Reproduced, with permission, from THE FUTURIST, Published by the World
Future Society, 7910 Woodmont Avenue, Suite 450, Bethesda, Maryland
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a fictional account of a madman who went about
illustrative of a wave of atheism that spread through the intellectual
circles of Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,
but that never caught on in society at large.
The idea of the divine demise, however, did not die: A movement by
boldfaced headline, “Is God Dead?”
Despite the theologians’ doubts, the next few decades marked a rise
surveys done half a century earlier. If he were to appear today,
Nietzsche’s madman would still find that he had come too early.
What is the future of God? Will He ever truly die? One difficulty in
answering these questions is the word “God.” It may seem like a simple
So the first issue we need to look at is semantic. We need to study the
Then we can address what concept of God is emerging for future
MANY GODS OR ONE GOD?
is that He arose out of a more ancient era of polytheism. Indeed, the
parallel deities. In many cultures today, God is not singular: A tribe
of deities perform their individual tasks and attract their own
their pantheon. While polytheism may seem primitive to Westerners, who
have been reared with the idea that there can be only one God, it does
have certain advantages and may not be merely a less sophisticated
predecessor of monotheism.
For one thing, if there are many gods, it may be easier to find one
specially attuned to your situation and more comforting to you than a
importantly, having a variety of gods who specialize in different
the division of labor applied to religion.
In addition, polytheism creates more confidence for the petitioner:
You are more likely to get an answer from a god with an interest and
expertise in your problem than to persuade the great God to become
interested in your trivial concern. In Roman Catholicism, praying to
The problem with polytheism, however, is that the gods who are
interested in specific human concerns generally begin to look and act
all too humanly themselves. It requires no stretch to imagine them
engaging in the same kinds of self-interested behavior, such as
bickering over jurisdiction and illicit love affairs, that we find among
humans. They become less divine and less worthy of worship.
By contrast, the problem with monotheism is that God becomes so
great and so incomprehensible that He ceases to be available for
ordinary human concerns. Thus the great trade-off: A God who is truly
of many scheming, self-interested gods doesn’t inspire much awe.
MONOTHEISM’S THREE-PRONGED PROBLEM
Monotheism also contains another essential problem–one with
implications for the future. The Western God of the
Jewish-Christian-Islamic tradition illustrates the core difficulty in
monotheism, a philosophical conundrum that has been called the theodicy
problem. It is formulated as a trilemma and can best be illustrated this
Among the following three statements, it is logically possible to
reconcile any two of them, but the agreement of two implies that the
third is false. The three statements are:
1. God is omnipotent.
2. God loves us.
3. Evil exists.
(hurricanes and Hitlers, for example), then it would seem that God lacks
this case eloquently when he tells the story of innocent children
God allow this?
The second case is the acceptance of a loving, concerned God and the
existence of evil in the world. This implies that even God cannot find a
those who deserve it. A God who cannot do this is less than omnipotent.
Finally, one can believe in the omnipotence of God and His loving
compassion, but then some explanation is required for the evil and
(but surely an omnipotent God would know the outcome of such a test
before it were given), or that suffering is used by God for greater
purposes (but then God’s methods would seem either malevolent or
inadequate). Or perhaps there really is no evil. We think of suffering
and death, especially of the innocent, as evil, but perhaps in the
larger scheme of things these are really good things that we cannot
understand. God’s ways are not our ways, says the Bible. The omnipotent,
situation.) Since the existence of evil seems empirically evident, this
last approach requires great faith.
SOLVING THE THEODICY PROBLEM
Is it possible to incorporate all three statements into a coherent
concept of God? Attempts to accomplish this task have occupied
philosophers and theologians ever since the emergence of monotheism, but
always with questionable success.
The solutions advocated by each epoch of thinkers are generally
assumptions may not be ours. The ancient Zoroastrians, for example,
introduced the notion of Satan-like spirits emanating from the one great
the Zoroastrians, this compromises neither God’s essential goodness nor
A similar myth found widely in the Western tradition is that only
good spirits were created by God, but some of these freely chose evil,
provided a solution that more or less follows the third resolution of
the trilemma (that evil has some divine purpose unknowable to humans),
but this solution has not been highly regarded since the Enlightenment.
FUTURE CONCEPTS OF GOD
Speculating about what concept of God future believers will
formulate requires a look at some of the fundamental concepts underlying
contemporary thought. These concepts might give us clues about what new
solutions may become plausible.
twentiethcentury thinkers, such as Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Marx, and
the need for the traditional “supreme ruler” God.
Today, a new set of ideas that may influence concepts of God are
entering popular consciousness. Two major concepts to imbue modern
relativity in physics. We can call these the Darwinian and Einsteinian
insights, although they extend well beyond the theories of Charles
Darwin and Albert Einstein.
A fundamental idea behind evolution is that all things are
constantly changing, that nothing stays the same. For some, this idea
sparks the need to reaffirm an image of God who is unchanging and
eternal. But this would make God an exception to the metaphysical
God outside the margins of understandability and availability. A God who
Such a God would be useless, and believers in this God would be
hard-pressed to draw a practical distinction between their belief and
that of atheists.
A better solution, one more in keeping with the Darwinian insight,
responding appropriately. Curiously, such a God could still be
omnipotent, at least according to one interpretation: that God is
all-powerful not in an absolute sense, but in a relative sense. God is
as powerful today as He can possibly be, but He can (and does) exceed
His own power at every point in the future. In other words, like us, God
is changing, growing, evolving. He is always more than He was and will
always be more than He is. And at every moment, this changing God is
Note also the second, or Einsteinian, insight here. God’s power and
God’s love are relative to the requirements of the current cosmic
situation, and God, at any given moment in time, is limited to the
exigencies of that situation. Divine immanence is stressed over divine
transcendence. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it, “It is
as true to say that the World is immanent in God as that God is immanent
in the World.”
GOD AS EVERYTHING
Whitehead developed a notion of the “consequent nature” of God that
encompasses all of reality, every puff of trivial existence. A similar
idea of God and His relation to the world can be found in a grand
synthesis developed by the French Jesuit thinker, Pierre Teilhard de
Chardin, for whom God is all in all, the final cause of reality,
overcoming all evil and drawing all things into his ultimate Self.
This image of God is in some ways similar to the Eastern (especially
Hindu) idea of pantheism, which literally means that God is all. Every
bit of matter and energy is a part of God; every event is a
manifestation of divine Being. God is these things, not a cause of them
and not separate from them. God is material because reality is material;
God is in time because reality is in time.
The Western counterpart of pantheism, as expressed by Whitehead and
Teilhard, for example, can better be called panentheism, which means
that God is all, yet more than all. Like pantheism, it identifies God
with the totality of reality, but it also asserts that God is more than
the sum total of everything. It is based upon the notion that the whole
more than the sum of His parts (all the elements of reality), yet He is
made up of these parts.
MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU
While few Americans would call themselves pantheists or
panentheists, I am convinced that this general way of thinking about God
will become more widespread in the future. Pantheism and panentheism
accord with many important themes in contemporary thought.
One often hears the word “force” in discussions about God. “May the
force be with you” is how Obi-Wan Kenobi blesses Luke Skywalker in the
do not require them to abandon belief in God, but the problems do cause
people to reconsider the traditional concept of God. The result is an
impersonal God, one who becomes the force we experience underlying all
of reality. This force is dynamic, changing. It is relative to, and
perhaps one with, events as they happen. Is this not what fervent
Christians mean when they describe the work of the Holy Spirit?
Likewise, one often hears believers speak about the “presence of
of God. By this believers generally mean that God is present in the area
that surrounds things, but that He is distinct from physical things.
However, this belief in God’s separateness is problematic, because
these believers don’t think of God as merely being in the spaces; they
think of Him as immanent. “God is in you,” they may say. This idea isn’t
far from pantheism or panentheism. In other words, the presence of God,
a concept widely used by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, can easily
change to a God that is identifiable with everything, the totality of
reality, the universe in its ever-changing, relative state. The presence
of God is the force behind change and the unity of the evolving universe
Such a concept of God already resonates with many believers and may
become more acceptable as they ponder exactly what happens when God
interacts with them. Is it not through time and nature, according to
their belief, that God manifests His power (force) to them? Such an idea
also resonates with atheists and agnostics who might loathe the word
God, but would agree that the universe is the sole field of action. So
why all the fuss over a word?
Such a concept would surely find support among new-age thinkers, who
have borrowed heavily from the Hindu pantheistic philosophers for their
world view of spirituality and interconnectedness. Finally, it would
resonate most powerfully with environmentalists–atheist and theist
alike–who would find that identifying God with nature encourages a
profound respect for the nature of which we are a part.
To be sure, I have simplified this image of God egregiously. My
purpose here is not to work out the philosophical and theological
difficulties (and there are many!) inherent in this image, but to
suggest that it is likely to be acceptable to a wide variety of future
It seems to me that in our culture it is harder to wrap our brain
around an absolute God than a relative one; that a totally separate God
is less appealing than an immanent one; and that an eternal God is not
as religiously useful as a changing, evolving one. In other words, the
absolute, transcendent, changeless image of God inherited from our
ancestors may well be dead, or at least in its last throes. But most
people are loathe to embrace atheism. Instead, they will save God by
reconceptualizing Him. In the twenty-first century, Nietzsche’s madman
will still come too early.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robert B. Mellert, a frequent contributor to THE FUTURIST, teaches
University. His address is Philosophy Department, Brookdale Community
1-732-224-2918; e-mail Rmellert@brookdale.cc.nj.us
the Sistine Chapel. ED CARLIN / ARCHIVE PHOTOS
A picture of God? According to some beliefs, yes: God is all the matter
and energy in the universe.
Equating God with nature may appeal to environmentalists, even those who
would call themselves atheists, the author argues.
FOR FURTHER READING
A History of God by Karen Armstrong (Knopf, 1994).
“Belief by the Numbers” by Russell Shorto, The New York Times
Magazine (December 7, 1997).
Le Milieu Divin by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Fontana Books, 1957).
Process and Reality by Alfred North Whitehead (Macmillan, 1929).