In celebration of the Future Issue hitting the PO today, here’s Issue 15’s Opener, as well as the Contents page. If you haven’t subscribed, the time has come!

Like every person who sped through HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl, I immediately wanted to know what it all looks like today. After six-plus hours of radioactive waste and human suffering, I needed to know the ultimate impact, so I googled it, and one image I found there has been emblazoned on my mind since. In the foreground, you have what once was a very cutting-edge (for the Soviet ’80s) Brutalist apartment building. There’s a giant insignia standing proud on the rooftop, the hammer and sickle superimposed on a globe. The insignia has rusted to green, and the apartments below it are completely blown out. The apartments are apparently inhabited by wild dogs.

In the background of the photo, further on the horizon, two silhouettes are visible. The first is the “sarcophagus,” the enormous steel dome sealing off the reactor that exploded in 1986. The second, harder to make out, but unmistakable if you look close enough: a ferris wheel. An eerie reminder of what this place was once meant to signify: the Nuclear Age, the great tomorrow of the Soviet people. Now it’s a place literally frozen in the past.

Chernobyl is a harrowing fable about the instability of future hopes. In this fable, promising visions are always clouded by hubris, hubris which winds up both thwarting the future you’re working towards, and poisoning the present you’re living in. Chernobyl is a visceral reminder (on a global scale) that every hope for a Promised Land is as shortsighted as those promising it.

Unfortunately, at this present cultural moment, anyone with Wi-Fi has a future to promise and publicize, and so it can often feel that we “live in the future” more than we live in the present. But the human race has always lived in the future more than in the present. It’s easier to live in the future. Much as we may subscribe in theory to the merits of “mindfulness,” the future is preferable because, practically speaking, the tedium of the present is too much to bear.

Especially on an average Wednesday afternoon, at work. The writer Jonathan Malesic recently described what the ancient monks used to call acedia, “the noonday demon.” It is that force of inertia that slows everyone down at 2 pm. Under the weight of acedia we grow idle, we find ourselves refreshing Twitter again, shooting off a few “what up” texts, looking from our workstations out to a future that doesn’t include this expense report or that team presentation, but something more. As Malesic puts it,

Acedia gets you to wish your life away in anticipation of something that will validate your worth as a person. If you feel lonely and anxious in your work now, then maybe you’ll feel better at that meeting tomorrow, or when you get a new project each week, or after you get a new job altogether…

Any 2 pm Promised Land of a new career, or a new vacation, is a bad Promised Land, Malesic says, the fruit of the same restlessness that will be waiting for you tomorrow at the next stop. Why not just accept the gift of the present moment, then?

Man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.

So, while we are future-oriented people, the futures that we orient ourselves toward are ones we ourselves must create, produce, and earn. This is why anxiety is a future-oriented emotion. When the world to come, the Promised Land we hope for, is one we must bring ourselves to, our present lives become understandably colored by fear. Am I doing enough? Is this the right direction? How will I know if it isn’t?

In putting this issue together, it was important for us to distinguish what exactly Christianity has to say about the Future. Christianity is ultimately rooted in a future promise. The Gospel is a message of hope. Jesus leaves his disciples with a commission and a vision. But, at the same time, the Bible is full of ambivalence about future investments: Save your manna for tomorrow, and it will rot. Go ahead, take out an insurance policy on your harvest, but what if your personal harvest has come today?

We are functional believers in a future that is ours for the taking, but there is a sense in the Bible that the future is not a human thing to reckon with at all. The Bible pronounces that all the work you’ve put in, all the injustices you’ve fought against, all the vacation time you’ve stored up, finally amount to a future that is not earned, but given—or not given. A future that tenuous would be most offensive to those who have plans. Unfortunately, everyone’s got plans.

So while Jesus himself promises a Kingdom coming, an ultimate future where every tear will be wiped clean, Christianity is also not alien to dystopian thinking, to a deep pessimism about where human beings are capable of steering the proverbial spaceship. On top of this, the Good News proclaimed in the Christian faith, of salvation and a New Heaven and New Earth, often feels about as sealed off as Reactor No. 4. As Tolkien puts it, the Christian is not afraid to see history “as a long defeat, with small glimpses of final victory.”

This is the terrain we’re exploring in this, the Future Issue. A long history of bleak futures, and the one solid Future we’re promised to inherit. We have interviews with science fiction novelists and classical historians; essays on the future of church architecture, Amazon orders, and the human race itself; and amid all the grim prophecies and 2 pm job searches, we can tell you there is a difference between blind optimism and real, lasting hope. The Future won’t be so bad, dear reader; let us tell you why.

Ethan Richardson


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