FlashForward: Paradoxology and the Work of God

Check out the latest from Jason Derr after the jump, an attempt to look at the theological concepts in the ABC TV series, FlashForward.  The article is written in consideration of the first six episodes and not of the series as a whole.

“On October 6th the whole world blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds. The whole world saw the future.”   — Opening lines of FlashForward


In ABC’s FlashForward, humanity is impacted by a glimpse of the future (six months away) that they received during a worldwide blackout. This future-haunted humanity now must contend with the vision of the future they were given, be it the end of a marriage, falling off the wagon, or the possibility of their own death. In several cases, these visions of the future set people on a journey that makes the future come true. Complications arise when, in a romantic partnership, one partner sees nothing–indicating death–and the other partner received a clear vision of their wedding. In one case an FBI agent, future-haunted by the vision he received, learned he was responsible for a young woman’s death, chooses suicide as a way of altering the future, and proving that it is indeed alterable.

Many people, this author included, who grew up in the evangelical Christian subculture, are no strangers to the phrase that “God is in Control.”  For many that meant that God could violate the laws of physics, bless or curse nations with violence or prosperity, or make planes fly into or not fly into tall, New York buildings.

For John Caputo, that Derrida-inspired theologian and philosopher, to say God is in control of the future means a much different thing.  For Caputo, God is in control of the future, even the future that is not controllable.  We live in the couch of the future we plan and are encountered by the future that is beyond our control, the future that we find ourselves in, despite ourselves.  Even if we arrive in the future we plan and work for, it contains in it, or can dive toward, realities beyond our prediction.

In this way, God is in control not by blessing us with jobs or careers or through some form of pre-destination but by, instead, being the God of the Lord’s Prayer.  What this means is that God is the God who gives “our daily bread”  God is the God of life and the gifts of life.  Humanity is blessed with all the gifts that today brings–the bread that is for today.  Tomorrow will have other breads and other gifts.

But that future, not the one we dream of but the one we must actually contend with, is the future where God is. This is the future God is in control of, not in the sense that God pre-ordained these things or can or will alter them in or against our favor, but that instead God leads us into an area beyond our control and is present in that future.  In this sense, we too, like the citizens of FlashForward, are future-haunted by realities beyond our control, which contain promise as well as the un-predictable.


In Caputo’s words, echoing Derrida, this God is in charge of the “impossible possibility” that is the future. This future unhinges us, like lovers, and opens us to spaces of infinite longing, as the theopoets would put it.  To be future-haunted is to be a co-creator with God, recognizing that the architecture of the future-of the world as it will and may become–is called out of the building material of our present lives and the path we have traveled to arrive in the present.

Again, we arrive at the prophetic in the Lord’s Prayer.  We end with “thy Kingdom come” an admission that the world that is arriving in the future–the one that is coming but never fully arrives–is a future beyond our capacity to control.  This is the Kingdom of God (called herein the Work of God) that is always coming but never arrives.

This “To-Come” of the Work of God is the future-haunted life that humanity lives with.  If we take seriously Immanuel–God With Us–then we must take seriously the idea that this God calls us forth into uncertainty. In this way humanity on this side of the television screen is future-haunted as well.  But the future we are haunted by is also a future we are grieved by.

Much of life is trapped in the future we grieve for.  This is the future of the best-laid plans of mice and men that we toil for but never comes to complete fruition.  Even for those of us who find ourselves at rest in a future much like the one we anticipated, we grieve because it will never truly satisfy us the way we would like.  We build our house in the future, but we can never truly unpack the furniture.

To live in the future, recognizing that the present is a form of the future realized, is to encounter God not as an all-powerful being but as a co-creator, to recognize that we ourselves are the “body of Christ” or presence of God made manifest in the human condition.  When we grieve the off-putting of the Work of God fully come, we are in fact grieving the failure of humanity to meet God in the future and to recognize God’s face as humanity come alive in the Work of God.


Here we arrive at paradox. In FlashForward the future-haunted are confronted with sometimes conflicting visions of the future or with present realities that render certain futures moot.  Likewise our future plans and the future that God meets us in are often times at odds.  The paradox is that we meet an all powerful God in the future to only discover that humanity is the called-out being which is the body of God, the Work of God made flesh.  The all-powerful nature of God is humanity fully engaged to do the Work of God

This leads us into the realm of paradoxology. Theologically, paradoxology is the idea that conflicting theologies, creeds, doctrinal statements, religious views–no matter how strongly held by individual players–lead us closer to the truth because they conflict.  The God of the future then is one who lives in paradox. The future we plan and the one life delivers–the one God lives in–stand at odds with each other, and thus, it is the space God occupies because they conflict, drawing the human life caught in the tide of paradox to articulate her or his journey at that moment.

Instead of taking us out of the theology of the creeds, paradoxically, paradoxology takes us into the faith of the creeds.  If we can see the creeds as maintaining the tension of early Christian debate (fully human and fully God, God is three and God is one, among other conflicts) then we can recognize that faith in the tensions has always been what the Christian church has done.

The challenge for humanity, and not just the Church, which must recognize itself as the Body of God that does the Work of God, is to recognize that this body by rights must and will contain paradoxes.  Just as a triune conception of God creates a paradox as God (God who is father must be of different relationship than a God who is the son and both of these must be of a different relationship from the she of God that is the Spirit), so must the body of God in the world be of paradox. It is not correct doctrine that saves, nor is it humanity’s right relationship with God that saves.  It is instead God’s relationship with us, articulated in paradox, which saves.  Humanity can see itself, as the body of God, connected by the she of God, that Holy Spirit.  And if this is the case, the Holy Spirit is less a force that drives out false doctrine and fills in with right knowledge, but is instead a network or an internet uniting multitudes of voices, and equipping them in the midst of their paradoxes to do the Work of God.

Paradoxology is the ability to have and live with doctrine and ideas that are in conflict and recognize that in all of it, or the tensions between, God is revealed and we are revealed as the body of God in the world. Paradoxology can help us navigate conflicting Christian doctrine as well as recognize the presence of God in conflicting religious views outside of our tradition.  None of us have it right and in the paradox we learn that all of us have it right.

While the reader may think that we have diverged from the issue of FlashForward and the future, I promise you this is not true. The future is like the kingdom of God in that it is always coming but never arrives.  When the future does arrive, it has transformed into something else, namely the present. But the future is also where God arrives and where God’s work lives.  The call of God keeps calling us into God’s future, and we arrive only to find that the future God has promised, hinted at, and called us to only exists in the very paradoxes of that future.


From here let us build on the two streams we have built so far: the future haunted and paradoxology. To follow these streams we come to what is often called the prophetic. For those who grew up in evangelical church circles, the prophetic can mean a road map to the end of the world, a future history yet to be realized, or an absolute truth spoken in church during worship.  Instead, we will follow the route of Hebrew bible scholar/theopoet Walter Bruggeman who views the prophetic as a poetry we speak into the present, an imagining we tell the present world about what the future may look like without repentance.  The future named in prophecy is a future birthed in paradox:  it is the future that may happen, it is the future God tries to prevent from happening, and it is the future in which God will meet us.

These paradoxical futures, like the ones encountered in the worldwide blackout of FlashForward, present us with a problem.  To believe in a future that comes to us in prophecy is to believe in a future that cannot be, should not be, and may or may not be. In this we mean that when the author of John’s Revelation saw giant bugs, the number 666, and many headed beasts, he was not giving a literal reading of what the future will contain.  As residents of the future (from his perspective) we have not seen these giant bugs, many headed beasts, or the number 666 tattooed on the body of the vast population of humanity.

John is working in a poetic of the future that will never be but that, in fact, may be.  By presenting us a paradox or theopoetic we are asked to engage in deep imagining of the lives we live.  God comes to us in the future, but also in the paradox of the future.  The poetic that John’s revelation–and all prophecy–presents to us is the possibility of grief in present time for the future.  Confronted with a vision of a future with God, justice, human rights, etc., the present world can grieve but can also prepare to meet God in that future.  As we grieve and prepare to meet God we are able to undo the future–build toward the future God lives in–in order to make the “To-Come” of God’s work come true.  Yet God’s work is always coming but never arrives.  We work to prevent a grievable future and, in doing so, find ourselves in the future with God, never satisfied, grieving, and called onward to continue the work.

“I Found A Way To Change The Game” – THE WORK OF GOD

Episode Six ends with Al, an FBI agent future-haunted by a vision in which he learns that a young woman he wounded has been taken off of life support, leaping from the roof of the FBI headquarters in Los Angeles. By leaping from this building Al engages the paradox:  if he is dead, then that future cannot come to pass, and if he dies, he can prove to all those who are future-haunted that we are not victims of the future but rather its co-creators.

For those of us who live in the world on this side of the television, such escapes from the future are not as easily engaged or as clearly labeled as being the “right thing to do.”  Most of us must live with the paradox of the future and of our present realities.  Like the cast of FlashForward, we are a future haunted people. But for us, we will meet God in the future, and realize that the out of control world of the future is the future that is God’s home.

In this way, we are engaging with the prophetic and the Work of God.  The cast of FlashForward wants to fight the future. Instead, what we must do is welcome it and live with the God who is present in it. The prophetic task is to name the paradox of the future as God’s home and to call the Body of God into engagement in the present-tense world in which we live.

Like Al, we must change the game, not by escaping the future, but by living into it.  We welcome it as the home of God, and, in the paradox of an imperfect future which contains God, we begin to live out our holy work as the Body of God.  The work of God is to be prophetic in our paradoxy.