Hermeneutics and The Shape of the Future - Edited by Frank K. Flinn

The Principle of the Future -- Frederick Sontag

In what sense can the future ever be used as a present principle of interpretation?

Where eschatology is concerned, can we take a projected future and use it as a basis to interpret the present? And more important: Can God ever be used as a base that allows us to predict a future different from the past? We can answer this question only if we are able to say what God is going to do. This depends entirely on whether he is a God capable of controlling the future. We must ask: What can change the future to be anything but an extrapolation from the past? The only theological answer is a God of sufficient power, and sufficient independence, to alter history. Using the word "eschatology" is not enough. How can we be sure God is able to deliver on his promises?

The premise we need for such a belief is that God cannot be tied to any particular program. If we claim to know God's plan of action in advance, we tie him to that, and we must be careful about whether this also restricts his power to act. Ironically, if one leaves God free to act outside any scenario we devise, we lose control and have no firm base to point to prove our confidence in God's future action. Most religious individuals are caught in the dilemma of wanting to be sure they know how God will act, so that they can base their confidence on this certainty. But then they are often forced to reject God if their specific projected plan does not unfold. God must be free to shape the future, but for that he must be free of foreknowledge and aloof from specific religious predictions.

One additional factor is that God must be free of any need for human assistance, although he may allow us certain determinations. Classical theology fixed the future and eliminated contingency in the world in favor of divine omniscience in order to secure God's independence. But that is not the only possible way to do this. God need not determine events from the moment of creation, but he does need to be free of dependence on human accomplishment and able to act in spite of how events turn out contingently. Nor can God be fully revealed in any historical event, not even the whole course of history, for then he is tied to it. This places us under a handicap, for the religious temperament likes to locate a place where God can be clearly seen. In recent times, one favorite arena to locate God has been the course of history. But if this is so, God is tied to that reading of history and cannot act outside of it.

The question, then, as to whether a projected future can be used as a present principle of interpretation depends entirely on what the future is projected to be and what can be pointed to as capable of bringing it about. If it is a God not fully present in history, whether past or present, nothing about the certifiable record serves as an adequate ground for belief in such a God. Then, where can the notion of such a God come from, if not from the record of history? He can appear to, or act in, the lives of individuals or small groups, but in this case the evidence is far from universal. There may be "intimations of the future" in the present or in recorded past religious events, but this depends on whether we select out certain minor happenings and give them a significance larger than the bulk of human experience and the major events of history.

In what sense can Jesus serve as a principle to support our belief in God's future action?

Most religions do not claim to study history and then develop a new idea of a radical future from that. Eschatology is a useless notion without the idea of revelation. Something needs to be told to us which is different from what our common human experience might have led us to suspect. Usually this is connected to a charismatic or divine figure, one who teaches or reveals in his life what God's future plans are to be. For Christians this activity centers in Jesus, so that, in the case of Christianity, the locus of the interpretation of the future actually centers in the life and action of a person. Although prophets continually appear to revive or alter our image of Jesus, later religious figures derive their significance from the original revealer of the future.

In what sense did Jesus' words or his life reveal the future? In the early days of his ministry, up to the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he appeared as a messianic figure who might usher in God's kingdom by his own action. Instead, events deteriorated rapidly, until he was convicted of crimes against religion and the state and was put to death. Thus, if it were not for the resurrection event, Jesus' life would offer no hope for a future different from the past. True, any individual may try to live his or her life according to Jesus' advice for example, e.g., the Sermon on the Mount. But although any individual might succeed in becoming saintly thereby, Jesus' example leads us more to suspect that violence and death lie ahead for the disciple rather than a radically altered future.

From Saint Paul on down, Christian tradition has taken belief in the resurrection to be central to Christian hope. This does not mean that Jesus' life itself becomes our basis for belief in a new future. Rather, it is God's action to restore a life which failed that is the center of hope, not his life as such. Hence, if Christians say that their hope for a new future centers in Jesus, this cannot be an accurate statement, since Jesus' individual effort ended in disaster. The center of confidence must shift to God's ability to rescue and restore human failure and destruction. God's power was not so much evidenced in Jesus' life (although we now read God's power back into it) as in what God did to Jesus' life once it ended in tragedy. Christian hope can never be a simple optimism. It is always a hope that rests on the reversal of tragic loss.

This is why Christians so often speak of the "risen Christ" and why the discovery of the "historical Jesus" gives us no basis of confidence whatsoever. Paul is the great first preacher of Christianity, but Paul was never Jesus' companion on his road of brief adulation and violent destruction. Paul (or Saul) persecuted those who were with Jesus because they were heretics to Judaism. Only Saul's encounter with the risen Christ changed him into Paul. But the risen Christ is neither the historical Jesus nor a present part of history in any obvious sense. Jesus was restored after his violent death, but he did not stay long. Thus, no figure available on the present stage can be an anchor for our future confidence. The Holy Spirit established the early church and roused the disciples from their despondency. We can only ask today: Where does one encounter the risen Christ, and how does one receive the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as a foundation for future hope?

Jesus' words are now fixed, but no prediction of the future can ever be as fixed as the canon of scripture or the formulas of any dogma.

As a matter of fact, dogmatic formulation, trust in the church as an institution, in its tradition or its leaders, or the attempt to use the words of scripture as an inerrant norm -- all these efforts come about precisely because our knowledge of and ability to predict the future is so uncertain. In our frantic search for certainty, we want to fix the historical record and codify it. But if the future is to be radically different and cannot flow from the past, to pin down the past, if we can, does not solve the problem of the future. This by no means prevents anyone from claiming that he has faith that the future will work out according to God's promise. But it does mean that no past history or established words are sufficient to justify this belief.

Is there, then, any such thing as fixed view of God's nature or his actions which cannot change? Much of classical theology thought it essential to deny change in God's nature in order to preserve God's power to deliver on his promises. Without appraising the metaphysical views which lie behind this belief, it should be clear to us now that a

God who is to make the future radically different from the past, or different from any projection based on the course of history, must himself be capable of change. Some classical theologies pictured God as programming these future changes from the beginning of time. But if the future is uncertain, God must be of such a nature as to be free from our predictions and open to change the future without regard for the drift of history. His nature must contain the ability for self-determined change.

If this is true, how are we to view: (i) the canon of scripture; (ii) the dogmas which seem so sure of God's past and future actions; (iii) and all the utterances of religious figures whose credibility depends on presenting their view of God's program of activity as a definitive plan? Given our uncertainty over the exact shape of the future, it is necessary for us to project definite programs and to believe credible religious figures who offer us an analysis of God's action. These accounts tell us how God may act but not how he must. It is a natural human confusion to think that what we hope will occur is in fact certain, but a God of the future cannot be bound by certainty. Can he, then, be trusted, so that our hopes are not in vain and our faith a worthless dream?

Yes, that is why "faith" means "belief in things unseen." And it is also why our major confusion is to mix up the promise of a new future with tying God down to one specific program, instrument, or timetable for its enactment. Given our uncertainty about God's future actions, coupled with our faith in his ability to produce a new future, we leap at any offer of an explanation for God's method of operation. To project a definite program clarifies our uncertainties. But we must never confuse a human reading of God's intention with a certainty that he is bound to that scenario. The irony is that the God who is free to offer us a new future is at the same time the God whose freedom cannot allow him to be bound by the details of any definite program we project. 

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