Today’s public sphere is filled with prophecy. But do we know how to pay attention? Or how to tell if a prophecy is true?
Jewish tradition offers some guidance.
Content Counts in Prophecy
In the Torah’s view, it’s all about verifying the content. Moses says:
If a prophet speaks in the name of God, but the word doesn’t come true, then God didn’t speak it (Deut 18:22, Parshat Shoftim).
So, you can’t know right away when a doomsday prediction is accurate. Or when hope in restoration is the right attitude. You have to wait and see. Watch as events evolve.
Process Counts in Prophecy, Too
But medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides says that process counts, too. Real prophecy is not just a download of information. It’s also a kind of experience.
Did the prophet experience altered consciousness? Through a dream or vision?
Maybe the prophet dreamed. If so, did the prophet have a symbolic dream? Was there a talking angel character? Did it feel as though God spoke directly?
Or maybe the prophet was awake. Maybe they had a vision. If so, did they grasp a symbolic meaning in actual physical objects? Did a person or angel speak directly to them? Did God speak?
Of course, Maimonides is right. Both process and content count. I know this from personal experience.
Once I had a numinous dream of great spiritual power. Numinous as in surreal, like a sudden shift into a new dimension of reality. I dreamed I sold my house, got directions from a spiritual guide and moved to a city on the bay.
This dream could check all the boxes on Maimonides’ list. My consciousness was altered. My dream house was filled with symbolic art objects. An angelic guide led me.
But I did not recognize it as a prophetic dream. At first, that is. Then, a year later, the dream came true. I was now a student of a real-life spiritual guide. In service to our mission, I was ready to relocate. My spouse and I prepared to sell our house. We took our children to visit their new city on the bay. We drove across a bridge and saw the panorama from my dream.
The dream had been prophetic. Both in process and in content.
Does Seeing Deeper Meaning Count as Prophecy?
But one of Maimonides’ criteria seems misplaced to me. Seeing deeper meaning in everyday objects. Isn’t this just intellectual insight? A matter of background knowledge? Is it really a prophetic experience?
“Yes it is!” says Theologian Neil Gillman. In fact, it’s his own favourite religious experience. Sometimes, ordinary things hold deep meanings. The rising and setting sun. A night sky sprinkled with stars. These cosmic patterns point to a creator. They are traces of an unseen hand. Hints of greater realities.
Where do we see prophecy today?
Prophecy is diverse. People of all faiths and nations can be prophets. So says the midrash (early Jewish Biblical commentary). So we learn from the story of the prophet Balaam. For the Israelites, God appointed Moses. But for other Canaanite nations, God appointed Balaam. So that none could claim God forgot them.
Let’s be honest. American politics look bleak right now. Because empire is on the move. Leaders flaunt their greed. Brag about harming the vulnerable. So, yes, we could use some prophecy. An honest look at signs of doom. Along with a hopeful guide to actions. A little ethics, and a little spirituality.
So yes, I look towards political commentators to teach me. Especially those who see patterns in American life. Why do I see them as prophets? Because they don’t just have background knowledge. They don’t only think things through. Instead, they show me how surreal our country has become. How we have shifted into a new dimension of reality.
Yes, I have my favourite guides. Sarah Kendzior, who sees the shape of income inequality. Amy Siskind, who sees frameworks for authoritarian rule. Seth Abramson, who sees hopeful structures in piles of legal facts. Rev. William Barber, who sees a moral map guiding us out of conflict.
But will future events confirm what they see? Kendzior’s and Siskind’s oracles of doom look accurate. But what of their belief in our votes? What of Abramson’s legal hopes? And Barber’s optimistic faith?
We will have to wait and see. And do something while we wait.