The Future Of Hope

The Future Of Hope

by Miroslav Volf
Over the last three decades a major cultural shift has taken place in the attitudes of Western societies toward the future. Modernity's eclipse by postmodernity is characterized in large part by the loss of hope for a future substantially better than the present. Old optimism about human progress has given way to uncertainty and fear. In this book scholars from


Over the last three decades a major cultural shift has taken place in the attitudes of Western societies toward the future. Modernity's eclipse by postmodernity is characterized in large part by the loss of hope for a future substantially better than the present. Old optimism about human progress has given way to uncertainty and fear. In this book scholars from various disciplines - theology, the social sciences, and the humanities - explore the move from a "culture of optimism" to a "culture of ambiguity," and they seek to infuse today's jaded language of hope with a new vitality.

The Future of Hope offers a powerful critique of today's stifling cultural climate and shows why the vision of hope central to Christian faith must be a basic component of any flourishing society. The first section of the book sets the context with telling cultural criticism of modernity. The second section focuses on affinities between premodern Christian visions of hope and twentieth-century thought. The final section of the book examines the relationship between postmodern thought, Christian tradition, and biblical hope, addressing how Christians in a postmodern world can best articulate their faith.

Written by truly profound thinkers, these chapters are diverse in their content, methodologies, and temperament, yet they are united by a deep engagement with both the Christian tradition and the larger cultural and intellectual climate in which we live and work. The Future of Hope can thus be read not just as an attempt at retrieval of hope for today but as itself one small act of hope in an age when people too seldom take time to think critically and hopefully.


David Billings
Robert Paul Doede
Kevin L. Hughes
Paul Edward Hughes
Daniel Johnson
William Katerberg
John Milbank
Jürgen Moltmann
James K. A. Smith
Miroslav Volf
Nicholas Wolterstorff

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Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
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The Future of Hope


William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2004 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2752-7

Chapter One

Progress and Abyss: Remembrances of the Future of the Modern World


What, then, actually happened on 1 January 2000? Was it "the turn of an age," with all the weighty solemnity of destiny this implies? Or was it a new millennium in the felicitous progress of the modern world? Was it the beginning of the world's end? Or was it merely a tremendous postmodern New Year's party in Berlin, London, Paris, and New York?

Common sense tells us that it was just a night like all other nights before and after it, without any special significance at all. And yet the year 2000, with its three zeros, does have something magical about it. So what sort of magic? It has to do with the decimal system with which we have measured time ever since the beginning of the modern world. From the beginning of modern times, linear chronology has asserted itself, a way of calculating time that takes no account of what happens in it, but simply moves on and on, from one year to the next. It fits our idea of inexorable human "progress" from the past into a better and better future. That is why at turning points in time, like 1 January 2000, we like to draw up a balance sheet, totting up the profits and the losses of the progress we have made. But about the progress itself there is no question, for it hastens on year after year, with our calendar, into an endless future. Or so we think.

But why the year 2000 in particular? According to the decimal system, there is evidently something marvelous about everything that ends with zeros, because we think that zero is "a round number," although in fact it is not a number at all. Every ten years a jubilee, every hundred years a centenary, and so on, whether there is anything to celebrate or not. Why is the zero more attractive than the seven or the twelve? Like the symbol for infinity, the zero entered our numerical system at a late date, coming to us from India by way of Arabia. The suspended breath or the mystic moment that belongs to what we call zero hour is apparently a difficult and mysterious affair. Can we begin again from the beginning, from zero, so to speak, without a past, and free of memories? With the three zeros of the year 2000 a new year begins, and a new decade, and a new century - perhaps even a whole new thousand years. Fascinating - four new beginnings! We get the impression that the immediate future and the wider future further ahead are both open. What a delightful illusion!

Things look very different if we take our bearings from what happens in time, for real events do not usually take any account of our time scale. What is our situation today, now that the twentieth century is at an end, and the nineteenth before it? The future in the twenty-first century will be determined by these two eras, for they are by no means past and gone, and they confront us with tremendous contradictions. On the one hand we have the nineteenth century (with its twentieth-century extensions), an age of fantastic progress in all of life's different sectors: from the steam engine to the airplane, from the telephone to the Internet, from classical physics to the theory of relativity. It was an age of discoveries and conquests. And on the other hand we have the twentieth century (as distinct from the nineteenth), an age of incomparable catastrophes: Verdun and Stalingrad, Auschwitz and the Gulag Archipelago, Hiroshima and Chernobyl. These names stand for the unimaginable crimes against humanity committed by the progressive West and the modern world. Both of these eras are still present today - their progress and their abysses. What once became possible will never again disappear from reality, but will always remain part of it. Today we are globalizing the nineteenth century's world of progress, and at the same time all the weapons of mass destruction developed and employed in the twentieth century are still kept in readiness for mass extermination, which would provide the "final solution" of the question about the human race.

In the first part of this essay I shall talk about the birth of modernity out of the spirit of messianic hope, so that we can understand the age of beginnings without end. In the second part I shall describe the age of the end without beginnings, which began with the seminal European catastrophe of the First World War. In the third part I shall ask about the future of Christian hope and hopes for humanity.

The Birth of Modernity Out of the Spirit of Messianic Hope

The modern world had at least two significant starting points before the advent of the age of Enlightenment. The first was the conquista, the discovery and conquest of America from 1492 onward. The second was the scientific and technological seizure of power over nature by human beings.

The year 1492 saw the beginning of the European domination over continents and peoples. According to Hegel, this was the hour when the modern world was born. Before that the European powers had been unimportant, globally speaking, compared with the Ottoman empire, the Indian empire of the Moguls, and the Chinese empire. The Spanish and the Portuguese, and then the English, the Dutch, and the French, "discovered" America, each for themselves. But what does "discovered" mean here? America was neither discovered nor perceived as such. It was appropriated and molded according to the will of its conquerors. "America," says the Mexican historian Edmundo O'Gorman, "is an invention of European thinking." The individual life and individual cultures of the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas have never been perceived for what they were, right down to the present day. They were repressed as something alien, and sacrificed to the conquerors' own notions and purposes. Islands, mountains, and rivers were given Spanish names, generally Christian ones. The languages of the indigenous peoples were forbidden. The legal fictions of "unclaimed property," "no-man's land," and "the wilderness" legalized the pillaging and the colonization. With the conquest of America, Christianity came forward as a European religion to rule the world.

The scientific and technological seizure of power over nature is the other foundation stone of the new world order. In the century between Copernicus and Isaac Newton, the new empirical sciences stripped nature of her magic, as Max Weber put it, and took from her the divine mystery which up to then had been reverenced as anima mundi, the soul of the world. This also ended the taboos evoked by reverence for "Mother Earth" and for the greatness of life. The sciences bring "Mother Nature and her daughters" to the human being (who is of course a man) in order to make him "the master and possessor of nature," as Francis Bacon and René Descartes interpreted this process at the time. Science and technology now restored the human being's status as the image of God, which had been lost in superstition and idolatry, and in so doing they established human lordship over the earth (dominium terrae), which corresponds to the lordship of God over heaven and earth. Here too new discoveries were made (and are being made still), which were adorned, down to the present day, with the name of the discoverer. Recently they have even been patented for the purposes of economic exploitation: the genome researcher Craig Venter wants to acquire the human genome for himself by way of thousands of patents, although he never "invented" it. For scientific discovery does not merely do away with our ignorance; it also makes us the determining subjects of what we have "discovered." Since the beginning of modern times, scientific reason has become what Max Horkheimer calls "instrumental reason," that is, reason whose knowledge-determining interest is power and utility. Antiquity's idea of reason as phronesis linked science with wisdom; but this idea was brushed aside. According to Kant's rationalization of scientific reason, reason "has insight only into what it itself produces according to its own design" by "compel[ling] nature to answer its questions." "Knowledge is power," and scientific knowledge is power first over nature, then over life, and finally over the future. Through science and technology Europe acquired the instrumentalizing knowledge that enabled it to build up its world-spanning civilization out of the resources of the worlds it had colonized. With increasing globalization, the Christian world became the Western world, and the Western world the modern world, whose unique historical origins are no longer evident because Tokyo, Singapore, and Chicago now appear very similar to London, Frankfurt, and Berlin.

What hope motivated the European "discovery" of the rest of the world? It was the vision of the new world order.

Columbus was apparently looking both for God's Garden of Eden and for Eldorado, the city of gold. God and gold also provided the most powerful driving force behind the conquista. The gold was intended not just for personal enrichment but also (as we know from Columbus's journal) for the reconquest of Jerusalem. For according to Joachim of Fiore's prophecy, "From Spain will come the one who will bring back the Ark to Zion." Why Jerusalem especially? Because the Holy City was to be the capital of Christ's Thousand Years' Empire, which would be the consummation of world history. And why the Spanish? According to the political theology of the so-called Quintomonarchists, the Spanish state theologians, the worldwide Christian monarchy would be nothing less than the "Fifth Monarchy," which Daniel 7 prophesies will replace the four bestial world empires, Rome last of all. This would be the kingdom of the Son of man, in which the saints of the Most High will rule the world and judge the nations. With the stone of Daniel (Daniel 2) or with "fire from above" (Daniel 7) all the other empires will be destroyed, until at long last humanity is "one flock under one shepherd" (cf. John 10:16). According to the messianism in Iberian culture, this Christian universal monarchy would last until the end of history. It would be "the new world order," as the Spanish said, long before the United States came into being. This is "the New World" in its messianic sense.

The founders of the United States had a similar vision. Novus ordo saeculorum is impressed on the seal of the United States and printed on every one-dollar note. This is the messianic "faith of our fathers," the "new world order" that is so often invoked in presidential inaugural addresses. The United States decided the outcome of the two world wars, and ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union it has been the only remaining superpower. It was therefore not without some justification that Henry Luce called the twentieth century "the American century." And at the moment the twenty-first century looks no different.

What hope motivated modern civilization in the "Old World"?

It was, and still is, the vision of the "new time" of modernity. The interpretive framework for Europe's rise to worldwide power, its mobilizing and orientating impulse, can be perceived in two symbols of hope for the future: first, the expectation that history will find its consummation in the "Thousand Years' Empire," in which Christ will reign together with those who are his, and will judge the nations; second, the expectation that history will find its consummation in the "Third Empire" of the Spirit, which according to Joachim of Fiore's prophecy will replace the empire of the Father and the empire of the Son, and will complete them. We call both these historical expectations chiliastic or millenarian, and their motivation of the present "messianic." What they have in common is that, wherever their influence is paramount, the past no longer dominates the present, as it does in traditional societies; now the future takes precedence in the experience of time. And thus "modern society" is born. What is also common to the two expectations is that they see the consummation of history in a historical future, not in a catastrophe outside of or apart from history. And then the past really does become "the prologue to the future," and successive ages can be divided into stages or steps forward in the direction of time's completion. Like a compass that gives us bearings in space and enables us to master it, "the eschatological compass gives us orientation in time, by pointing to the Kingdom of God as the ultimate end and purpose."

From the seventeenth century onwards, waves of chiliastic, messianic, and apocalyptic hopes swept through Europe. We come across them in the Jewish messianism of Sabbatai Tzevi, in Puritan apocalypticism at the time of Oliver Cromwell, in Dutch "prophetic theology," and in the expectations of "better times in the future" that appear at the beginning of German pietism, with Amos Comenius, Philipp Jakob Spener, and the Württemberg theologians Johann Albrecht Bengel and Friedrich Ötinger. They all fused the hope for the millennium of Christ soon to dawn with the ancient world's expectation of the Golden Age, which they had learned from Virgil would replace the Age of Iron. There had always been similar expectations about the end in Christianity. But in the seventeenth century, with the beginning of modernity, a new time was proclaimed. Now the time of fulfillment has arrived, it was said; this hope can be realized in the present. Antiquity and the Middle Ages are past; the "new time" is beginning, and that is the time of consummation. Now world history will be completed. Now humanity will be perfected. Now unhindered progress in all spheres of life is beginning. There will be no more qualitative changes.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's famous essay "On the Education of the Human Race" (1777) became the foundational document of the German Enlightenment. Lessing felt that he was the prophet of "the Third Age of the Spirit" announced by Joachim of Fiore. The time is coming, Lessing wrote, when everyone will know the truth for himself without the mediation of the church, and will recognize and do the good because it is good, not out of fear of punishment. This new time is beginning now, with the transition of men and women from historical faith in the church to general belief in reason. God's revelation in history will become the promise of that which human beings can now perceive for themselves. God's hidden providence will become the manifest pedagogical plan of education for rising and forward-striving humanity.

In Kant too we find the same chiliastic solemnity that heralds the transition of humanity into the new era of pure faith in reason. For devout Christians, the French Revolution was a sign of the apocalypse of the Antichrist. For Kant it was a historical sign that the human race was developing for the better. What had formerly been called the kingdom of God became for Kant the symbol of the ethical goal humanity had endlessly to approach.


Excerpted from The Future of Hope Copyright © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
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