The World To Come
This review was originally published in the Sea of Faith (NZ) Newsletter 33, December 1999. It
is by Janet Trisk, a member of the Sea of Faith Network in South Africa. She writes of herself "I am an Anglican priest and teach systematic theology in a seminary. More importantly I have this amazing love-hate relationship with Africa, I am besotted with my cats, am fascinated and inspired by the sea, cook (vegetarian food) and garden for creative outlets...."
"Oh dear," I thought as I opened Lloyd Geering's The World to Come: From Christian Past to Global Future, "another book about the millennium." I need not have worried. This is not just another book about the millennium, that "human convention created by western culture, projected upon the planet.(that) has no actual existence, let alone significance" as Lloyd Geering describes it. Indeed, far from being just another book about the millennium, this most engaging book and its "plot" had me reaching keenly for the last chapter to "see what happens".
Despite the weightiness of the subject matter and enormous scope of material covered, the book is free of academic jargon and reads as easily as a good novel. The idea of the year 2000 is of course derived from a particular culture-western Christianity, and as Geering points out, based on somewhat dubious calculations at that. However, the thesis of the author is that the year 2000 is, in a symbolic sense, an important one. It is an invitation to recognise the end of both Christendom and Christian orthodoxy and the beginning of the global era. A distinction is made between Christian orthodoxy and Christendom, which is that society in which Christ rules and is the result of Christianity becoming the defining religious tradition, backed by the ruling authorities. Christendom came into being from about the 3rd or 4th century of the Common Era and persisted until the Enlightenment. Christian orthodoxy, which pre-dates Christendom, and has survived its demise, is however, similarly in irrevocable decline, fatally eroded by modernism.
The key question of the book comes in the opening lines of chapter 5:
"If Christian civilisation is no more, if Christian orthodoxy is disintegrating and if Christian Modernism has failed to rescue it, where does this leave Christianity? Is it also facing its demise?"
Although there is no clear answer to the question: "What constitutes Christianity?", many would affirm that Christianity is not synonymous with Christian orthodoxy (or, more correctly, Christian orthodoxies). Christianity for many, is more a matter of lifestyle than belief. Even that lifestyle though, is in decline. Nevertheless, suggests the author, a stream of Christian influence persists and is one of the formative factors in the growth of a new global culture.
Having journeyed through 10 chapters describing the decline and fall of Christendom and Christian orthodoxy, the reader is faced in chapter 11, with the stark pictures of possible "scenarios for the future". If those scenarios don't give you nightmares, nothing will. From thermonuclear holocaust and world war to mass starvation, terrorism, social and economic chaos, the pictures are all eminently and terrifyingly probable.
It was therefore with a huge sigh of relief that I turned to the closing chapter "A Faith for the Future". "He's going to offer me hope," I said to myself. The fact that I was looking for answers and found fewer than I hoped, probably says more about me that about Lloyd Geering. There simply aren't answers. At best there are glimpses, suggestions, indications of possibilities, and all of them wrapped up as challenges.
Most readers of this book will, no doubt, be white, educated, residents of North America, Britain, Australia and the writer's native New Zealand. It seems uncharitable therefore to criticise the book from the perspective of an African. As a South African, this reviewer is caught between two worlds. South Africa is both African and also quite different from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. However the African context does pose some challenges to aspects of this book. As the writer himself points out, unlike other parts of the world, Africa is witnessing a daily growth in the adherents of both Christianity and Islam. There is no disintegration of orthodoxy in Africa. In the Christian context at any rate, there is a concerted effort by many theologians, clergy and laity to inculturate Christianity, drawing on the myths, traditions and cultures of African people. The attempt is to strengthen Christianity as an African religion, rather than one imposed from the west. Secondly, the faith of the future for which Lloyd Geering hopes, could only have been envisaged by someone who has the economic, social and political freedom to make the choices he suggests. For example, the call to "develop a lifestyle consistent with preserving the balance of the planetary eco-system on which all living creatures depend" (page 159) is a value to which I subscribe. However, for many Africans, the vast majority in fact, who do not have sufficient food, fuel or any shelter whatsoever, this is an added cruelty. Every living creature is a possible meal. Every tree is potential fuel. Similarly, "to place the needs of the coming global society before those of our own immediate family, tribe or nation" (page 159), appears to many Africans, like a renewed attempt at the colonisation which wrought such devastating effects on our continent and cultures over the last 300 years, and from which Africa is only just emerging.
These may seem unfair criticisms, given the outstanding quality of the book, the broad scope of the writer's vision and the compelling conclusions he draws. Maybe the African situation (and others like it) are simply the last vestiges of the tribalism which Lloyd Geering identifies. The future of religion in Africa is a matter for much debate. I raise the issues, because it is sometimes too easy to draw grand theories, or global conclusions, from our own perspective; and the perspective from Africa, for this reviewer, is complicating and confusing. This perspective should not detract from an excellent piece of writing. I enjoyed every page. The courage to see our situation and the ability to describe it is rare enough.
The vision and hope to offer possibilities for the future is nothing less than prophetic.