Mystery, Ethics, Beauty: A Future for God?

By Lloyd Steffen ’78 M.Div.

Whether God has a future is a question with a past. Theologian Roger Hazelton, for example, penned an article on “The Future of God” in the middle of the 1960s debate over the “Death of God.” He concluded that radical theology’s embrace of the world through atheism was question-begging, as was Christian humanism’s embrace of a Jesus evacuated of hypostatic heft.[1] Hazelton took these ideas with utmost seriousness, observing that both perspectives in profound ways depended on God. Even if the referent of “God” was unclear or in dispute, he argued, the fact that God was in play meant that theologians could keep their shops open: radical theology and Christian humanism provoked the very sort of theological reflection about God that these perspectives in different ways tried to eliminate.

It may be that the Christianity of the future will boldly concede its loss of cultural power, which would clarify the perennial spiritual challenge: to do the work of faith through a vision of life that rests on a transcendent possibility, the God who makes all things new.

Focus on “the future” would continue to draw attention, as in the provocative 2009 book by Harvey Cox ’55 B.D., The Future of Faith. Cox argued for a detaching of faith from belief, with faith best understood as a way of life centered on trust rather than on the muscle-bound systems of propositional assent that make up beliefs. More recently Deepak Chopra in The Future of God (2014) has offered an Einsteinian-via-Spinoza-shaped spirituality for the many spiritual-but-not-religious folks who want a stress-free transformative encounter with a deinstitutionalized transcendent reality.

Alive and Well and Elsewhere

Whether God has a future is a question worth pondering especially for American Christians who have been experiencing church attendance declines while witnessing a shift in the center of Christianity to the southern hemisphere. Christianity is not so much a Western religion today as it is a truly global one, so adaptive to cultural variation and local traditions that it appears almost unrecognizable to Eurocentric Christians. With Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism continuing to grow far and wide, Christianity is alive and well as the world’s largest religion—on the numbers alone one could conclude that not only God but even the church has a future. In America, however, the 90 percent of Americans who identified as Christian in 1970 has declined to 64 percent as of 2020.[2] Over the next 50 years, according to Pew Research Center predictions, Christianity will become an American minority religion. For American Christians this period of jarring change is bound to continue.

A Voice from the Past

Thus these ever-relevant questions about the future of God and the meaning of faith are not new. Lately I have revisited a voice from the past—more than a century ago—that might have something worth contemplating about our moment. In 1909 Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University, addressed the Harvard Summer School of Theology in remarks he entitled “The Religion of the Future.”[3] Although his title encompasses “religion” writ broadly, it should be remembered he was speaking to Christians and thinking through some ideas especially pertinent to Christianity. Here are some of the highlights of that talk:

The religion of the future, said Eliot, will not be based on authority, whether institution or book; it will not personify divinity through the limited forces of nature or support ideas of a deity who plays favorites according to nation, race, or culture; it will not emphasize expiation or sacrifice; it will eschew anthropomorphic representations of God; and it will not be “gloomy, ascetic, or maledictory.” In the religion of the future, he said, “the religious person will not think of his own welfare or security, but of service to others, and of contributions to the common good.” And there is more: the religion of the future will approach the question of evil from the perspective of “resistance and prevention” and will “laud God’s love and compassion,” while refusing to venture a conviction as to “what the justice of God may, or may not, require of himself [sic], or of any of his finite creatures.” (This last remark was a counter to the judgmental certainty of so many believers about their own worthiness, and others’ unworthiness, for an afterlife benefit package.) Love and hope will provide adequate inspiration for good deeds, said Eliot, and religion will emphasize universality and adaptability “to the rapidly increasing stores of knowledge and power over nature.”

Aligning with Jesus

Eliot affirmed the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity but also included the omnipresent Energy of the physicist and the Vital Force of the biologist in conceiving a God who is immanent and present as animating spirit, our “vital atmosphere, or incessant inspiration.” Noting that the “best knowledge of God comes through knowledge of the best” among us, Eliot went on to say the future religion will have nothing of the “supernatural” although it will not be stripped of mystery or wonder. The end of good and godly striving in the future religion will be the “development of cooperative good-will.” And the religion that will emerge in the new century will be in “harmony with the great secular movements of modern society—democracy, individualism, social ideals, the zeal for education, the spirit of research, the modern tendency to welcome the new …” Such religion will be “in essential agreement with the direct, personal teachings of Jesus, as they are reported in the Gospels.”

These century-old remarks can still stake a claim upon what the future of faith, and thus God’s future among us, might look like as our religious situation unfolds. Although some might dismiss his vision as an early version of the Perennial Philosophy, Eliot identifies several issues that address the enduring concerns of religion, including the religion of Christianity. I would note three.

• The future of faith will emphasize mystery. Gabriel Marcel drew a distinction between “problem” and “mystery.” Problems, Marcel wrote, “lay siege to and reduce,” but mystery is not concerned with fixes and solutions. (The radical Death-of-God theologians may have inadvertently tapped mystery by their claim that the God that died was a problem-solving God.) Mystery breaks down the subject-object distinction between what is within us and what lies outside us: in seeking connections beyond ourselves we open ourselves to the possibility of transformation as well as transcendence. A faith that confronts matters such as love and death as mysteries rather than as problems presents possibilities for connection and involvement—with God, self, and others. And mystery will provoke an awareness of limitations as we confront the most basic habits we depend on to communicate faith, including all those beliefs we proposition for security in our faith lives. Of course we are dependent on language, but it may prove less dependable than we think: As Aldous Huxley once said, “Language is a device for taking mystery out of reality.”[4] Scriptural literalists do exactly that. “If you understand it, it’s not God.” Augustine said that.[5] An emphasis on mystery as it comes to us in experience keeps wonder at the center of faith.

• The future of faith will emphasize moral meaning. Faith must affect how one engages the world and others in the skein of human interactions, for the world is always the matrix of faith. How to live faithfully in that world—with love and hope, Eliot says—is a touchstone question, and faith must issue in a moral pay-off. Moral questions may actually take precedence over theological questions and for a very simple reason. All religious persons must at some point make life decisions about how they are going to be religious. We witness how religion gets called in to justify all kinds of moral infringement—from acts of petty meanness and human diminishment due to race, sexual orientations, and class, to the carnage of terrorism and genocide. The world demands of us moral urgency, and it is in the world where faith, if it really is faith, must be performed and realized in action. Eliot’s emphasis on service puts this moral dimension right in the heart of faith.

• And the future of faith will emphasize beauty. To diminish the aesthetic dimension of life is to impoverish life and subvert the very possibility of faith. We are hardwired for beauty, whether it be in nature, in art and music, even in realized moral attributes that embody goodness, as well as in experiences of transcendence. If there is a God beyond God, a mystery of divine reality to which we have no direct access, and revelation means that no one can know God as God knows God’s own self, then beauty is a bridge to God through imagination, awe, and wonder. When situated at faith’s core, beauty fosters attitudes of appreciation, openness, gratitude, and thankfulness. Faith is a poetry.

Mystery, moral meaning, and beauty have always been present in faith, but today it is crucial to bring them to the foreground—in de-doctrinalized form—as elements for building community and addressing spiritual need. Traditional doctrines and creedal formulations are misfiring as attractions for spiritual life, at least they are for many young people with whom I work. The declining church numbers are worrisome in many respects, but they need not cause spiritual distress. They may come to be viewed as opportunities for growth, personal development, and increasing sensitivity in a world suffering from a lack of love and understanding, justice and mercy, and in need of faith’s emphasis on forgiveness and service to others. It may be that the Christianity of the future will boldly concede its loss of cultural power and even acknowledge that that power was attained not by divine largesse but by an accident of Empire. That would clarify and underscore the spiritual challenge that remains today what it has always been: to do the work of faith through a vision of life that rests on a transcendent possibility, the God who makes all things new.

The Rev. Lloyd Steffen ’78 M.Div. is University Chaplain and Professor of Religion Studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, where he directs the Dialogue Center and the Lehigh Prison Project. He is author or editor of a dozen books; his most recent is Christianity and Violence (Cambridge, 2021).  

[1] Roger Hazelton, “The Future of God,” in The Meaning of the Death of God: Protestant, Jewish and Catholic Scholars Explore Atheistic Theology, edited by Bernard Murchland (Vintage Books, 1967), pp. 128-137. For some Christian thinkers, atheism was an honest acknowledgment that the modern mind has no meaningful access to traditional faith or transcendence, in part because traditional belief refuses to engage the secular age or accept radical transformation. In The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Westminster, 1966), Thomas J. J. Altizer argued that the death of God on the cross—the outpouring of divine immanence into the world and the consequent collapse of metaphysics—is the very essence of the Christian faith. For Hazelton, meanwhile, Christian humanism pointed to a “radically ethical orientation impatient with speculative considerations,” which for some meant a reduction of God to a purely human dimension in Christ and a rejection of the hypostatic union of the human and the divine in Jesus.

[4] Huston Smith, “Remembering Aldous Huxley,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 20, 1988. Reprinted in Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Vol 29, No. 3, Summer 1989, p. 408. The original essay by Huxley is called “Culture and the Individual” (1963).

[5] See Is God Absent: Faith, Atheism, and Our Search for Meaning by Anselm Grün, Tomáš Halík, and Winifred Nonhoff (Paulist Press, 2019), p. xviii.