When I moved to Hawaii six years ago to pursue a Master's degree in Religion at the University of Hawaii, I did not expect to earn a PhD in Futures Studies. To be honest, I had no idea that one could even pursue such a course of study and become a futurist. My goal was to transition back into Philosophy, which was the focus of my undergraduate coursework, for my PhD and find my way into a cushy tenure-track position where I would ponder and ultimately solve humanity's greatest problems.
Whether it was fate, chance, or dumb luck (likely it was some combination of all three), I started my doctorate at the Manoa School of Futures Studies in 2009 with an interest in the future(s) of religion. The somewhat awkward rendering of the singular/plural nature of future(s) is, if anything, the hallmark of Futures Studies as taught, performed, and ultimately embodied at UH. While my time at the Manoa School has certainly colored my impression of the future(s), it is also the case that both my personal and professional perspective on religion(s) has changed, for better or worse, and I have come to see religion as a singular/plural construct whose tension resembles the same experiential relationality one finds between the present and the future(s).
As part of my Master's coursework, I threw myself into the cavernous and complex query: What is Religion? Although I did not realize it at the time, the answer that seemed to make the most sense, which at the time made no sense whatsoever, would pave the way for my entry into Futures Studies. On a research trip to Lum Sai Ho Tung, Honolulu's Daoist temple, I initiated a conversation with the caretaker on the status of Tudi Gong, the local Earth God. My burning, yet somewhat intrusive, question centered on how Tudi Gong came to inhabit and thereby rule over this particular locality.
Tradition states that one must ask Tudi's permission before breaking ground, which implies that he is present in more than just a metaphorical way, and he is literally seen as being grounded in place. Compounding my concern, I knew that the Lum family came to the islands en masse and brought their deified ancestors with them, including Tudi, who is a common or popular diety but who plays an important role in the supernatural bureaucracy of Chinese religions, particularly folks traditions that blend Daoist and Confucian traditions.
With this understanding as a backdrop, I put forth my inquiry to the patient caretake whose English was slighty more conversational than my Chinese. I asked, "Was Tudi here when you broke ground on the temple?" "Yes," he replied. "Ok," I continued, "but your ancestors brought Tudi here from China when they came to the islands, right?" "Yes, of course," he replied. "Ok, so which is it--was he already here or was he brought here?" "Yes," he responded with a subtle smile. Although I left that day feeling concerned about the conclusion of my impending research paper, I have continually returned to this memory when approaching the question--What is Religion?--from a Futures' perspective.
For many, if not most, believers, practitioners, and researchers, Religion is fundamentally about answers, and the solace they can and might provide. In contrast, I have taken the caretaker's somewhat cryptic, yet sanguine, response as a direct reflection of the importance of questions, specifically the importance of asking good questions--the heartfelt drive to seek out that which might never be found. If faith is, as Tillich would have it, one's ultimate concern, then my faith rests with our, at times, all-too-human quest towards sensing that which continually seems beyond our grasp, and it here that I find deep resonances between religion(s) and future(s).
While Müller, and the majority of Religious Studies scholars, argue that religion has its roots in the Latin term re+ligare (literally to re-bind or reconnect), Giorgio Agamben posits that this is actuall a misreading. For Agamben, Cicero's presencing of relegere (literally to re-read) as a way of explaining the requisite distance that one must maintain between the sacred and the profane, between the human and the divine, and perhaps between the present(s) and the future(s), speaks to the productive ways in which religion remains elusive, intangible, and, not to sound trite but, wonderous. As Agemben concludes, "Religio is not what unites men and gods but what ensures they remain distinct" (Profanations, 2007).
While I take umbrage with the suggestion that, at its root, religion is a force that separates, I do find the contention that religion necessitates certain distinctions both intellectually and spiritually satisfying, even and perhaps especially due to the lack of assurity it implies. Futurists, as it were, are often inaccurately portrayed as soothsayers, diviners, and, not unlike religious practitioners, harbingers of some secret wisdom about things to come, which is due at least in part to futurists who emphasize prediction over forecasting, temporality over spatiality, and the future over futures.
Paralleling Agamben, Futures Studies, then, is not what unites the present (and one can certainly throw the past in here as well) and the future(s) but what ensures they remain distinct. As with religion(s), some have taken this distance to denote an extreme metaphysical differentiation-one that certainly implies falsity if not outright trickery on the part of those purporting knowledge of things to come. Rather than seeing the plasticity of religion and future(s) as a marker of duplicity, I find myself drawn to this radical ambiguity--a beckoning as it were emanates from the shared empyting--out between religion(s) and futures(s).
This ambiguity is mirrored in Mark 13:32, "No one knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven, not the Son, but only the Father." As God the Father of the Abrahamic faiths remains beyond human comprehension, I take solace in believing that the future(s) remains interminably, and albeit uncomfortably, always beyond our reach--a question for which there might never be an answer.
JOHN SWEENEY serves as a Senior Associate for Futures Studies for the World Network of Religious Futurists. He can be reached on Google+