A Proleptic Vision of the Global Future

     The task I have set for myself is to combine in a coherent way three interlacing strands of future oriented thinking: futurology, eschatology, and ethics. The ethical task of the present generation, as I see it, is to project future visions of a just and sustainable global community and then enlist present resources to turn that vision into actuality. Ethical activity is transformative activity, aimed at making the world a better place. What the futurist does is envision what the better place could look like and then open the gates and guide us up the paths that lead there.


Our culture was pregnant with future consciousness in the 1950s, and we might say that futurology was born with the founding of the World Future Society in 1967. The first Earth Day was in 1969; and in 1970 Alvin Toffler published FUTURE SHOCK, which immediately sold 7 million copies. Cities and states and even the federal government ordered extensive studies such as "Atlanta 2000" during our seventh decade. The concept of the year 2000 had much more potency in 1979 than it did in 1999. We witnessed futurology's adolescent vigor and excitement through the 1970s until it was suddenly killed off by the election of Ronald Reagan to the U.S. presidency in 1980. With Reaganomics came a worldwide revival of the fear of nuclear war combined with blind passion for short-term profits at the cost of long-term responsibility. Both of these successfully doused the flames of future consciousness. Only smoldering hopes remained for two decades.

     Perhaps the Club of Rome spoke most clearly for the scientific rearing of the young field when it startled the world with is future projections in 1972, with its book LIMITS TO GROWTH published simultaneously in 30 languages. Invoking a systems approach to global analysis, the Club insisted that we need to see the interworkings of many factors such as industrial growth, agricultural growth, population growth [with accompanying starvation on a massive scale], depletion of nonrenewable natural resources, and pollution of the environment. All of these reinforced one another, said the Club, and the planet was reeling out of control, soon to doom the industrial civilization we had built.

     What I would like to point out is that scientific studies of the future during the heyday of futurology followed a specific formula: they sought to UNDERSTAND the trends and forces ferrying us toward the future; they sought to enjoin the world community to make a DECISION regarding the kind of future we desire; and through this means we as a human race could take CONTROL of our destiny. I call this the u-d-c formula, according to which we try to understand the forces at work, then make the decisions to take control of our human destiny. The task, as the futurists saw it, was to regain control over forces--destructive forces--seemingly out of control. Regardless of one's moral assessment of such thinking, the world culture of the 1970s felt overwhelmed by uncontrollable forces hurling us toward unwanted destruction; and future consciousness became a form of optimistic survival consciousness. Regardless of one's theological assessment of the motive to take control that bespeaks human hubris, the kind of control secular futurists sought included a strong ethical component.

     Futurology at this time was intrinsically ethical in a couple additional ways. First, it stressed global wholeness. One could not employ a systems approach to think of the future of a region of the world without thinking about the future of the whole planet. Our globe became a global village. The vision of the futurists was one of planetary unity. Regionalism and the doctrine of pluralism posited by political correctness came later. Second, striving for economic justice became a necessary correlate of planetary survival. The only way the rich could survive for the long-term future would be to uplift the poor, because poverty pollutes and pollution will eventually kill us all. Justice became the adopted sister of sustainability. Although this may be a negative or ignoble motive--a form of enlightened self-interest--it added justification beyond altruism for the pursuit of planetary justice.

     In the 1970s, futurology was inclusive of what was coming to be known as ecology or environmental ethics. When futurology died in 1980, ecology was persisted in a weakened state. Ecology, not futurology, revived with the Chernobyl nuclear spill in 1987. The loss of control to radioactive disaster quickened the world's consciousness and conscience. Ecology once again gained cultural endorsement.

     Ecology, as a cultural phenomenon, is future oriented, to be sure; but it differs from futurology on two counts. First, by focusing almost exclusively on the environment, ecology continues only a portion of former future consciousness. It fails to extend systems thinking enough to give due weight to relevant social factors such as industrial and agricultural growth along with nonrenewable natural resource depletion and economic justice. Second, by romanticizing nature, ecological thinking frequently disparages science and technology, refusing to analyze the potential of science and technology to move us toward overcoming environmental threats.

     When ecology became more overtly religious in the wake of Chernobyl, it led to creative innovations in worship and the liturgical arts that convey a new naturalism.  This new naturalism included a sense of sacredness attributed to nature, an idealized nature ideally uncontaminated by human civilization. This has tended toward a romanticism that reinforces an anti-science and anti-technology posture. Because, in my judgement, we need science and technology in the service of hard nosed political action, this avoidance by religious ecology makes it an example of what Marxists refer to as an opiate that inoculates the people against serious social transformation. It is my view that a retrieval of futurology could incorporate the high minded passion of ecological ethics into a larger scheme of systems thinking that includes the roles played by science and technology both at that analytical and constructive levels.


My observation on the cusp of the 1970s was that Christian theology, with its symbol of new creation, is inherently future oriented. The very notions of redemption of fallen nature, of human sinfulness and the need for repentance, of an ethic guided by self-sacrificing love on behalf of the poor and hungry among us, and of the eschatological promise of resurrection, all these notions look forward to the future when we will have a better world. Eschatological ontology is based upon what the world should be, not on what it is. I asked then and ask now: could there be a connection between secular futurology and Christian eschatology? Should there be a connection?

     The key to the connection, in my judgment, is the concept of prolepsis. The idea of prolepsis goes back to Aristotle's rhetoric. It refers to the first paragraphs of a scholarly essay, wherein the author tells the reader in summary form what the argument will be that follows. It refers to that brief abstract scientists place at the beginning of a technical journal article. It is, in short, the entire essay in advance of the essay. Shifting from rhetoric to ontology, prolepsis is future reality appearing ahead of time in abbreviated or fragmentary yet authentic form.

     This is what Christians claim happened when Jesus Christ rose from the dead on the first Easter. Through the Hebrew prophets the God of Israel has promised the advent of the kingdom of God, the transformation of this creation into a new creation. The promised new creation, Christians claim, has already occurred within the confines of the old creation, in the incarnation. What has already happened in the person of Jesus Christ will happen to the whole of created reality. Or, to reverse it, the promised new creation has already occurred ahead of time--fragmentarily yet authentically--in the individual event we know as Easter. Jesus is the prolepsis of what the God of Israel has promised for the world. To my view, ontologically speaking, the new creation is the primary reality; and our present reality is grounded insofar as it proleptically anticipates the new creation yet to come.

     Now, of course, this is what some of us within the Christian tradition claim. I recognize that it is a universal claim made by a member of a particular religious tradition. Other traditions conceive of reality without reference to the central Christian claim, of course, and in some cases without a pressing sense of urgency to get on with the future. Genuine differences between religious traditions exist, and they need to be expected and respected. Yet, my modest task is simply to point out that a natural affinity seems to exist between secular future consciousness and this dimension within Christian theology.

     In our era wherein we seek to treat each religious tradition with the integrity it is due, and wherein we seek not only to protect the pluralism of religious viewpoints but also to appreciate commonalties and points of unity, it would be inconsistent to marginalize out of hand a trajectory within an existing tradition. My task here is to make a connection between global future consciousness and a specific line of thought within a single tradition, a line of thought I find illuminative.

     What Christian eschatology--[eschatology refers to a theology of the last things]--offers to the current pluralism of viewpoints on the future is the prophetic promise that there is a new world coming, that the God of Israel has committed divine resources to bring about a renewal of creation. This may be true; or it may turn out to be false. Yet it is a religious claim that contributes to the wider discussion. Its specific contribution is to suggest the following line of thinking: if by God's power a new creation is coming, how can we proleptically anticipate that future reality in the present? How can present human ethical action embody or incarnate the reality that is yet to come by the power of God?


Ethical thinking and moral action are necessarily transformative, in my judgment, and thereby future oriented. Ethics presupposes that the present reality is in need of improvement, in need of transformation. Conscious ethical thinking, it seems to me, should begin with a vision of the future we want tomorrow and then work backward to the present, prescribing human action today that will bring us toward the tomorrow we have envisioned. Microcosmically, what we do today proleptically embodies the reality we envision macrocosmically tomorrow. If we believe this envisionment is based upon a divine promise for a new creation, ethics becomes theologically grounded.

     The first task of proleptic ethics, then, becomes one of projecting visions of a new world order, of a single planetary society oriented toward the transcendent divine will, of a single planetary community that overcomes divisions due to race or language or ethnicity or gender or nation or any other divisive identity, of a conscious harmony between civilization and the ecosphere, of the deep and inextricable harmony between humanity and the natural world in and around and enveloping us. And still more. 'This harmony is not limited by the twenty-five thousand mile equator belting planet earth. Over time and over space it includes all of the cosmos, from the original big bang to the projected future dissipation of all energy due to the law of entropy. Human destiny belongs to the destiny of the all, the whole of the cosmos, in all of its breathtaking magnificence. This is the scope of the vision with which proleptic ethics begins.

     The second task of proleptic ethics is to draw maps showing where we are now in relation to what we can envision. These maps will also show us the direction we might go, can go, ought to go. Ethicists can help us all by showing us the opportunities that lie before us, the paths we can follow to make this a better world. Ethicists who define their occupation by simply shouting "no" to every scientific or technological or cultural advance may sound authoritative perhaps; but their rigidity finally kills the human spirit just when we need to release that spirit for transformative energy. The task of ethicists is to open doors to transformation, to inspire us by visions of a redeemed future toward which we can orient our shared action.

     Going back to the late 1950s, early futurists had already stumbled on an important principle: visions of a positive future enlist a civilization to orient its energies to built, to construct, to improve, to make better. Positive future visions release human energy for transformation. What eschatology can offer is the promise, still a bit vague perhaps yet genuine, that God has promised that a new world is coming. The new creation will transform the present; and, if we today be children of that promised new reality of tomorrow, we can live it today ethically and proleptically.

     In sum, the age of acute future consciousness is now past. Some residuals remain, of course. I celebrate the revival of future consciousness by the "Future Visions" planners. The world mood seems less anxious in the year 2000 than it was in 1970, less worried about long term survival and more accepting of present prosperity. Future oriented ethics need not depend on anxiety over forces out of control; it simply needs to project our responsibilities toward making this a better world based upon visions of what that better world can be and ought to be. Theological visions of the future new creation based upon God's promises contribute confidence that today's ethical energy constitutes a worthwhile investment.

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