By Chip Prehn
The season of Advent is full of warnings, but in A.D. 2020 there is a diffuse perfume of apocalypse in the air. The plague appears to be spreading. The economy is uncertain. Many sectors have gone flat. Others are skyrocketing. What’s going on? In 2020, politics became strange. The historic voter turnout only revealed a nation divided right down the middle. Neither side gives an inch to the other. We are definitely living in what in retrospect we shall call “a time.” This momentous time will soon be time past instead of time present. And what about the future? Advent invites us to reflect on time. The Christian Year begins as the secular year ends. Christians move toward the darkest day of the solar year to observe the brightest day of the sacred. Winter brings spring. The Word-made-flesh is the end of the world and its beginning. On a single day begins the day that never ends.
St. Augustine reflected deeply on the subject of time, but always in relation to eternity and seldom in relation to what we mortals call the future. Augustine believed that time began when the universe began, thus time is a creature. In the Confessions, he suggested to the recipient of his thoughts (God) that “only the present really is” (I.13). This follows from the doctrine that God possessed preeminent is-ness and being. “Thy day, O Lord, is not daily, but today. Thy today is eternity” (XI.13). Eternity is not time but wholly outside of time. Since God supremely is, eternity and reality are ultimately one and the same. Hence, reality is always the present and never the future. This theological principle is worth pondering. God is now, always. What then is “the future” if anything at all?
Aquinas wrote in the Summa Theologiae (I.10) that we mortals can gain an idea of the eternity of God by considering the before-and-after qualities of time in the present. Before-and-after is understood against the horizon of the present moment. Considering before-and-after in the present enables us to think analogically of eternity. God is not in the future but in eternity and in the creation as transcendent Being. Aquinas thus reinforces Augustine’s doctrine that the living and true God – the eternal Deity – is forever now and today.
It stands to reason from the above pointers from saintly genius that what we call “the future” has less reality than we sometimes suppose. In any case, we should not look to “the future” to provide us with resources today. Eternity is related to time in God alone. Like before-and-after, time and the future are likely human constructs, perhaps along the lines of Kant’s categories. This point is reinforced by my sermon prep during Advent. It’s occurred to me that a persistent theme in the whole of the biblical witness is that God’s people must not invest the future with too much power. In both the Old and New Testaments, mortals are depicted as rather desperate to know the future but God constantly denies us that knowledge. Jesus puts the divine refusal in the simplest possible terms. It is not for mortals to know the future. That is the Father’s business.
Wondering if “the future” is a functional illusion, I happened upon a podcast relating to current events. The speaker was a gifted intellectual and a millennial only a few years older than my oldest son. The speaker is well-spoken and articulate. I was not surprised to learn that he was prepared at a good Public School and read English at Oxford. The podcaster said that there is a “God-sized hole” in North Atlantic culture. Since he said he is an atheist, I was interested to know how he believed his generation would fill the God-void. He suggested that the God-hole was being filled with a kind of new morality which troubles him. The novel morality is puritan in the sense that its believers assume they are morally superior to most people (and especially their parents), who are taken to be almost hopelessly racist, sexist, homophobic, and so on. The new believers are given to wishful thinking. Since what we know to be true—common sense—cannot be trusted, and all traditional views are based on either ignorance or lies, a new world must be envisioned that leaves such hindrances behind. What these believers want to be true is for them true.
Remarkably, this millennial podcaster values most what he says is being cast aside: history, tradition, received knowledge and customs, the classical virtues (especially those of the Stoics), and so on. Suffice it to say that the speaker is at odds with both his own generation, which he believes is untethered, and the generations of his parents and grandparents, which were tied to belief in God.
I reflected on these remarks. What I personally take from the speaker is that the younger generation would look to “the future” to provide what is needed for the journey toward a better world. This development seems entirely logical to me. When you mostly despise the past and have given up patience with the present, which futurists tend to devalue into “the status quo,” you must find your sustaining ideology somewhere. Persons with this combination of disappointment with the past, impatience with the present, and ambition to make the world more perfect ASAP tend to give The Future a transcendent quality. In fact, The Future is tacitly invested with divine powers. For these believers (who would be horrified to be called “believers”), The Future will provide hope, inspiration, ideas, wisdom, and everything required for systemic change. The Future is a veritable cornucopia of powerful goods and tools.
The new ethic described above is a utopian illusion. The Future is only a mask for inordinate self-reliance and the habit (or vice) of captious reason. The Future is what revolutionaries believe in. The leaders of the French Revolution began by repudiating the value of the past — especially religious, moral, and social traditions. Since the present has much too much of the past in it, people must be persuaded that the present — a.k.a. reality — has little to offer. Change becomes an end in itself. Customarily, revolutionaries are a self-styled intellectual elite who claim to see The Future. They typically have long résumés and short acquaintance with the workaday world. They have restless brains but little political power. If we give historical scholarship any value, we know that such people often enough become thieves in the night and killers in the day.
The wishful thinking recommended to the people “for their own good” proves difficult of general acceptance: The “inexorable,” “fated,” and “right,” and “good” Future is not quickly embraced by rank-and-file sorts, most of whom are too busy milking cows, changing sparkplugs, or restocking store shelves to pay much attention to the subtleties upon which the new world order is to be based. The application of The Future to a stubborn, “traditional” society thus requires coercion. Coercion comes in many forms, depending on what the people in a given commonwealth can take. In the West of our time, the Futurists must make an alliance with the Media and sympathetic members of the government who are expected to provide propaganda for The Future and resistance to the past and the present (a.k.a. reality). The legal establishment is tapped for its knowledge of how to manipulate the laws to serve The Future. Law enforcement is easily called upon to ensure that the people are embracing The Future. Citizens who do not go along with the new religion are declared enemies of “reason” and “science,” which are The Future’s right- and left-hand angels. Since the “right thinking” Futurists must have the world their way ASAP, impatience is a common trait, and, as the spiritual guides teach us, impatience is the cause of anger.
The Future that would fill that God-hole of which the millennial podcaster spoke is an aspect of secularized providence and a species of pagan historicism. C.S. Lewis defined historicism as “the belief that human beings can discover the ‘inner meaning’ of the historical process” (Christian Reflections, 243). To assume that natural events and developments must happen a certain way is historicism. Lewis realized that historicists are claiming what amounts to a kind of inspiration for a revelation that the rest of us have not received. Why can’t we see what they can see, since they are smarter than we and we ought to accept their vision? Lewis warned that such a semi-religious belief “might lure us into the vulgarist of all vulgar errors, that of idolizing as the goddess of History what manlier ages belabored as the strumpet Fortune. That would sink us below the Christian, or even the Pagan level. The very Vikings and Stoics knew better” (245). Lewis’s personal experience taught him that contingency ought to be valued as much as false teleology or wishful, utopian thinking. He could never move away from either common sense or what tradition offers us in the way of wisdom.
Women and men who hate the past and are impatient with the present — and unwilling to accept the human lot — do tend to cut themselves off from the world’s great treasure-trove of wisdom, ideas, practical tools, and the human examples that can lead directly to healthy, organic change. God provides. In past and present, God acts, God speaks, God gives abundantly, and God blesses. God inhabits the present eternally; thus it is only in the present where reason and revelation combine to become the sustaining tradition upon which we can build a solid hope for human progress. Tradition thence becomes a resource upon which younger generations can draw as they correctly desire to fix problems in the commonwealth.
I shall enter the holy season of Advent fearing God but ignoring excitable chatterers with all the answers about what might or must come. I shall ask for God’s grace, that I may avoid nutty ideas pressed on me by post-Christian rationalists. When I solemnly sing “Come, Thou, long-expected Jesus,” I will have a good idea who I am expecting: The Savior and King who comes into the present, not from the future, but from eternity. As for that human abstraction called “the future,” I shall heed the good counsel of Austin, Aquinas, and Lewis and avoid such utopian concepts. From “no-place” comes nothing. From Some-place comes the God who is here and now.
Chip Prehn is a partner of Dudley & Prehn Educational Consultants. He is an Episcopal priest, an independent historian, and a writer. Prehn serves St. Mark’s Church, Coleman, Texas, as part-time vicar.