The undiscovered country

Mick Pope

ethos.org.au | 1 July 2017

Douglas Adams wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: ‘Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so’. Science and philosophy argue about whether the time that we perceive is ‘real’. However, common sense tells us that the future, as goes the title of a Star Trek movie, is an ‘undiscovered country’. Humanity faces an uncertain future, with existential threats from the geological forces of the Anthropocene, Frankenstein-like Artificial Intelligence (AI) or Day After Tomorrow style extra-terrestrials.

The idea of linear time, or the linear progression from past, through present to future, has been attributed to the Judeo-Christian tradition. In this view, time is bookended by creation at one end and the end times or eschaton at the other. This linear view contrasts with cyclical understandings of time, as found in Hinduism, for example, where creation moves in cycles from creation to destruction, on and on for eternity. That said, the Western religious tradition is not without its cycles, as we shall see shortly. Nor can we simply map religious ideas of linear time onto the Western idea of progress as if the former were solely responsible for the latter.

In the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh, the central historical event is the Exodus. It is around this that the concept of a weekly Sabbath rest is tied; the rhythm of life is not simply for labour, lest we enslave ourselves. This is an idea surely missing in modern discussion of economics, weekends and penalty rates. Likewise, the Exodus is central to one of Judaism’s most sacred holy days, that of Passover. In Exodus 12, we read that the Passover was to be kept forever, taught to future generations as God passing over ‘our homes’. In other words, it is not merely history, but re-enacted, re-lived history. Much the same is apparent in the practice of Holy Communion.

The point of all of this is not simply a theology lesson per se, but to show that the Western tradition contains both cyclical and linear concepts of time, and that the former grounds the latter. We might look critically at the destruction of the cultural revolutions in China, with their focus on the linear pursuit of progress and abandoning the poverty of the past for the richness of the future. Yet we witness similar things in the West: the secular tradition of linear time deriding ideas as old-fashioned or nostalgic. The Anthropocene demonstrates the destructiveness of the endless quest for innovation and novelty driven by the ‘cult of consumerism’, as theologian Michael Northcott has termed it. Not only goods, but also experiences and relationships, have been commodified, making our society rootless and wandering into an apocalypse of our own making.

Notwithstanding this linear progression, all cultures still have practices bound in the past, conscious or not. That is, we find ourselves returning to the past and reliving it, even if only vicariously, to give meaning to the present. In Australia, ANZAC day increasingly ties who we are to a past military failure, defining our future in geopolitics. This creeping militarism, rather than a day of lament over the tragedy of war, should worry Christians. Likewise, in the US, Independence Day is not simply history, but a continual restatement of American exceptionalism. When we see images of US flags draped over crosses, we should also worry.

So time is both linear and cyclical in the west; but is the future a heaven or a hell? That’s a question that has occupied both futurists and theologians. The book of Revelation has frightened many a church-goer and inspired lukewarm action movies like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s End of Days. Thankfully, Schwarzenegger was encouraged not to blast Satan back to Hell, not giving further fuel to the fire of redemptive violence. However, millennial obsession is a recent phenomenon. Tales of widespread panic in AD 1000 turn out to be urban legends. Modern religious fundamentalism in America has given birth to various millennial cults. The Left Behind series perpetuates the myth of the rapture, rather than a solid resurrection theology together with a New Heaven and Earth, creation-affirming theology. And there is no shortage of broader cultural equivalents, with Y2K, fears of global pandemics, mutually assured destruction and now climate change. We are obsessed with our own destruction, although not without good reason. The timing of the Doomsday Clock is somewhat arbitrary, but its recent setting to closer to midnight than it has been since 1953 should tell you something not just about our existential angst, but so too about the actual threats humans face. Some Christians might revel in their climate denial as a badge of faith, but as Clive Hamilton notes in his recent book Defiant Earth, ‘belonging to a certain cultural or religious group does not exempt one from what is happening on Anthropocene Earth’.

Of course, while earthly suffering or hell on Earth is a part of both religious and non-religious reflection, so too is heaven. Heaven is often conceived in non-physical terms, a spiritual home we go to when we die to be with our loved ones. Eternity is seen, then, as timelessness, an ever-present changeless now. However, as Tom Wright notes, heaven is more of a stop off before the real deal of heaven come to Earth. The end of days, then, is not an end of time, but the beginning of a new time, one that began with the resurrection. When Jesus says that ‘in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places’ (John 14:2), He was speaking of temporary dwellings. We need to abandon most of our hymnody for its implicit, matter-denying Gnosticism.

Secular models of a disembodied future are also common. One aspect of the idea of singularity, the rise of super-intelligent AI, is ‘digital ascension’, where human consciousness is uploaded into a computer. Margaret Werthheim identifies the religious-like attraction of this in The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace. The popularity of immersive, online video games is one manifestation of this, as is the popularity of various cyberpunk novels and anime like Ghost in the Shell.

Regardless of what vision we have of our future, is it fixed or open to influence? Theologians come down on both sides. Stuart Kauffman, in Reinventing the Sacred, argues for an open and partially unpredictable future. Kauffman defines emergence as the idea that genuine novelty emerges as physical systems become more complex. He seems to think he can borrow religious language and give it a secular spin, while avoiding the collapse of meaning into nothingness implicit in reductionist philosophy. The fact that he has to borrow words like ‘God’ and ‘sacred’ should tell us this move doesn’t work, and it is a short step to ascribe the creative act of the immanent triune God to the appearance of novelty - but that’s a topic for another time (pardon the pun).

Consider the process of evolution. The origins of the lung lie in an ancient fish swim bladder, which allowed fish to swim at a constant level in the water column. The process of evolution takes objects and builds new and interesting things from them. Kauffman argues that, not only can we not know ahead of time what these new things might be, but that their emergence is partially lawless.

Kauffman’s argument for emergence as partially lawless hinges on two ideas. Firstly, the ‘laws of nature’ can be understood as the simplest way of describing the world, compressing all of our observations into a few ideas. Secondly, the future is always a much smaller subset of what is actually possible. Further, we can never know the full range of ways in which one thing can become another, nor the probability of it occurring. Think for example of the swim bladder becoming a lung. How could this development be conceived of a priori (before the fact)? We only ever observe or understand evolution a posteriori (after the fact). Combining these two ideas, the underrepresented future can never be fully described in detail based upon the past, since the future is never truly reducible to the past, even if we knew it perfectly (think the butterfly effect). Hence, the future is partially undescribed by our laws. Time is forward moving, but not in a simple, straight forward fashion.

The future is also open, sensitive to small changes. This openness doesn’t just apply to the natural world. Kauffman gives the example of the trial of King Charles the first of England. Under the law of the time, Charles was above the law and couldn’t be tried by parliament. However, the simple act of him picking up the tip of his cane after repeatedly refusing to do so was interpreted as him bowing before parliament. Now he, too, and all subsequent English monarchs were subject to the law of the land. We see this kind of cultural explosion all of the time. Take the smart phone for example. Who would have thought a phone you could carry in your hand would become camera, computer and conduit to host of social media apps that transform the way we organise our time, negotiate sexual relations, or bully and intimidate one another?

In the Dr Who BBC Radio play The Ghosts of N-Space, the third Doctor discusses the impacts of time travel. He notes that, ‘the trouble is, you can rarely predict the consequences of your actions. In trying to avert a disaster you may be the unwitting cause of a far greater one’. In other words, as we face an uncertain future where technology is both the cause of our woes and offered as its cure, we should rely upon the precautionary principle. Indeed, the exercise of such precaution when it comes to trying to transcend our finitude or manipulate our environment to our own ends is the message of the first creation account in Genesis 1 and the Elijah cycle of 1 Kings 17-18. Time is not linear in that we can easily predict how what we do will affect the future; sometimes these effects are highly nonlinear and quickly grow beyond our control.

And yet each of us wants to shape the future, hopefully for the better. Notwithstanding the unpredictable nature of the future, as the Doctor says to Jo Grant in the TV episode The Day of the Daleks, ‘every choice we make changes the history of the world’. Some Christians will want to argue that God is in control, and so we can do nothing. To me, this argument abrogates our responsibility to exercise responsible dominion, to do justice and to live eschatologically as if Jesus is in charge, and fails to grasp that what will be should be imagined in how we live now. Saying that climate change is simply the end times is, apart from a simplistic reading of Romans 8, or a delusional reading of Revelation, pitting God’s will to bring judgment with God’s will that we be obedient to the command to love God and neighbour. Instead, what is required now are deliberate choices made together as the church, and also as a society, with the hope that collectively we might influence events such that a better future emerges. That Christ will return to bring this to a conclusion that we can’t achieve ourselves only sharpens, not lessens, this imperative.

Mick Pope is an aspiring ecotheologian and the Reviews Editor of Zadok Perspectives. He heads up the Ethos Environment think tank and is an adjunct lecturer at Eastern College in creation care and theology of science. He is also Professor of Environmental Mission at Missional University. Mick is the author, together with Claire Dawson, of Climate of Hope: Church and Mission in a Warming World (Melbourne, UNOH, 2014). His new book, A Climate of Justice: Loving Your Neighbour in a Warming World (Melbourne, Morning Star, 2017), will be launched in October.