Prophecy, for the most part, has a paranormal connotation. It implies the reception of knowledge by an individual that has predictive qualities infused by an unnatural source. Because of this understanding it is often ignored by the mainstream. It is deemed to be esoteric and often relegated to fringes of society. This is unfortunate, because legitimate prophecy builds on charismatic leadership and natural philosophy, and lastly depends on supernatural inspiration.
For the prophecy to be legitimate, it must first of all be grounded in reality. In other words it must relate to what is acceptable to the human intellect. And, therefore, based in or on reality. What is predicted must be logical. An evaluation of empirical data acts as a reliable reference for forecasting realistic outcomes. For example, crystal ball predictions of a person attaining great wealth through Power Ball, are magical, superstitious, and fraudulent. Whereas, a prediction that drinking and driving will lead to catastrophe is experientially plausible. In these cases, and others like them no divine agency is required.
Because prediction has a natural foundation it is open to those who are not necessarily religious. It requires a certain amount of knowledge about the world or a particular subject that can grasp a correlation between cause and effect, i.e. outcomes.
Prophecy must also be able to make judgments about truth, falsehood, good and evil. Its moral evaluations should be philosophically grounded in the natural law which is observable by all. This is prior to any claim of religious truth or supernatural inspiration.
Throughout history there are examples of people who amassed data, evaluated it, and made predictions outside of the political or scientific mainstream. They were often ridiculed but later proven correct. Galileo is a good example of this. His heliocentric theory of the earth revolving around the sun rather than the sun revolving around the earth was at first condemned and only later verified and accepted as scientific truth.
Winston Churchill’s predictions of the intentions of the Third Reich and Hitler’s perfidy stand as a case in point. His warnings did not necessitate any divine agency. But they were an important component of his leadership abilities since they enhanced his gravitas. This helped him to win the esteem of his countrymen and chart a course of action that saved Europe. Predictions of disaster are foretold for those who fail to heed the prescient-leaders advice; whereas, good fortune is promised for those who do.
Leaders need to create captivating symbols and images; spin foundational and organizational tales; and enact laws to effectuate their vision. Metaphor is a necessary political tool which leaders can use for good or ill. Churchill did this to motivate the British people. Hitler, Lenin, and Mao are primary examples of destructive leadership. Their distorted ideology created images and symbols that hoodwinked their people and led to death and destruction. Good leaders must be able to promote good over evil.
Therefore, the prophet’s mind must also have a philosophical bent. He must be able to deal with abstractions. His judgments must be balanced and in some way reflect that his evaluation of a moral dilemma is consistent with good human behavior. For example, Churchill’s condemnation of the Nazi regime as morally abhorrent added to his credibility as a leader.
Medical ethics is an example of this need for philosophical abstraction. Doctors often face moral dilemmas that involve what technology should and should not do to preserve life.
For example, the tragic case of a young girl, who was declared brain-dead by a California hospital, caused her physicians to refuse any further medical procedures on what they deemed to be a corpse. Their decision was based on both scientifically verifiable empirical data and on philosophical considerations regarding the purpose of medical care, as well as obligations of professional responsibility.
Often times, the philosopher’s insights are not easily translated into popular parlance. They, therefore, require leaders to translate their thoughts for the popular imagination and move people to understanding an action as being right or wrong.
The above example enables us to see how the ethical problems related to legality of different types of medical treatment or nonintervention requires leaders to formulate legislation that will promote morally acceptable health-care protocols. A case in point is the contentious Affordable-Care Act (Obama-care) which reflects political leadership promoting a perceived philosophical good – the availability of health-care for all Americans.
Perhaps an even simpler example is the founding of our Republic. The philosophical liberalism of John Locke, the concept of the balance of power formulated by Montesquieu, and the necessity of cultivating civic virtue expounded upon by Plato and Aristotle required the political leadership of the Founding Fathers to create our nation. As indicated above, imaging is always a part of a leader’s rhetorical arsenal to promote a world-view. For example, the Declaration of Independence paints the image of King George as a tyrant and the colonist as his long suffering subjects. Here the leaders of the Revolution also painted a clear philosophical delineation of good and bad and right and wrong based on natural rights.
What has preceded, thus far in this essay, is a prelude to what is necessary for true prophecy in the supernatural and religious sense.
The true prophet is a complete man who has the perfect imagination of a leader and the intellectual power of the philosopher. Thus, he is equipped to lead the community and form images so as to shape its identity and goals. He can translate the moral truth he knows into language, using signs and symbols that the average person can understand. Finally, he is inspired by God who is immanent in creation, not outside of it. He can thus draw the community to a true or more appropriate world-view.
The prophet’s leadership and philosophical qualities must be nurtured through meditation and reflection. With this groundwork and the merging of the human consciousness with the divine through contemplation of God’s plan manifested in the natural law, the authentic prophet is then allowed by God to speak in his name.
Two examples will suffice.
First, the biblical example of the Prophet Ezekiel. His example of Israel’s destruction and rehabilitation are a combination of visionary leadership put into metaphor and philosophical abstraction concerning right behavior for Israel. Lastly, divine interaction with the prophet’s psyche enables him to relay God’s message.
Ezekiel’s emigrant like activity, carrying a suitcase in and out of Jerusalem, in Chapter 12, is symbolic of Israel’s exile from Judah. And, his vision of Israel’s reconstitution is portrayed, in Chapter 37, where he sees dry bones being restored to life. Ezekiel’s message shows leadership, philosophical discernment, and divine inspiration working together. Ezekiel knew God’s law and Israel’s violations of it. The consequences of Israel’s lack of faithfulness are metaphorically portrayed as is hope in God’s mercy. God’s spirit moved Ezekiel to prophecy only after observable data was assessed in historical events, reflection on the natural law, and through meditation.
A contemporary example of a prophet would be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His leadership abilities, as well as his philosophical insight into discerning right from wrong, based on the natural law, were foundational for the Spirit of God to stir in the depths of his being. His writings, speeches, and his actions then led the American people to a clear understanding of God’s will for racial equality.
King’s prophetic mission gave him the courage (a gift of the Spirit) to proclaim his vision fearlessly. His “I Have A Dream” speech is a metaphorical way of relating what God showed him regarding the need for racial harmony and the just world order that God demands.
King said, “I have a dream that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” This world view then is what the prophet has to proclaim in order to move the hearts of others onto the path of righteousness and for the re-visioning of reality.
Prophesy is not as rare as we may think. There are many who prophesy in our world. In truth, anyone who articulates a world view consistent with God’s law, which is nourished by meditation, and moved by the Spirit continues what has happened throughout the ages.
An example of this is the role of the religious leader. It is his job to be prophetic in instructing his people. This is the objective of the priest at Mass, for sure. The Liturgy itself forms a right perception of reality. In this context the priest’s sermon should be related to the issues confronting the community. He must provide a clearer vision of what is required by God and the actions that the church must take to achieve God’s plan.
Prophecy, therefore, is not simply a phenomenon of the biblical past; nor is it limited to a few. God’s spirit is continually lavished upon his people. It is up to us to lend ourselves to be open to it and to proclaim the truth we hear. We must remember, “To those to whom much is given, much is expected.”
I am deeply indebted to Moshe Halbertal’s Maimonides: Life and Thought (2013), Princeton University Press, for the insights contained in this essay.