Part 4. The Diverse Future

Lloyd Geering

From The Fourth R
Volume 17-5
September–October 2004

This is the fourth in a series of four lectures delivered in Wellington, New Zealand, in the Spring of 2004 and published in The Fourth R.

Read Part 1. Christianity at the Crossroads
Read Part 2. Excavating Jesus
Read Part 3. The Recovery of Jesus’ Teaching

At the beginning of this series I tried to show why Christianity is at a crossroads. I also suggested we should not think of Christianity as a set of unchangeable doctrines to be believed but as a path of faith to be walked. The question of the future of Christianity then becomes 'Where will the Christian path of faith lead us from here?' But first we must observe that this is not the first crossroads reached in the Christian path of faith.

Christian Diversity, Past and Present

We learn from the New Testament that the Christian path came to its first crossroad in the first century. Was the newly emerging Christian path of faith to be confined within the parameters of Judaism or was it free to move into the Gentile world? Jesus' own brother James, along with most of the original disciples formed the community of Jerusalem Christians, and they opted for the Jewish Christian future. But these Jewish Christians became increasingly ostracized by the Gentile Christians and after about the fifth century they disappeared from view.

Thus the Christian path was directed by the Gentile Christians, yet not without dissension. The series of ecumenical councils, called for the purpose of providing clear and unifying boundaries to the Christian path of faith, only partially succeeded. They actually gave rise to three Christian paths, all of which exist to this day. After the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Christians took a Nestorian path in Persia and China, a Coptic path in Egypt and Ethiopia, in addition to the Catholic or universal path in the rest of the then Christian world. The Christian West simply ignored the Copts and the Nestorians thereafter and most Christians in the West do not even know they exist. Christians went their three separate ways from that point just because they could not agree on the Chalcedonian statement about the personhood of Jesus Christ. It is an abstruse formula that most Christians today are not even aware of, let alone understand.

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Then came the Christian schism of 1054 when the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other, partly over the issue of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds 'from the Father and from the Son', or only from the Father. This division forced the main Christian path to divide into an Eastern Greek-based future and a Western Latin-based future.

A further crossroads was reached by Western Christianity in the sixteenth century, when the Protestant Reformation gave rise to several Protestant paths, as well as to a continuing Catholic path. It has taken four hundred years for Protestant and Catholic even to acknowledge one another as Christian. In the meantime the Catholic fear that Christianity would become even more divided once it forsook the unifying guardianship of the papacy has been amply demonstrated. In the nineteenth century the choice of paths open to Protestant Christians multiplied further, with the rise of the Plymouth Brethren, the Disciples of Christ, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Latter Day Saints, the Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and many others. This continued into the twentieth century with the many Pentecostalist movements, such as the Assemblies of God.

In the first half of the twentieth century the newly emerging ecumenical movement deplored the divisiveness manifested by Christians and tried to reverse the trend. Commendable though this was, it can now be seen — with the gift of hindsight — why it was doomed to failure. The reason is that every great religious tradition in its classical form manifests the tendency to diversify. The evolution of cultures conforms to the evolutionary tendency of all planetary life. Just as a genus divides into more and more species in the biological sphere, so a culture divides into more and more subcultures, some of which flourish while others die out.

Only when we begin to look at the history of religions and cultures as a whole does this become apparent. If we view any one tradition only from the inside (as we have normally done in Christianity) it has appeared to have an unchangeable essence — an essence which is to be preserved (or at times recovered) in its pristine purity. This is an illusion. Once we begin to understand religion in developmental or evolutionary terms there is no one true and pure form of, say, Christianity, any more than there is one true form of mammal. Just as a family of species evolves out of the original biological genus, so out of primitive Christianity there has evolved a family of different Christian species.

Also like biological species, cultures and religions come and go. As they do so, some elements often live on long afterwards in other traditions that they have influenced. We Christians still name the days of the week after the gods of the Roman and Nordic religions long since dead. The word Easter preserves the name of the pagan goddess of spring. While only a tiny remnant of Zoroastrianism survived the spread of Islam in Iran much more of it lives on in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, through its myth of the Last Judgment and other beliefs.

We need to be fully aware of the ever evolving and changing character of the human religious quest as we now turn to the future of the Judeo-Christian tradition on entering the Second Axial Period. Not only are there already a great variety of Christian paths but, ever since Galileo, these have felt threatened by the rise of the secular world. The once Christian West has become polarised. At one extreme is fundamentalism, moderating into various shades of traditional orthodoxy. At the other extreme is militant secularism, moderating into a post-Christian humanism. The term Christianity seems to be referring to something much bigger and more alive than any one of its particular forms. By the same token, it is vague and difficult to define.

The Diverse Futures of Christianity

If this Christianity is once again at the crossroads, its future is likely to be even more diverse than its past. What are these diverse futures?

First of all, the many and various Christian paths still being trodden will continue into the future, though some, like that of the Jewish Christians, will soon disappear. Although most Christians regard their own chosen path of faith to be the only true Christian path, they are more inclined than in the past to acknowledge what they have in common. Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and the many forms of Protestantism now show a surprising degree of sameness relative to the modern secular world. For example:

  • They regard the Bible as divinely inspired and wholly reliable.
  • They are suspicious of, and often reject, modern biblical scholarship.
  • They believe God to be a personal being who responds to prayer.
  • They worship Jesus Christ as the divine Son of God.
  • They regard Christian orthodoxy as an unchangeable core of beliefs to which they must be faithful.

Thus all traditional Christians judge the modern secular world to be a denial of the true faith and an enemy to be held at bay and eventually defeated. This has become the Achilles heel of Christian orthodoxy. As King Canute is said to have commanded the waves to retreat, Christian orthodoxy expects the secular world to conform to its pattern of truth. The claim that Christian orthodoxy possesses the ultimate truth shows that it has now become blind to all new truth. This means that in the post-Copernican, post-Darwinian secular world into which we have now entered the only future for Christian orthodoxy is as a museum piece. This is because Christian orthodoxy has seriously misunderstood the origin and nature of the secular world.

The secular world is not anti-Christian, though it may legitimately be judged post-Christian. It emerged out of the Christian West, is a product of the Christian West, and is motivated by the values, aspirations and visions of its matrix. The modern secular world is all part of a continuing evolving cultural process. Just as the original Christians claimed the Christian Way, or path of faith, was the legitimate continuation and fulfilment of the Jewish path, so it may be claimed that the modern, secular and humanistic world is the legitimate continuation of the Judeo-Christian path of faith.

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It is salutary to remember what occurred while the newly emerging Christianity was still in a fluid state and was taking shape within Hellenistic culture. The second-century Christian thinkers known as the Apologists claimed that everything that was true in Greek culture was also part and parcel of Christianity. They even claimed Plato as a Christian. Similarly, we should be saying that everything we find to be true in the modern world as a result of the knowledge explosion is part and parcel of developing Christianity. We should be referring to Christianity as the Judeo-Christian-secular path of faith, in order to specify the chief phases through which it has passed.

But though Christian orthodoxy would lead us down a blind road that has no exit, there is one thing we can still learn from it. If we are going to find a satisfactory path of faith into the global future, we need to study our cultural past to understand who we are, how we got to where we are, and how we came to discern the supreme human values which still lay a claim on us. Those who turn their backs entirely on Christianity in all its forms and refuse to acknowledge indebtedness to the cultural matrix out of which the modern world has emerged are cutting themselves off from their cultural and spiritual roots. As plants without roots wither and die, so cultures which forget their past do the same. The study of the past illuminates the present but it does not dictate the future. That is why the Bible remains an invaluable set of documents. We learn much from it but we are not bound by it.

The Secular World and the Christian Future

Having acknowledged the necessity for Christianity to remember its biblical past, we must now turn to the secular world in which Christianity finds its real future. To appreciate this we have only to look at some of the values highly prized in the modern secular world. One of them is personal freedom. The pursuit of human freedom has been strongly present in the Judeo-Christian tradition since Moses led the Israelites out of slavery. It went a stage further when Jesus opened the door to another kind of freedom: freedom from the cultural and religious compulsions from the past. Even Paul gloried in this, exclaiming to his Galatian converts, 'You were called to freedom' and the Fourth Gospel put into the mouth of Jesus, 'You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free'.

With the coming of the modern world, however, the pursuit of freedom has flourished as never before, starting with the freedom to think for oneself and to pursue the truth. It was quickly followed by the freedom to speak and to publish. This led to a whole series of emancipations: the democratic emancipation from absolute monarchy, the emancipation of slaves, the emancipation of women from male domination, the emancipation of the humankind from racist prejudice and, currently, the emancipation of homosexuals from homophobia. Sadly, the churches have often been initially opposed to these emancipations; they were no longer on the side of freedom but had committed themselves to the dogmas of the past.

Values such as freedom, love, justice, and the pursuit of peace, were once dominant in the Judeo-Christian tradition. They now continue in the secular world but no longer need the support of divine authority. Their own inherent power to convince us of their worth has replaced that of the now departing deity. Indeed, those people who love their fellows because they are convinced of the value of love are more morally mature than those who love only because they are commanded by a higher authority.

That is why this new cultural age has been called 'humankind's coming of age'. Just as an individual, on attaining adulthood, must leave behind the security of parental control and take responsibility for his or her own actions, so the human race must now learn how to practice love, justice and peaceful co-existence because it recognises their inherent value and not out of fear of Hell or the reward of Heaven.

But 'humankind's coming of age' also means that individuals are freer to choose their way of life or path of faith. This is why we have come to value diversity more than conformity. The conformity of belief and practice so dominant in the past made 'heresy' the most heinous of sins. 'Heresy' is derived from a Greek word that means 'choice'; it is used in the New Testament to refer to those who have the audacity to choose their own way of life in contrast with that of the majority. As Peter Berger pointed out in his book The Heretical Imperative, modernity has brought to human life an extraordinary expansion in the choices to be made. This is not only in the supermarket; much more importantly it is in the area of religious belief and practice. We are now free to choose our personal way of life; we do so from a veritable smorgasbord of options. In the free and open society of today the exercise of personal choice is not merely permitted but has become a necessity. We are all forced to be choosers — that is, heretics! Even fundamentalists today are choosers (or heretics) in that they choose to believe that the Bible is the Word of God.

The new freedom to choose our way of life, of course, brings no guarantee that we shall make wise choices. Just as many an adolescent goes off the rails on reaching adulthood, this danger becomes greatly magnified when the whole human species comes of age, and becomes free from the cultural restraints of the past. Now that the moral life has become personalized as never before and we are challenged to make new moral decisions and work out our own solutions to the problems of life, there are many of us who fall by the wayside. Too often people selfishly engage in anti-social behavior. Too often people abandon one form of superstition only to adopt another. While this is all too true we must not allow it to blind us to the many aspects of social life in the secular world that display a much more mature morality than that found in the Christendom of the past.

The Continuity of Christianity and Secularism

Can the secular world really be the offspring of the Christian West if it so clearly abandons the figure of Christ as the divine Son of God? Where is the continuity between the Christian past and the secular present other than in the values just mentioned?

First, we need to acknowledge that the pioneers of the modern secular world were all thinkers deeply immersed in the Christian tradition. The first sign of the Second Axial Age is to be found in the love of the natural world shown by St. Francis. Then we may point to the teaching of the Franciscan philosopher, William of Ockham (1300–1349); it was even labelled the Via Moderna ('the Modern Way'). It began to flourish in the Renaissance humanists, the Protestant Reformation, and the Enlightenment. No one of the pioneering creators of the modern world, such as Erasmus, Luther, or John Locke, ever thought of himself as departing from the Christian tradition.

Secondly, we need to understand the radical nature of the central Christian doctrine of the incarnation. This proclaims that the divine reality has been enfleshed within the human condition. This was an extraordinary assertion when first made; it has offended Jews and Muslims and still does. They defend pure mono-theism, which asserts an unbridgeable gulf between deity and humanity.

Of course Christian orthodoxy eventually confined the assertion of the incarnation to one single instance, the man Jesus who became the Christ. But in its earliest years Christian thought was much more fluid than that. Paul spoke of Christ as the New Adam. He meant that Christ was to embody the whole human race, in the same way that the first Adam embodied the whole human race. That is why Paul spoke of all Christians as being 'in Christ'. In his view Christians are new creatures — new beings — for they participate in the incarnation of the divine. Unfortunately, as traditional Christian teaching increasingly emphasized the divinity of Jesus to the virtual exclusion of his humanity, the wider implications of the incarnation assertion were lost sight of.

It was not until biblical scholars like David Strauss set in motion the deconstruction of the Christ figure and the recovery of the true humanity of Jesus that it became possible for people like Ludwig Feuerbach to expound what he took to be the 'True Meaning of the Incarnation'. It meant that all the qualities previously associated with the divine being were henceforth to become enfleshed within humanity.

Similarly, the Anglican theologian J. R. Illingworth as long ago as 1891 was warning Christians not to regard secular thought as the enemy of Christianity. In an essay on the incarnation he said, 'Secular civilization has co-operated with Christianity to produce the modern world. It is nothing less than the providential correlative and counterpart of the incarnation'. This central doctrine of Christian faith has thus played a role in promoting the emergence of the modern secular world out of the Christian past. In today's terminology the incarnation may be described as the humanization of God, the secularization of the divine, and the earthing of heaven.

Furthermore, a new kind of god-talk is taking the place of the old. Here also lies continuity. Just as the Jews retained their word for god but gave it a new meaning, so in this Second Axial Period, god-talk is playing a new role. This has its roots in the biblical tradition itself when it spoke of 'the god of Israel', 'the god of Abraham', 'my god', and 'your god'. The 'god of Abraham' was unseeable; so if one were to ask, 'How can I learn about the god of Abraham?' the appropriate answer would be, 'Watch how Abraham lives his life. Try to understand what motivates him at the deepest level. That is all you will ever know of the god of Abraham.' So, by god-talk in the secular world, one is referring to the values we live by and the goals we aspire to.

In the modern secular world the supernatural/natural dichotomy has been swallowed up and eliminated. The almost infinite physical universe is itself awe-inspiring and full of mystery. The supernatural force once conceived as the objective personal God has disappeared from reality. What has survived from traditional god-talk are the values that were the attributes of God such as love, compassion, and justice. Even the New Testament says 'God is love'. Jesus himself exhorted us to enflesh the divine values, when he said, 'You must be as completely good as is your Father in heaven'. The fact that we may now refer to those values as human values, and find some of them highly honored in other cultural traditions, does not make them any less important.

To illustrate the continuing relationship between the secular world and its Christian past, I shall sketch the outlines of the path of faith into the secular global future. To do so I take three themes that are basic to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Faith

The first theme is faith. Every cultural tradition is a path of faith. The Bible itself emphasizes this when it starts with the figure of Abraham. In these days of increasing contact between the Christian and Islamic worlds it is salutary to remember that the figure of Abraham is equally important to the faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Jews honor Abraham as the father of their nation. Christians honor Abraham as a model of faith. Muslims honor Abraham as the first Muslim.

But what made Abraham a model man of faith? It was because he showed trust, when he heeded the voice he heard and (as the New Testament says) went out not knowing where he was to go. He had no map. He had no Torah, no Bible, and no Qur'an to guide him. The midrashic Jewish legends even tell how Abraham smashed his father's idols before setting on his journey. Faith requires us to surrender attachment to all tangibles. For the journey of faith we must be free of all excess baggage.

The Judeo-Christian tradition has on many occasions found itself so weighed down by its accumulating tradition that it has had to jettison its excess baggage. The Protestant Reformers abandoned a great deal of what had accumulated in medieval Christianity, including the belief in Purgatory. The Second Axial Period requires us to jettison a great deal more than the Protestant Reformers did, such as a post-mortem heaven and hell, a divine savior, an objective personal deity, the doctrine of the atonement, and the whole system of dogma that envelops them. These doctrines were once important as the expression of faith in a worldview where they were appropriate. That worldview has now become obsolete and in our modern worldview these doctrines have become a hindrance to faith.

Faith is not dependent on belief in a personal God or in any particular object. In common human experience faith is multi-faceted and operates at a variety of levels. That is why, in various secular contexts, we may be exhorted to put faith in ourselves, in our ideas, in other people, in the natural world. It is up to us to clarify for ourselves just what we put our faith in; whatever that is, has become our god. Whatever we put our trust in becomes our God, said Martin Luther. We have to learn throughout life to distinguish between idols and the God we can truly trust. In the context of the modern worldview the theistic God has become a superstitious and idolatrous object.

Today we are becoming acutely aware of our dependence on the earth. That remarkable Christian visionary and scientist, Teilhard de Chardin, was so awestruck by what he had learned of the self-evolving universe that he once said,

If, as the result of some interior revolution, I were to lose in succession my faith in Christ, my faith in a personal God, and my faith in spirit, I feel that I should continue to believe invincibly in the world. The world … is the first, the last and the only thing in which I believe. It is by this faith that I live.

In this ecologically sensitive age, that is a good place to begin. The evolution of life on this planet is an awe-inspiring mystery and was what Teilhard had come to understand as God. As we have seen, Jesus the sage drew attention to the marvels of nature to encourage people to walk the path of faith. The capacity of nature to create new forms and to renew life is more breathtaking than any of the unusual events commonly called miracles. Faith is a matter of being open to the marvels of the natural world and of saying 'Yes!' to life and all that it offers.

Hope

The second theme is hope. This is as basic to the human condition as is faith. 'Hope springs eternal in the human breast', said Alexander Pope. Where hope dies, faith grows weak, for the two are closely allied.

The experience of hope has played a dominant role in the long history of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Abraham looked forward to a city with foundations. Moses looked for a land flowing with milk and honey. The Babylonian exiles hoped for the restoration of the Kingdom of David. Christians looked for the coming of the Kingdom of God, the very words becoming permanently captured in the Lord's Prayer: 'Thy Kingdom come'. In the course of time, however, this hope became transformed into a post-mortem personal destiny in heaven, which even became known theologically as the Christian Hope.

The coming of the secular world has brought us back to earth again where something like the original intention of the 'Kingdom of God' becomes relevant once more. Our chief hopes for the future are much more this worldly than those of our forbears. Individually, of course, we hope for a long and healthy life. Collectively, we hope for social harmony, for economic prosperity, and for international peace. More recently our hope has incorporated the conservation of the earth's ecology.

Hope must not be confused with blind optimism. As I have tried to show in my book, The World to Come, the century we have entered is presenting us with so many frightening challenges that it is becoming quite difficult to hold out hope for a better world. Yet, as theologian Jürgen Moltmann has said, 'It is just because we cannot know whether humanity is going to survive or not, we have to act today as if the future of the whole of humanity depended on us.'

Love

My third theme from the Bible is love. There has always been general agreement that love is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jesus named, as the two major commandments, injunctions selected from the Jewish Scriptures — 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength', and 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself'.

But Jesus went further than anything in the Jewish tradition. He said, 'Love your enemies'. It is sadly ironic that through Christian history the most original dictum in the whole teaching of Jesus is just what Christians have found most difficult to carry out. Not only have professing Christians been little better than anybody else in loving their enemies but even the centrality of love itself became repositioned. Christian orthodoxy constructed a divine savior so that we sinners would become the object of his love. The original message of love, which exhorted us to save others, became distorted into one of exploiting it to secure our own salvation.

The secular world has no problem with acknowledging the importance of loving one's fellow humans. It sometimes even criticises the church for lack of love shown towards those who do not agree with it. The secular world acknowledges that love should not only cross ethnic and religious boundaries but should extend to all planetary forms of life. The secular world can readily affirm the slogan 'Love conquers all' and, if it uses god-language at all, could say 'God is love'. The secular world can even agree with Paul, the first Christian theologian, when he wrote, 'There are three things which have lasting value — faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of them all is love'.

Is Christianity going anywhere? The short answer is this. Orthodox Christianity will undoubtedly survive for quite some time in many of its traditional forms. Some will find spiritual fulfilment in one or more of them and rejoice in it. Nevertheless, Christian orthodoxy is not going anywhere; it is simply standing still. To people living in the secular world Christian orthodoxy has lost credibility. Those who insist on expounding Christian orthodoxy as the answer to the world's problems have become blind guides. As Jesus said, 'If a blind person guides a blind person, they will both fall into the ditch'.

The real future of the Judeo-Christian path of faith is a secular one. Far from being the enemy of Christianity the truly secular life is the legitimate continuation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The traditional worship of God has widened into the celebration of life. Faith is a matter of saying Yes! to life in all of its planetary complexity. The secular path still honors the abiding values it has learned from its Christian origins, even while it is shedding much of its past symbols and creedal formulations. It is concerned with the pursuit of truth, the practice of justice and the nurture of compassion, freedom and peace. It is learning to live by faith, hope, and love. Faith requires us to be free of all excess baggage. Hope requires us to be open to an ever-evolving future. Love requires us to be inclusive of all people and of all cultural traditions.

Lloyd Geering is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Honored as Principal Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for 2001, he is a renowned and respected commentator on religion and the author of several books, including The World to Come (1999) and Christianity without God (2003).

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