Fred L. Polak
A Science in the Making
Surveys and Creates the Future
Elsevier, London, 1971
HHC: Titling and Index added
Religious images of the future, once embodied in theological systems, often acquire an imperative nature. Come to that, religion in the sense of service of God is predominantly service directed towards the future. Gods or God and future are complementary; they condition one another. The living and active God or Deity manifests himself par excellence in the forward motion from today to tomorrow, in the future determination of the destiny of the individual and of mankind. The extended and shifted projection from today to an initially extremely uncertain future bears an all-embracing and numinous name, a hallowed one giving absolute certainty: God. God as the citadel of trust is a citadel of the future, a guarantee of the future, faith in the future, in short a permanent source of never-failing confidence, of assurance and conviction regarding the future. The future is in God’s hands, the future is God’s Plan, is the same as God. The future and God form an indissoluble duality. God without future-directedness or without an image of the future is inconceivable.
The oldest law was likewise religious, the legislation given by the gods or God. It was applied by the king (ruling by the grace of God) and, in many cases, by priests.
It is therefore not at all surprising that, from of old, a connection had existed between the recognized religious writings and their content which also preserved the terminology of the law or legislation. It is true that elements of secularization had already penetrated the old legislations of Hammurabi (1700 B.C.) and, still more, of Solon (600 B.C.). Nevertheless, one spoke - and still speaks - of the Jewish or Mosaic law (the Torah or Pentateuch: the first five books of the Old Testament), and also of the Old Law (the Old Testament) and the New Law (the New Testament), while one sometimes hears the combination “under the law and the Gospel” used.
The Jewish scribes have also been designated since time immemorial as jurists. At the same time this gave rise to a conflict, with lengthy fluctuating and often far-reaching consequences. At the centre of this conflict were precisely the legal character and the legal interpretation of a thought model regarded as legally imperative or of a code of behavior which distinguishes exactly between what in broad outline or even down to the smallest detail is or is not permitted, absolutely commanded or, conversely, strictly forbidden.
The common Old Testament and later too New Testament expression “this is the law and the prophets” thus already contains, seen in this light, a con-
tradiction in terms testifying to that conflict. A double one, in fact. First of all the law was directed towards exact maintenance of the status quo, whilst it was precisely the prophets who opposed fossilization and too literal an interpretation of the cult. In the second place, of essential importance here, the interpretation and practical application of the law became increasingly directed towards and confined to the daily life of here and now, while the prophets, naturally qualitate qua, above all fastened their wide gaze on a possibly close-by but more often distant future, not regulated down to the smallest detail or established with elaborate precision, but fixed only in its embracing totality. Of course efforts were made to solve this antithesis by as it were bringing prophecy in spite of itself in line with the law: “this is the law and the prophets”. This is a stereotype procedure which, besides always being applied by a religion which gradually widens in the course of time, on pain of disappearance has likewise been employed with success in a secular, especially political respect, through the centuries and throughout the world.
It was particularly these practical prescriptions of the Torah that were later to form a very important part of the Talmud, increasingly refined by shrewd scribes and erudite rabbis. Although the famous Jewish philosopher Maimonides already systematized the strongly developed casuistry (comparable to the medieval Christian scholasticism) in the 12th century, the term “Talmudism” ultimately acquired and has even retained in usage, rightly or wrongly, associations with hair-splitting, or more elegantly with “legalism”.
This was inevitable, too, because, again in emulation of the prophets opposition could not but repeatedly arise of old against the narrow, coercive and dogmatic interpretation of the religious thought model, which after all also completely controlled social and civil life. When Jesus appears with a new gospel, he must come into conflict with those who demand strict observance of the law. That is why we now put Pharisees on a par with hypocrites, thus obscuring the actual event rather hypocritically ourselves. For the conflict proper is still the same dual conflict: on the one hand between the existing and the renewing, on the other hand between the present and the future or between two different possible futures. In this case for Israel the Messiah, who will still come in due course as soon as Yahweh wants him to, and on the other hand for Christianity, according to which God has already sent His only Son to earth, the redemption of mankind that has already begun, leading to the future glory of the Kingdom of God.
In the interim I may point out that Judaism, against or beside the orthodox observance of the law, and also since the prophets running from Elijah and Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel up to Jesus, has always in principle been strongly susceptible and open to renovating intellectual trends with respect to the future. As an instance I shall mention only the ideas about the future crystallized in three separate movements: the apocalypse (awe-inspiring disaster, necessarily preceding with hard strife the ultimately triumphant salvation),
the cabala (a mystic, visionary theory of the future, connected - even then - with a cosmic speculation on numbers or gematria) and Hasidism (legendary expectations for the future, communicated in anecdotal imagery, handed down to us above all thanks to Baalshem Toy and Martin Buber). All this, again in various mixed forms, was transposed into Zionism (Herzl and Weizmann). Once the State of Israel had been established, the conflict between strict orthodoxy of the law (the famous ghetto of Jerusalem, Mea Shearim) and the liberal pursuit of emancipation was to break out again. The Mizrachi (also called the modern zealotry) demands the absolute unity of Church, Jewish “law” and State.
Christian theology - and its thought models - set its stamp on thinking about the future until far into the last century. Sometimes it did so in extremely scholarly forms, e.g. in the doctrine of predestination or of transsubstantiation, or in literally dead simple ones: “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father”. Sometimes it was mysteriously formulated: Jesus as the immortal Son of God and as the mortal Son of Men. And then again in universally understandable language: the crucifixion of Jesus as a purifying, expiatory sacrifice for original sin damning every man since Adam. Sometimes it evaporated into transcendental concepts like those of eternity, grace, infinity, regeneration and omnipresence. Or it offered a mainstay, depending on the religious denomination, in baptism, prayer, the sacrament and the altar, the preaching and liturgy of the church a tangible cross, the image of a saint or a rosary, confession, catechism or the benediction and above all the text or letter of Scripture, the canonical books of the Bible which, however, in the course of time were again to lend themselves to many kinds of interpretation and just as many different thought models, including thought models as models of the future. This transition from the present to the future culminates in the predominating function and special qualification of the almighty God, more in particular as omniscient and merciful Providence. With regard to the future one could attach all kinds of reflections to the idea alone of a divine “Providence” active at all times.
The same is true of the strange contradiction between the conviction that the future was completely subject to God’s almighty all-good and all-wise, but inscrutable Dispensation and the repeated claim that God definitely wanted this and just as definitely did not want that. Further, that once again, in His name and in that of Christ, a great deal of blood had to flow again, also in endless wars of religion and crusades, in inquisition and heresy inspired by piety, and, above all, in the relentness suppression of other-directed visions of the future, even if they were just as pious and visionary. The extreme antithesis between canonized eschatology and outlawed utopia, or between the one theological eschatology and any other eschatology equally based on the Bible (e.g. the chiliastic movements for the establishment of the millennium,
or for the Third Testament and the like) was completely irreconcilable for centuries. While on the one hand the future was surrendered and abolished, lip service being paid to the complete confidence in God’s hand, on the other hand efforts were made at the same time to form this future at any price in accordance with one’s own anthropomorphic representation of God, peculiar only to the time in which one lived. It was not God who formed the future in reality in His image; it was man who transformed or deformed this future in accordance with the human, all too human, image of God everywhere evoked in those days by theology and the church, and thus all-prevailing. Whilst constant reference was made to God’s omnipotence, it was par excellence human power which, with religious inspiration, on the strength of authoritative human interpretations, answered for the future and asserted itself in historical events.
Perhaps I must even say that this thought model has prevailed until far into our time. For, to choose a striking example, how else can one solve the completely logical contradiction between the historian Toynbee, who first “proves” in a number of volumes that man may determine the fate of his civilization himself in accordance with the system of “challenge and response”, and the Christian theologian Toynbee, who thinks quite differently. After all, in the concluding volumes he “proves” that the fate of our Western culture, already in decline after a breakdown, now depends solely on a possible divine miracle. Only a universal Christian conversion of mankind, who must then await events calmly but pray fervently to God and serenely await His decision, could perhaps help at all. In fact the human power of response has in that case shrunk again to zero, or become fossilized in one exclusive thought and future model.
For the common man, who does not immerse himself daily in theology, religious philosophy, poetry or belles-lettres, or in theological analysis of history, a simple, easy-to-use recipe has often been prepared beforehand, which contains a translation for daily use of the Christian thought model. This recipe is usually cast in the form of a rationalization after the event.
Man - according to a doctrine simplified for the common man - simply cannot know the divinely determined future, and so much the better too. It is preferable to live in daily uncertainty, but then to trust exclusively to the one absolute certainty of faith, than to want to or be able to know in advance about for instance future disaster on earth and personal misery. With time comes counsel. Such a life, oscillating between fear and hope, despairing between punishment and grace, deeply longing for happiness, but at the same time possessed by fear of a possible fateful misfortune, is normally speaking unlivable. It is in essence waveringly negative, while the positive surrender to restful religious conviction is open to all and can offer complete relief - it alone. Thus once again the two poles of fear and of hope are eliminated again - except for deserved fear of hell after a sinful life and just hope of a place in heaven after a good or at least really contrite life. Loving forgiveness,
to be gained either by confession to and absolution from a priest, or by personal communication with God, preferably under the auspices of the Church.
Later opposition was to arise against this “sop” from the most varied quarters, such as the socialist circle of Bebel and Marx (as Lenin was later to say, “religion is the opium of the people”), from theological circles themselves via Kierkegaard (the inescapable “disease of deadly despair, seized with trembling”), from philosophical circles via Nietzsche (a “superman” must in the future replace that unsuccessful creature man) and from Sartre (the “revulsion” of human life, petering out in “Nothingness”). Modern theology has not yet been able to recover from this succession of traumatic shocks systematically administered in the last century with universally accepted thought models which are now current again. To some extent dogmatic thought has gone adrift, seized by the violent wash of the turbulent dynamism of today. However, I am anticipating myself here. Let us return - to remain in style - to the theological shepherds of the flocks of sheep entrusted to them.
Needless to say, the rule of life described above applied very definitely to the “common man”. But for centuries popes, pious rulers and God-fearing statesmen, before taking any decisions which might be decisive for the future, sought the advice of astrologers, soothsayers, seers, wise men and of course also professional charlatans, who formed the opposite numbers of court jesters and equally honored fools. Nevertheless, offenders against the commandments and prohibitions concerning the acquisition of knowledge of the future were for centuries very severely punished - both the consumers and the suppliers. Such penalties are for instance still in force with regard to fortune-telling in the predominantly Catholic France, though they are seldom applied.
The original reason for such penalties was at the time not far removed from the celebrated cynical maxim of “keeping the people stupid” - also by withholding good training and general education. With of course the hypocritical addition that, as always, this was truly being done for the good of the people, to protect them against themselves. It was really by far the best thing for everyone not to know about the future. After all, it was surely not for nothing that the seer Teiresias was struck blind by Hera, or that, though Apollo presented Cassandra with the gift of accurately predicting the future, he attached to it the property that nobody would believe her? No, the Greek gods too wanted to keep the future to themselves, although they in turn had to give way as regards domination over life and death to the three Fates to whom the thread of life had been entrusted. But this was at Olympian level, beyond the mental grasp of the pedestrian, tragic human being.
And yet other sounds were heard from religious and religio-philosophical quarters even in the first half and above all in the second half of the 19th century, though at first these lonely voices in the wilderness did not carry far. Or rather we must perhaps first go back to a period from 1780 to 1788, the period of the main works by Kant, the founder of a new metaphysics and
theory of science, and also of a non-rational religion and ethical system. It was only afterwards that the “All-Zermalmer” was perceived in Kant; it took half a century before Heinrich Heine established that Kant had killed God, although some German ecclesiastics had at an earlier date, whilst Kant was still alive, christened their dogs “Immanuel Kant” by way of furious protest and reprisal, rather a long name to give a dog, and probably no longer used by theologians for that purpose.
Then, among others Dostoevski followed, together with Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. It was Nietzsche who - unlike Kant - himself posits “Gott ist tot” as a thesis. Not, for instance, as is often wrongly assumed, in one of his later works, perhaps also already touched by madness, like “Also sprach Zarathustra”, “Antichrist” or “Ecce Homo” - in which among other things the idea of the superman to be created or re-created by his own hand appears - nor in his earliest works, from the beginning of the 1870’s, such as the “Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen” (an appropriate title, since this book was definitely already directed towards the future). No, the statement is to be found in a seriously intended scientific work, to which he gave the critical-satirical title of “Fröhliche Wissenschaft” (1882).
Kant was about two centuries ahead of his time, and Nietzsche about a hundred years.
This does not imply that in the 19th century the strict theology thought model - with the exception of for instance Kierkegaard and Dostoevski - remained entirely unimpaired. Among the non-theological religious thinkers and writers one can find pronouncements enough which again went in the direction of a human, hopeful expectation for the future. Instances are Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, Rilke and many others, although in these authors one can also find contradictory statements, the product of a change of mood.
But it was not until our time that a new version appeared, provided in particular by French atheistic existentialism, building on the ideas of Heidegger. In a different context I have already mentioned this intellectual trend several times. In view of its tremendous influence on our contemporary thought, this repetition - I shall later return to it in more detail, in fact - is not, I think, uncalled-for. What is new about this humanistic intellectual trend is that for the first time it tries to combine the loss of belief in God of “God is absent” or “God is dead” constructively as a pertinent but negative pronouncement with a pronouncement which is just as harsh but is meant positively. The latter is that the complex of fear, despair, and complete hopelessness for man - who has no say about his coming into this world - will be for once and for all the fate thrust upon him, his lot for all eternity. Literary “translations” of this theme may be found for instance in Albert Camus, Dylan Thomas, Beckett, a number of “angry young men” and, in part, in Graham Greene.
There are then only two theological answers possible: either essentially unchanged retention of the thought model existing for centuries or the devising of new thought models which are still sound and conclusive. Both answers have been and are being attempted. Great objections adhere to both attempts, at least from our undogmatized point of view.
The celebrated dogmatics of Barth is probably the most gigantic attempt at a synthesis of preservation and (the least possible) renovation. The question remains whether such a dogmatics, taken to all its logical conclusions, must not of necessity ultimately lead back again for our time to the historically notorious and not very elevated system of “double truth”, e.g. of religious truths and scientific truths, while it is precisely the fundamental compatibility that is always so greatly desired.
However, Bultmann and his pupils took the path of demythologization and existentialism. It was predictable that logically speaking this path, once trodden, could not but end at an ultra-radical “God is dead” theology. Heroic theologians now drain this goblet themselves to the last bitter drop. The then visible bottom of the goblet looks deceptively like Nothingness, but they keep on looking hard for the false bottom that must be there somewhere. Why shouldn’t the paradox and the absurd bring relief here too? Or should, in the future, a Percival discover the Holy Grail again?
Finally, some seek the most difficult theological way of all, viz, that of combination with the atheistic humanism of Sartre, which more or less closes the circle, if indeed we might not have to speak of squaring the circle. Nevertheless, should it prove possible - though it is hardly to be expected - to jump over one’s own shadow, how particularly attractive such an eminently humanistic theology would be! But let us not rejoice too soon: the shapes of the future also cast their shadows before. And the latter foreshadowing now forms the most essential and vital problem for mankind today.
This assiduous theological industry, although definitely of absolute integrity, sometimes creates the impression of an almost panicky, “every man for himself” search for passable and acceptable ways of escape, or if possible for a return to the abandoned heavenly throne of God and to healing of the deep wounds made. Of course I am not stating this here for its own sake, quite apart from the fact that both my competence and my reading fall far too short in this respect. What prompts me is solely the end-result of these attempts at recovery, insofar as they relate in particular to a by no means impossible and indeed rather self-evident resurrection of the coercive thought models, like old wine in new bottles.
In fact a feverish search is being made on all sides - though in an extremely vague and often illogical manner - for a new future for God. And also, if I may say so with all due respect, for a modern task and a new field of work for God. It almost seems as if the tempestuous forward rush of automation not only will increasingly and within the foreseeable future replace the work
of man, but likewise threatens in addition to make superfluous the work of God. 1 What can God do on earth for the coming new type of man from the age of automation? What can man, in a time when robots will occupy a dominant position and exert by far the strongest influence on the fortunes of mankind, still expect from a God who, according to rapidly growing views, is absent, or at least elusive, or do for Him as an evaporating abstraction? If God is truly dethroned as the undisputed ruler of a divine order and if man has produced robots of his own accord, he will at the same time have to create for himself, entirely on his own responsibility, a new, robotized but viable order.
To put it differently, one is not only seeking a new future for God from the theological side; we have at the same time to seek, with the full deployment of our efforts, a new future for man.
A new image of God and a new image of man must be sought. New values for the future, both religious and humanistic, are urgently required.
Getrennt marschieren, vereint schlagen? Or, starting from totally different beginnings, will the paths cross each other again, will the socio-cultural dialogue and communication pass each other by, precisely at the decisive point? Is a theological or religious model of the future directed specifically towards the future progress of human society in accordance with socio-scientific criteria conceivable in theory? I believe that it is, but I do not know whether it will happen: this future is still “in the lap of the gods”. But one day a real peace with clear demarcations will have to be concluded, if only for the sake of everyone’s self-preservation and self-respect. And if we turn a blind eye to the potential sources of conflict, which unfortunately are still abundantly present, our prospects for the future in that respect do not appear very hopeful. In my view three things will have to become absolutely clear to Christian theology and be accepted by it unconditionally: that the future of the earth is still largely open (insofar as it is not historically determined and limited) that this historical future of the earth from of old to the present day is not God’s work but purely the work of man and, finally, that the hour of collective, purposive and scientifically re-creative human power, free and volitional, to affect socio-historical events has at long last irrevocably struck, almost at the twenty-fifth hour.
The real dilemma lies in the fact that man has ultimately gained powers equal to those of God for the independent creation of his society and possibly soon for the re-creation of himself. He can no longer withdraw from the responsible use of this human power nor can he continue to pass it, or its consequences, on to a higher, superhuman power. On the other hand theology, which has always stated that man is created in God’s image, cannot in principle deny or thwart the use of these powers by and for man without contradicting itself. But conversely it cannot fully recognize this far-reaching process of human evolution without reducing the divine share in it to an abstract minimum or even completely disavowing it.
Let both sides, denominational and humanistic, do their very best to avoid as far as possible all intolerant arrogance and, above all, apartheid. Each in its own way, they will have to try in the best of team spirit to arrive not only at peaceful coexistence but also at fruitful collaboration. I might almost venture to put it this way: united in a partly secularized but nevertheless sacred duty! Their efforts must be directed towards the urgently necessary “populorum progressio”. Directed from the theological side, with recognition of the present socio-scientific capabilities, towards the future progress of the peoples, of all peoples. However, for the theological models of the future that will obtain in many cases this means nothing less than a Copernican change of front!