Definition of a Prophet

August 10, 2009

In light of the work of Dr. Cornel West ( I recently read his book “Race Matters”) and an article from a current issue of “The American Journal of Theology and Philosophy” by Gary Dorrien,  I’ve been pondering what a true “prophet” is, who some examples in our past are, and the (possible) absence of current examples in our society today.

Contrary to the perception most people have when they hear the word “prophet,” a prophet is not a fortune teller or prediction giver, at least not in a magical sense. Of course, a true prophet may well be able to tell what will happen to their current society if certain changes are not made but it’s not a parlor trick.

A person can be a prophet of rage; a prophet of justice. A prophet of truth, revelation, social gospel, love or peace. Most often a prophet will be a mixture of all of these things. Prophets may be teachers, preachers, rabbis, clerics, doctors, thinkers or writers. They may be singers, poets, artists or activists. They may be religious or irreligious. Pious or plagued by bad habits. Many prophets don’t live full lives; society has a way of using violence to remove them.

Prophets seek truth, regardless of how that truth will be received by those that hear it. Prophets are consumed with purpose, driven by genuine emotion and spirituality. Prophets have connection to the past and a vision for the future. Prophets seek the advance and fulfillment of the entire group, culture and ultimately of all people. Prophets aren’t figures confined just to ancient history and scriptures. Certainly there were figures from those sources: Abraham, Moses, Ezekiel, Elijah and Elisha, Amos, Jesus, Paul, Buddha, Muhammad (for many people), etc.  But in more recent history there have been plenty more: Gandhi, the Dali Lama, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Harvey Milk.

We need Prophetic figures, certainly. Yet we need Prophetic Movements and Prophetic Religion for those figures to emerge from (or perhaps start?).  Such a religion, church or movement calls out greed, apathy, disregard, waste, prejudice, subjugation and hatred wherever it sees it. Such a movement seeks justice, equality, love and progress everywhere. Such spirituality is more concerned with people than dogma, spiritual fulfillment than pious regulation, love rather than misplaced judgment. Of course, judgment pours forth from a prophetic movement but rarely towards specific individuals (unless that individual is a political or religious leader) for specific missteps, but rather towards entire cultures, countries and groups (usually from which the prophet emerged from—critique from within) for their lack of effort toward justice, their acts of oppression, their mistreatment of those with the least…almost every single Prophet in history has called out nations for their mistreatment of the poor.

Okay. What brings in the recent article from the AJTP is that it concerns “liberal Christianity,” which other writers have more accurately captured with the name “Progressive Christianity.” Gary Dorrien published “The Crisis and Necessity of Liberal Theology” in the spring issue of the above mentioned journal. He describes the history of liberal theology and progressive Christianity which in modern forms was predominant in many areas of the country throughout the 1800s and up to the 1930s. The great Depression and the culmination of two world wars reduced its popularity at a time when many people wanted a more concrete, definitive, and unquestioning and strictly rooted religion. The modern problem facing progressive theology and Christianity is, to paraphrase Dorrien from his article, that it’s too religious and spiritually minded for our secular friends who we may otherwise share opinions with on the social issues facing us, it’s too full of openness, doubt, searching and interpretation for our more orthodox traditional Christian counterparts, and it’s too wordy, complex and academic for those that are unversed in philosophy, theology and academia. Dorrien noted that most of us enamored with Liberal Theology feel that Progressive Christianity would spread tremendously if only we could express its message more succinctly, truly and simply. Yet, he writes, it’s wrong to think droves would “flock to our doors” if only we could better express our beliefs. Most people DON”T WANT a Prophetic Religion that seeks to address social change and progress. Most people want a religion that acts as a personal security blanket, reinforcing pre existing thoughts, beliefs and prejudices. But as Cornell West calls out for in his writings, we need those prophets to enlighten those that don’t even seek such progress. We’ve had them throughout history and we’ve made great steps in their wake. When they’re not here we grow complacent. Yet as West writes, we can’t look towards a single person speaking prophetically and say we’ve got it. We must have that entire movement. For there surely are voices crying out now that speak the truth that seek to transform communities, culture and countries. In very recent years West himself as been such a person as well as Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Marcus Borg…the list can go on and on and include writers, musicians, poets, teachers and preachers who maybe don’t always live in and think of themselves as prophets, but seize certain prophetic truths and address them to entire groups of people in the hopes of causing positive change. Yet we need an energized movement that speaks to more people and inspires them to do more for others; the more people inspired to do even a little more is like water rolling down hill, the work done for others may inspire some of them to get involved themselves. The point is, we live at a time when drastic prophetic social change truly can occur. We’ve been stuck at a point in which it was possible for some time now, yet it really hasn’t happened. Dorrien may be write that Progressive Christianity may never be fully widespread, and that’s okay. If it’s a niche corner, then it needs to be a strong niche corner in which good work is done, truth is spoken and it needs to partner with like minded niche corners in every sector, religious or irreligious, secular and spiritual, political or communal.

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