Theologian John Haught suggests that the best name for God, and one that is grounded in the scriptural narrative, is The Future (1).The idea of God inhabiting the future is harder to grasp than God inhabiting the past or the present. We have history books, our own personal history, and memory to assure us of the reality of the past. It’s stuff that happened already. The present is not a problem for us either. It seems undeniable, if only by our apparent incapacity to dwell fully in it, as Eckhart Tolle and other gurus of the “now” remind us. The present is this moment and we're able to experience it by breathing deeply, stopping our chattering mind, and inhabiting our experience. It’s stuff that is happening now.
But this moment is also always about to intersect with a future that's always in the process of arriving. There, it just arrived again. But we have difficulty granting full, existential status to the future, because the future, by definition, doesn’t exist yet. Unlike the past and present it has no content. Yet, it just arrived again. And in the moment of its arrival, it's no longer the future. The future is always just beyond our grasp, yet always in the process of arriving.
In the Biblical book of Revelation, God is referred to as Alpha, the beginning, and Omega, the end. We've tended to privilege God as Alpha— Creator. But we haven’t done much thinking about how God is present as Omega—the end. Fundamentalist religion does think about God as Omega, but to these folks it means that God has fixed a predetermined end time when “He” will bring history to an abrupt and violent end. This way of thinking renders the past and the present as little more than filler. It’s just what happens while we’re hanging around for the real action—apocalyptic action—to take place. It diminishes the role of history and our personal role in shaping the future.
Catholic priest and paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, was a progressive thinker, who took both evolution and the future seriously. He asked the question, “Who will deliver to us a God for evolution?” He was looking for a way to imagine God in a way that honoured science, and particularly, evolutionary science. To truly honour evolution, especially conscious evolution in the human species, is to grant us the capacity to make choices that really make a difference. We are not waiting around for some sky-God to unilaterally intervene with a predetermined future. We're the ones who are able to consciously co-create the future. At the same time, we assert as Christians that the Reality we call “God” is free to influence our choices in a non-coercive way. Teilhard de Chardin imagined a cosmic Christ as the Omega Point, and not just Alpha. The Omega Point is the alluring presence of the future, to which all of creation is converging and in the process of this convergence is evolving in intelligence, love, and creativity.
Teilhard de Chardin imagines God as a divine milieu encompassing and insinuating Her/Him/Itself into the past, the present, and the future. God is present in the past as the One and the Oneness from whom a universe emerges. This is the God witnessed to in the great scriptures of the world’s religions and in the ancient tribal myths and legends of indigenous people. The more theologically conservative one is, the greater the tendency is to locate what we can know about God exclusively in these historic narratives, or indeed within the tradition that organizes itself around these narratives. When the past is privileged as a way of knowing God, we look back at the scripture, at the tradition, and at the historic founder—in our case Jesus of Nazareth—for revelation and truth (2).
We can also know God in the present. The universe is eternally in the process of arising anew in every moment. Successful books like The Power of Now are popular with postmodern folks who declare themselves to be “spiritual-but-not-religious”. What this means is that they're not particularly interested in looking back in time to experience the sacred. Rather, they seek liberation from the past and the future in the stillness of the “timeless” now. By inhabiting this moment we free our minds from the tyranny of thought processes and our worry about the future. Meditation helps us to enter this state of consciousness that's all about abiding in the present. We discover a sense of the sacred in attending deeply to, and honouring, whatever is arising now and now and now.
But can God also arise as the One who is present in the unrehearsed and indeterminate future? The biblical witness seems to contend that this is, in fact, where God hangs out—not so much “up above”, but out in front. I’ll make this case soon. But for now, we need to remind ourselves of what's at stake here. We are claiming that God is somehow present in a future that doesn’t yet exist. Furthermore, we're requiring that God be present in this future in such a way that honours the free will and the evolutionary creativity of human beings—given that we're the evolutionary impulse of the universe in personalized form. In other words, as a matter of principle, and by way of dignifying free will, no future can be imposed upon us. God must be present in the future in such a way that influences but does not interfere in the evolution of the universe.
First, let’s ground this in scripture. There are countless stories of God alluring God’s people forward in and through a promise of a better future, but which needs them in order to be realized. For example, the legend of the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery to Egypt imagines God as being out in front taking the lead. God is the presence of the future that visits Moses in a burning bush. That future, in God’s mind, consists of a world that's free of slavery and the kind of suffering that the Hebrews are enduring. This idea “comes” to Moses as a possibility that hadn’t entered his head. Then, when Moses asks for the name of the God who is about to confront Pharaoh, the divine name can be translated as, “I am Who I am”, or “I will be Who I will be”—the One who is both Present and Future.
This Presence enters the consciousness of Moses with the provocation to set the Hebrews free. The idea “came” to Moses. Where did it come from? The narrative implies that it came from the God who dwells in the realm of future possibilities, not yet considered by humans. How on earth, Moses wants to know, can he possibly take on the Pharaoh of Egypt? God simply asks Moses to trust that it’s possible. And after a series of confrontations with the Pharaoh along with deadly plagues, the Hebrews make their great escape. The legend of this escape affirms that God went ahead of them, in a pillar of fire by night, and a cloud by day, so that they could travel day and night toward the Future’s promise of freedom.
In the Bible, God is always imagined to be out in front, leading from and toward a future that the people hadn’t imagined was possible. Typically, life conditions are such that the present is actually very bleak, and nobody in their right mind would want to inhabit it more deeply. An absolutization of the spirituality of the now would have been absurd. When the boot of history is firmly planted on your neck, to abide in the present is to welcome a broken neck. What was required was hope in the future, and this is what God is consistently portrayed as doing—meeting those who cared to listen as the presence of a preferred future in the here and now.
It's not a deep acceptance of present conditions that's the source of the hope. It’s the glimpse into a new future in the here and now that enables the Jewish people to keep going. By some mystery, Moses gets into his head that the current circumstances of oppression are not God’s intention for the Hebrew people—and so deeply owns that possibility that he takes responsibility for its realization. If there are any miracles in the Bible, this is it—this dynamic of the future coming to meet certain individuals with new possibilities, and those people being so transformed by the possibility that they step up and consent to the future’s realization occurring in and through them. God is present in the future as the elicitor or provocateur of fresh possibilities. God comes to God’s people from the future opening up space to imagine and enact new possibilities through conscious consent. Moses is free to refuse to act on this glimpse of an alternative future, as we all are.But how can God be present in and as The Future in a way that doesn’t overpower our free will and unilaterally determine that future? Can science help us here? After all, if evolution is to have its own God, surely we must be able to find analogies in the realm of science. It turns out that we might find some help in what science is simply recognizing as “information” (3). For our purposes, information refers to the capacity of the universe to bring higher order from lower order. There is a power that is distinct from both matter and energy—what physicist David Bohm calls “a hidden wholeness”—that pervades reality with a tendency to bring coherence, integrity, and complexity from relative disorder. Science acknowledges this mystery with words like novelty, self-organization, and autopoeisis. Novelty means that when two parts come together, the whole that forms is not only greater than the sum of the parts, but also unpredictably novel and more complex. Self-organization means that a system under pressure may escape to a higher order. Autopoesis refers to the capacity of an organism to self-renew or change. But let’s not confuse description with explanation. Science has words for it, but “information” remains a mystery.
Life just seems to know how to do life. From matter, life arises; from life, mind arises; from mind, self-consciousness awareness; and from self-conscious awareness, by which a universe comes to know itself, responsibility to choose and work for a desired future arises. Hard-core materialists claim that these more complex levels simply emerged out of the simplest forms. Dirt just somehow pulled itself up by its own bootstraps and learned how to do nuclear physics. This so-called “bootstrapping” theory implies an ordering or patterning field of information that seems to influence reality toward greater unity and diversity and consciousness, by exerting an upward or forward pull. This can be imagined as more than the erotic push of the evolutionary impulse. It's also an alluring pull from the future. Information exists as a realm of higher or greater possibility that influences, but doesn’t interfere with evolutionary processes.
This provides an interesting analogy for how God may be present as a non-interfering, yet active presence that comes to us from the realm of the future. I’m not equating information with God, but merely suggesting that it’s a functional analogy. John Haught compares this informational or ordering capacity of the universe to what the Taoists call wu-wei, the wayless way. The Tao is energetically passive but informationally active. It is active inaction or non-interfering effectiveness (4).
Gaze at it, there is nothing to see
It is called the formless.
Heed it; there is nothing to hear.
It is called soundless.
Grasp it; there is nothing to hold.
It is called immaterial.
Invisible, it cannot be called by name.
It returns again to nothingness. (5)
All religious and spiritual lineages throughout the ages have affirmed that the higher order cannot emerge from the lower. Again, what scientists call the “spontaneous” emergence of higher order from the lower is merely descriptive. If science introduces the idea of “information” to explain this mystery, then theology is certainly within its rights to use this analogy to describe how God influences the world without being an interfering presence. Indeed, Paul talks about how God’s power is made manifest in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), and how God empties Godself of power as force in order to be present as the alluring power of Love (Philippians 2:1-8). John Caputo is developing a theology based on the weakness of God (6). God is the Something that is present as the influential no-thing, for those who have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts that are open. God empties Godself of power as force, precisely by withdrawing into the future that is always coming toward us with new possibilities for higher order, new ways of being—more aligned with Love Itself.
We have trouble grasping this because we've been trained to think of the only the past and present as “really real”. We've been steeped in historical causality. Everything that we see around us must have been caused by some event in the past. Indeed much of our life is correlated to our past. But is it absolutely “caused” by the past? Maybe not. Look at our language. We wonder what the future “holds”. In this metaphor of holding, the future is a container of untold possibilities. It’s not predetermined, but rather comes to us through intuition, in glimpses, and through unexpected opportunities and circumstances that “present” themselves to us. If we’re open to them, we discover within them an invisible, intangible, yet powerful creativity to reshape, not only our own lives, but also the future of Earth itself. The future is always beyond us—as is “God”—and yet is forever coming toward us with an offer of new life.
Is it not legitimate to speak, not just of historical causality, but also future causality—the future causing us to act in a new way now in response to a promise of something better? We’re not simply determined by the past, but also by an alluring promise of the future. God is in that promise of the future, as much as God is in the past and the present. Theologian, Paul Tillich, defined faith as willingness to be “apprehended by the future”.
Surely, this is the gospel in a nutshell. It is the story of Easter. The future seems to close down on the disciples when the death-dealing forces of history—the force of Empire and the need for absolute control—crucify Jesus. But when they arrive at the tomb, an angelic messenger—symbolizing the future—tells them that they’ll have to look somewhere other than a tomb if they want to find Jesus. He has “gone ahead of them to Galilee”. Like a living pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day, the divine is always going on ahead of us, drawing us toward a promise that will not be snuffed out by the power of death and violence. Galilee is our rendezvous with hope, when fate has played its trump card.
Followers of the Christ are always on the way to Galilee, drawn by the promise of a coming order that may shatter, confirm, or reorganize the existing order of our life. This is what gives us hope when our personal and planetary lives are falling apart. This is how we evolve. It matters more now than at any other time on our planet that we take hold of this future that is holding us—that we consent to be apprehended by this hope, and we each find our unique way of saying “yes” to God’s promise that has gone ahead of us, and yet is always coming to meet us.
(2) Science tends to privilege the past as well in its assumption that everything that exists was caused by something that happened in the past. Historical causality, as we’ll see, is an unexamined assumption of science, looking as it invariably does to the past to explain what can emerge in the future. Radical materialists, like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, example, assume that the DNA molecule that was formed billions of years ago is responsible in an absolute fashion for determining the future. This is called genetic determinism. But you need to go back even further they claim. The foundations of life as we know it today, must be traced back to the absolute simplest atoms that emerged from the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago. No greater power is allowed, not within those helium and hydrogen atoms, and not without. Deep time, the random collision of atoms, and natural laws account for complex consciousness and civilization as we know it today. Many scientists, who have trouble accounting for the emergence of mind from matter, claim that free will—our attempt to shape a future different from the past through conscious choice— is an illusion. The future is determined by the material past in an absolute fashion.