Means and Ends When the Future is Open

By Daniel J. Ott

The future is open, so ends are unpredictable. Mind your means.

The 1986 Roland Joffé film, The Mission, starring Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro, tells the story of an eighteenth-century Jesuit mission among the Guaraní in South America. After several failed attempts, a small group of Spanish priests earn the trust of the Guaraní and establish a school and a church. Then in 1750, the Treaty of Madrid reapportions the land on which the mission stands to the Portuguese who intend to enslave the Guaraní. The Jesuits resist through international courts, but eventually troops march on the mission to take the land and enslave the people. One priest leads an armed resistance. Another holds mass and leads the new Christians out in solemn procession. All are slaughtered.

The movie closes with a Portuguese official discussing the events with a papal emissary. “We must work in the world; the world is thus,” says the government official. The cardinal responds, “No, thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.”

One of the common elements of open and relational theologies is the belief that the world is not determined from without. The living beings active in the world make the world. We make the world. You make it. I make it. Some open and relational theologians would want to say that we are co-creators of the world with God—that we partner with God in making the world. But, of course, God is not our partner if we slaughter the innocent! So, perhaps we should limit our claims about God’s activity in the world. I like to use the word “God” when I’m pointing to moments of liberation and creative transformation. When we see meaning and purpose pooling up and gaining momentum, that’s God. When we see love outshining hate, that’s God. I’m not sure how helpful it is to even bring God into the equation when we see ends that we associate with God being thwarted. Perhaps then, it’s better to take full responsibility. Thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.

If God does not make the world and determine what happens, it follows that the future is genuinely open and not predetermined by God. God neither knows nor determines the future. Philosopher William James says that there are three basic attitudes that people have toward the future. Most of us are very familiar with the first two. There are the optimists. They believe that the future will be better. Even if God’s ends seem thwarted for the time being, things will work out. The sun will come out tomorrow. Then, there are the pessimists. We might even call them fatalists. They are the ones who repeat with that cynical government official, “We live in the world; the world is thus.” James calls the third group “meliorists.” He writes, “Melorism treats salvation as neither inevitable nor impossible. It treats it as a possibility, which becomes more and more of a probability the more numerous the actual conditions of salvation become.” Meliorists see the future as genuinely open and insist that if we want the future to be better, then we need to get busy making it better. The present is, then, always a struggle for a better future.

And I think this latter kind of attitude has implications for how we struggle for that future in the present—how we partner with God to seek a better future—how we partner with God to seek justice and peace. Since the future is open, we don’t know what it looks like. Even as salvation becomes a possibility, it’s an ever-evolving possibility. It always deepens. There’s always more salvation to be realized. The depth of it is always beyond our grasp. And so if our ends are never fully in sight, then perhaps we should pay more attention to the means that are immediately in front of us.

Mohandas Gandhi called his method and philosophy satyagraha. It’s often translated as soul-force. But the first part is more literally translated, “truth.” And the second part can be translated something like “holding to” or “grasping.” For Gandhi, this grasping for truth was a sacred act, because he believed that Truth is God. But the truth that God is, the absolute truth, is always beyond our grasp. And so we need to be careful, gentle in the way we hold to that truth. We cannot insist on the truth or think that force and punishment will get us to the truth, because there’s always the chance that we are wrong about that truth. For this reason, means are more important than ends. Or perhaps it’s better to say that the means are the ends, or all we have is means. The ends always remain beyond our grasp. The future is open. And so Gandhi focused our attention on the means. The only way to truth is ahimsa, non-harm, respect for all living beings, nonviolence. The only way to justice is to do justice, here and now. The only way to peace is to make peace, here and now.

I have to admit, though, that as a person of privilege, I’ve struggled with more radical voices that also echo in my head. Pioneering community organizer and author of Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky said, “That one’s concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue.” In other words, easy for me to say. As a white, cisgender, straight, middle-class man, I don’t find myself having to struggle for liberation on my own behalf. And when I enter the struggle for the liberation of others, it’s easy to return to both the physical and ethical comfort of my privileged life. I’ve thought about this often in recent years in relation to doing some volunteer teaching at a local prison. The work is extremely gratifying and we see the positive effects. Men get out of prison and contribute to their communities. Men inside prison find meaning. One student told us that the two hours he spent with us discussing James Baldwin or the Bhagavad Gita were the only two hours in his week that he felt fully human. But when I leave those men, I return to my comfortable home and pour a few sips of bourbon. Our students return to their cells and the harsh realities of their lives. I don’t know and cannot know the lives that led them to the prison, as much as they might tell me their stories. I cannot know the feelings of abandonment and frustration that they have with a system that has failed them, targeted them, forgotten them. I cannot know the anger and desperation of oppressed people. I cannot insist on my ethical purity when the struggle is not about my liberation, when my personal interest is at a distance.

Yet, none less than Martin Luther King, Jr. insisted that love is the most radical strategy in our struggle for justice and peace. Famously, King said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” But his thinking went much deeper on this topic than some people realize. King was calling for a “radical revolution of values.” He believed that to respond to oppression and violence with hatred and violence would only be to repeat the moral failure of the oppressor. He said that if we want to chart a new way, the way will have to be the way of love and nonviolence. He wanted white oppressors to repent and change their ways. But he was concerned for the spiritual well-being of the oppressed as well. The end he sought was the full liberation of black people from the nightmare of their history in North America, but the means had to fit the end. King wrote to African Americans, “I am also concerned about our moral uprightness and the health of our souls. Therefore, I must oppose any attempt to gain our freedom by the methods of malice, hate, and violence that have characterized our oppressors.”

Philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “Since the end of human action can never be reliably predicted, the meansused to achieve political goals are more often than not of greater relevance to the future world than the intended goals.” The future is open. We do not know what it holds. Even our visions of salvation and liberation are necessarily ever shifting. What we have is today. Today we are making the world. Today we are doing justice. Today we are making peace. Today we are partnering with God.

Question: If humans are responsible for making the world the way it is, what are the implications for how you act in the world, here and now?

Daniel J. Ott is Associate Dean for Academic Initiatives and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Monmouth College, Monmouth, Illinois. His articles and review articles have appeared in Theology Today, Political Theology, and the American Journal for Theology and Philosophy. He is co-author with Hannah Schell of Christian Thought in America: A Brief History (Fortress Press, 2015).

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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