Tim Howles writes: The French, would you believe, have two words for “the future”. The first is “l’avenir”. This word describes the sort of situation that would likely pertain were things to progress along the trajectory that is currently established. It’s the word we might use, for example, to celebrate the prospects of a young couple whose commitment to one another right now surely presages a bright future ahead. By contrast, the second word, “le futur”, is more indeterminate. It encapsulates the sense that events might go one way or the other, for better or for worse. It speaks of a future that is hard to predict, a horizon that is difficult to discern, precisely because the present moment does not provide a ground from which to make confident predictions one way or the other.
Western society currently finds itself at a crucial juncture between these two conceptualizations of “the future”. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that we are in the process of transitioning from one to the other. And, if this is true, the challenge for Christians is as follows: how can we speak into this situation in a way that is truly hopeful?
So what is the anticipation of the future we have taken for granted up to now? Within the modern, western, secular worldview, we have been led to believe in a particular trajectory of history. Through the efforts of science, engineering and technology, and underwritten by the unstoppable phenomenon of globalization itself, the message has been subtly relayed to us: things are moving forward; progress is inevitable; in the future, you can expect to have more than you had before! We are under the sign of what the philosopher Walter Benjamin called “the angel of history”. All we have to do, so the narrative goes, is settle back and allow ourselves to be carried forward on its wings.
In this context, events of recent years have come as a bit of a shock to many. There is a peculiar intensity of feeling right now in the arena of political, social and cultural debate: whatever our views happen to be, I’m sure we can agree on that! But there is more to this than meets the eye. For perhaps this intensity can be attributed to the fact that we are experiencing not just a moment of turmoil, but a transition into an entirely new framework of history. The future that, for better or for worse, we had been led to believe was fixed is now open and up-for-grabs. We are transitioning from “l’avenir” to “le futur”. And with that comes a sense of anxiety and fear that can sometimes be difficult to articulate.
The contemporary environmental crisis serves as a kind of locus for all this. Why? Because every day when we turn on our TV or pick up a newspaper we find ourselves confronted with dire predictions about the future. These cannot be dismissed as mere media sensationalism, for these warnings originate in the mouths of the climate scientists themselves—those who are usually most concerned not to venture onto the delicate ground of advocacy. Take the example of Chris Rapley, Professor of Climate Science at UCL, who begins his stage-play 2071 with the line: “I have been thinking about the future”, and then for sixty excruciating minutes feeds us a series of spine-tingling insights into climate change, biodiversity loss and global emissions. Faced with this information, we have an inescapable sense of foreboding. And we are tempted to lapse into what the French psychologist Jean-Baptiste Fressoz calls a state of “désinhibition”, which describes the sense of inertia we experience when confronted by the apparently impossible scale of the challenge.
The word “apocalypse” seems strangely appropriate to describe the tone of these warnings. It’s as if the challenge posed by the contemporary environmental crisis is so severe, and the requirement that humans change their pattern of behaviour so urgent, that such language alone can attain the necessary register. But whatever this word used to signify, in contemporary usage it seems to be increasingly divested of any sense of redemption. The future we are facing seems to be bleakly, even nihilistically, apocalyptic. This seems to be reflectedin contemporary media. Take the example of Hollywood. During the 1990s, a series of films depicted for us the issue of environmental change (consider: Armageddon, Day after Tomorrow). But these were essentially optimistic visions, the crisis being one that was ultimately manageable within existing governance structures, or at least by the heroic efforts of a character played by Bruce Willis! In recent years, however, these films have taken a post-apocalyptic turn, revolving less around questions of what we can do to resolve the situation, but rather addressing in a passive and resigned tone how it might be possible for a fragment of the human species to survive once the crisis has struck (consider:The Road, Turin Horse, Melancholia).
Christians, however, can tell a different story about the trajectory of history. Moreover, we have a resource to do this in the apocalyptic material of Scripture.
This might sound like a strange move to make. For some, the thrust of biblical apocalyptic is to close down or negate a sense of agency in the present moment. If the future is already set, and is revealed to us by God himself, then what can we do here on Earth that is of enduring value or that might contribute to permanent change?
And yet, might it be that this genre functions in quite the opposite way? Here is the logic:
- The apocalyptic material in Scripture serves to temporarily reveal or disclose a future state of affairs.
- However, it does so in such a way as to remind us that this state of affairs still lies in the future and is not the reality we see around us now.
- Therefore, precisely because this material deals with a “not-yet”, its function is to prompt and inspire new or renewed forms of action in the present moment, with the idea that the direction of history itself might be redeemed.
The apocalyptic material in Scripture does indeed draw back the curtain on a state of affairs that is held in the hands of a sovereign God. But precisely by showing us that this future is “not yet”, its function is to send us back into the world with energy and resolve to play our part in its unfolding narrative “now”. We are inspired to become newly-responsible agents within the flow of history, emboldened and empowered to involve ourselves in the social, cultural and political arenas we occupy.
What a contrast this provides with the stale narrative of modernity, with its implied stipulation of a future to which we must passively acquiesce and that we can do nothing to change.
In recent weeks, I’ve been musing on 2 Thessalonians 2:1–10. What do we discover in this text? The context is clear: it seems that rumours had been circulating among the Christian community in Thessalonica concerning the imminent return (παρουσία) of Christ, generated (it seems) by a letter purporting to have been written by the Apostle Paul himself. In response, Paul reminds the Christian community of the order of things that is to come. The “man of lawlessness”, the adversary of Christ and his followers, is currently “at work” in the world. But the impact of this adversary is currently being held in check by a force or power that “restrains it” (τὸ κατέχον, ὁ κατέχων). Only when this restraining effect is removed will a final confrontation take place, with the triumph of Christ then being followed by the end of history itself. So what are we to make of this restraining force or power? Augustine provides the key to unlock its meaning, when he proposes that God himself is the subject of this verb (City of God,20.19). For Augustine, God is the one holding back the end of time, so as to give opportunity for more people to come to faithnow.
Verses such as these, and the apocalyptic texts of Scripture in general, provide a powerful motivation for Christians to engage in the world with confidence. Because the end is at the end, held in abeyance by God himself, the present becomes the site of real, consequential and purposeful activity. And, as a result, we can convey the Christian quality of “hope” to the world, a hope that is sorely needed as we face together a “futur” that is full of trepidation for many.
For more on this theme, with particular reference to the contemporary environmental crisis, you may like to order my recent Grove booklet Responding Faithfully to the Environmental Crisis.
Revd Tim Howles is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation and is based in Oxford.
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