‘If the future is under God’s control, why do we need to do anything in the present?’
I was recently asked a version of this question when working with a group of Quakers on hope. They were asking how to connect the need to act here and now with a confidence that, eventually, all will be well. Doesn’t a reliance on God weaken our resolve to work for good today?
Within liberal Quakerism, the need to act in the present appears self-evident. A sense of social responsibility runs deep within the liberal Quaker identity, perhaps inherited from its nineteenth century Evangelical past. On the other hand, what appears far less evident to liberal Quakers is that there is a God-promised future in store for us. In my experience, Liberal Quakers are far more likely to think that the only guarantee for a peaceful and just future is our actions in the present. A typical liberal Quaker position might be, to quote Terry Pratchett, ‘there’s no justice, there’s just us’.
Human wickedness and a transcendent God
I think this total reliance on ‘just us’ makes talk of hope very difficult, because it neglects or rejects two things: human wickedness and a transcendent God.
Liberal Quakers inherited a belief in human goodness from liberal Protestantism, leading us to play down talk of original sin, and to speak more of ‘original blessing’. I think that humanity is part of God’s good creation, and that human beings are capable of virtuous lives, but I believe our loss of sin-talk has left us woefully ill-equipped to face the colossal and pervasive evils that human beings commit and perpetuate.
What gives me hope in the face of evil and injustice is God’s transcendence. This is the belief that God is not only within us (also called God’s ‘immanence’), but also outside us and radically ‘other’. God is not a human creation. Humanity is but one part of the creation of God. The future of the cosmos ultimately rests in God’s hands. Without a transcendent God, how do I know the end of our story will be anything other than nothingness, a meaningless blank? Without a transcendent God, we’re on our own, it’s just us, and I don’t trust us to get it right.
So how do I link human action in the present with confidence in God’s promised future? First, I think God’s character compels us to act. Second, the future is not entirely set in stone – in God’s story there is space for us to act.
Shaped by God’s character
Julian of Norwich famously wrote that ‘all shall be well’. This is the promise of God’s future. What is the guarantee of this promise? I believe that the guarantee is found in God’s character. How do we know what God’s character is like? We know this from the stories we tell about God, from the Bible and our experience as a Quaker community. The Quaker experience of the Spirit of God is that it is trustworthy, it is love, peace, and truth; it is strength to persevere. The character of the God we experience today, and have experienced in the past, is also the character of God in the future. We could say that God’s promised future is Christ-shaped.
But if such a future is guaranteed, what’s the point of our own action? I believe that, if we’re seeking to live lives guided by the Light of God, we don’t really have a choice but to act. Not acting ceases to be an option. To be open to God is to be conformed to God’s character. When we ‘give over our own willing’, our wills become more and more aligned with God’s. We become oriented and energised towards this promised future. We become part of the in-breaking of the Kingdom. We increasingly embody the Christ-shaped future that God has promised. This embodiment may mean patient perseverance or persistent action, but we can no longer think that the future is nothing to do with us.
The story’s still being written
If we have a role to play in anticipating a Christ-shaped future, then the future can’t be set in stone. It has to be open. There needs to be space for us to act. Although Julian of Norwich wrote that ‘all will be well’, she also wrote:
There is a deed which the blessed Trinity will perform on the last day, as I see it, and what the deed will be and how it will be performed is unknown to every creature who is inferior to Christ, and it will be until the deed is done.
How all things will be made well is a mystery to Julian, but she knows that the end result will be consistent with God’s character. This sense of mystery is found in the Jesus story: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come” (Mark 13:32-33). Although we can trust that God’s future will be consistent with God’s character, we don’t know exactly how we’ll get there. The exact details of the journey are undisclosed, ready for us to discover and act out.
Although I think this understanding of active hope is consistent with the Quaker tradition, the worldwide Quaker family, and the wider Christian tradition, I’m aware that many liberal Quakers will remain unconvinced by this. The questions that I’m left with are: if our hope is not found in God’s transcendence, what does it mean to live hopefully in a world that is so full of human failure and cruelty? What are we basing that hope on? I have heard a lot of talk amongst liberal Quakers about how we cultivate hopeful feelings, but in the end, are we just kidding ourselves?
 Julian of Norwich, Showings, trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 232.