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Saved from the Future
Seven notes on the Ascension and being left behind
In the Western Church, today is the Feast of the Ascension. It will be celebrated in the Eastern Church next Thursday. What follows are some notes that were sparked by a conversation on education that soon after took a theological turn. If you find what you’re reading helpful, please consider becoming a paid subscriber. Paid subscriptions help my work immensly and keep more content flowing here. Beginning this summer, I’ll be offering more paid only content in gratitude for those who’ve become patrons.
1. Khan Academy, the popular online learning program championed at TED and funded by the Gates Foundation, is piloting a new AI learning program. It is the future of “education”, and this future is couched in terms of justice. Every child deserves a quality education, after all, and if that child’s community can’t deliver it, the Machine is ready to step in. Already many kids are doing the bulk of their lessons on Chromebooks thanks to the generosity of Google; soon enough the teacher shortage will be solved by AI. Whatever the school district, rich or poor, AI promises the democracy of the digital, an equal and uniform education for all. No child will be left behind.
2. To be left behind is among our worst fears. It names a future we won’t be part of and in the narrative of our culture, right in the middle of the future is where we want to be. It is a reality we look toward with a mix of fear and hope. We’ve known enough now of utopian dreams dashed to understand that the future may be dark; but we can’t be satisfied by deepening our lives in the present. Anyway, dark or light, there will be some wonderful gadgets to enamor us along the way.
I live around the corner from a solar powered electric vehicle charging station. It was begun as a measure against the dark future of climate catastrophe. The vehicles pulling in there, day in and day out, are wonders wrought by the tech-industrial enterprise responsible for the ecological crisis. But who wants to consider that and sweat through a bike ride or slow down for walk when you can get a truck that has a huge ice chest under the hood? Better to get with the times and enjoy the new power.
3. We might think that the Ascension is an occasion in which our fears of being left behind are accentuated. It is on this feast day that we remember Christ’s leaving earth behind to enter the heavens beyond it. But in reality it is the Ascension that helps us recover the true source of our salvation, our healing. It is through the reality of the Ascension that we learn that we should be waiting not for the future, but for Christ.
4. In Kara Slade’s important book, The Fullness of Time: Jesus Christ, Science, and Modernity, she says that the Ascension protects us from understanding our salvation as a human act, a reality that happens from within creation. “Without it,” she writes, “the kingdom of God would become a matter of human achievement and we would thus be left at the mercy of someone else’s vision of progress—or trapped within our own” (125).
5. The Ascension forms our discipleship by saving us from the fear of being left behind and turning us toward the hospitality of Christ through the Spirit. We do not need to worry about keeping up with the future or building God’s kingdom on earth. Instead, the vision we receive from John’s Apocalypse is of the new Jerusalem, that perfected place of divine and human community, descending from heaven. The city of our healing has already been made; we don’t need to do anything to make it arrive. Our work then is not to build the city, but to welcome it with hospitality. We begin to do this by offering hospitality to Christ in all his guises, especially among those left behind—those hungry, thirsty, diseased people named in Matthew 25.
6. The ethics of this time, the work of discerning right action to which we are called, is one rooted in the poverty and humble reality of the human condition, not our attempts to transcend it. As Slade writes, “If one were to look for ethics, one would find it not in the stance of moral and historical heroism but in awareness of both the absurdity and the seriousness of the human condition” (The Fullness of Time, 119). Such an ethics is rooted not in the mastery of the future or a fear of its arrival. Instead, it is a call to wait before God. It is this call to wait on God that is the central call of scripture. And it is this waiting that the disciples embraced after the Ascension of Jesus. This waiting was called prayer, a task to which the disciples “were constantly devoting themselves” following Christ’s ascent (see Acts 1:6-14). It is in this waiting that the Spirit comes, birthing a reality no human plan or future could accomplish.
7. Those of us who now stand before the promised future of the Machine, one we must join or be left behind, would do well to engage in the patient waiting of prayer. It is in that waiting that we will remember that we won’t be left behind from any future worth having. That future has already arrived in the Incarnation and its first fruits have already formed from the flower of the resurrection. Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow has ascended and he will come again quite apart from any human plan or doing. Now is the time of the Holy Breath, moving among us and helping us enter that eternity now, all the while blowing in a direction no algorithm could predict.