The Future Isn’t What It Used to Be

Here’s a really cool site called Paleo-Future, devoted to chronicling the History of the Future. I’ve often thought such a subject would make a great book. After all, people have been making predictions forever, and it would be fun to see how the Assured Prophecies of Yesterday have panned out.

Browsing through Paleo-Future, I note such prophetic insights as these from 1957:

Interplanetary travel will become “commonplace” in the next 50 years, World War I ace Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker predicts. 

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“In fact,” he told an audience of Rotarians yesterday, “space ships in the year 2007 will be semi-self-sustaining planets in themselves.”

Rickenbacker, who is now chairman of the board of Easter Airlines, also foresaw the day when “nuclear powered guided missiles will reach speeds up to 25,000 miles an hour.”

Or take these wonderful French postcards from 1910 in which handlebar-mustachioed gentlemen and Gibson Girls zoom about town in their car-shoes while dodging the police in their Lilienthal gliders and retire at the end of the day to enjoy their chemical dinners by the comforting warmth of a radium log in the fireplace.

Do check it out. The site is chockablock with domed orbiting cities, moon colonies, rocket backpacks, kitchens of the future, and all the other hardware that was to deliver us the millennium back when people still said “gee whiz” without a tone of tragically hip postmodern irony.

Sadly, the whole thing only goes back to the 1880s, but a serious Historian of Futurology could find various attempts to prognosticate going way back. Prophecy is as human as breathing. What the historian would not find in antiquity, I think, is the cockiness that characterizes so much of the wonderful stuff archived on Paleo-Future that makes it such fun to read.

I think there’s a reason for that.

Ancients knew that the art of predicting the future consisted of seeing through a glass darkly. They approached the matter with humility and hedged the business round with lots of stories about cocksure fools who misunderstand the oracle in their pride (“If you go to war, a great kingdom will fall”, says the prophet. And of course, the brash king goes off to battle in the assurance of victory, and his great kingdom is destroyed). The ancients reminded men of their littleness in the face of the power that is over our lives with Cheat the Oracle stories, in which our very attempts to thwart the plans of the gods make sure those plans are carried out. That’s part of the meaning of the story of Oedipus, who is prophesied to kill his father and marry his mother and is sent away from his home to a distant land in order to prevent this. Of course, he grows up not knowing his parents, returns home, meets his father and gets into a fight with him, kills him, and then travels on till he meets a woman who was recently widowed . . . 

(By the way, for all those who have this notion that ancient paganism is the happy, jolly thing and Old Testament Judaism is harsh, nasty, barbaric, and cringing before a vindictive deity who loves to curse, compare the Oedipus story with the tale of Joseph in Genesis. Same “Cheat the Oracle” narrative, very different outcome.)

And, of course, the Paschal Mystery is the ultimate Cheat the Oracle story. Supremely, in the Resurrection, we hear “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.” But in every case, whether pagan, Jewish, or Christian, we see the business of prophecy is hedged round with the ancient respect for the fact that we live in a mysterious world and we don’t really see things all that clearly.{mospagebreak} 


Science Killed the Mystery

The 19th- and 20th-century contribution to the art of prophecy is, as in so many other things, largely negative. Prophecy became scientized, with all the hubris, arrogance, and blindness that attended that loss of humility. Prophets no longer spoke as though they saw in a glass darkly; instead they were filled with Scientific Certitude. They knew where History was going.

The Prophet Chesterton saw through this hubris, lampooning it in his-lighthearted way in his introduction to The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. And one of the games to which it is most attached is called, “Keep to-morrow dark,” and which is also named (by the rustics in Shropshire, I have no doubt) “Cheat the Prophet.” The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.

Tragically, not all the scientized oracles of the 19th and 20th centuries were mere eccentrics awaiting the evolutionary development of the “harmony arm” (a sort of prehensile tail foretold by Charles Fourier, founder of the largest American utopian movement of the 19th century). Some of them were radical killers, some dedicated enemies of the family and the Church. And the latter group had this in common: They were prepared to do what it took to usher in the Great Rosy Dawn, no matter the cost to others. These people knew that those who stood in the way of progress were vermin fit only for extermination. They had a little system of order that explained everything, so the Jews, the racially inferior, the bourgeois, the anti-revolutionary elements, or the enemies of sales resistance, population control, and technology would have to just get out of the way — because it was a scientific fact that the future belonged to the Rosy Dawners. 

I think we are living in the period of reaction to that hubris. Extreme relativism is a reaction to scientistic hubris. The New Age worship of nature is a reaction — not to Christianity, but to the attitude that says of Creation, “There it is, boys! Take as much as you want! She’s yours to rape!” It is, I think, sacramentality without God. For the New Age is driven, in part, by an instinct to see Creation — and that piece of Creation called the Self — as a holy thing and not a mere source of raw materials. Like all human reactions, it is an overreaction. So now we live in a time where there is uncertainty that there is any Plan at all, just as we live in a time when people whipsaw between seeing themselves as gods and goddesses and being uncertain whether they are any higher in nature than chimps.

And so it goes. Creation has been subjected to futility until the only really new thing that is ever going to happen finally happens and Christ returns. Till then, the world does not progress: it wobbles. Only the Church progresses, because only the Church is going somewhere.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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