Prophecy or Prediction

PROPHECY OR PREDICTION: facing our future

With the accelerating cries of apocalyptic alarm from within so many disciplines today, particularly now from Climate Science,  it can be a bit of shock to find strong dissenting voices (rather than mere dogmatic denial) in the literature. But I came across one today: “Why the Idea that the World is in Terminal Decline is so Dangerous” 

The author, Jeremy Adelman, is an historian so he knows his stuff, declaring for example that we’ve all been here before, i.e. historically, and he cites several examples. His thesis, “why it is dangerous to think the world as being in decline” is summed up neatly in the last sentence of his essay:

But seeing them (our deep seated problems) as evidence of ineluctable demise can impoverish our imaginations by luring us to the sirens of either total change or fatalism.

Earlier he puts his finger on the pulse of the issue of the apocalypse by drawing our attention to the origin of such thinking, i.e., prophetic speech and its present relationship to prediction:

Why the allure of declinism if history seldom conforms to the predictions? To Hirschman, it was traceable to a prophetic style, one that appealed to intellectuals drawn to ‘fundamentalist’ explanations and who preferred to point to intractable causes of social problems.

Adelman does not discuss his/Hirschman’s conflation of prophecy and prediction but, as I said, by citing the conflation, he has his finger on the pulse of the issue regarding modern apocalyptic thinking—the conceptual conflation of prophecy and prediction, along with the resultant social consequences of thinking about the apocalypse only literally, searching for verifiable evidence (which of course can be disputed at all turns). 

Both words have a prefix meaning “before” and both have a root meaning to speak. Both words point to the future, and the dictionary even says that a prophet predicts the future. They have become interchangeable words! The word “prediction” is privileged by our science-minded community over the word, “prophet” with its historical “baggage”.

But each word’s orientation to the future, which is after all always unknown, is fundamentally different from that of the other word. Prediction seeks to make the linear future known now. Weather prediction is an excellent example of how good we have become with our models, especially since chaos theory  came to the rescue in the 70’s. Predictions are thus produced on the basis of our models and verified more or less by actual experience later on. 

Prophecy is very different matter! The prophet is typically subjected to a “spiritual” vision that carries the weight of truth for the recipient. She then conveys that truth to the community through speech or utterance, or some other gesture. Others may then also feel the weight of truth in the prophet’s “speech” and are convinced of that underlying truth. New cultural practices may then begin to form in response to the original prophetic “speech”. Prophecy, like prediction, carries a felt orientation to the future but it is very different in character. Prophecy does not predict any final, manifested cultural form, whereas prediction does. Adelman’s dissenting arguments about “terminal decline” are rooted in the collective failure to identify the temporal factor distinguishing a prophecy from a prediction.

Predictions are tied to our usual sense of linear time—we predict this or that will happen in ten years etc., with the obvious consequence of so many “end times” dates coming and going. Prophecy is wedded to a different temporality altogether: When a prophet says, for example, “it will thus come to pass” she is announcing that the vision, now lying implicit in potentia intends to manifest in the real world in some unknown form—hence the futural mood (foreboding, joyful anticipation, glad tidings, alarm, doom, etc.) This sense of time is fundamentally different from that of prediction which seeks literally to actualise the desired modelled future or seeks to avert the undesired modelled future (e.g climate change). 

Individuals produce new cultural forms through an artistic response to the “speech” of the vision and its felt imperative. As these cultural forms develop and refine, sometimes over long periods of time, they are subject to the contingencies of earthly existence (history). Prophecy as “origin” (the prophecy can be said to originate the unknown future) usually gets forgotten (or as Heidegger says, “the oblivion of Being”) until such time that a renewal of our connection to Being (our origin) is called for and another originating impulse emerges through the human “receiver”. We are now in such time. Prediction has become hazardous since changes are now too chaotic. Making prophecies at this time is also hazardous as Adelman says, since the distinction between prophecy and prediction has collapsed. Predictions flourish and are vigorously disputed on the basis of “evidence”, furthering the chaos. Prophecy is ignored or erased, if not conflated with prediction!

The primary function of prophecy, however, is to remind us of the mystery of our “spiritual origin”, and that this “origin” is not empirical, i.e historical. Rather, prophecy reminds us that our origin originates, in the prophecy, a new way of being and eventually a new culture. What new way is being called for in our urgent times, through the mouthpiece of the modern “prophet”? A prior question is, how can we even recognize a prophecy today?

Anyone who claims literally to be a prophet today, as in prior ages, is unlikely to be believed but, more importantly, such a person has made a serious ontological error. The locus of prophecy (or our origin) lies “beyond” the person and her humanness, as in prior ages, but now also “within” the individual. As in past ages, the person must surrender her personhood in order to participate in the transformations of the “beyond”, that “place” as which prophecy may “speak” to its auditor. 

Today this encounter occurs “within” the individual.

From this encounter, the person may return to empirical life with a  message, an art work or poem—some way to articulate what has been found on the “other side” and to assist bringing it into actuality as a new cultural form. In other words the “prophet” and “her” originating impulse lies “within” the individual who may become a receiver of the prophecy—a three-fold structure of consciousness! Then the task of the person, upon returning to empirical life, is to bring the “message” of the prophecy into manifestation through an artistic or poetic gesture. When the empirical person makes the ontological error of identifying with the “prophet” within, then she becomes exposed to all the counter-arguments, denials etc, that are properly directed at predictions, as Adelman argues. 

This IS a time of prophecy—a time when all things are falling apart with traditional, stable forms disintegrating, as we all know. The general mood is one of extreme alarm, putting everyone on edge. The only “place” we can each possibly find the seeds of a new order or structure lies within our own chaos. So, those individuals who are suffering deeply in chaos are most likely to become candidates for participating in and experiencing the prophetic domain “within”. 

What will these “receivers” find? They will find the “unknown future” approaching them to be born, its primary characteristic being unfamiliarity, alien to anything known by the receiver. This presence can be frightening or worse, ignored. But it may also be welcomed, under the auspices of hospitality. 

Many are now predicting or prophesying catastrophe at various scales, from social and political, to empire, to civilisation, to species, to all Life. When only the rhetoric of prediction (literalism) is used, then Adelman’s counter-argument carries weight because we have collapsed the distinction between prediction and prophecy, privileging only prediction and its methods, which are becoming more and more precarious as a path to the unknown future.

Another, viable path to the unknown future lies with reinvigorating prophecy in language that meets modern epistemological requirements. This is the only path, as it has always been, to a renewal of culture. This is an initiatory path and as such must take individuals who so choose into addressing the claims of death. It is not an easy road but on the other hand it is the only road that can generate and articulate the seeds of a new culture.

See my essay at Academia for further citations and references.

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