Does Christianity Have a Future?

I have just returned from a lecture event in Houston with Joan Chittister and Dom Crossan. The theme was the same as the title of this blog. None of us tried to predict the future of Christianity, even as we all spoke about our hopes for its shape in the future.

The question, “Does Christianity Have a Future?” is interesting to think about. And the answer is greatly affected by the time span, short or long. Will Christianity still be around a hundred years from now? Yes. Five hundred years from now? Probably. A thousand years from now? Maybe. Five thousand years from now? The further into the future we imagine, the less likely it seems that Christianity will be part of that present.

For many Christians, the notion that there will come a time when Christianity will no longer exist except as past history is a thought that has not been thought.

Christians who think that the second coming of Jesus and the end of this world are near are not at all worried by how long Christianity will last. It doesn’t need to last much longer. Moreover, to those and many other Christians, the thought seems alien. Most of us learned as we were growing up that the Bible and Jesus were the ultimate revelation of God – and thus that Christianity was the exclusive and only revelation, or at least the best. How then could there come a time when it would be no more?

But the realization that there will come a time when Christianity is not (assuming that humans and our descendants are still here a thousand and five thousand years from now) has pedagogical value. It leads to reflecting about what Christianity is, and what its foundational document, the Bible is.

Are the Bible and Christianity the final revelation of God and thus destined to last until time is no more? Or are they humanly-constructed historical products – the fruit of our spiritual ancestors in ancient Israel, early Christianity, and subsequent theological interpretations of what it means to be Christian? Are the Bible and Christianity THE revelation of God, and thus exclusive and absolute? Or one of many revelations in many and perhaps all cultures, great and small, with all of them articulated in the language of their time and place? Is it not obvious that all religions are historical products? They had a beginning and they will have an ending. Just as most ancient religions are no more, so it will be some time with Christianity, whether five hundred or a few thousand years from now.

Though this notion has not been thought by very many Christians, it is not bad news. Rather, it leads to a strong appreciation of what the Bible and Christianity are. They are, to use language from Paul, “treasure in earthen vessels” or in some recent translations “treasure in clay jars.” Of course, Paul was not referring to the Bible (whose canonization had not yet happened) or Christianity (which did not yet exist). Rather, he referred to the messengers of the gospel, including himself. All that we say and proclaim is in earthen vessels, clay jars. The treasure comes to us through human words and human beings.

The treasure is sometimes missed. Often and still today, the Bible and Christianity have been sources of judgment and rejection, brutality and violence, suffering and manipulation.

But at its best, which has happened and continues to happen, Christianity is a tradition of wisdom, beauty, and goodness. The triad is central to ancient Greek philosophy and to the enduring religions of the world. Wisdom about what is real and how then we should live. Beauty in its language, music, art, worship, and architecture. Goodness in lives filled with compassion and passion for a transformed world.

And it is a sacrament. Just as the human products of bread and wine become sacraments, so Christianity as an earthen vessel is a massive sacrament that mediates the reality to which it points, a means of grace and a means of transformation. It is our approximation, in our time and place, of what life with God – and for Christians, life with God as revealed decisively in Jesus – is about.

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  • Gene Stecher

    I think that we’re asking the wrong question. After all, how many versions of Christianity are claimed across the earth (Of course, one could also ask how many Jesus’ are claimed)? But, perhaps the question should be, “Does following Jesus have a future?” That’s the same as asking: Does loving one’s enemy have a future? Does giving to beggars have a future? Does making friends with your adversary on the way to court have a future? Does giving good things to your children have a future? Does closing the gap between the poor and the rich have a future? Does putting service to others ahead of personal purity have a future? Does trust in the goodness of the source of our being have a future? I would say that following in the spirit of Jesus has an everlasting future.

    • Hanan

      Gene, that sounds very nice, but why not simple be a humanist and that’s it? Being “good” is a great thing, but you don’t need to follow Jesus for that.

      • Gene Stecher

        Hanan, that’s the first time I’ve seen following Jesus referred to as humanism. Following the leadership of anyone simply means that one has identified a compelling source of value. It’s not being “good,” its identifying with a representative of Reality as one’s motivator. As far as I know, humanism is a philosophy of life and abides no intermediary individual such as Jesus. Following Jesus requires a personal commitment to an individual and certain set of conditions. I’ve never seen humanism associated with the Pauline perspective of Spirit-freedom-trust-fruits values taking the place of flesh-slavery-law-works values, with the release of Spirit depending upon the crucifixion of a first century kingdom teacher. I’ve never heard the ultimate value of loving one’s enemy referred to as humanism or with the belittling phrase (at least it sounds that way) “very nice.” I don’t think that the phrase very nice applies to following Jesus any more than it applies to following MLKJr. – uncertain, fearful, overwhelmed, humbled, convicted, hopeful, surprised, joyful, and so forth, are probably more descriptive.

        • Hanan

          You misunderstood. I am not referring to followers of Jesus as humanists. But if you are advocating many policies that really are no different than any liberal social policy, then what is the practical difference between following Jesus and becoming a secular Humanist? Is loving your enemy the only difference? What sort of enemy are we talking about here?

          • Gene Stecher

            Hanan, I’m afraid I’m at a loss to explain myself much better. I would suggest a thorough studying of the red and pink votes of the Jesus Seminar in their Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus. If you come away from that not knowing “what sort of enemy we are talking about,” and thinking that I’m talking about “liberal social policy,” I am unable to defend myself further.

          • Hanan

            There is no need to defend because I am not attacking you. But when you look at what you list, there is not much difference in the policies you bring vs liberal social policy. So again, what is the practical difference between you and a secular humanist? And, I am not going to read the Seminar, so you might as well just tell me.

          • Gene Stecher

            Hanan, I’ve tried to be polite and responsive. I’ve nothing more to say on the matter.

    • Tim

      You’re not wrong.

      It’s also quite likely there’ll be a split or significant shift as those who place more value on preaching definitions than living increasingly define others out of their oh-so-refined circles, although how that will look from a thousand years hence is a different matter.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “Or one of many revelations in many and perhaps all cultures, great and
    small, with all of them articulated in the language of their time and

    I don’t really agree with this “all roads lead to Rome” (any pun not intended) sentiment and this is one apologetic argument that often (in typical apologetic fashion) gets incredibly exaggerated, but I think its fundamental point remains.

    Christianity, for all of the incredible flaws, brutality, warfare, conquests etc. of its history, does represent IMO a fundamental shift forward in overall human ethics than most other world religions. Having the revered God head be someone who suffered on a cross, with such an emphasis on forgiveness and mercy, is not given such paramount focus in many, and I’d say most, other religious traditions. In addition, one can make a clear argument that the early Christian emphasis on individual sanctity and freedom of the individual to choose their own religious path (pre-Constantine, that is) laid down the logs, metaphorically speaking, for the embers of the Enlightenment which arose over 1000 years later. Let’s not forget the greatest Enlightenment thinkers were basically liberal Christians! To deny that their religious convictions didn’t impact their philosophical discourses (which get taken for granted today and assumed by religious and atheists alike to be purely secular) is putting one’s head in the sand.

    So if one views the history of Christianity and the trails of the Enlightenment to be thoroughly intertwined, as I do, then the question gets more complicated. Christian ethics have come to dominate much of the world. The arms of official ‘Christendom’ ie churches’ . . .that’s the more intriguing question. And if the latter dies, does the former also diminish?

    • Josh Magda

      I think all roads lead to Rome, if by roads you mean religions paved with compassion, which is nearly all of them. But that doesn’t mean all travelers on the various roads experience the same scenery along the way. There is nothing truly significant in Christianity for me that is not found in the other traditions, including forgiveness and mercy and a suffering God. But the traditions do differ widely in what aspects of the universal revelation (which I have no problem calling Christ) they emphasize. A Christian might experience life very differently than a Hindu in significant ways, and that is altogether expected and desired. As the Dean of the National Cathedral said once, maybe instead of everyone climbing one mountain we’re climbing many mountains, and in the mystery of God there are more mountains than we can imagine. 

      • Andrew Dowling

        “But the traditions do differ widely in what aspects of the universal
        revelation (which I have no problem calling Christ) they emphasize.”

        I agree with this, and I may have been speaking in overly brad terms. Certainly the ultimate revelation (which I also consider Jesus/Christ) is not restricted solely to Christianity, and particularly some sects of other religions are actually more ‘Christian’ than groups that call themselves Christian (looking at you Calvinists). But I still think, as a whole, Christianity emphasizes more sides of the coin of that revelation than others. This could become a much larger debate, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first declarations of human rights/individual liberty arose in countries with Christian backgrounds/traditions.

        • Josh Magda

          “But I still think, as a whole, Christianity emphasizes more sides of the coin of that revelation than others”
          Then we have a fundamental disagreement here. Which is fine. In all honesty, coming back to the theme of the thread, I neither want there to be nor think there is a future for a Christianity that believes itself to be superior to other religions.

          • Andrew Dowling

            “a Christianity that believes itself to be superior to other religions.”

            It’s not about believing in superiority, it’s coldly recognizing that certain religions have more advanced ethical frameworks than others. To deny this is pure nonsense. Did religions that practiced routine human sacrifice, often of virgins and young children, to appease the gods just “show another side of the same coin?” Completely atheistic ethicists and philosophers have noted that Islam makes no moral advances on Christianity and actually takes backward steps in terms of its views on women and warfare. Of course there are variations within each tradition (I have no doubt many Muslims lead more ‘Christ-like’ lives than many Christians) but that doesn’t erase the differences in the larger components.

            I would be interested in Marcus’s views on this point, because I think it’s something that disturbs some on the liberal Christian side of the scale, and I say that as someone who would be considered by most to be a pretty liberal Christian.

      • Gene Stecher

        I enthusiastically recommend to all participants here, a reading of chapter 6 in Kris Komarnitsky’s “Doubting the Resurrection.” The key for all good things Christian has been the equality before God doctrine.

        Here’s a quote: “Empathy in its socialized form–compassion–appears in almost every religious and philosophical tradition (he goes on to give examples from Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Mohammed, Greek philosophers, the Hammurabi code, etc.)…toward the goal of a convergence of ‘total world views,’ this book has tried to convey what the founding event of a total world view different from my own looks like to me. In my view, the founding event of Christianity is human equality not resurrection… one of the biggest tasks for humankind over the long term is to put their myths in proper perspective while at the same time finding societal relationships that foster human empathy, its socialized form to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and its institutionalized form, equal human rights. We would leave behind some of our divisiveness and move forward with the common understanding that whether God exists or not, we have only our own fallible hearts and minds to determine our destiny. (136, 143)

    • Gene Stecher

      “The arms of official ‘Christendom’ ie churches’ . . .that’s the more
      intriguing question. And if the latter dies, does the former also

      Churches exist to hold out the hope of afterlife (the spiritual body metaphor) – one legacy of what we call Christianity, and the hope of justice (the second coming metaphor) – a second legacy of what we call Christianity. Community is needed to sustain such hopes, but I don’t suppose that community must take the form of present day churches to hold those hopes or to sustain them at a high level. Whatever form the community takes, however, would have to be grounded in the notion that Reality is generous. And that returns us to the future of Jesus.

  • Leah

    I think Christianity in Western Europe is pretty much dead, and it’s shriveling up in the US, albeit at a slower rate. In Eastern Europe, Christianity has yoked itself to some nasty right-wing politics, which is going to bite them in the end. However, in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, Christianity is flourishing, particularly the Pentecostal, Biblical literalist sort. Western Christianity, even fundamentalism, bears no resemblance to the type of Christianity that is emerging in the developing world. In many places in Africa and Latin America, for example, witchcraft is considered to be an actual social problem, on par with child molestation. Christianity will survive, but probably not in the West, and not in a liberal or nuanced manner.

  • “The Christian of the future will be a mystic, or he will not exist at all.” -Karl Rahner

    That is, if humanity exists in the future…

    • Josh

      Right! People always miss the connection between mysticism and the survival of our species. Creation mystics have helped to keep us here for tens of thousands of years. Frankly, it is the only means of wisdom I know of that is powerful and decisive enough to save us at this point, with 7,000,000 of us here and either living or attempting to live in a deeply irresponsible and antispiritual manner. I truly hope I’m wrong about this, and that we have the luxury of time that we have always had to grow up. Not this time, I’m afraid.

      The liberal dream of salvation through rationality is not working (as much as I support the noblest aspects of humanism’s aspirations). The psychic wound that modernity has wrought to our souls, with the help of ecocidal Christianity, may be too deep to heal. I suppose we’ll find out soon enough. Kyrie Eleison (Christ have compassion).

    • Josh

      If we can be saved, it will not come about by fearing death, but by loving life. 🙂

    • Gene Stecher

      I’m puzzled about the nature of mysticism. I hear some, for example, talking about it in terms of “levels.” (How many heavens did Paul pass through). Since about age eleven and hearing a motivational speaker at church camp, I have had a talking relationship with Jesus, from my side not his side. In other words I have no trouble thinking that Jesus is immediate to me. Neither do I have an evidence that he ever responded to anything I said or asked. Is that mysticism, or an example of self- deceptive psychology, or an unstable mental state, or in some sense normal, or what. If it is mysticism, it must be level 1.

  • BosqueNorse

    A very well thought out and written article, Professor Borg.

  • Raymond Watchman

    A really thought-provoking blog – thanks Prof Borg – and stimulating comment discussion.