02 December 2010

John Haught, the Future, and Advent

As a result of a panel discussion I listened to yesterday or the day before, I was reading God After Darwin again and came to an interesting passage on time and the idea of a metaphysics of future. In this book John F Haught tries to reorient both theology and science from an over dependence on (or bondage to) the past and turn them to a notion of future which is very different than the notion we are so used to. He is convinced this new perspective is (literally) the hope of both theology and science. For me personally his ideas imply a shift in the way I think of "the present moment" or the way I celebrate Advent or look to the Feast of Christ's Nativity.

Haught begins this section by describing faith as the state of being grasped (a la Tillich!) by "that which is to come." He then speaks of the future as having some kind of "efficacy" --- hard as this is to conceive of. He goes on to refer to a famous passage by Tillich in which he refers to being grasped by the "coming order." [[ The coming order is always coming, shaking this order, fighting with it, conquering it and conquered by it. The coming order is always at hand. But one can never say, "It is here. It is there!" One can never grasp it, but one can be grasped by it.]] (Shaking of the Foundations, p 27)

We are so very used to thinking of the future as that which is not here yet (because it has not yet been built out of the building blocks of the past and present), and the past as that which has been completed and gone (scattered building blocks, mostly turned to dust). We think of the present (the building blocks we can pick up and work with) as the only really real. But the situation is more complex and also more exciting than this. What we call present is the eternally-coming-to-be-and-also-passing (the eternally vanishing and ephemeral). It cannot really be fixed or pointed to, for the moment we identify it, it is gone and a new present has come into play (and gone again too). Meanwhile it is the future that takes hold of us and calls us to be. Haught writes:

[[In the experience of faith, it is the "future" that comes to meet us, takes hold of us, and makes us new. We may call this future, at least in what Rahner calls its "absolute" depth, by the name "God". In Biblical circles the very heart of authentic faith consists in the total orientation of consciousness toward the coming of God, the ultimately real. Beyond all our provisional or relative futures there lies an "Absolute future." And since our own experience cannot be separated artificially from the natural world to which we are tied by evolution, we are permitted to also surmise that "being grasped" by the absolute future pertains not just to ourselves but to the whole cosmic process in which we are sited. Theology can claim legitimately, along with St Paul (Rom 8:22), that the entire universe is always being drawn by the power of a divinely renewing future. The "power of the future" is the ultimate metaphysical explanation of evolution.]]

Later Haught explains: "by a metaphysics of the future, I mean quite simply the philosophical expression of the intuition --- admittedly religious in origin --- that all things receive their being from out of an inexhaustibly resourceful "future" that we may call "God" this intuition also entails the notion that the cosmic past and present are in some sense given their own status by the always arriving but also always unavailable future. . . . It should not be too hard for us to appreciate, therefore, why a religion that encourages its devotees to wait in patient hope for the fulfillment of life and history will interpret ultimate reality, or God, as coming toward the present, and continually creating the world from the sphere of the future "not-yet". . . .The past and present may seem to have more "being," in the sense of fixed reality, than does the future, which apparently has the character of not-yet-being. . . . In fact many of us think intuitively of the future as quite "unreal," since it has not yet arrived fully. [Haught notes this is a difficult and confusing idea at first, then says,] . . .perhaps this confusion is the result of our having been bewitched by a metaphysics either of the past or the eternal present. . . .]]

It seems to me that Advent is the perfect time to ask ourselves if we have been so bewitched, and to what degree we are really believers in the summoning call, promise, and power of the future which dwells within us and summons us from all sides as well. To what degree are our own lives an expression of the hope this future provides? (I would note that nothing unreal has this same kind or degree of power.) How truly attuned to the future are we? How truly capable of waiting, not in the grim sense of being stuck in the past, but in terms of orienting all we are and know TOWARDS the future that IS in God and is breaking in on us at every moment?

Contemplatives often speak of living in the present moment or attending to the present moment and sometimes we have the sense that the present moment is a kind of static reality of some breadth and length. We may also think that this kind of spirituality locks away the past and blocks us from looking towards the future. But really, the contemplative "present moment" is precisely what Haught is speaking of here: the powerful and continual grasping of our lives by the power of futurity -- a futurity grounded and realized in the living God. To truly dwell in the present moment is to give oneself over to this absolute future, this God who creates by summoning us forth from death and the despair of the past-only into the hope and freedom of the dawning-future we call present. This I think is preeminently the spirituality of Advent.

Our own approaches to Advent will differ one to the next, but we should ask ourselves to what degree have we become bewitched by another metaphysics than the one Haught describes, a metaphysics of the past or of a static eternal present, for instance rather than a metaphysics of future. For some that may mean spending some time rethinking our own ideas of the nature of time. We must at least, I think, begin to get our minds around this idea that the future is more real than we have allowed thus far in our conventional wisdom re time, and that IT is the reason there is a present (or really, anything at all). We, our world, the whole of the cosmos is not SIMPLY the consequence of a series of past causal events. Instead we are the result of God summoning the real out of the unreal, the more perfect out of the less perfect, the more complex out of the less complex, etc. We are here because the future opens the way for us to grow to fulfillment, not as a void into which we might merely move or expand as the weight of the past pushes us onward, but as an effective reality which empowers and summons to encounter and surrender. For me this is a really new way of thinking or seeing --- something, despite my reading of Haught, Moltmann, et al, I had not really "gotten" before now in doing theology. And so, the prospect of exploring this is new and exciting. Personally, I love beginnings and the excitement linked to them! That is what Advent (and the power of future) are all about! Apparently that is also what remaining in the present moment is all about as well!!

P.S., for those looking for a challenging and very exciting read, check out John Haught's, God After Darwin, A Theology of Evolution. If you are not up to the whole thing (and I personally am not myself right now) at least read chapter 6, "A God for Evolution." Of all of Haught's books the one I have liked best to this point is Is Nature Enough?. Great ideas, central themes, but readable. There you might want to look at the chapter on "Emergence" or the last short chapter on "Anticipation".