Opposing Futures

From “By Way of Response”
by Martin E. Marty, b.1928

Utopianism is not likely to remain as strong a theme as it was at midcentury in the West that was its home. The millennial theme is likely to be stronger. The magic of the year 2000 will trigger thought among numerologists about thousands of years. The record of the year 1000 C.E. and its context give no comfort to any who hope to avoid irresponsible apocalypticisms in the years ahead. The fact that earthly dreams have turned into nightmares and that “nothing works” will lead millions to misuse the biblical language about the urgency of the end-time. Like the author and ten million buyers of “The Late Great Planet Earth,” they are likely to use this language for several purposes. They will act like cognoscenti about the future and thus build up their self-centred tribes. Then they will set out to rescue others of the elect to join them. It is likely that their approach will lead to a charter for hedonism, since they may as well enjoy waiting. And, most important, they will be free to be apathetic about changing a world that according to prophecy must get worse if Christ is to come.

Between the departing utopians and the arriving millenarians will be the company of realists who dare not let circumstance overwhelm them. If Christian, they will not underestimate the power of evil. In history, the demonic pervades existence. But they will refuse to believe it has the only word or the last word. In the midst of certain threats and terrors, which are not the first that Christian history has seen, they will try to intervene on the course of history.

Christians and especially Christians of this sort will make up only a small cohort of humanity. While the world will keep its religious dimensions, in our culture secular elements are likely to dominate. While the passional side of human nature guarantees religious vitalities, the operative side finds religion to be in an ambiguous place. It serves to explain ever fewer aspects of existence to the whole population. The recent religious revivals have not to any great extent penetrated intellectual, literary or academic cultures. The amount of energy Christian apologists have to devote to T. S. Lewis or T. S. Eliot only reinforces the point of the rarity of such figures. We are surprised when an author devotes a life to the Christian theme. We know that peers make no special place for them and find their symbols puzzling. The resurgently religious have also not reorganised approaches to knowledge in the university or priorities in the mass media.

Religion has had a free ride during these decades when society was off balance. While the world is not likely soon to get on balance, many in it are growing impatient with the false promises of extravagant solutions. While the sacred cow of science is now crippled, we can expect new warfares of science and religion to break out in the face of challenges posed by sociobiology, behaviourism and the new astronomy. Secular intellectuals who ignored the claims of religion will react more vigorously as they see creationists and single-issue religious interests intrude on realms they consider their own. Tax exemption of such religious groups will face more challenges than before. Publics will expect more accountability from religious agencies since many of them have grown patently irresponsible. And as these agencies compete ever more viciously for the clientele dollar they will have to make claims and promises that will be ever harder to deliver. Expect more reaction. In sum: while the impulses behind religiosity will grow as people seek meaning, the momentum behind secularity will at the same time increase.

That’s good. A clash of doctrines is an opportunity, not a disaster. Such a clash might lead to the reform of the Christian house. After a generation in which personal experience and mindless authority received such high premium, there are signs that the challenges are making some Christians think again. Believers have often been clearer-headed in the face of atheists than at the side of religious fellow-travellers.

Robert M. Hutchins once advised students, “Get ready for anything, because anything is what's going to happen. We don't know what it is, and it‘s very likely that whatever it is, it won't be what we think it is."

Robert Heilbroner plausibly pictures that after economic collapse and reorganisation Americans are not likely to go far without seizing on an ideology to justify their processes. They would then assent to a statist religion since a complex society could not allow so much diversity as we now have, as it made its transit to a polity of control. This mild Maoism would not be called Marxism. A better prospect would be “Christian Democracy." The leaders of such a regime would appeal to symbols that already have roots in a pluralist society and then allow for little religious freedom or dissent.

Obvious factors make this script credible. With the rise of terrorism in the nuclear age, citizens may feel or find that a society of total surveillance is necessary. As resources diminish and our present business civilisation falls, they would not tolerate reallocations of goods without a creed that would impel conformity and sacrifices. Some who see the vitality of Christianity in a Poland look forward to such a polity as a test of faith and a spur to dissent. They overlook the price paid in Soviet Russia or the snuffing out of Christianity and other faiths in Maoist China.

The opposite extreme is pure individualism. Heilbroner talks about how citizens devote themselves now to merely “private morale.” As in the civic. so in the religious realm. Ultramodern spirituality, whether conservative or liberal in theology, is invisible and private. Religion in a late capitalist and competitive order is purely consumerist. It then offers more substance than meaning. Advertisers of its benefits, whether in fundamentalist paperbacks, on entrepreneurial television, among fashionable therapies or with do-it-yourself Eastern religious techniques, have to make ever more egregious claims in order to gain clienteles and customers.

Such religion gives no more than lip service to the organised church or religious institutions that are its real rivals. Gone are even the positive values of the tribe and the family. Tradition is packaged for instant consumption. There are no deferred benefits, only instant gratifications. The cross of Jesus Christ remains a symbol for Christian versions of this new faith, but its original meanings are gone. No hint of Jesus’s cry of abandonment by God is heard. This religion does not help devotees cope with the problem of evil. In place of calls for sacrifice, there are promises of rewards in dollars and cosmetic appearance, physical perfection and athletic achievement, political success and new popularity. Such religion lacks social power. No two adherents agree on what to transmit to a new generation. There is no room for judgment or admonition of others in the company, for mutual consolation, for the republic or the “oikoumene.” It helps create the void that totalitarianism would fill.

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