Thoughts about the Future on New Year Day 2018
I am often asked to predict the future. Most often this request arises from someone in a church group, although occasionally students also ask. The typical scenario is that I am speaking about theology and/or religion to a church Sunday School class or Wednesday evening gathering. During the Q & A time at the end of my talk about, for example, the Reformation, someone asks “Where do you think Christianity will go in the coming year or century? What does the future hold for Christianity?”
Among other things I am a historical theologian; one of my special areas of research has long been the history of Christian thought—from the church fathers to our time. I’ve written at least two books on the subject. (My publisher would expect me to mention them, so…The Story of Christian Theology and The Journey of Modern Theology both published by InterVarsity Press in the U.S.) One thing my study of the history of Christian thought has taught me is never to predict the future of Christianity.
Yes, I know, “Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes” (to paraphrase philosopher Santayana). I always say there are many mistakes we can avoid repeating by studying history—including the history of Christian thought. For example, all the heresies that plagued the early Christians during the Roman Empire are still around. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel of Christian theology.
We can also learn from more recent history. During the 1970s through the 1990s America was plagued by a series of horrible cult disasters: Jonestown (which actually happened in South America but it was a U.S. based church called The People’s Temple before it moved there), the Branch Davidians, the Solar Temple, etc., etc. Christians should have learned from these tragedies never to follow self-appointed, narcissistic prophets not accountable to anyone.
However, when pressed to predict the future I always say something like this: Imagine being an American Christian in 1900 or 1901 when many Protestants in the U.S. were looking forward to the 20th century being “The Christian Century.” (A still published magazine’s title reflects that hope and expectation.) The 19th century was an era of great optimism and positive expectations among Christians in the U.S. Now we call the 20th century the “genocidal century.” Who in 1900/1901 (1901 was, of course, really the first year of the new century) could have predicted the course of world events, politics or Christianity in the U.S. or around the world in 1900/1901?
To be more specific…who could have predicted in 1918 the “bombshell” of Karl Barth’s theology launched with his publication of the first edition of his Der Römerbrief (The Epistle to the Romans)? Who could have predicted the pessimism about humanity that followed the First World War in Europe and then the Second World War in America? Who could have seen on the horizon the rise of a renaissances of the doctrines of original sin and of the Trinity? Who could have predicted the rise of fundamentalism in two stages?
I teach my students that, at least for Christian theology, the 20th century really began with WW1 and its aftermath; almost everything changed. Fundamentalism, Christian Realism, Neo-Orthodoxy, Existentialist Theologies, Protestant Ecumenism, the New Evangelicalism, Liberation Theologies…all and many more 20th century theological phenomena had roots in previous times, but almost nobody in 1918 could have predicted how profoundly influential these movements became after 1918.
For these reasons and simple humility I regretfully decline to predict the future of Christianity or Christian theology. My simple answer is “It will probably surprise everyone.”
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