Reflections on Prophetology: The Origins of Inspiration, Part I
Even today, we do not lack for “prophets.” There are those who are inspired, “Spirit-filled,” driven by transcendent “energies” or “forces.” Modern prophets call themselves “vehicles” or “channels” or simply say that they are “inspired.” Often, they assert that they are taught by an entity or entities who then require them to teach, or to write, or to heal. Many questions arise about these prophets. Are the spirits they claim to hear the spirits of the dead? Are they angels? Does the Holy Spirit speak to them, or do they hear the “voice” of God Himself?
We wonder also about the inspired ones who transmit the thoughts and words that have inspired them. Who are these people? What are their stories? What is their spiritual state?
One claiming inspiration may say, “I am not the one who speaks. It is an angel. It is the Virgin Mary. It is a spirit I am channeling. It is God Almighty.” By disclaiming personal responsibility, they claim angelic or even divine authority for their utterances. The very sincerity and conviction with which they speak attracts some listeners to have faith in what they say.
Others, however, are skeptical. These listeners find the claims of “inspiration” to be ridiculous—the “prophet” is judged to be deluded, perhaps even demonic.
When a contemporary person hears a message of “inspiration,” it is tempting to fall into one of two traps. The first is to accept the message, blindly and unthinkingly. The second is to reject it, blindly and unthinkingly. It is a rare individual who resists both temptations and follows a conscious and conscientious middle path. Yet honest consideration of the communications of the “prophets” of this age is surely a more valuable response than either mindless acceptance or relentless rejection of whatever is thus transmitted. There are truths that can be comprehended only because one first acknowledges that they may, in fact, be true.
A fair examination of modern prophecy rests on a recognition that there are facts to be discovered, and that these facts can be discovered. Once the facts have come to light, the truth-seeker must also acknowledge that facts can be interpreted in various ways. Examining the facts about contemporary “seers” does not begin with a conviction that they are authentic prophets or in the certainty that they are no more than authentic charlatans. Nor does analysis of the diverse explanations for the messages of today’s prophets depend upon first establishing either that they bring us proof of the imminent Apocalypse or that they are themselves proof that we live in a depraved, illusion-loving era. Examination of the facts is just that: unbiased observation and unprejudiced analysis.
Since the most remote times, there have been men and women who have reported receiving messages of transcendent power. In India, such a person might be called a rishi (“seer”); in the Semitic traditions, the same kind of individual might be termed a nabi, or “inspired one.” We have the rather all-purpose name “prophet.” Whatever they are called, these receptive ones have universally insisted that their knowledge is a gift rather than a result of investigation or study. They state emphatically that their special knowledge was not acquired, but received. The knowledge we discuss here, then, is revealed—a revelation.
Etymologically, the word “revelation” comes from the Latin revelatio, “a removal of the veil.” In turn, revelatio is a translation of a Greek word, apokalypsis, which is rooted in a verb that also means “to discover, to remove what is covering something.” In the Greek Bible, apokalyptô was used to translate galah, the Hebrew word that means “to reveal.” Thus the prophet Amos wrote (Amos 3:7) “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but that He revealeth His secret unto His servants, the prophets.”
In Biblical thought, humanity—and each individual human being—continues Creation. Genesis is not “a beginning” but “beginnings,” and consists of stages. Israel, for instance, is not a people merely “chosen” from among other peoples. On the contrary, it is rather the germ of a “new humanity.” Again and again, revelation is vouchsafed to an individual so that he may be, for example, a father of nations, as Abraham was. Or a group is given revelation in order that, from this group, a new world may be born. Wisdom is thus entrusted to a particular people—but it is intended for the whole of humanity. Such wisdom is meant to be not hidden but transmitted, which means that those who keep faith with the transmission become a prophetic people.
An individual who is entrusted with the transmission of such wisdom is, in Hebrew, a nabi. Our word for prophet can be traced back to Greek, to a verb that means “to speak, to announce in advance.” This Greek term was used to designate one who transmitted or explained the will of the gods, a prophecy, or divine doctrines. So, too, a nabi is one through whom God communicates.
What is communicated through this revelatory mode is what a human being could know by no other means. Revelation speaks of God’s Creation, its significance, its purpose. Only the poet knows the secret of her poem; only the composer can communicate the mystery of a symphony. To receive a revelation is to hear—to hear the Being Who has made all being. It is this Hearing that the Hebrews called the Word of God. Such a message consists not only of its content, but also of the very fact of its transmission.
Most of us are familiar with the names of the Hebrew prophets: Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others. Some other prophets—Zarathustra, for instance—are also remembered by a name. Others, like the Indian rishis who gave us the Vedas, remain anonymous. Regardless of their tradition, however, prophets all share a conviction that there is a Reality that cannot be reached by reason or by experiment, but solely through the grace of Revelation.
God rarely speaks aloud. God’s voice comes through a human being. This method of communication gives rise to questions. However pure and dedicated, a human being has not only a conscious mind, but an unconscious mind. A human being belongs to a certain culture, a certain tradition, a certain time in history. A human being is therefore limited. In considering a Message, we must also ask what share the messenger has in its expression. We must ask which part of that message is divine, knowing that, since it is spoken to human beings and by a human being, some part of it is inescapably human.
To remember the human factor is not to deny the divinity of inspiration. Such a remembering is rather a noting of the conditions in which the inspiration arose. As the medieval Biblical scholar Claude Tresmontant wrote:
Divine inspiration, one might think, replaces a prophet’s intelligence, rendering the prophet completely passive and inert, like a secretary taking dictation. But that is not so . . . the Hebrew prophets are eminently active in their prophetic work. Their intelligence, their courage, their holiness, their temperament are all operating. Hebrew prophecy is the joint work of God and Man. God does not replace Man—He teaches Man, He instructs Man, He enlightens Man, He shows Man what is hidden, He recreates Man, He prepares Man inwardly.
The preparation, according to the first chapter of Jeremiah, begins even before birth. God is recorded as saying, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet (nabi) unto the nations.” This suggests that the prophetic function is inherent in those whose work is prophecy.
In the two centuries preceding the millennium, controversy raged about whether the library of books collectively called the Bible assembled teachings direct from God or whether the lessons were only man-made. Biblical criticism has become a science, and it is clear that human beings wrote what is recorded there. The characters of these humans are evident; the influence of their time is obvious; even the personal qualities of the writers have clearly influenced the way they express the Message.
To conclude that the Bible is not God’s Message is, nevertheless, no more than sophism. To reason that the Bible is either the work of God or the work of mere mortals is to force a false dichotomy. The authorship of sacred texts is not an either-or question. God is with the speaker or writer. The speaker or writer is with God. Yes, holy books have histories. Knowing these histories should not drive us farther from God, but simply distance us from idolatry. Better scholarship does not decrease belief. It decreases rigidity. Where understanding grows, fanaticism withers. It is a tyrannical society that must meet a demand for multiple interpretations of truth with execution or exile. A viewpoint that differs from that of one’s fellow citizens is one kind of freedom. There is also liberty in facing God—or God’s Message—with the conviction that a sacred text can be and should be discussed, that, in fact, it is even possible to enter into a dialogue with that text.
This article is continued in Part II.