Monday, March 18, 2013

On Predicting the Future

Back to the Future 2, Marty McFly, 2015, Doc Brown, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd
Bad Future Predictors
by Ben Howard 

Contrary to what your semi-annoying friend from high school posted on Facebook, Back to the Future Day has not yet occurred. In Back to the Future 2, Doc and Marty travel to October 21st, 2015, thirty years into their future. 2015. 1985. 1955. This is a time travel movie for the OCD crowd.

A little more than two years removed from that date, I think it’s safe to say that Back to the Future 2, though a fine movie, did a pretty poor job of predicting the future. There are no self-tying shoelaces (not that it kept Nike from gobbling up a patent on the idea), no hover boards, no mini-microwaveable pizzas that come out full-sized, and sadly the Cubs will not win the World Series (I’m pretty certain of this).

Also, there are no flying cars. Nowhere. Yet, there are always flying cars in the future.

When movies or TV shows set their stories in the future they inevitably over-predict the future.  Either the world will be populated by self-tying shoes and flying cars, or else the entire world will fall off the cliff into a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Our visions of the future are so extreme, so hyperbolic, because we can’t really stand the idea of the future looking very much like the present.  Or maybe it’s that we are engaging in the equivalent of children telling bedtime stories to one another, telling fantastic tales to entertain, or getting ourselves freaked out about what is almost certainly hiding in our closet. Since we can’t see over the horizon into tomorrow, we must write our stories and write them large. Since we can never live in anything but the present reality, any and all depictions of the future will be emotionally jarring. We will always feel the anxiety of a time-traveler when we tell these kinds of stories.

church building, upside down, hill, future church
Church of the Future?
But that’s an inauthentic way to view the future. It’s not how the future will feel to us when it exists. When the future becomes the present we won’t think of it as “the future” it will just be what exists, now. It won’t necessarily be better or worse, it’ll just be different.

I read a lot of posts on the future of evangelicalism and the future of the church and this tendency to over-predict the future is present in almost every one. Inevitably someone will say that the church is dying, or that evangelicalism is dying, or that we’re on the verge of a new resurgence in the church, or that we’re on the precipice of something new in the Christian world.

However, when you begin to peel back the layers of these predictions, whether they foretell doom and disaster or growth and renewal, they are ultimately not about the future at all. They are about the concerns of the present. Warnings about the death of the church are another way of calling the church to be better; predictions of expansion and renaissance are hopeful projections that the church can keep doing something good, that they can hold it together.

The future will always be a continuation of the present colliding with the unpredictable and the unexpected.  It rarely follows a linear trajectory, and it’s rarely so boring as to be predictable. It’s impossible to live or prepare for a future world that doesn’t exist, and even if it was possible, it wouldn’t be helpful.

We can only live in the present. We can only deal with the issues we have at the moment, not the issues we might have down the line. We’ll inevitably change and adapt. We’ll think differently about some things and some of the obvious truths of the present will become antiquated.

I think we like talking about the future because it lets us put our dreams, and conversely, our nightmares on display. It grants us a way to talk about how we view our day to day existence without having to interact too fully with the present. It allows us to view a world where all the problems we have today are replaced by the solutions of tomorrow. It allows us to experience the rewards at the end of the long struggle known as history without experiencing the pain, trauma, and cynicism along the way.

But that future, the one that solves the problems of the present, will never exist, and that’s okay.

little girl, heart, balloon, hope, there is always hope, concrete
There is always hope...
There will always be injustice, even if we find justice for the oppressed of our time. There will always be war, even if we find peace between today’s warring parties. There will always be pain, even if we tend the wounds and dry the tears of those who hurt right now.

This isn’t cynicism; it’s real life.
And when the new struggles come, when the future we’ve always dreamed of comes tantalizingly close, only to be pulled away in an avalanche of the present, the church and the world, both broken as always, will pull themselves up by their non-self-tying boot straps and continue to fight the good fight motivated by something beyond themselves: hope.


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