The Uncontrollable God of the Future

By Volker Leppin

I identify as a historian. And a historian is not a prophet. Even cautiously drawing general conclusions about events or human behavior from the past seems to jeopardize serious historical research. So, who am I to talk about the future of God? Which obviously means: the future of the many images and experiences of the divine as far as they are given in the human mind. 

God has survived any number of theological crises since the beginning, and it seems God has come back even stronger from each of them.

No doubt, religious tradition and belief are struggling against indifference and decline, in my native Europe even more so than on this side of the Atlantic. But at least as a historian I can say with confidence: come on, this is not the first time we find ourselves in a God crisis. God has survived any number of crises since the beginning, and it seems God has come back even stronger from each of them. Only policies of coping are different. 

Echoes of Reformation

Our future understandings of God, for instance, could multiply as they did after Reformation. Homogeneous concepts of Christianity as they had been prevalent in the European Middle Ages had come to their end when the Reformation broke out, and it was to their good: new strengths can be seen in the numerous formations of confession that grew out of the 16th century. Later, new experiences of God helped people to envision a religious environment in which they did not feel bound to the customs that dominated before Enlightenment. 

Tracing developments back to antiquity, we find human vision of God sneaking into human mind during a pagan rather than a Christian crisis. When Roman godheads were losing the confidence of the people, Mithras and Christ were not the only possible answers. Neoplatonic philosophers without converting to either one went down another route, which we can call a way into the interior self, providing new language for the conviction that the one divine is found within you and me, within us, not just remotely beyond us. 

God Escapes Our Misrepresentations

In our day, if we are looking for tentative traces of the future of God, we might find something reassuring in these historical strategies and reforms. It is no secret, for instance, that religious experience is becoming more diverse—at YDS, I have learned much more about diversity, human and divine, in my not-quite two years here than in all my years before. What Christian tradition has defined as God has proven to be only one option among possible notions of God. Our concepts and images of God are as manifold as we are. Wisdom still has it that there is only one God behind all these diverse apprehensions of the divine: this we can embrace all the more if we can admit and welcome this variety here on earth when praying to God, when thinking about God, even when despairing of God. Every human concept falls short of God’s true being. Our every representation of God is but a misrepresentation. Misrepresentation only becomes blasphemy, though, if it pretends to be the only possible image of God. The more we begin to understand how richly varied these divine representations are, and the more we abandon any claim that a particular controlling image of God is the only one, then the more we are likely to revere the one and only God who dwells within all our representations and remains beyond them at once. 

Never imprisoned by our representations, God is beyond every human mind, and thus beyond every human selfishness. If this is so, then something is clear. This understanding of God stands in contradiction to the way our societies still deal with diversity, when they still ignore all those whom Christ called his siblings in Matthew 25, when they refuse to give them help and support as Christ encourages us to do. This uncontrollable God stands with those who suffer under those who only follow the prejudices of their own minds, their own limited notion of who God cares for, and who do not respect these children of God. My belief is we will awaken to the idea that the God who can be represented in such vastly different ways and yet is not limited by any of them, will grant strength to those who suffer under the power of others, weaken those who use their powers against others, and undo what is unjust, so that justice can dawn in our world. 

Each Soul’s Divine Encounter

Because God is as diverse as we humans all are, God will encounter each of us in our own way. Here we find the antique philosophers’ wisdom relevant: God whom we know as presiding outside everyone is also the God within us. We need not chant the song of the modern demise of the metaphysical God to embrace this core insight for the future of God: God’s paths to us will be as diverse as our ways are to God. Dwelling in us, in our own souls—and we are nowhere so much ourselves as we are within in our souls—God is not hidden, but obvious. Dwelling in each person, the spirit of God will become more present in this world than the divine could ever be in some official exterior manifestation, I believe. In this way we can claim God to be totally diverse and always the same at once, the divine spirit that gives us breath and life—and the future. 

Obviously, the historian need not claim any special powers to make the prediction that God will encounter us this way in the time to come. In my case, I wish only to echo what Karl Rahner famously wrote in 1966, the year of my birth: “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or he will cease to be anything at all.” 

Volker Leppin is the Horace Tracy Pitkin Professor Historical Theology at YDS. Born in Germany, he was educated at the University of Marburg, Heidelberg University, and the Theological Academic Year in Jerusalem program. He taught at the University of Jena and the University of Tübingen before arriving at Yale in 2021. His scholarship focuses on medieval and Reformation studies as well as the history of spirituality and mysticism. He was inducted into the European Academy of Arts and Sciences last year.