by Paul Lakeland

Whether faith has a future is contingent on the way we perceive our own futures.

PAUL LAKELAND teaches at Fairfield University. He is the author of Postmodernity: Christian Identity in a Fragmented Age.

It is certainly worth asking whether faith has a future; moreover, the question is one we need to have the courage to address. A necessary preliminary to such a venture is to be somewhat clearer about the meaning of the question -- and thus about the meaning of the two important words here, "faith" and "future." It would probably not be helpful to pursue a narrow understanding of faith in this project, the faith of some particular tradition, still less the faith that I grew up knowing in Catholic Lancashire. A more useful approach, or at least the one that will be entertained here, is to look to a broader, less well-defined, and more all-encompassing idea of faith that includes the faiths of all religious traditions and much of the faith of those who know allegiance to none of them. Borrowing the words of Joe Appleyard of Boston College, in a recent essay on the work of William Lynch, let us call faith "the primal force of belief, promise and fidelity that shapes all existence and is not specifically religious."(1)

The key word in this working definition of faith is "force." Faith is a primal force. It is not an attitude, or a set of opinions, or an ideology. It is the imagination on the move. Faith is the dynamic element in life, what keeps us in process, in becoming, in possibility. Faith is what keeps us alive. Religious people sometimes talk about having faith in their tradition, but this can be misleading. There is no such thing as faith in the past; there is certainly continuity of faith with those who in the past were people of faith, although in that past their faith was, of course, faith in the future. A faithful people is not marked by its jealous preservation of relics, but by its oneness with the faith in the future that its own dead bequeathed to it. The fancy name for this is anamnestic solidarity. Christians may know it as the communion of saints. Either way, faith is the preservation of promise. It is a looking forward, not a looking back. As one of the most remarkable men I ever knew was fond of saying, although he was by no means the only one to whom this particular saying was attributed: "Tradition is the living faith of the dead: traditionalism is the dead faith of the living."

The second idea I want to follow a little way from Joe Appleyard's Lynchian understanding of faith is the difficulty of separating "religious" from "secular" faith. To quote William Lynch himself this time, "reality is not conflictual." Attitudes toward basic, permanent elements of the human reality, he argues, cannot be in conflict without a general loss of hope. Or, to put it more directly, you can't be an optimist in religion and a pessimist about the world, or vice-versa. But this is not simply the psychological judgment that you are either once-born or twice-born and that's that. As William James wrote in Varieties of Religious Experience, one of the characteristic spiritual emotions is "a sense of the friendly continuity of the Ideal Power with our own life."}

If that is faith, what about "future"? Is it me, my imagination, just my age -- or is it in fact true that there is a certain apocalyptic flavor creeping into human consciousness at this moment in time? If true, is it just the millennium thing, or is there more? It really doesn't pay to be gloomy, but we cannot just stick our heads in the sands either. The apocalyptic on Wall Street is real enough, but that need not detain us. On the other hand, global economic instability, global climate change, global environmental decline, and the increasing likelihood of global pandemics are not just the neuroses of the hyperesthetic imagination, or the nourishment of cultural hypochondriacs. They are facts, and they may have at least as much to do with fear for the future as the equally factual statement that we are now counting down the days to the big 2000.

As we reflect on whether faith has a future, we need to think about whether we have faith in a future. We need to try to understand why we are where we are, and what if anything we can do to change the course of history. Much of the best in cultural and historical analysis focuses not so much on the end of the millennium, fascinating as it may be, but rather on the end of the era of modernity. So much in our times suggests that the enterprise begun in the Enlightenment is exhausted and finally winding down. But what can follow?

Today we have become accustomed to referring to our times as "postmodern," usually without any serious attention to what that might mean, and certainly without any reference to a set of agreed-upon understandings "out there" of the meaning of "postmodern" and its cognates. I think there are basically three attitudes to postmodernity, as cultural views, with attendant religious perspectives that illustrate three possible approaches to answering the question of the future of faith.

Postmodernity as a label for the times is in some ways hubris, in some ways loss of confidence. It is at one and the same time the claim that we are over all that "modern" stuff, and simultaneously that the best we can do with a new label is to say that we ain't what we used to be. But the label also points helpfully to the indisputable fact that "postmodern" is marked by a set of attitudes to the recent past.

The three I can discern are obvious enough. There is first a nostalgic yearning for a return to the old certainties that modernity swept away, a reactionary postmodernism in which modernity itself is seen as an unfortunate hiccup in history, now behind us. There is, at the other extreme, an anarchic sigh of relief that the discipline of modernity is no more, that the struggle for justice and rights and freedoms has been revealed as the tiresome intellectual hegemony of Western liberalism, and that all can now return to their own backyards. It is, of course, no surprise, that those who sport this attitude correlate highly with those who have the bigger backyards, filled with the best toys. Finally, there is a third and, I believe, preferable, choice, in which the bifurcated legacy of modernity is analyzed, the crimes of modernity are called before the court of history, and the genuinely humane enterprise of modernity is preserved, to be pursued anew in the chastened and deeply changed climate of our own times.

These three positions are marked by different understandings of faith. The first or nostalgic position, of course, is faith without hope. In secular terms, it is reaction born of despair. As religious faith, it shows itself locked in a vision of the past that may or may not have existed, where somehow the "deposit" of faith is located. That old phrase trips off the tongue, at least off Catholic tongues of a certain age, but it is, I have always thought, a singularly unpleasant phrase. A "deposit" is not usually anything delectable, or fruitful, or dynamic. Guano is a deposit. By contrast, the idea of covenantal fidelity in Hebrew scripture is helpful. Here the stress is on faithfulness, both God's and Israel's, to a covenant made in the past, admittedly, but a covenant built upon a promise to be fulfilled into the future. Once again, as my arch(i)episcopal friend Tommy Roberts would have it, the living faith of the dead is to be preferred over the dead faith of the living.

If nostalgia is faith without hope, then postmodern insouciant play is hope without faith. The rootlessness, the eclecticism, the sheer pragmatism of postmodern culture is a celebration of the loss of moorings, the end of history, the triumph of the will. It is a kind of paganism without the morality that attended its classical expressions. More often than not, this fin-de-siecle self-indulgence has little to do with religion. Religion, after all, is serious, and radical postmodernity, by its own account, is an occasion for play. If there is a religious face at all to radical postmodernism, it must be New Age consciousness. Here we find the trappings of religion without the heart -- New Age religion is frequently intellectually empty, bereft of tradition, at the mercy of sentimentality, incapable of critique, blind to anything beyond the individual. Sincere it may be; substantial it is certainly not.

If this depiction of New Age religion sounds harsh, let me say immediately that its very existence is testimony to the breakdown of modern religion. Religion could not really survive modernity. Emasculated and privatized by the Enlightenment, domesticated by liberalism, preferring necrophilia to prophecy, religion by the mid-twentieth century was all but dead. It was just a matter of time before people got tired of trying to resuscitate it. Then modernity itself imploded. There is no better image for this than the Holocaust, at once a feat of technology, a tour-de-force of mass psychology, and an act of barbarism so terrible that it finally gave the death-blow to that old lie of philosophy, that knowledge is virtue.

The challenge for faith today is, then, to come to life again from the ashes of modernity, without falling into the vapidity of hope without faith, or returning in panic to the securities of a faith without hope. Here, I believe, we are on the ground that half a century ago the editors of Cross Currents staked out, and over the intervening years indubitably made their own.

I want to suggest three directions for the further future of faith: a new concern for grace at the microcosmic level; a return to narrativity as the vehicle of utopian hope; and a reawakened appreciation for the giftedness of life. The re-conversion motif in all three is not to be understood as looking backward but rather, in an understanding first developed by Paul Ricoeur and discussed most eloquently by Sarah Maitland in A Big-Enough God, as an exercise in "second naïvete." If modernity was the time of demythologization, postmodernity is surely the moment for a return to the myth, albeit that -- unlike premodernity -- we now know it as a myth.

One of the more fruitful emphases of postmodernity is a stress upon the importance of the microcosmic. Seen in this light, postmodernity is a corrective to the big-scale orientation of modernity. As an illustration, compare urban planning then and now. No one is building huge high-rise cities any longer. In a more religious context, think about the implications of the new theologies within Christianity -- liberation, feminist, womanist, mujerista, ecological, and so on. Their ecclesiology is devolutionary, their polity is democratic, and their theology is inductive. By contrast, the imperial papacy of the last two centuries, an icon of modernity, possesses a centralized theology of the church, an autocratic vision of church order, and a neoscholastic, deductive theology, employed for the most part in the service of an individualistic and otherworldly piety. But if we ask where, within that Catholic context, the future of faith lies, the smart money is on the power of the people.

This new awareness of a kind of mysticism of the microcosmic can be expressed for me no better than in the final words of the Curè in Bernanos's Diary of a Country Priest, "Grace is everywhere." The future of faith is not solely in the Catholic church or the Christian tradition or Western religion or the traditions of the East. It is in all these places and more, but only where we can find what James Carse calls "the mysticism of everyday life." Faith is and always has been faith in the reality and gratuitous character of grace. The postmodern calls on us to find it in small things, in unexpected places, in unlikely people, without regard to public reputation or social position. Those who have read Mary Gordon's Company of Women or Gloria Naylor's fine novel, Bailey's Cafe, know what I mean. The one celebrates the occasional graces of extremely ordinary existence. The other is a story of sanctity, of grace and faith, but its characters are pimps and alcoholics, cheap whores and cross dressers, drug addicts and brothel keepers. Just the kind of people with whom Jesus of Nazareth seemed to enjoy keeping company.

The future of faith is to be more finely calibrated, more fleeting and less tangible. The God in whom the whole of Western religion has throughout premodernity and well into modernity placed all its faith is either dead with Hegel, buried with Heine, murdered by Nietzsche, or alive but an abuser (David Blumenthal). The postmodern God is more likely absent but awaited, as in Simone Weil or Samuel Beckett, or -- my personal favorite -- Rilke. In one of his Stories of God, deceptively simple tales ostensibly written for children, God is portrayed -- or rather not portrayed -- as a visitor long awaited, long anticipated, who does not arrive, at least while the story lasts. Preceding and, for my money, overleaping Beckett's grim fable of Godot, Rilke dwells on the joyfulness of the expectation and chooses not to let that doorbell ring. The future of faith lies in hope, hope for an anticipated but not yet present God, or hope for the vindication of the countless millions who shall have died in vain if there is no truth to any eschatological vision. This drama of faith is to be played out on a far smaller stage than heretofore has been the case.

If Bernanos points us toward the mystical dimension in the faith of the future, his fellow countryman, Michel de Certeau, suggests the lineaments of a postmodern prophetic faith. In an early chapter of The Practice of Everyday Life,(2) de Certeau examines the way religion functions in the lives of the urban poor. He sees them as living in two worlds, one a "polemological"(3) space, the other utopian. The "polemological" space -- lovely word! -- is their everyday world in which they always lose, truth is never spoken, and the naked power of others rules over their lives. The utopian space is one "in which a possibility, by definition miraculous in nature, was affirmed by religious stories," often of the deeds of a local religious hero. The role the stories play is as a protest against the "non-coincidence of fact and meaning" and to help maintain a hope that the poor -- in the person of their hero -- might "rise again." The stories transform a religious vision into a "song of resistance," which, says de Certeau, "civil and religious leaders have always correctly suspected of putting in question the 'reason' behind power and knowledge hierarchies." Thus the practice of popular religion in such contexts is resistant, transgressive, and utopian. Faith becomes an opening to the utopian space within the polemological space of everyday power relations.

This understanding has immediate appeal in postmodernity, and not only to the urban poor, where we become daily more aware of the all-pervasive cultural power of socio-economic forces, where resistance has turned to the level of local initiatives, and where narrative and experience are frequently proposed as weapons against the triumphant forces of system and theory. It is one reason for the continuing vitality of the midrashic traditions of interpretation in Judaism, and the principal explanation of their evident fascination to Christians. It certainly explains for me why fiction is such a resource for religious reflection, overwhelmingly more important in the life of faith today than what de Certeau calls "the received language of the theological tradition."

I think the value of fiction and narrativity in our world is somewhat different from that noted by de Certeau among the urban underclass of Latin America. For the truly poor, as in liberation theology, the fund of stories they possess is the way they keep hope when the weight of everyday oppression is bearing down upon them. For us, who are for the most part comfortably ensconced within a polemological reality that may make us periodically uneasy but that does not threaten our physical existence -- and are divorced from the sources of folk-tales -- fiction is hope breaking in to offer us the possibility of a faith in the future that will require the drastic remodeling of our everyday existence. Faith in the future, in other words, is possible for us through the prophetic voice of storytellers.

Of course, fiction is heteroglossic (many voices) and folk-tales often are not. But the heteroglossia of fiction corresponds nicely to the pluralism of postmodernity. The future is opened up non-dogmatically, and we can choose, if we will, to have faith in the visions of possibility that it provides. The weight of the everyday causes the poor to take flight to utopian resources, while the possibilities of fiction await us if we can turn away for a moment from the comforts of the everyday. Faith to the one is natural, to the other intentional, unless the fabled existential crisis should intervene to show the thin polemological ice upon which we all of us skate. Comparing natural and intentional faith, it would seem that if faith has a future, it probably lies with the disinherited of the earth. That is the only reason for rejoicing that there are so many of them.

My third and final suggestion for the future of faith is a return to the notion of gift. The idea of life as a gift is of course not new, but almost a cliché in the preacher's repertoire. While in our times it remains possible for people of faith to appreciate the gift-quality of their lives, of the still-beautiful world we live in and the wonderful human beings with whom our lives are periodically graced, it is very hard any longer to think of the future as a gift. Of course, I can see my puny future in that way, for however many years remain, but not the future of the world. If we cannot see the future as gift, what then becomes of faith, since faith is about promise and possibility and hope?

The problem for us is that the future often does not seem to lie before us as a gift to be unwrapped carefully, savored, and treasured. It is not there like a birthday gift to a child, delivered before the day, looked on longingly with all the anticipation she can muster. If it is present at all, it is as a badly-wrapped package from who knows where, cover torn and tape peeling, ill-addressed and dirty. Will it explode into shrapnel, or will it simply be revealed as a gift, but one whose quality matches the packaging? The polemological reality of our probable human future seems to overwhelm the utopian hope of faith.

I am almost old enough to start talking about the good old days, but that is not the point I am trying to make. I am happy to be alive now rather than at any other moment in history. How did we live before The problem remains that to the degree the future is difficult to believe in, faith is impossible, since faith is not faith in the past but in the promise of the future. How can this threat to hope be countered? Let me end by suggesting two ways.

The first follows the old spiritual principle, "pray as if everything depended on God, but act as if everything depended on you." It is plain to me at least that if we are to have a worthwhile future to bequeath to our children, it will only be because we shall find the strength for true political activism and real social change precisely where Gandhi said it would be, at the grassroots. The turn to the grassroots, as I hinted earlier, is one of postmodernity's most hopeful signs, born of modernity's grand-scale moral failure. People who want a future worth having faith in, and who have faith to envisage a future, must surely be ready to look for another way than the IMF to fix our problems. It is time, laughable though it may sound to some, to rediscover the profoundly countercultural impetus of the wisdom traditions, both East and West. Thus, it is no surprise and indeed a sign of hope that one of the most promising developments in theology is the mushrooming today of what is known as the theology of religions, the search for the potential for a unity of vision in the great world religions.

The second way to counter the threat to hope follows the equally venerable spiritual principle: act as if everything depended on God, but pray as if everything depended on you. This is the balance to the struggle for a better world, the mystical now returned to round out the prophetic. The postmodern mystic awaits in anticipation the inbreaking of the divine, but the doorbell never rings. The apophatic strand of mysticism is returned to us and, in the spirit of the German mystics, we "deny God for God's sake." The way of negation, "not this. . . . not yet. . . . not now," is the true praxis of expectation. Living in faith, looking for God's future, can only be done by relativizing the present. We do indeed now live in the absence of God, but this is a sign of hope. As Jean-Luc Marion would have it, because God is gift and gives so perfectly, God is so totally poured out in the world and so totally self-surrendered that God's presence as God is an absence. Of course, this "over-agapic" self-annihilation is not a good model for human loving, especially not for women, if taken alone. But the quietism of apophatic mysticism is only one pole of faith in the future, balanced by the intense activism I have described above.

Does faith have a future? Yes, if it is a counterfactual faith in the world, worked out in the small things of life, among the small people. No, if it is the replication of a somewhat ameliorated present or the return to an idealized past. Yes, if it stares the absence of God in the face, and waits for the one who is to come. No, if its stoicism or despondency testifies to the loss of belief in the dynamism of the divine Spirit. In other words, faith has a future insofar as we can believe that there will be a future in which to have faith.


1. [Back to text]  See Joseph A. Appleyard, S.J., "Imagination's Arc: The Spiritual Development of Readers," in Seeing into the Life of Things: Essays on Religion and Literature, ed. John L. Mahoney (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998), 51.

2. [Back to text]  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

3. [Back to text]  "Polemological" is de Certeau's coinage -- perhaps translator's despair: "conflicts covered up with words."

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.
Source: Cross Currents, Winter 1998-99, Vol. 49 Issue 1.