery: ‘To believe in God is to commit oneself to a particular way of ordering one’s life and action. It is to devote oneself to working towards a fully humane world within the ecological restraints here on planet Earth, while standing in piety and awe before the profound mysteries of existence.’15
That is why the word God is likely to continue for at least some time in the societies of the Christian west. It will symbolize the values we find compelling, the goals we aspire to, and the meaning we seek in human existence. From the New Testament we have learned to say that ‘God is love’. Mahatma Gandhi taught us to say that ‘God is truth’. To these we can readily add that ‘God is life’. (In everyday English speech, evidence suggests that the word ‘life’ is already replacing the word ‘God’.)16 ‘God’ sums up, symbolizes and unifies all that we value. That is why we can readily speak of the ‘God within us’, as well as the ‘God in our neighbor’ and the ‘God in the mystery of the universe’. The God-symbol refers to the sum total of all that concerns us most; it can call forth the same gamut of emotions of awe, wonder, gratitude and obligation as it did in the past, when our forebears had a very different view of reality.
To worship God in the global era would mean, among other things, that we stand in awe of this self-evolving universe, continually marveling at the living eco-sphere of this planet. We would be able to acknowledge the inestimable value of life in ourselves and in all other creatures, and express gratitude to the successive generations of our human ancestors who have slowly created our inheritance -- the rich variety of human culture which has enabled us to become the human beings we are. We would possess the capacity to feel, to love and be loved, to show compassion and selfless sacrifice, to think and to be engaged in the quest for what is true and meaningful. We would be strong enough to accept in a selfless fashion the burden of responsibility now laid upon us for the future of our world and all its planetary life.
Just as important as the attempt of each tradition to reinterpret their symbols and rituals to meet the needs of the new spiritual parameters will be the cross-fertilization of cultures which takes place in the globalizing process. This has already been going on for some time, and is most likely to accelerate, in spite of strong resistance by defenders of the traditional forms of spirituality. Many in the Christian west have been attracted to the non-theistic and more humanistic character of the Buddhist tradition, or to the deep mystical spirituality of the Hindu tradition; others have been attracted to the more physical practice of spirituality to be found in Chinese tradition.
Within this complex, global pot-pourri of religious symbols and interchange of ideas, concepts and values, individuals will easily feel lost and bewildered. This is a time when we must relearn the value of personal relationships, initially in our own family and then in society at large. We humans are essentially social creatures and human society is an intricate network of personal relationships, experienced though not visible. Just as we depend for physical existence on the forces of the natural world, so to find meaning, fulfillment and purpose in life, we depend on the culture which continues to shape us, on what we receive from one another and on what we are able to give back in return. We do not live by bread alone but by the love, compassion and goodwill which we can show to one another.
We are coming to the end of the Christian era and find ourselves standing on the threshold of the global era. We are living through a fragile stage of social, cultural and religious transition, as we move from being primarily members of tribal society to learning how to find our place in a new kind of society, the global society. In the world to come we humans find we are dependent wholly on our own inner resources, yet not so much individually as collectively. The challenges which lie ahead cannot be overcome by any one person or group working on their own but only by the human species working as a whole. Whether the global society will ever be fully realized, we cannot say. What we can do individually is to hope for it, try to visualize it, and do our utmost to bring it to pass. As I have tried to show in this book, unless we humans are strongly motivated to become a global society, we are likely in the imminent future to suffer horrendous catastrophes which will be of our own making. The realization of the global society will require from the whole of humanity creative thinking, self-sacrificing endeavor of the highest order, and all the mutual goodwill of which we are capable.
1. T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems, Faber & Faber, 1936, p. 157.
2. Ibid., p. 90.
3. Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, p. 427.
4. Arnold Toynbee, Mankind and Mother Earth, p.4.
5. Gordon D. Kaufman, In Face of Mystery, pp. 120-33
6. Johann-Baptist Metz and Jürgen Moltmann, Faith and the Future, p. 176.
7. Compare John 12:24.
8. See Van A. Harvey, Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion, p. 164.
9. Ibid., p. 166.
10. Jacques Monod, Chance and Necessity.
11. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story, pp. 255-57.
12. Sallie McFague, The Body of God, p. 83.
13. See the author’s Resurrection -- A Symbol of Hope.
14. Don Cupitt, After God, p. 127.
15. Kaufman, op. cit., p.347.
16. Don Cupitt, The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech.