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.