On the Future

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The future often has a bad reputation. “In the long run, we’re all dead.” No actual beings exist in the future. The past is all over. The future has not come around. It need not. The only real thing is the present, which keeps changing. The advantage the past has over the future is that – at one time – actual, not imaginary, human beings walked about, folks with names. They did things. We grasp what human beings are like by looking at what they did or did not do, or what they did do, but shouldn’t have.

The theory of progress once assured us that things necessarily become better. By redefining evil out of existence, by historicizing it, some can still think progress is automatic. Paradise thus is down the ages, in this world’s future. We can hardly wait to arrive there. We put all our energies into the future. We want to shed the present messiness. We educate the young about the future, not the past. They thus remain largely clueless. The only trouble is that most of us, like our ancient and recent ancestors, won’t make it to this anticipated, blissfully happy future.

This progressive view is the opposite of that often depicted in the classics. They thought the world was pretty good in the beginning, like the Garden of Eden, but without the Tree in it to rile things up. Yet while many things seem better as future becomes past, a gnawing sense spreads. Things are getting progressively worse. We hear apocalypse more often than we hear utopia. The world betrays multiple “deviations” from the good, not an untroubled “progress” to something perfect.

The circular view of history – say, in Thucydides – tells us that things will come around again and again in pretty much the same way as they did on their first tour. In the cyclic order of change, all things become intelligible to us. In the extreme form, over time we become everyone else. We even become ourselves a second or third time around. It is difficult to see how someone who holds such a theory does not end in despair: “You mean this is all there is?”

Many authors from J.B. Bury (d. 1927) on have pointed out that our envisioned inner-worldly future is, on reflection, but a secularized version of Christian eschatology. Heaven, hell, death, and purgatory are not such odd ideas after all when we see how they become transformed into political, economic, and ecological goals. Heaven becomes what we create down the ages. Hell is any opposition to it. Death is overcome by cloning or science. Purgatory is what we must endure just before perfection.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Eduard von Steinle (b.1810-d.1886) [private collection]
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Eduard von Steinle (b.1810-d.1886) [private collection]

Religion, especially Christianity, is hated because it insists that each man’s end transcends the world. The purpose of secularized man in the world is finally to produce a perfect society (a “heaven”) through human intelligence and enterprise alone. Its model is humanity minus God. But this coming perfection is in some “future” however near or distant. The billions of people who lived before the arrival of this goal, which includes all of us, will have lived as tools for future generations whenever they come along.

In the Christian view, from the beginning a divine plan and order exists in the events of the world. No one was created solely as a means for someone else’s happiness. Whether one is born at the beginning, middle, or end of history, each individual life is, before God, in the same position as every other life. Each person chooses his transcendent status through the life given to him.

It is said of Judas, something not said of anyone else, that it would “have been better if he were not born.” (Matthew 26:24) Today’s world, of course, is filled with infants who would be better left to be born. Those who connive to prevent them, unless forgiven, are probably the ones who come closest to the judgment about Judas.

Our world is a battle scene of three eschatologies – ecological/humanist, Muslim, and Christian. The battle analogy is apt. The humanists save the earth for some generation down the ages. The Muslims submit all to the will of Allah whether they like it or not. The Christians do not doubt the “vale of tears” we live in. The end of each person is transcendent. It includes death. It is the inner Trinitarian life of God in which each person is invited to participate. But it can be rejected in the way we think and live.

Josef Pieper reflects on a fourth “eschatology,” namely, the “catastrophic end of history within time,” the one that Scripture seems to suggest. He describes it as a “universal totalitarian regime of evil. . . .It will be we ourselves who bring about the end of history.” We are not to despair, but this may well be our inner-worldly future.


James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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