The Future of Today When Tomorrow Is Uncertain

Oliver O’Donovan has a chapter that begins with a section called “The Future of Today” in his marvelous trilogy Ethics as Theology. The chapter is concerned with the theological virtue of hope, and in particular to understand how (future) hope shapes (present) action. The question of how our sense of the future shapes our action today seems an unusually compelling problem in these days of the Great Disruption. We live in a time strangely suspended in partial and almost haphazard ways. Coincidentally or providentially, the season of Lent has accompanied us, continuing its relentless journey toward the darkness of the Cross. Yet, our 40 days in the desert threaten to stretch into a longer time (perhaps not 40 years?), in which we are separated from much of what makes life worth living (i.e. other people and shared activity with them), and most especially the fundamental unity that happens each time we share in the Eucharist. How do we deal with this prolonged, unexpected exile? Even more, how do we deal with the real heart of the exile, which is the unavoidable (even if reducible) suffering of serious illness and death? The pandemic coverage often focuses on death, but deaths are themselves part of a larger question about our futures. We are all disoriented because we, individually and collectively, do not know what is going to happen.

O’Donovan throws light on how to understand our disorientation, by distinguishing “hope” properly understood from two other ways of the future impacting the present: purpose and anticipation. In earlier chapters, O’Donovan develops the basic point that human action involves acting for purposes; agency involves being able to form purposes that obviously involve moving from the present into the future. I wake up in the morning and go through a mental to-do list: prepare a lecture, attend a meeting, go to the grocery store, do laundry. In this section of the book, O’Donovan describes purposes as “the future beneath our feet,” some immediate appointment or task or project toward which we direct our agency, evidently with the hope of some future.

But the “hope” that directs one’s life generally goes beyond this. True, there are moments in all lives where just getting out of bed and doing the daily minimum is all we can manage, but we do not generally view this as a flourishing life, as something optimal. Moreover, as O’Donovan also notes, our purposes, while projected into the future, cannot create that future. I may not end up doing what is on my to-do list, or something may intervene.

Indeed, O’Donovan assumes that at its deepest level, “hope” enters in precisely where our purposes seem to be failing. Christian hope is finally in the vindication of God’s promises, even, and especially, when the vindication seems improbable or impossible. As Benedict XVI explained in Spe Salvi, Christian hope is sadly diminished by a kind of otherworldly individualism, in which the robust, communal biblical vision of “the new heavens and the new earth” is reduced to some kind of private soul striving. This diminishment of Christian hope, the pope emeritus says, leaves the field wide open for other versions of ultimate hope to take over in this world—and what unifies these visions in the modern age is their belief that the ultimate future is man-made, whether in techno-utopia or dystopian apocalypse. Christian hope is in fact for the whole world, this world and the age to come, and it must challenge these man-made futures. It is resolutely an astonishing vision of love triumphant over history of sin and division, bringing into a being a future that is much more than we can imagine.

But what lies between “the future beneath our feet” and the grand vision of the final end? The answer is the “middle-distance future” that O’Donovan labels “anticipations.” These are “imaginative projections drawn from the past horizon of the present and extending the orderly pattern of events into the future.” For O’Donovan, “anticipation,” while a necessary part of action, is the great danger in considering the future. Anticipation that must be kept firmly in its place, knowing its proper scope and limits. Otherwise, it can both wrongly overwhelm immediate purposes and distortingly replace ultimate hope.

Should I plan to go running this evening, when my app says there is a 50% chance of rain at 5pm? Should I rearrange my morning, in that case? Should I buy or sell my stock? What exactly is the effect of all this on the economy? How much toilet paper should I have? Will wearing a mask protect me? How will campuses open in the fall? How will all this affect November’s election?

The coronavirus crisis can fundamentally be seen as a crisis of anticipation, come to a culture that puts a great deal of energy and stock into “anticipation.” Indeed, at a personal level, it is not the day-to-day purposes or my ultimate hope that is disoriented by the crisis—it is the whole range of middle-level futures. Events that can no longer be planned, trips home that can no longer be scheduled, all the things that one can see coming up six months ahead of time on the horizon—these are all thrown into question. Plus, the overall functioning of society is also thrown into question. What will American life look like in June is unanticipatible in a way that is simply different from anything almost anyone currently alive has experienced on a society-wide level. At that middle level, we are in the dark about the future in ways that differ dramatically from our ordinary sense that all will proceed pretty normally. We likely have much to learn from those people who have personally faced such a disruption of anticipation because of more localized events in their lives.

O’Donovan’s criticism of our culture of anticipation is bracing. It is this sort of presumption of predictable continuity of the present order that Jesus relentlessly criticizes as “worrying about tomorrow” or “building barns.” It is this order that the Pharisees seek to continue. Rather, Jesus teaches, in O’Donovan’s words: “to act wisely and to live well means treating present appearances and present anticipations as perfectly fragile,” because “the present order pretends to have the future in its hand.” Anticipation is imaginative—but often enough, its imagination is radically constrained and distorted because it believes we can know the future based on the past. And so it “pretends” insofar as we take it as something other than a potentially limited and limiting imaginative construct.

O’Donovan points to the extent to which, in our civilization, we have made a business of predictions, and thus have twisted our agency in two ways: one, we end up preferring to focus on “the essentially predictable,” especially in the short-term, and two, when we attempt long-term planning, our “demand for definiteness” leads us to represent the future “in the guise of a predictable mechanical process,” thus hiding from ourselves how we are confusing “speculative anticipation with hard science.” This all comes, O’Donovan points out, from thinking that the question “what should I/we do?” is and has to be subordinated to the question “what is going to happen?”

Well, it does not have to be. Indeed, it cannot be, in part because we need to acknowledge that “we do not know what is going to happen.” Genuine scientists (in all fields) are more modest about their predictive apparatuses than those who put their work to use in various guises. More importantly, prediction is always a reliance on the stability of the order as it is, a status quo thing that precludes a great deal. Most obviously, it precludes the Incarnation and the Resurrection. In more temporal terms, it precludes imagining social life in genuinely different ways. In our own society, predictive stability is also key to power.

In one sense, Trump’s unlikely presidency is just as unpredictable as a major pandemic . . . or a Francis papacy, emerging from a conclave where all but one of the electors was appointed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Unlikely disruptions need not be narrated as providential, and indeed in real ways, the emergence of the destabilizing and unpredictable is potentially very damaging. O’Donovan is not endorsing unpredictability for unpredictability’s sake. The virus is and will continue to be very damaging. But let us learn from this: we do not know the future, we are not its masters.

What O’Donovan points us toward is not an opposition of hope and anticipation, but a proper ordering. Many of the things of this world that I love most deeply are results of long efforts over long periods of time, of steady building and constant commitment. It is foolish to be “against stability.” The real question is what sets the horizon toward which we aim. Many of these works of genuine love are just that: not enterprises launched with visions of world domination, not things buffeted about in their identities by the “trends” and the “predictions” of what O’Donovan calls the “present-future,” ever swaying between “dreary anxiety and buoyant optimism.” They are committed to ultimate things, enduring realities, the true and the good. They set their sights beyond anticipation, and most importantly, form their purposes about “the future beneath their feet” with their eyes not on the predictions, but on hope for higher things.

We all want to get “back to normal”—by which at minimum we mean that we can engage in everyday practices of human community which are as basic to our souls as food is to our bodies. But O’Donovan’s reflections caution us about this, in two ways. One, at the present time in the crisis, we are very much unable to provide “anticipations” about that middle-distance future on which we can act with confidence. We are likely to get a range of “anticipations,” and (I fear) the argument over “anticipations” will devolve into predictable politicized polarities.

This could be a greater disaster than the virus itself. We must, at the same time, be reliant on good data, as well as being attentive to the limits and constraints of such data, and our temptations to “spin” it in our own interests. Moreover, the relevant data is not the headline number that has come to dominate daily media reports. Horse-race, up-and-down ways of conveying headline news does not help. Raw numbers are not going to help us, as we think carefully about what should be done to maintain a functioning society. The actual future that comes to be is highly dependent on how well or badly we are able to deal with our needed “anticipatory humility” in the present. “Anticipatory humility” names a recognition that we must have some kind of planning horizon, while at the same time avoiding the temptation to turn such a planning horizon (and its necessarily contingent, changeable content) into a political football.

The other caution is that we do need to reflect on the ways in which our former “normal” needs change. Here too the dangers are great: society-wide disruptions are easy to seize on by those who want power. For Christians, the proper “revolution” should involve a real reordering of our lives more definitely toward the ultimate hope that Christ offers us.

I doubt there is one answer to this, but any event of this magnitude should push us toward reflection, conversion, and reorientation toward the genuine horizon of hope. The crisis may push some of us to reflect on what is meant by “essential work.” It may reorient the way we think about school and learning, within families. It may deepen our desire for and attachment to the sacramental system (i.e. the system that insists on the real world, real flesh and blood, for encountering God). It may lead us to wonder about an economy that is not so obviously oriented to luxury spending. As a professor from my graduate education, Willie Jennings, put it in a webinar, the greatest tragedy of our teaching this semester would be to finish out the semester by just “getting through it” and never confronting the event we are all sharing. This is just as true for our lives.

For the first week or so, I was impatient. And I thought, well, this cannot go on long, it is not sustainable. I still think that. But in fact, this is going to go on for a while. Hope, O’Donovan says, rests especially on endurance. It trusts in the end, even through the toughest times, even when it cannot see it. It is threatened by the temptation of impatience and what he calls the sin of “anxiety.” Anxiety lies on the border of purpose and anticipation, and it is the fear we experience because Jesus calls us to “perilous opportunities”—like Peter stepping out of the boat into the stormy sea.

Anxiety prevents us from forming purposes, because of its preoccupation with anticipation. O’Donovan again notes that a certain sense of worry is appropriate since action toward the future is a contingent thing. But we must respond to Jesus’s summons beyond this normal feeling, as “a call to set the unknown future of life and action in the light of God’s promise.” Who can anticipate what could happen if we got out of the boat and walked on those waves?

Featured Image: Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo with her son Giovanni de' Medici, 1545; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


David Cloutier

David Cloutier is associate professor of Moral Theology at The Catholic University of America and a 2019-20 Life Fellow of the McGrath Institute. His books include The Vice of Luxury, Walking God’s Earth, and Love, Reason, and God’s Story.

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