The Impossible Future

Excerpted from John D. Caputo’s On Religion:

We say that we want the future to be “bright,” “promising,” “open.”  The force of the future is to prevent the present from closing in on us, from closing us up.  The future pries open the present by promising us the possibility of something new, the chance of something different, something that will transform the present into something else.

Let us make a distinction here.  There is a relatively foreseeable future, the future for which we are planning, the future on which we are all hard at work, the future we are trying to provide for when we save for our retirement or when a corporate team sets up a long-term plan.  Let us call that the “future present,” by which I mean the future of the present, the future to which the present is tending, the momentum of the present into a future that we can more or less see coming.  I have no intention of lightly dismissing this future.  Institutional long-term plans, retirement plans, life insurance policies, plans for the future education of our children, all such things are very serious, and it is foolish and irresponsible to proceed without them.

But there is another future, another thought of the future, a relation to the future which is the future that is unforeseeable, that will take us by surprise, that will come like a thief in the night and shatter the comfortable horizons of expectation that surround the present.  Let us call this the “absolute future.”  When it comes to the relative future, the future present, we have “reasonable expectations,” “cautious optimism,” “bulls and bears,” but as regards the absolute future we must be like the lilies of the field who sow not, nor do they reap, but who are willing to go with what God provides, which also means that they are ready for anything.  For the relative future we need a good mind, a decent computer, and horse sense, those three; for the absolute future, we need hope, faith, and love, these three.

With the “absolute” future we are pushed to the limits of the possible, fully extended, at our wits’ end, having run up against something that is beyond us, beyond our powers and potentialities, beyond our powers of disposition, pushed to the point where only the great passions of faith and love and hope will see us through.  With the “absolute future,” I maintain, we set foot for the first time on the shore of the “religious”…

With a notion like the absolute future, we move, or we are moved, past the circle of the present and of the foreseeable future, past the manageable prospects of the present, beyond the sphere in which we have some mastery, beyond the domain of sensible possibilities that we can get our hands on, into a darker and more uncertain and unforeseeable region, into the domain of “God knows what” (literally!).  Here we can at best feel our way, like a blind man with a stick, unsure and unsteady, trying to be prepared for something that will take us by surprise, which means trying to prepare for something for which we cannot be prepared.  We cross over the border of rational planning methods, venturing into the sort of thing that makes corporate managers nervous, venturing out onto terra incognito.

The absolute future is not much help in planning an investment strategy, where the idea is to guess the trends; nonetheless, as every fund manager eventually finds out, it belongs irreducibly to the structure of life in time.  This is the sphere of the impossible, of something of whose possibility we just cannot conceive.  But of course, the impossible happens, which is the import of the story of the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary.  So it is not simply or absolutely impossible, like “p and not-p,” which would reduce it to incoherence, but what the French philosopher Jacques Derrida calls “the impossible,” meaning something whose possibility we did not and could not foresee, something that eye has not seen, nor ear heard, that has never entered into the mind of human beings (1 Cor 2:9).

So I am plainly advising us to revisit the idea of the impossible and to see our way clear to thinking the possibility of the impossible, of the impossible, of the possible as the “im-possible,” and to think of God as the “becoming possible of the impossible.”

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