Living for the Future: Theological Ethics for Coming Generations

Written by Rachel Muers Reviewed By Jacob W. Shatzer

Rachel Muers’s Living for the Future contends that “while Christians do not give up on the prayer of the kingdom of God, they also cannot give up the desire for a livable world for future generations, because God does not give up on God’s love for the world” (p. 4). Yet few people, whether Christians or not, actually show concern for future generations. Muers demonstrates how theological ethics must maintain an openness and commitment to the future.

Muers focuses in chapter one on founding texts for intergenerational ethics, which “were written in the context of revolution” (p. 13), especially the revolutions of the eighteenth century. She addresses how the opinions and rights of future generations (who, in the eyes of some, do not even exist in any meaningful sense) can be brought to bear on contemporary concerns. These questions point to theological issues, and they “cannot be avoided, simply because relations of dependence cannot be avoided” (p. 28). This chapter is most helpful in highlighting intergenerational responsibility, the influence of “absent generations,” and the contemporary parallel with the eighteenth century’s revolutionary context.

Chapters two through four reflect on the biblical call to “choose life.” Chapter two is best at bringing out implications present in OT texts such as the Psalms, but the treatment of NT passages (especially 1 Thessalonians) comes off a bit strained at points, as the connections Muers makes do not always seem grounded in the text. (The chapter also manifests an odd feature of the book: Scripture quotations appear in a different font rather than in quotation marks.) In all, this chapter demonstrates how much nuance and careful thinking is required to bring the Bible to bear on intergenerational ethics. Chapter three focuses on the repeated biblical prohibitions against child sacrifice and idolatry. Muers sees two consequences. First, these practices literally sacrifice future generations. Second, they also bind them to practices that cultivate death and make such practices the norm, reflecting what is worshiped (idols). Chapter four explores community. Muers attempts to connect accounts of intergenerational responsibility to influential recent approaches, dealing with Avner de-Shalit and Stanley Hauerwas. Then she explains 1 Thessalonians’s use of “those outside” and “mind your own affairs” so that they helpfully connect to sustainability and future generations. There are calls to the community to abound in love for all (including future generations) not because they are identical but because they are similarly subjects and similarly called into complex relationships to God and to others (pp. 99–100). Her analysis takes account of the text in a creative way, but her comments about authorship (“if we can speak for the moment of Paul as a single author,” p. 98) indicate that her rereading may be based upon unhelpful presuppositions.

In chapters five and six, Muers develops the theme of representative responsibility. Chapter five addresses “standing in someone else’s place.” Muers explores Bonhoeffer’s use of the concept of “vicarious representative responsibility.” Jesus’ relationship to humanity provides an analogy. He “stands in” for us, and our freedom and living depends on this. Responsibility flows out of it, just as future generations’ freedom, living, and responsibility flow out of the decisions of current generations. Chapter six develops “the idea that human incarnation implies dependence on a complex . . . network of material and social connections to others, and also implies participation in the processes whereby this embodied life is passed on” (p. 127). Muers dwells on the image of a pregnant woman as encapsulating the idea of living for future generations. A concern for the present health of the current generation is a prerequisite for the healthy life of future generations. We should “see the work of particular mothers as a focus for what is going on all the time in the lives of communities and societies—the formation of the ‘coming generation’” (p. 150).

In the final two chapters, Muers addresses specific issues related to intergenerational responsibility. In chapter seven, she discusses the environment, focusing on Proverbs’s use of wisdom and folly. Regarding sustainability, we must make wise choices that leave the future open for coming generations rather than perpetuating cultures that abuse the gift of the earth. She examines theological anthropology, arguing for humans not as objects of value but as subjects who determine value (pp. 156–57). Chapter eight addresses genetics, developing two lines of thinking. First, today’s choices impact future generations, not only determining what types of people come into being, but also what visions of human flourishing and values are passed on. Second, Muers compares reading texts to choices about the genome. Just as, in her view, religious communities should leave texts open for future generations, we should utilize genomic changes in ways that do not over-determine future humans, removing their freedom and chance for development. Her insistence on leaving the text “open” and revisable (p. 191) may conflict with any current generation’s desire to pass on firm doctrinal truth as non-negotiable for future generations. Still, her point about refusing to over-determine the genetic future of humanity rings true.

Muers concludes with a brief afterword, noting that intergenerational responsibility has only become a more important topic in recent years. She calls for “Liberation from intergenerationally transmitted idolatry, from sustained patterns of deathly existence, and from the handing on of ‘misery’ from generation to generation . . . [which] comes by the grace of God within enfleshed existence, in and through intergenerational communities themselves” (p. 198). Muers does a good job of introducing the reader to some key questions and ways of thinking about intergenerational responsibility in light of Christian theology by exposing what is at the root of the problem: idolatry.

Jacob W. Shatzer

Jacob W. Shatzer
Marquette University
Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

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