Perspectives on the Future
Presented by Lloyd Geering
at the Sea of Faith NZ Conference 1995
One of the issues we have been discussing in the Sea of Faith Network is - Where do we go from here?. However, we should not let this turn into the question of how to ensure a bigger and better future for the Sea of Faith Network as an organisation. That is the trap into which the institutional church is currently falling. Far too much of its time, energy and resources are taken up with self-preservation. It is understandable, though inexcusable, in the case of the church, for in the course of two millennia it has become a verv extensive and weighty institution, or rather a vast collection of now largely independent institutions. Many of them are now suffering from a rapid decline. I believe it is a waste of time simply trying to bolster up and preserve from decay the institutional church, as if, for some reason, the church is essential for its own sake.
The institutional church must either exist for a clearly defined mission or vision far greater than itself or be prepared to die. At the time of Christian origins, the apostles did have such a mission. It was to announce the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God. They were not at all interested in building up the church as an institution and, if they had lived to see what happened, they would have been very surprised and perhaps quite shocked at the results. As a Roman Catholic scholar once said. "The first Christians announced the coming of the Kingdom of God, but what they got was the church!"
So we are not here concerned with the future of the Sea of Faith Network. Whether this Network has a future or not is of no great moment. The Sea of Faith Network came into existence almost of its own accord. There has been little attempt by anybody to promote it. If people hear about it, come to find out more, remain active within its vague borders because they find it helpful to do so, well and good. If people conclude it is not for them and cease to be included, that also is well and good. The Sea of Faith Network does not exist for its own promotion and should actually try to avoid becoming an institution, of which we have far too many already. The Sea of Faith Network is not a movement or institution over and above the people who happen to be in it at any one time. It is simply a very loosely knit collection of people who feel they have a number of things in common, though we are not quite sure what those are.
In pursuing the topic of the future, therefore, we are not discussing how to build up the Network. Rather we are discussing, first of all, our future. Who are we? Many of us in the Network have been or are still within one or other of the Christian churches while some come from other forms of spirituality or from nowhere in particular. One of the attractions of the Sea of Faith Network is that it provides an atmosphere of freedom to be ourselves, something the traditional religious bodies often do not make possible. We value the freedom to think for ourselves even though we do not all think the same things. This is a social setting in which we can feel acccpted even when we think differently from others. To use a word which has come into common use of late, the Sea of Faith Network is a totally inclusive human society in which age, gender, nationalitity, ethnic origin, past or present religious traditions, are all relativized to the one thing we do all have in common, and that is our basic humanity.
The fact that the Network is not committed to any set of clearly enunciated doctrines is part of its value for those presently in it. We have been attracted, in one way or another, to the openness and non-dogmatic nature of, the Sea of Faith Network. What we find of value in the Sea of Faith Network is not its structure or constitution. What is of value to us is the opportunity it provides for us to meet in an atmosphere of complete freedom to explore together whatever we find to be of common interest within the very broad aim of "promoting the quest for meaning and fulfilment as a human activity and providing encouragement, stimulation and support to others engaged in this quest". This general approach is very much in keeping with what sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, wrote
twenty five years ago, when he observed that the current religious trend is for "an increasingly fluid type of organisation", the acceptance that "each individual must work out his or her own ultimate solutions and that the most that the church can do is to provide a favourable environment for doing so, without imposing on people a prefabricated set of answers. And it will be increasingly realised that answers to religious questions can validly be sought in vanious spheres of secular art and thought".
Most of us, I imagine, have become dissatisfied with various aspects of the religious tradition in which we were nurtured and which is today being eroded bv the acids of modernity. This dissatisfaction is often also accompanied by acknowledgement that we also value much of what we have received from the past. We wish to keep drawing from it but in ways more relevant to the age in which we live. That is why we "affirm the continuing importance of religious thought and practice as a vehicle for awe and wonder and for the celebration of key social and spiritual values". The openness of the Sea of Faith Network provides an environment in which we can do this.
Freedom from dogmatism and from goals set firmly in concrete is something to be valued in today's fluid cultural climate. But, it can also be a weakness, resulting in ineffectualness, a sense of lostness and even bewilderment, unless we use this freedom to explore together the most urgent current issues facing us as humans.
The issue which I wish to set before you and to explore with you now, is simply the future - not the future of the Network, not just our own personal future, but the future of human society, the future of this planet. This issue, I believe, is the most urgent issue facing humankind today and for a variety of reasons. It is not at all surprising that numbers of organisations are springing up today with the word "future" in their title, such as Futures Trust, Sustainable Futures and so on.
Rather unexpectedly, perhaps, this fact brings us remarkably close to the situation and mood of the early Christians. There is a certain irony in that for it has appeared to many of us that we have been distancing ourselves from much of traditional religion. But so also were the first Christians. They too, were disengaging themselves from the trappings of the traditional religion of their day and rejoicing in their newly won freedom. They were wholly caught up with the future. As they saw it, the days of the old order were nearly over. They confidently looked for the imminent coming of the new order.
But while there are these distinct similarities between our situation and that of the first Christians, there are also some radical differences. They expected the new order to be ushered in by the intervening and almighty power of the Deity who reigned over the universe. Such a belief, however, is one of the chief reasons why traditional religious forms no longer satisfy us or ring true for us. They were based on that dualistic view of reality, which divided it into two - the heavenly and the earthly, the supernatural and the natural, the spiritual and the physical, the divine and the human, the eternal and the temporal.
For most of us the concept of the supernatural has lost the reality it used to have for our forbears. In the past, for example, the sky was regarded as sacred or supernatural space. It was perceived as the dwelling place of God, as reflected in the words "Our Father who art in heaven". And from the sky or heavens, God was believed to be the divine controller of the weather, choosing to send storms or famines by way of judgement on the actions of humans. Diseases also, and especially plagues, were directly attributable to this divine, supernatural source. God, operating from a world outside this mundane world of space and time, was both the Creator and the Provider, and without him nothing of significance on earth could happen. He was the Lord of history and all significant events were believed to be ordered by him. One by one these so-called supernatural events, divine miracles, or "acts of God" have been desacralized or naturalized. We have a natural explanation of the weather. And we humans now see we have to take full responsibility for all the events of human history.
For us the only real world is the natural world, or what we now call the space-time continuum. All of reality is a unity rather than a dualism, even though it is a vast and complex universe which is more than our human minds can fully grasp. Moreover we humans are ourselves unities - unified organisms. We may still choose to use such terms as mind, spirit or soul to refer to important aspects of our conscious existence but less and less do we think of ourselves as spiritual beings who are temporarily resident in physical bodies, preparing ourselves for departure to another world. Because our physical body has a limited life-span, so also do we. Thus we humans are finite and mortal. Our individual existence is for ever tied to a particular age in the unfolding history of human culture on this planet home, which itself is like a speck of dust in the vast universe.
Although this view of reality has now been slowly emerging over a period of some four hundred years, much of the former dualistic view of reality still remains present in traditional religious language and practices and is assumed in the life of the church. For example, the Bible is still treated as a holy book of divine origin, by virtue of which it is to be regarded as eternally authoritative and free from error. It is this attitude towards the Bible which remains the chief characteristic of conservative or traditional Christianity. Even liberal Christians who distance themselves from fundamentalism still feel they must justify all doctrine and decisions by appeal to the Bible, ignoring the fact that, in doing so, they are attributing undue absoluteness to what are actually the wholly human convictions of people living within and shaped by past cultures. It was actually the growing recognition of the human origins and character of the Bible, which was taking place in the latter half of the 19th century onwards, which did so much to bring about the demise of the dualistic view of reality.
There is great reluctance in the church and even in many of its biblical and theological scholars, to extend this discovery to its logical conclusion. The Bible is just as human in origin and content as any other book, such as the plays of Shakespeare. This does not mean that the Bible is not a valuable set of writings but they are writings which now have to be subjected to ethical and religious criticism by us if they are not be turned into an idol. The uniqueness of the Bible is not that it was inspired by a divine and supernatural source but that it is, almost exclusively, our only written witness to the origins of the Judeo-Christian cultural tradition.
Similarly the church still largely views itself as a supernatural society of divine origin, a colony of heaven, rather than as a human society. This is in spite of the fact that in its very activities the institutional church shows itself to be all too human. This has given the church, in the course of history, an undue sense of its own importance. It has claimed to be a unique channel for divine revelation and, hence, in possession of a unique body of revealed truth. This set it on a collision path with other claimants to truth, such as the whole scientific enterprise, modern historiography and other religious traditions. The church has too often idolized itself, in such claims as - "Outside of the church there is no salvation". In attributing absoluteness and divinity to Jesus of Nazareth, it has idolized its founding figure in a way which would have probably shocked him. From our present standpoint in history we are able to see that, by claiming to be a more than human society, the church has scandalously set itself in judgement over all who disagreed with it. It has done this in the name of an idol which it has itself created. That is why theologian Tom Driver said in 1981 that we should repudiate elitist and anti-Semitic texts such as the one the evangelist put into the mouth of Jesus, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except by me".
Modern biblical scholarship has forced us to acknowledge the full and complete humanity of Jesus of Nazareth and to distinguish between the words actually spoken by him and those which almost certainly have been put into his mouth by later evangelists. At first, the acknowledgement of the complete humanity of Jesus and of the church itself may seem to be a great loss. But actually it has been a great gain. It enables us to be delivered from the religious chauvinism which has so marked the Christian tradition through the ages, and which is so offensive to people in other cultural traditions. By abandoning this commitment to absolute claims, we are free to acknowledge spiritual value in other religious traditions also. It enables us to be heirs of the total cultural and spiritual heritage of humankind.
The acknowledgement of the Bible as a human book and the of the church as a human organisation also delivers us from the temptation to idolise. In doing so, by another strange irony, it brings us back to the most basic religious insight on which the Judeo-Christian-Islamic faiths are founded - the rejection of idolatry. We should not worship, or treat as supreme and absolute, anything which has been humanly created. And, since language itself is a human product, all of our concepts, including the concept of God, and our doctrines and the Bible, have been human created, Thus, as soon as we acknowledge the human origin of religious traditions and of everything within them, we must avoid idolizing it. This does not mean, however, that we find no value in religious traditions just because they are of human origin. That is why in the Sea of Faith Network we say we are "free to draw upon our spiritual heritage without being bound by it". Further more it makes available to us the rich variety of all traditions and cultures.
But in learning to value the totality of human culture and spirituality we also come to realise how dependent we all are on own cultural inheritance. In the past our spiritual forbears felt themselves to be dependent on the will and activity of God, the supreme supernatural being. For us, that feeling of dependence has been replaced by a feeling of dependence on the countless generations before us, who helped to create the culture we inherited. What our forbears once attributed to the creativitv of the divine heavenly creator, we must now attribute to our cultural ancestors, and with a similar degree of gratitude. We humans are all products of a particular culture. We can only become human within a living culture. For this we must be grateful. It is salutary to remember that, to the end of our days, we all reflect the culture that has shaped us. That fact is one important aspect of the finiteness of the human individual.
But though we reflect the culture of our birth we are also free, within limits to reshape it and direct its future. Indeed we have the responsibility to do just that. Whenever a particular culture, such as that of traditional Christendom, has been seen as supernatural in origin and hence reflecting some absolutes, human responsibility consisted chiefly in trying to conform to it and to preserve it. The only change that was acceptable was that which was believed to be ordained by divine or supernatural forces. Any human challenge to what was ordained was stricily forbidden. In actual fact a good deal of creative change did take place even there but it usually occurred unconsciously. One of the differences between the past and the present is that, being released from commitment to absolutes, we are not only free to change and to create quite consciously, but we are beginning to see that grave responsibilities now rest on us to do just that.
For all these reasons, therefore, whereas our forbears looked to God to order future events, we are increasingly aware that the future is largely in our own hands. So before proceeding further, let me summarise what I have said so far and relate it to the context in which we now live.
We are currently entering a new cultural age. It may be called the global age because nothing and no one around the globe can long escape being caught up in radical global change. Through trade, communication networks, faster travel and cultural mixing we humans are being drawn into one common world with the same destiny for us all. There is emerging a new global culture the character of which I have sketched in a chapter of Tomorrow's God.
It is sufficient to say here that it is based on a one-world view of reality. While beliefs of a dualistic and supernatural kind will survive in pockets for quite some time, they will be confined to private personal convictions and will form no part of common discourse and of the shared belief system of the global culture. The very existence of the Sea of Faith Network is one small sign among hosts of many others that we are coming to an end, not only of conventional Christianity, but of a whole cultural era, some two thousand years or more in length, in which Buddhism, Christianity and Islam have been the three most widespread cultural traditions.
There are some respects in which we may compare our cultural situation with that of the very first Christians. For like us:
- They, too, saw themselves facing a cultural transition and they were living in the last days of the old order, which for so long had appeared stable and permanent.
- They, too, saw themselves freed from the trappings of traditional religion - priestly authority, legalistic morality, institutionalised forms and ancient rituals.
- They, too, were sometimes called atheists, because they rejected the gods and religious forms still worshipped by traditionalists.
- They, too, were concerned with preparing themselves for the future, rather than with preserving the past.
- They, too, faced the future with as mixture of both fear and hope. As they saw it, the coming of the new order was to be preceded by unprecedented disruption and destruction, sometimes referred to as Armageddon.
- They, too, felt the new future was uncomfortably imminent.
But there are also some significant differences:
- Our view of the real world is entirely different from theirs. They saw themselves in a three-decker universe, whose size, nature and origin, was minuscule compared with the vastness of the universe which has opened up before us.
- Our view of history, both human and planetary, is entirely different from theirs, both in length and in quality
- Their 6.000 years of planetary life has been stretched out for us to 3 billion years.
- Their view of a sudden and complete creation of species by divine fiat within six days has for us been replaced by the slow and largely directionless evolution of living species, many of which are already extinct,
- When they thought of the future -
- they could speak of a "new heaven and new earth" and had in mind the relatively small area of land and sky visible to the naked eye.
- but we think, either of the future of this humanly inhabited planet or of the totality of the immense universe.
- When they thought of the future -
- they believed it to be wholly directed by a supernatural deity,
- but we are increasingly aware that just as humans have shaped human history, however unconsciously, so the future of humanity and of this planet are largely in human hands. (It is still necessary to say "largely". For example, it is possible at any time that an object from outer space may land on earth and cause the death of most, if not all, of planetary life. Such an event would have been interpreted by the ancients as a sign of divine judgement; we see it simply as a reasonably common cosmic accident within a blind universe being directed by no-one.)
- It is not only the case that we have become aware of our human responsibility for the future but our sheer capacity to alter it drastically for good or for ill has astronomically increased as a result of the knowledge explosion and the technology which resulted from it.
Thus, like the first Christians, we too are aware of cultural change and are concerned about the future. The chief difference is that for them the future was not in human hands, whereas for us it is. They were able to take comfort in the belief that the future was in the hands of one who had their best interests at heart. The announcement of this, in the context of impending doom, was quite legitimately spoken of as the Good News, and was the substance of the Gospel they proclaimed.
The recognition that the future is largely in our own human hands can bring to us quite mixed and even contrary feelings. It may be greeted with enthusiasm by some and with great alarm by others. At the beginning of this century there was considerable optimism about the future. Christians, in particular, confidently expected that the whole world would become Christian within a short space of time. Westerners, in general, believed that science and technology were transforming the earth into a kind of Utopia.
At the end of this century there is a very different mood. There are those who look into the future with great optimism and they include two quite contrary groups; fundamentalists who believe God will shortly break in and establish his eternal rule and those who have such confidence in the human species that they believe we humans are clever enough with our science and technology to meet all current and future problems. But there is an increasing number who look into the future with alarm, stretching from a sobering sense of concern to one of deep pessimism. Such people doubt if the human species does have the wisdom to handle the coming nemesis we have brought upon ourselves. Even those who are reasonably positive about the human condition on a purely individual and personal basis often see scant grounds for hope on the planetary scale, and for this reason. When we say the future of the planet is in our hands it does not mean that any one person or responsible group of persons is actually directing the future according to a clearly thought-out plan. It is rather the case that the five to six billion of us currently living on this planet, not only have no concerted plan, but we are so much more concerned with what happens to us individually within our tiny little patch, that humankind as a species is being left to blunder along with the same blindness which has apparently marked biological evolution on the planet from the beginning. In that case, we humans too may go the way of the dinosaurs.
There are two chief spheres in which urgent global planning and decision-making has to take place to ensure a viable future for humankind. The first has to do with international relations. The still rapidly expanding human population is making ever greater demands on the earth to provide the necessities for life. This promotes competition and national rivalry for ownership and control of the earth's limited resources. This in turn leads to animosity, friction and war. The United Nations Organisation which was created fifty years ago to preserve the world from further world wars is finding itself to be increasingly powerless and is now due for a radical overhaul. But so jealous are the nations of their own sovereign identity - and this applies particularly to the big five permanent members of the Security Council - that they are reluctant to surrender any of their national sovereignty to an international body in the interests of humankind as a whole. Underneath the problem of establishing and preserving peace among the nations is a whole host of complex problems of a social, cultural and economic kind, where questions of justice, anti-social behaviour, the needs of the disadvantaged are often so pressing that the majority of people are prevented from seeing anything beyond their own immediate concerns. For such reasons, self-interest, both at the individual level and at the national level, at the very time when global concerns are now assuming gigantic proportions, could prove to be the death-knell of the human species.
The other sphere calling for urgent decision-making concerns the way we humans relate to the planet of which we are a part. It is becoming increasingly clear that our expanding technology is causing changes in the atmosphere and the environment which, though small in themselves, can have devastating long term effects to both human and non-human species. Very responsible people are warning us that we humans face a global crisis no later than the early part of the twenty-first century because of a number of interdependent factors, all of which add up to an alarming picture of imminent doom, unless they are adequately faced. They have to do with:
- Pollution of such basic commodities as air and water.
- Depletion of the ozone layer.
- Mounting waste material.
- Loss of arable land.
- Increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
- Climate change due to greenhouse effect.
- Irreparable damage to the ecosphere.
The final example of religious irony is that, for the reasons just stated, the word salvation, so long central to the Christian tradition, is today coming into wide use within a secular context. In the first century it was expressed as "What must I do to be saved from the coming judgement of divine wrath which will precede the ushering in of the new order'?". Today it takes the form of "What must we do to save the planet from the destruction which we are currently bringing upon it?" Saving the planet is now becoming a religious issue - indeed the chief religious issue. It is properly called religious because, to use Paul Tillich's famous phrase, our ultimate concern is the salvation of the planet for the future generations of humankind. It has become a moral imperative of the highest order.
This is the briefest of sketches of our immediate future. This is the future which takes precedence over all others. It is the future to which all nations, cultures and religions must give their attention. This future takes precedence even over our own personal future, precious though that is to us in each case. The human species is about to face the most testing period in its long existence on this planet. Are individuals, nations, cultures, religious traditions prepared to sacrifice various aspects of their own self-interest for the sake of the future of the species? The great spiritual traditions of the past have all made much of the virtues of sacrifice, self-denial, altruism, caring for others. Human kind will need to draw upon these spiritual resources to the full if we are to meet the imminent challenges of the future.
Robert N.Bellah, Beyond Belief
Harper and Row. 1970, pp.434.
Lloyd Geering. Tomorrow's God
, Bridget Williams Books, 1994, Chap. chap. 13.