The Urantia Book Fellowship

Expanding Christian Ethical Principles for a New Millennium:
An Exploration of Proleptic Ethics

by Dr. Ted Peters

This document contains a chapter from the book, "God: The World's Future" by Dr. Ted Peters of Pacific Lutheran Seminary in Berkeley, California, and is used with permission of the author. It is published here for the perspective it provides on the construction of a coherent philosophy of living which integrates Christian principles of service to humanity with emerging conceptions of holism. While the language of this document is that of academic Christian theology, the concepts which it contains should be of great interest to readers of The Urantia Book.

What is "Prolepsis?"
The world has been given God's promise that in the future all things will be made whole. Jesus embodies the promise because he anticipates in his person the new life that we humans and all creation are destined to share. Prolepsis is the anticipation of future reality in a concrete pre-actualization of it. Jesus is the future made present. The life of Jesus reveals to us proleptically the promised destiny of the whole creation by showing us how God's promise of future wholeness affects our lives now amid a world of brokenness.

The Idea of Proleptic Ethics

      • Still your children wander homeless; still the hungry cry for bread;
      • Still the captives long for freedom; still in grief we mourn our dead.
      • As you, Lord, in deep compassion healed the sick and freed the soul,
      • By your Spirit send your power to our world to make it whole.
      •                                               -- Albert F. Bayly

The spirituality that accompanies a proleptic understanding of the Christian faith is what I call the life of beatitude. The name comes from the structure of Jesus' Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12, where the blessings of the future kingdom of God are mysteriously present now in anticipation. Those who are poor in spirit, or who mourn, or who are meek, are blessed in some enigmatic way, says Jesus, because these dispositions somehow anticipate the salvation that God has promised will come. Those who hunger and thirst after justice, show mercy, and make peace already participate even if unknowingly in the wholeness that will imbue the new creation.

The ethical thinking appropriate to the life of beatitude, I think, should lead in the direction of proleptic ethics. In this chapter I will describe the ethics of a Christian life influenced by postmodern ecumenic consciousness as holistic, creative, ecological, and proleptic. It is probably obvious that the proleptic ethic I plan on developing here will be an evangelical ethic--that is, it takes as its point of departure the freedom won for humankind by the gospel, by the evangel. Having been freed from the tyranny of the law and having received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Christians can develop an ethic that seeks to give co-creative expression to the power of love.

Co-creative love is crucial for meeting the challenges of the present global crisis, what some futurists call the world problematique. World leadership desperately needs middle axioms that bridge the gap between the universal imperative to love and the concrete actions that individuals and groups must decide to take. In the following discussion I will suggest seven such middle axioms. I will call them proleptic principles and they are intended to provide guidance in the face of international strife, the environmental crisis, and economic injustice. The remaining step is for Christian individuals and groups to make creative application--that is, to engage the world passionately yet with wisdom and sound judgment.


As we move from the primary biblical symbols toward a proleptic ethic for our emerging postmodern world, we will follow the trajectory of evangelical ethics. The twin emphases of evangelical ethics are freedom and love. The gospel as justification has liberated us from subservience to things alien to our true self. The evangel has freed us from condemnation by a divine law that demands that we behave contrary to our disposition. The gospel as new creation, as presence of the Holy Spirit within the heart of the believer, yields a life of love that becomes authentic self-expression. Our life of loving service today anticipates ahead of time what will be our reality tomorrow, namely, our eschatological oneness with the new life of Christ. Our love today is homologous with whom we will become in the everlasting tomorrow.

Liberated Love for Created Co-creators

This is the basis for what is normally called an evangelical ethic. Luther formulated the paradox of liberation and servanthood by saying that a Christian is perfectly free, subject to none, yet at the same time a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to everyone. The point is that because the gospel declares us fully holy on the basis of what Christ has done, the life of love we lead can add nothing to our own status before heaven. We are already of infinite value in the eyes of God, so whatever good deeds we perform cannot increase our value. This sets our love free from any self-serving motives that would diminish its giving or sacrificial quality. Hence, we love as God does. We serve as Jesus did.

An evangelical ethic is not concerned primarily with discerning the proper rules and then fulfilling them. It rather seeks out opportunities for love to become expressed and to do its work in edifying God's creatures and in building community. There are no ledgers to measure the degree of responsibility fulfillment. Nor is there a straight road of moral self-discipline down which we should march, looking to neither the left nor the right.

The dynamic movement of love within this world has a creative character because it seeks constantly to create wholeness where previously there was only brokenness. Hence, an ethic based upon liberated love establishes a new relationship with law. Instead of determining what is right by measuring its degree of conformity or nonconformity to an already established law or moral precept, a proleptic ethic leads us to create new laws for the purpose of fostering new levels of community.

This approach is very practical. We might call this a teleological or even a "holophronetic" approach. It consists in making judgments and taking actions in the present situation that we believe will serve the long-range good of the whole. We confront concrete problems, and the most loving thing we can do in most cases is pursue the solution that works best, that is most effective in light of the long-range view. In the social and political sphere this most often means the creation of positive laws that aim at bringing people together peacefully so that they can best enhance one another's well-being. Love produces positive law for the purpose of Co-creating new forms of human community and uniting those who have been separated," writes Wolfhart Parmenberg. "The law that is produced by love is not some ideal order with a claim to timeless validity (and thus, in this case, it is not natural law) but the specific, concrete solution of concrete problems until something new arises; that is, until a new situation demands new solutions."1 Thus, the production of just laws is not the end. It is the means for creating a wholesome community.

Creative love may require radical change, even revolution. The oppression and tyranny of the black underclass in South Africa calls for a radical transformation of apartheid. Wholesome community may be the long-range goal, but the overcoming of injustice and the creation of justice constitute the immediate and unavoidable means. The 1985 Kairos Document reveals the boldness and the subtlety of Christian ethics: "The fact that the State is tyrannical and an enemy of God is no excuse for hatred. As Christians we are called upon to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44).... But then we must also remember that the most loving thing we can do for both the oppressed and for our enemies who are oppressors is to eliminate the oppression, remove the tyrants from power and establish a just government for the common good of all the people. 2

Given the dramatic changes in Western culture since the Enlightenment, given the avalanche of social transformation the world has undergone in the 1980s and 1990s, and given the philosophical necessity for formulating a dynamic ontology to understand our world, it is difficult now to conceive of an ethic based on some immutable set of precepts or rules. Because of the continuing creation, the rules must change too. This temporal fluidity may leave us with a sense of insecurity, a sense of loss without any safe moorings. We can tolerate this fluidity, however, if we understand that God is present to us amid the fluidity. Our trust is in the God of the future who is present now. We cannot rely on a rule book or set of commandments that we have inherited from the past. Divine love ties us to the ultimate future and gives us the security we need; that love has been liberated within our souls by the power of the gospel to create new life amid the present aeon of death.

Eschatological Justice and Temporal Politics

Amid the present aeon of death human beings can experience a modest degree of God's life-sustaining and life-enhancing power through the orders of Justice operative in social institutions and government. Because of that, biblical writers could assume obedience to civil law to be normative for Christian life. "For the Lord's sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right" (I Pet. 2:13-14). Or, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God" (Rom. 13:1). These New Testament writers encourage civil responsibility on grounds of divine authority that is, on the grounds that our governmental leadership is exercising a God-given mandate to establish and protect justice in society. The legal system functions to sustain community and to enable constructive social intercourse because its task is "to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right." We use civil authority in anticipation of the final justice of God, according to which the disharmonies of the past will be re-harmonized into the synthetic unity of the future kingdom of God.

One could interpret this biblical understanding in a minimalist fashion, asserting that the civil order has an essentially negative function, namely, to curb evil. At least this seemed to be the emphasis of the Protestant Reformers who saw the primary function of government as punishing criminals, encouraging good citizenship, permitting domestic freedom, and providing for public security against the scourges of war. What Luther called the "civil use of the law" had as its aim the bridling of evil forces that otherwise might get out of control and lead to social anarchy. Such a minimalist understanding of human government is essentially conservative. It emphasizes the discontinuity between the kingdom of this world and that of the world to come.

In our emerging postmodern context we have a tendency to look for greater continuity. Hence Parmenberg argues that the Reformers' teaching is too narrow. By limiting the role of secular government to curbing evil we might overlook "the correspondence between the justice of the state and the divine will to do justice." God's will for justice is more than simply a negative reaction against sin. We need to look to the order that God wants to see realized in the communal life of God's creatures. This divine ordering is not something alien to us. It is built right into our nature, so that Parmenberg can appeal obliquely to natural law theory to make his case. "The creator's will to order is imprinted in creation itself," he writes; "..not only in the laws of nature but also in the communal life of human beings does order emerge from the concrete life of creatures themselves, and this despite all the antagonism between individuals.... The political order is thus based on human nature insofar as this is intrinsically disposed and oriented to a communal life.3 What we experience as the general human tendency toward the forming of community and the ordering of community life around principles of fairness and justice is the eschatological call ringing in the cars of everyone in organized society. Life in the temporal body politic can offer us a positive foretaste of what will be our final destiny in the everlasting polls of God.

In terms of ethics this means that as citizens of the eschatological polis we are called to support just political structures in the present and to transform those structures when they fail to embody and enhance justice. The New Testament writers encouraged obedience to governing authorities, but not at all cost. When a government becomes perverted and punishes the righteous while praising wrongdoers, then it is time for a change. Disobedience if not resistance may even be required, as Peter told the high priest that he would have to obey God rather than a human authority (Acts 5:29). Both Luther and Calvin cite Peter's bold defense and confirm that there may be times when our loyalty to God's kingdom cannot be reconciled with the principalities and powers of this world. "A wise prince is a mighty rare bird," writes Luther in his treatise entitled Temporal Authority. So he asks: "When a prince is in the wrong, are his people bound to follow him then too? I answer, No, for it is no one's duty to do wrong; we ought to obey God." 4 Calvin too, especially when seeing the persecution of his Reformed brothers and sisters at the hands of French nobles, concludes his Institutes by recognizing that there are times when we must choose between obedience to secular rulers and obedience to the "truly supreme power of God." 5

The proleptic dimension of this is that by choosing the future of God over the present existence of any given body politic we are in fact choosing what is best for that body politic. We are choosing what may appear to be divisive and destructive, but we hope its divisiveness and destructiveness will be relatively short-lived. What we want to endure are social and political institutions that better embody and anticipate the justice of God's eschatological community. Ethical action in light of this eschatological vision may require transformation of the present order of things in behalf of what we see coming in the future.

Although, on the one hand, we want to affirm a positive continuity between the future of God's justice and its political embodiment in the present time, on the other hand, we need to keep them sufficiently distinct so as to be able to render critical judgment against failures in the present. "The role of the political order is to point ahead to the kingdom of God as a reality distinct from itself," says Pannenberg rightly. 6 The worst mark of a tyrannical state is that it tries to blur this distinction by seeking religious validation of its present authority. Once it is successful in convincing its subjects of its eternal validity, there is no recourse to transcendence to the system, no vantage point from which to render critical judgment. Then tyranny is almost unstoppable. Consequently, the theology of the future kingdom of God-a kingdom that is sharply distinguishable from both the secular government as well as ecclesiastical organization-is necessary to remind human governments of their limits and responsibilities.

From Ecumenics to Eco-ethics

Included in the responsibilities of governments-and the responsibilities of all other individuals and institutions, including the church-is the welfare of the world, the whole world. Striving to maintain military security for one's own nation is understandable. So also is hungering and thirsting after political enfranchisement or economic justice for a particular underclass. These are important items on parochial political and ethical agendas. But at this moment, they are not enough. More is being called for. The needs of the moment are calling for the appearance of an ecumenic ethic-an ethic dedicated to the welfare of the world as a whole.

The call is coming from a developing crisis that is enveloping the world. The Club of Rome has aptly named the current crisis the world problematique, emphasizing that the whole globe shares in the anxiety created by overpopulation, maldistribution of wealth, dwindling nonrenewable natural resources, pollution, massive starvation, international terrorism, and the ominous threat of thermonuclear war. Here we see that some of the most important ethical challenges of our time are virtually universal in scope. We cannot deal with them by simply retreating into the community of Christian truth to listen again to the old stories and reestablish our particular identity. Nor can we cope with them if we limit our ethical agendas to class economics or national politics.

We need an ecumenic scope, and I suggest here that we gain that ecumenic scope by founding ethical thinking on a vision of the eschatological kingdom of God. Beginning with the vision of God's future kingdom as the source and ground of value, I will attempt to discern what we should do by developing principles based upon this vision. Our present world situation reveals how badly we need middle axioms, principles that mediate between our vision of ultimate harmony and the realistic appraisal of what we can actually do. We need some principles for guidance. Based on a proleptic ethic, in what follows I will try to develop a set of provolutionary principles.


The proleptic structure with which I am working begins with the promise of the coming kingdom of God and the fulfillment of all creation that it will bring. It begins with the future and works back to the present. It begins with heaven and works back to earth. It begins with eschatology and works back to ethics.

The Question of Escapism

Before proceeding farther, I need to pause and raise an unavoidable critical question. Does this advocacy of a strong eschatology necessarily result in escapism? Is this a version of premillennialist fundamentalism that seems to endorse the bourgeois status quo while awaiting the rapture? Is this a return to the religion rejected by the Marxists as the opiate of the people? No, it is not. The eschatological vision is not a sedative. It is a stimulus to action.

Lenin thought of religion per se as a sedative that prevented the believer from acting creatively. Karl Marx, however, saw the eschatological element within religion as consciousness of the need for change, as the "sigh of the oppressed" and the "protest against real distress." 7 It is My belief that a strong eschatology stimulates a strong ethic.

It is important to note that eschatology is an essential element of Christian liberation theology. African American theologian James Cone contends that it is only when oppressed people take seriously the promise of resurrection that they can see clearly the contradictions of present injustice and "fight against overwhelming odds." 8 Feminist Letty Russell uses the term "advent shock" to refer to the sense of maladjustment in the present when compared to the anticipated future fulfillment. "Because of advent shock we seek to anticipate the future in what we do, opening ourselves to the working of God's Spirit and expecting the impossible." 9 Gustavo Gutiérrez reports that "the attraction of 'what is to come' is the driving force of history. The attraction of Yahweh in history and his action at the end of history are inseparable." 10 South African antiapartheid leader Allan Boesak argues forcefully, "New Testament eschatology is a call to arms, a summons not to be content with the existing situation of oppression, but to take sides with the oppressed and the poor and subsequently for the new humanity and the new world." 11

Liberation theologians by no means have a monopoly on eschatologically based ethics. C. S. Lewis, popular in evangelical circles, made the point in 1943 in his widely read book Mere Christianity. He argued that looking forward to eternal life is not escapism and that history will show that it has been just those Christians with a vision of the new world who have been most effective in reshaping the present world. "It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in; aim at earth and you will get neither." 12 Or, in the words of Wolfhart Pannenberg, "The striving for God as the ultimate good beyond the world is turned into concern for the world." 13 The ethical value of the eschaton is that it locates the summum bonum, the highest good, the lure toward which we are being drawn, the ideal of the future we wish to make actual in the present.

Carl Braaten refers to ethics in this context as eschatopraxis -that is, doing the future ahead of time. He writes, "In proleptic ethics it may truly be said that the end justifies the means, because the end is proleptically present and operative beforehand, rehearsing the qualities of the eschatological kingdom-peace, love, joy, freedom, equality, unity-in the course of history's forward movement." 14 I am saying here that not only does eschatology stimulate action; it is the very foundation of ethics. Once we apprehend God's will for the consummate future, we seek to incarnate that future proleptically in present human action.

Middle Axioms for Christian Provolutionary Action

Recognizing our advent shock and the need for eschatopraxis, we need to think in terms of an action program made up of middle axioms that will move us from the comprehensive vision to the challenges we face amid current future consciousness. Jargen Moltmann says such action planning in church circles is too often oriented toward the past, thinking in the category of re--for example, revolution, return, renewal, revival, reformation. He advocates using the future-oriented category of the pro, replacing revolution with "provolution." Moltmann maintains that "in provolution, the human dream turned forward is combined with the new possibility of the future and begins consciously to direct the course of human history as well as the evolution of nature." 15

Taking a cue from Moltmann, let me draw out seven further "pro's" for Christian provolutionary strategy.

1. Project a vision of the coming new order. This is the prophetic task of the Christian church. The redemption of the historical and the natural order is coming and someone needs to say so. This first "pro" is perhaps the single most important element in the strategy of proleptic ethics. It reflects faith in the divine promise as well as provides the starting point for significant human action.

According to futurists and other postmodern ethicists, the key to tackling the world problematique is found in our projection of, and adherence to, a vision of new reality. Visions are akin to ideas or ideals, and many practical minds are reluctant to embrace great ideals. The fact is, however, that projecting visions and ideals is the first and necessary step to any significant cooperative action. Dutch sociologist and pioneer futurist Fred L. Polak contends that positive images of the future are the primary causal factor in cultural change. 16 Such positive images pull a civilization together and unite its people in a single task. Nothing is more practical than a good idea, an idea that inspires and directs.

What is our image of what is to come? If we look at the biblical symbols we find it is the vision of Isaiah 58:6-9, where the rich share their bread with the hungry. It is the promise of natural harmony in Isaiah 11:6, where "the wolf shall live with the lamb." It is the vision of Amos 5:24, where justice and righteousness roll down upon us like an ever-flowing stream. It is Micah's vision of no more war, where swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. It is John's vision in the Apocalypse, where God wipes away every tear from our eyes, and where death and mourning will have passed away (Rev. 21:4). Our hope flows from such visionary symbols and is based not on unfounded wishes for an idealist utopia, but on the promise of God confirmed in the proleptic revelation of the future in Jesus Christ.

Projecting such visions creates advent shock. The contrast between what is promised for tomorrow and the actuality of today creates tension. If in God's future there will be no more war, then why have war now? If in God's future the hungry will be fed and the mourning comforted, then our proleptic task is to minister to the hungry and the mourning today. If in God's future the lion will lie down with the lamb, then perhaps now we should seek to the degree possible to live in the realization that human harmony depends upon harmony throughout all of nature.

(Seven Aspects of the New Social Order)

Can we go still farther? On the basis of this promise and on the basis of what we know to be the crying needs of our present world, can we project a tailor-made vision? I believe we can say prophetically that there is a new world coming that will be, among other things:

1. organized as a single, worldwide, planetary society;

2. united in devotion to the will of God;

3. sustainable within the biological carrying capacity of the planet and harmonized with the principles of the ecosphere;

4. organized politically so as to preserve the just rights and voluntary contributions of all individuals;

5. organized economically so as to guarantee the basic survival needs of each person;

6. organized socially so that dignity and freedom are respected and protected in every quarter;

7. dedicated to advancing the quality of life in behalf of future generations.

This is the schematic outline of a constructed vision. It is rational and terse, to be sure. But if it could be amplified and molded with beauty and drama by committed artists into symbols, songs, poems, pictures, and architecture, then its heuristic power would be increased and it could become an inspiration and guide.

With regard to a theological concern that might arise when making such a proposal, I believe there is no irreconcilable conflict here between divine action and human imagination. There is no hidden Pelagian agenda here. The ethical action being proposed is our response to God's promise; it is not itself the fulfillment of that promise. While retaining sublime mystery, God has promised that the kingdom will come. Exactly what that kingdom will look like we humans can only imagine, And imagine we must. Our imaginative projections of the perfect society are influenced by our sensitivity to the needs of our present context, to the crisis posed by future consciousness. Our thoughts are conditioned and finite, to be sure. Nonetheless, we understand God's salvation as fulfillment, as meeting the actual needs of us creatures as experienced historically. This means that the content of God's eschatological kingdom-who and what will be there-will be made up of the very course of historical events in which we are presently engaged. The who of the kingdom is us. The what of the kingdom is what we do. Therefore, the projection of future fulfillment based upon present understandings is as theologically legitimate as it is morally necessary. Our only caution is to avoid the premature absolutizing of our vision-that is, we must retain the proleptic and provisional character of anticipatory visions.

2. Promote a sense of global community. The second proleptic principle is an extension of the first. A significant element in the vision we project is the sense of unity. The type of unity I speak of here is not an amorphous, cosmic oneness but rather "com-unity"-that is, unity-with. It is a unity we share with one another, with the world of nature in which we are enmeshed, and with God.

Aspiring toward this unity requires that we replace "we-they" thinking with "us" thinking. The German term for community, Gemeinschaft, connotes intimacy and loyalty within a group of people. It connotes the qualities one would expect to find in a close family unit wherein each member's identity is so tied up with the Gemeinschaft that the success and happiness of the group are simultaneously the success and happiness of the individual. Can we think of the whole world this way?

Postmodern futurists are accustomed to thinking holistically, recognizing that the various peoples of the world no matter where they live are becoming increasingly interdependent. International trade is no longer a luxury; it is now the norm. Natural resources and agricultural production are in constant movement, and this movement is necessary for each civilization simply to be itself In addition, trends such as continued depletion of nonrenewable natural resources and environmental pollution impoverish the whole world. Their effects crisscross borders and ignore the separation of continents. Localism, parochialism, and nationalism are all forms of avoiding this truth. There is only one future for all of us. The promotion of a sense of worldwide community places a high value on the futurist observation that everything is interconnected, that no part is divorced from the whole. Any attempt at aggrandizement of the part-any attempt by a portion of the world to garner more than its share of terrestrial blessings-is disintegrative for the whole and will finally result in self-destruction. The way to express Gemeinschaft in our present circumstance is to care; it is to treat peoples previously thought foreign as parts of one's own family. Such caring actually incarnates and represents the good of the ultimate whole. Ecumenic caring today proleptically anticipates the divine unity of tomorrow.

We may call this the "ecu-ethic" because it seeks to include all peoples in a single ecumenic world. Yet this Gemeinschaft need not refer solely to interhuman relationships. We humans share community with nature as well. The complement of the ecu-ethic is the very comprehensive ecoethic. The eco-ethic incorporates into its vision the health of the whole biosphere. It recognizes that there is value in loving nature because humans are an indelible part of nature, and because all that God is in the process of creating is a target of divine love.

Global Gemeinschaft means, among other things, a revered sense of the oneness we humans share with nature and of the call to care in behalf of God. The World Council of Churches, which first gave attention to futurology at Geneva in 1966 and later sponsored an international conference on the theme "Faith, Science, and the Future" at MIT in 1979, has astutely characterized the global Gemeinschaft as participatory; it is also a "just" and "sustainable" society. Justice points to the necessity of correcting the maldistribution of the products of the earth and of bridging the gap between rich and poor countries. Ecological sustainability points to humanity's dependence on earth. An ecologically sustainable society that is unjust can hardly be worth sustaining socially. A just society that is ecologically unsustainable is self-defeating. A proleptic eco-ethic means that the imago Dei within us-that is, the dominion that the human race has been given-be employed to bring Justice to the needy and sustainability to the biosphere and thereby anticipate the consummate whole toward which we are being drawn.

3. Provide for posterity. The unity sought in global Gemeinschaft implies a community over space, a worldwide community. But what about community through time? What is our relationship to future generations whom we ourselves will not live to see? Given the prognostications of futurists regarding depletion of nonrenewable resources and uncontrolled pollution of the biosphere, I pose the ethical question this way: does the present generation have the right to go on one last gluttonous industrial fling, using up all the earth's fecund ability to support life, and then leave our grandchildren with only a cesspool of pollution for a home? Unless decisions are made to alter current trends, this is just what will happen. Once we are dead, our children will attend the reading of the will only to find out that we have bequeathed them a garbage dump instead of a home.

If we are to provide for our posterity, we must begin by recognizing an important fact: the future of life on earth is in jeopardy. We are confronted by threats on many fronts. One such threat is the heating up of the earth's atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect. Burning fossil fuels and forests releases carbon dioxide and other chemicals. Currently, activities such as generating electricity and driving cars as well as producing steel release five billion tons of carbon and ten million tons of sulfur into the atmosphere each year. The accumulation of carbon and other similar emissions traps solar radiation near the earth's surface, causing global warming. This could mean a planetary temperature increase of three to nine degrees over the next forty-five years, leading to a melting of the polar ice caps. This would eventually cause sea levels to rise, inundating many low-lying river deltas and coastal cities. This is where much of the food is grown in many of the overpopulated Third World countries. In June 1988 James Hansen, an atmospheric scientist who heads NASA's Goddard Institute, told the U.S. Congress that the greenhouse effect has already begun. During the first five months of 1988, he said, the average worldwide temperatures were the highest in the 130 years that records have been kept. He believes this is due primarily to pollution produced by power plants and automobiles.17

Another threat is the deterioration of the ozone layer of earth's atmosphere, most likely from gases released during the production of foam and the use of refrigerants and aerosols. A substantial loss of ozone may lead to an increase in skin cancer and negatively effect the health of livestock as well as some life forms at the base of the marine food chain. The 1986 discovery of a hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic suggests the possibility that ozone deterioration is moving at a faster rate than previously predicted.

A third threat is the combination of acidification, deforestation, and desertification. Acid is being released into the atmosphere from the burning of sulfur fuels. It falls back to earth in the form of acid rain and kills fish in the lakes and plant life on the land. Animals then eat the poisoned plants. Entire species of animals are being lost. Central Europe is currently receiving more than one gram of sulfur for every meter of ground each year. This has begun to lead to the loss of forests; and the loss of forests will eventually leave in its wake disastrous erosion, siltation, floods, and local climate change. It will produce deserts where once there was green. Each year right now six million hectares of land are degraded to desert-like conditions.

A fourth threat is the disposal of toxic wastes, especially radioactive wastes from the nuclear industry. This is worth a paragraph or two here because the ethical issues surrounding the nuclear power industry raise quite acutely the issue of an eco-ethic aimed at bridging the generations. Looking just at high level wastes (HLWs), one asks about what should be done with the non-useful remainder produced by nuclear power plants in the form of spent fuel rods and liquids of highly intense and penetrating radioactivity. HLWs generate considerable heat and must be handled remotely, without human contact. The relevant technical data include the fact that the potential danger from nuclear waste will endure beyond the life-span of all those making disposal decisions. The time it takes for most fission products to decay to manageable levels of toxicity is about seven hundred to one thousand years. Staggering in its implications, however, is the fact that long-lived actinides such as plutonium 239 will not decay to safe levels for 250,000 years. Some experts even estimate 500,000 years.

Permanent disposal would mean isolation from the biosphere for this entire period. No human beings to this point have had sufficient long-term experience with such containment processes to be able to guarantee with integrity that proposed disposal plans will be permanently safe. Hence, we must operate on the presumption that we are risking the health and safety of our descendants for hundreds of millennia to come.

Even if it is possible to achieve safety for an indefinite period, the achievement will not be easy or automatic. Future generations will have to care for today's waste in order to protect themselves. How long will the repositories have to be monitored? Opinions vary. Some believe that if nothing goes wrong within the first ten to thirty years after disposal, then nothing is ever likely to go wrong. Others believe we need institutional arrangements for monitoring for as long as 200,000 years at sites where plutonium is buried. Finally, there is an intermediate position that sees the necessity for monitoring during the first one hundred to seven hundred years. (This is roughly the time it takes for most HLWs to decay to levels of toxicity equivalent to that of natural uranium ore.) After that time information posted at the site could prevent accidental intrusion into the repository. Regardless of which estimate contains the most truth, it appears that vigilance will be required by our descendants for extensive periods of time to protect themselves from dangers we have created. How much vigilance the present generation can rightly require of them is a moral question.

An important middle axiom generated by our wider vision of eschatological holism is the principle of intergenerational community, which might be developed in its minimalist form in terms of the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. We need to ask: if the generations were reversed, would we want our foreparents to bequeath us an inheritance of depleted natural resources and a dump of dangerous and expensive-to-manage waste? Do we have the right to take wealth from our children and leave them our waste? Would we consider it just if our predecessors had treated us this way? Population ecologist Lester R. Brown uncovers the tacitly assumed we-they thinking of our generation this way: "We have not inherited the earth from our fathers, we are borrowing it from our children."18

I believe we today must make some commitments to future generations. With regard to radioactive waste in particular, we must at minimum commit ourselves to the very best technology and waste management program of which we are capable, even if it is very expensive. We have no right to jeopardize future generations' health and safety because the present generation wishes to cut corners to make a profit. This applies to all forms of pollution that we are bequeathing them.

To drive this point home, we may even propose that long-term financial institutions be set up to manage an endowment fund. Contributions to this fund would come from present profits, be invested, and the original investment plus interest would be available in the centuries to come to cover the almost inevitable costs of dump maintenance. If this appears to be too expensive to us now, then we must force the ethical issue: can we rightfully exploit today's resources at such a cost to tomorrow's children?

Stretching the global Gemeinschaft over time would replace the current we-they thinking with a form of "us thinking" that would foster a sense of unity between the present and future generations. It would enjoin us to try to protect our posterity.

4. Protect human dignity. By dignity I mean what Immanuel Kant meant, namely, that we treat each person as an end and not as a means. Dignity in this sense is at present basically an ideal. It does not fully exist. The industrial and emerging postindustrial. society in which we live is organized around hierarchical structures and job descriptions, which makes persons interchangeable with one another. Value is derived from a giant economic machine, and persons function as cogs in the wheels that keep this machine rolling. To compound the indignity, whatever ‘cog’ one becomes is often due in part to discrimination on the basis of one's race, age, or gender, all impersonal factors irrelevant to the integrity or value of the person. Dignity is not a widespread present actuality.

Although this fact has gone unobserved, dignity is in reality future-dependent. In the wake of the Enlightenment we have come to think of dignity as being inherent. But this is not quite true. Our experience tells us that before dignity can be inherent, it must be conferred. Dignity must first be bestowed. Then it becomes owned. Dignity has a grace or gift quality to it. This is because it is a social phenomenon. To experience dignity is to experience self-worth through being respected, honored, loved, or served-that is, to be treated as an end and not as a means. This self-worth is gained through intercourse with a world of meaning that confers this worth. Dignity is dependent upon the web of interconnectedness that will finally unite all things, upon the anticipated whole of redeemed reality wrought by a God whose love for us makes us ends rather than means.

This emphasis on dignity sets the proleptic position I am developing here apart from other eco-ethicists who advocate abandoning so-called anthropocentrism and making nature or some suprahuman category the locus of value. Hence, my proposal differs in part from the ecological ethic proposed by John Cobb in concert with Charles Birch. What my proposal and the Cobb-Birch proposal have in common is a sense of holism, a sense of dependence upon the interconnectedness of the web of life. The difference is that Cobb and Birch place the locus of value in the experience of biological life in general, thereby subordinating human dignity to a further end. "The locus of intrinsic value is not in persons as such," Cobb writes, "but in experience. All experience has intrinsic value." 19 Although he might not wish to label it this way, Cobb's position is in effect an experiential hedonism that holds that value is intrinsic to life because life experiences. This leads to gradations of value due to the relative "richness of experience" within life. The greater the richness the greater the life and, hence, the greater the value. "To have richer experience is to be more allvc." 20

One ominous implication of this position is that it raises again the specter of comparative or relative human worth instead of intrinsic dignity. Belief in human dignity had eliminated this question by positing human equality on the grounds that every person has equal dignity. In Cobb's scheme, however, we may now discriminate between human persons, valuing more highly those with richer experience and valuing more lowly those whose experience is restricted. "There is no substantial reason to believe that all persons have equal intrinsic value," write Cobb and Birch. 21 Although Cobb and Birch are quick to deny it, it seems inevitable that an ethic of triage would follow from these premises. People could devise a scale of richness of experience against which they could measure every person they know. In time of crisis due to limited resources they would have a ready-made calculus for eliminating those people with relatively less richness up to the point of bringing resources and population back into balance. If such a calculus were widely accepted, a ruthless leadership could use it prematurely to increase the power and wealth of a privileged class to the elimination of those they would define as deficient in richness of experience. This is certainly not the intention of Cobb and Birch, who are seeking a holistic ethic that can meet the needs of the ecological concerns that we have. Nevertheless, any position that withdraws support for human dignity risks a dangerous setback.

I believe that whatever ecological holism we aim for must include human dignity, even if it goes beyond it. Dignity is not just an aberration of the Enlightenment. It has a biblical foundation on three counts. First, although God creates the whole cosmos, there is a special "delight" in humanity (Prov. 8:27-31). Second, God delights enough in humanity to sacrifice for it. The incarnation and the atonement amount to a divine conferring of dignity, to a divine act wherein humans are treated as an end and Christ is the means. Third, human beings are created in the image of God. In light of what was said earlier about proleptic eschatology and creation from the future, what I mean by the imago Dei is Christ, the second Adam

Who we as humans are is dependent upon who we will be, namely, new creatures in Christ. Our dignity is christologically grounded. Even though we may not see or perceive actual dignity in people we presently encounter because they may be poor and deprived of rich experience, we must-if we are to live in the truth-impute Christness to them. Today dignity is conferred. Tomorrow it will be inherent.

Such a proleptic ethic is necessary to ground a movement to liberate the oppressed. The first step in the liberation process is the conferring of dignity where it does not presently exist. Victims of injustice and poverty lack dignity in the sense that they are not ends-and may be simply the exploited means-of the world economic system as a whole. The millions if not billions of poor people in the world can be defined almost by their deprivation of rich experience, or at least their deprivation of experience of richness. They lack actual dignity because, as the forgotten and exploited ones, they are not the ends of the dominant social systems. The dignity of the poor and the oppressed must be conferred upon them-that is, imputed to them-even though it runs contrary to their experience up to now. The basis for conferring such dignity is faith, faith in a future where this dignity will become actual and inherent. The basis of this faith is God's promise. Without such a divine promise, the whole enterprise of striving for liberation would consist of an empty ideal that flies in the face of our current experience of injustice and oppression. As promise, however, the tension between the ideal and the present reality becomes the very inspiration for vigorous provolutionary work.

The dignity I am supporting is not intended to justify an anthropocentrism that in turn justifies the wanton destruction of nature. It does imply, however, that any dignity ascribed to the natural order at large is derived from human dignity. We need to resist current sentimental and romantic appeals to an alleged holism in nature that would flower in purity apart from contamination by human exploitation, an ecologist's version of the ideal of the noble savage. The fact is that violence and destruction occur every moment in the biosphere even apart from human intervention, as life feeds on life and blood is "red in tooth and claw" (Tennyson). Nothing indicates that if there were no humans on earth, then earth would suddenly become the Garden of Eden. The current interdependence of all strands that constitute the single web of life is in fact a competitive and violent interdependence. One living thing is not an end for another living thing; it is treated as a means. It is devoured. That the whole of life in all its complexity can be viewed as beautiful and revered depends upon the perspective of the viewer. The only viewer who can do this as far as we know is the human being, or perhaps God. Amid the constant violence and destruction that characterize natural life we can confer dignity on the biosphere only because of God's promise that someday the lion will lie down with the lamb rather than devour the lamb. We humans live proleptically when we say grace at table, showing thankfulness for the life of the animal or plant sacrificed so that we can eat, a life sacrificed because it still belonged to the old aeon, the aeon of death that will someday pass away (Rev. 21:1).

5. Proffer the distinction between needs and wants. One of the reasons the wealthy First World overconsumes and is slow to share with the Third World is that marketing blurs the distinction between needs and wants. We pretend that everything we desire has the status of a need. I submit that needs should be understood as those things that all people require just to be human: food, shelter, sleep, exercise, protection from danger, and such. These are the survival and security requirements at the bottom of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. They are satiable.

Wants, in contrast, have to do with our desire to be unique or superior. They are insatiable. The more we get the more we want. An ancient Upanshadic saying puts it this way: to believe you can cure a person's desire for wealth by giving him or her money is like thinking you can put out a fire by pouring butterfat on it.

Basic needs have a moral priority over wants and desires. Ian Barbour says that "all persons have a right to life and therefore a right to the basic necessities of life, including adequate food for survival." 22 Given the maldistribution of wealth in the world, this could mean that the rich will have to live more simply if the poor are simply to live. Unless we can distinguish our wants from our needs--unless we can stop wrongly calling them all "needs"--we will not be able to fulfill our moral responsibility to meet first the needs of all and only then meet the wants of some.

We must apply this kind of ethical thinking to the weapons industry. Wealth wants power, and power wants wealth, and weapons are a key link in this cycle. Each year countries spend a combined $560 billion on nuclear and conventional arms, an average of $1.53 billion per day. Compare that with the lack of resources controlled by poor people. Nearly a billion people on our planet live in abject poverty, with illiteracy undercutting their opportunities and malnutrition rendering them physically handicapped and mentally weakened. If we were to think holistically, and if we were to apply our principle of distinguishing the want for military power over against the need for the basics of life, we could ponder what good work a reallocation of resources would do in our world today. Just one day's weapons' budget could buy food relief for the starving, and a few weeks' budget if carefully spent could help establish the foundation for the economic independence of millions who need it.

6. Propose alliances. Pope John XXIII wrote in Pacem in Terris that Catholics could cooperate with "all men of good will" in working for world peace. So also, I believe, Christians of every stripe should link arms with all women and men who share a positive vision of the future and who are willing to exert effort toward making it a present actuality. Members of churches should be willing to form alliances with whomever shares a complementary commitment to all or any part of their vision of a planetary Gemeinschaft and of living at peace with nature.

Just as God raised up the prophet Amos from the unlikely little village of Tekoa, so also prophetic voices are rising in unexpected quarters of our society to announce the coming of something new and better. If we listen through the church doors to the noises of the outside world we hear passionate talk of world peace, a new economic order, political justice, a sustainable society, ecological balance, a new holism, an Aquarian age. The chimes of the future are being rung by the left hand of God. Those in the churches need to listen and join in the music. When others in the secular realm or others in non-Christian religions seem to be humming in harmony, Christians should not scramble to rewrite the notes so that their own song sounds exclusive or unique. There is no virtue in the solo per se. Rather, people of faith should join the chorus.

In doing so, however, it should be remembered that what we humans sing is not yet identical to what the angels sing. At the same time that we cooperate with other people "of good will," the critical power of the Christian vision of God's ultimate future will remind us that all human approximations to it-although good and meaningful-are still provisional and not absolute. We must always be vigilant so that we do not fall into ideology, so that we avoid embracing an already engineered system of thought that eliminates our critical faculty and leads us to forget the transcendent judgment of the kingdom of God. We must always be on guard against fanaticism, against the unflagging belief in one's own rightness that idolatrously absolutizes one human individual or institution. No present political system or even the church itself should ever be identified isomorphically with the as yet transcendent kingdom of God. To claim prematurely such ultimacy within the confines of human finitude leads to totalitarianism, a demonic unity at the expense of personal dignity. Proleptically speaking, that which we value now as a right or a good is done only in the light of the as yet coming absolute good. The positive trends and plans of the present are provisionally good, that is, dependent for their goodness on the future eschaton.

Because of this, society needs the preaching of the church. Such preaching-especially as law-does two things. First, it reinforces the already healthy visions of a positive future produced by secular visionaries. Second, it reminds secular society that it is secular. The church as a distinct institution is in a position to remind the present political (and natural) order that it is provisional. There is more coming.

7. Profess faith. If we allow futuristic forecasts that extrapolate from present trends regarding the spread of starvation or the growing prospect of ecological disaster to get us down and sap our energies, then we will have surrendered our faith in God. I have defined faith as trust in the God of the future, trust in the God who raised Jesus to new life on Easter and who promises to transform the present world into a new creation.

Even if doomsday should come-as it did for Jesus on Good Friday and for the persecuted first readers of the book of Revelation-the New Testament promise is that God will not fail. God has the power of resurrection. The burden of our errors and evils, although heavy, will not last forever. The good news of the Christian evangel is that sin is met by forgiveness, that hurt is met by healing, that death is met by new creation. The new humanity and new ecology for which we yearn will not ultimately be stillborn. Our visions are not vain illusions. Our praxis is not without meaning. The new world will finally come. It will come with God's power.

Professing this faith may itself help to bring the projected new order into being ahead of schedule proleptically-that is, fragmentarily yet authentically. It is our way of embodying the prayer, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Professing proleptic faith could make the faith itself contagious. Others might catch on and join the project of bringing the future reality of God's kingdom to bear on the present crisis.


Professing one's faith is intrinsic to the life of beatitude, and thinking about one's faith is intrinsic to the nature of theology. In our time theological thinking must be engaging. It must confront the world in and around the church and interpret the fundamental symbols of our faith in light of the contemporary context. This contemporary context is feeling the impact of an emerging postmodern mind accompanied by a global future consciousness-the consciousness of a potential avalanche of disasters about to thunder down upon us. We need a faith that can face the future.

This faith is something Christians can share with the world around, because faith in Jesus Christ is rooted in God's future. It is rooted in the future redemption of the entire creation, the consummate fulfillment of all things, which has appeared ahead of time in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The destiny of Jesus is a microcosm of what we can expect for ourselves and for the macrocosmic order, namely, passing through destruction to resurrection and new creation. The present aeon is experiencing the brokenness and fragmentation of a fallen world, of a world yearning for a wholeness that it does not yet have. In Jesus Christ, God has given us a promise that the present yearning for wholeness is not in vain. Actually, God has given us more than a mere promise. In the Easter resurrection of Jesus, God has given us a prolepsis of what is to come, a preactualization of the eschatological wholeness that will imbue all things.

Christian faith is an ecumenic faith. It recognizes that redemption is aimed at the whole of the created order of which we are a part. It is not limited to the extraction from the world of individual souls; nor is it limited to the triumph of the Christian church in worldly affairs. Christian faith places trust in the faithfulness of God and in the divine promise that as God raised Jesus from the dead on Easter so also will God bring the whole of creation to its consummate fulfillment in the new creation.

The resulting life of beatitude is a life lived between the times-that is, a life lived now with the future new creation in, with, and under our present faith. It is a life of courage that is able to be realistic about the world problematique and its ominous prospects, yet it is a life of hope in the knowledge of God's appointed destiny. This courage and this hope release into our daily activity the power of creative love, a Spirit-inspired love.


1. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Ethics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981), 54.

2. The Kairos Document: Challenge to the Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1985),4.3.

3. Pannenberg, Antbropology in Theological Perspective (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985), 449.

4. Luther, LW, 45:113.

5. Calvin, Inst., 4.20.32.

6. Pannenberg, Anthropology, 450.

7. Karl Marx, "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right," in Reinhold Niebuhr, ed., Marx and Engels on Religion (New York: Schocken, 1964), 42.

8. James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (New York: Lippincott, 1970), 248.

9. Letty Russell, The Future of Partnership (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1979), 102.

10. Gustavo Guti6rrez, A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1973), 164.

11. Allan Boesak, Farewell to Innocence (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1977), 145.

12. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 118.

13. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969),111.

14. Carl E. Braaten, Eschatology and Ethics (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974), 121. Although Braaten is less than fully sympathetic to liberation theology, he defines the church's mission in terms of proclaiming "the message of Jesus about the future of God's approaching kingdom," which includes the charge to change the world for the better (Braaten, The Flaming Center [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977], 76-77).

15. Jurgen Moltmann, Religion, Revolution, and the Future (New York: Scribners, 1969), 32. I have begun developing this notion of provolutionary principles in Futures--Human and Divine (Atlanta: John Knox, 1978), 170-81, and in "Creation, Consummation, and the Ethical Imagination," in Philip Joranson and Ken Butigan, eds., Cry of the Environment (Santa Fe: Bear & Company, 1984), 401-29.

16. Fred L. Polak, The Image of the Future, trans. and abr. Elise Boulding (New York: Elsev8ier, 1973).

17. Reported by David Brand, "Is the Earth Warming Up?" Time (July 4, 1988): 18. See Lester R. Brown, et al., State of the World 1989, chap 1, and State of the World 1990, chap. 2 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1989, 1990).

18. Lester R. Brown, Building a Sustainable Society (New York: W.W. Norton, 1981).

19. John B. Cobb, Jr., "Process Theology and Environmental Issues," The Journal of Religion 60, no. 4 (October 1980): 449.

20. Charles Birch and John B. Cobb, Jr., The Liberation of Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 146; see 106.

21. Ibid., 164.

22. Ian G. Barbour, Technology, Environment, and Human Value (New York: Praeger, 1980), 250; Barbour's italics.

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