A great and growing difficulty for the Catholic Church, and all her faithful, is the disintegration of modern languages. Words used through centuries to connote deep meanings — not incomprehensible, but superficially complex — come to mean less and less. The glib use of a word such as “prophecy,” to mean only a prediction of the material future, is an example that has struck me recently with especial force. Catholics themselves tend to shy from the word, for fear of being misunderstood by their glibber neighbors.
Any mention of “prophecy” in relation to religion, to those mesmerized by media-watching, is bound to summon images of tarot cards and astrological columns. To those not steeped in the Bible, the existence of “prophetic books” comes to seem a kind of embarrassment.
To be clear, this phenomenon, which I characterize as the growth of mass idiocy, is very broad. For instance, while stage performances often still work, the text of Shakespeare has become incomprehensible, even among “the educated.” And this, although the language has not changed structurally in any radical way in the last four centuries. Why?
I think the chief reason is that, even when writing for a popular audience, Shakespeare could confidently use a vocabulary many times larger than that in use today. This allowed his characters to speak with much greater precision, and thus to make distinctions that are lost on most of us today. He was, and all other serious writers were until quite recently, able to use subordinate clauses, and develop a thought from one sentence to another.
We think of his audience as illiterates, and many of them were. But an illiterate man with a vocabulary of several thousand words is vastly more intelligent, perceptive, and discerning of what is physically happening around him than a literate man with several hundred words and no firsthand experience of how food is grown. Spiritual realities are even harder to convey on a cruelly limited budget of terms and analogies.
The postmodern man is a couch potato on many further levels. For it is not just their mastery of language, but their ability to draw, sing, dance, cook, work very hard, etc., that made our ancestors more alive to reality.
Prophecy, I have found myself trying to explain, refers to revelation, not prediction. It may include foreknowledge but also, equally, knowledge of the unrecorded past, or of present events beyond the information of the prophet, or to any thing that is normally hidden from men. The prophet himself may not entirely understand his prophecy; and if there is a prediction of the temporal future, it may not seem to be a prediction until events come to pass and his words are remembered (see New Testament, passim).
More often the prophet’s revelation may be taken as a divine warning. In any event, his prophecy is necessarily “inspired,” from an agency outside nature, but working upon the prophet’s natural faculties, including the faculty of reason. There are many grades of prophecy, from the extreme of Jesus Christ down to events in which true motives are suddenly seen clearly, so action can be taken — yet nothing can be said about “why.”
A non-predictive prophecy may be found, for example, in Isaiah 45: “For thus saith the Lord, God himself that formed the earth, the very maker of it: He did not make it pointlessly, He formed it to be inhabited.”
Quite apart from supporting the notion of Intelligent Design, the passage is remarkable because the Hebrew describes the planet as if it were an orb in space, and the same quality comes through each pre-Copernican translation. That was not generally known in the eighth-century B.C. when Isaiah was writing — centuries before even Hellenic science.
Outside “conventional religion,” the greatest poets and artists may be taken as prophetic, in the sense that they convey things that cannot be known empirically, nor tested empirically, but which are there nonetheless, and can be understood poetically and artistically — as, for example, the still portrait that communicates not merely a face but a soul in motion, or one of Bach’s fugues that display “the machinery of nature.” (I grasped this once while portaging a canoe in Algonquin Park: The Fugue in A Minor was playing in my head, and I could see and hear the “growth principle” of the birch forest around me, just as the fugue “described.”)
Prophecy includes, in science, the revelation of how things work — Newton’s revelation of gravity, for instance. He doesn’t come to it by a series of calculations but in a flash, or series of flashes. Later, the mathematics will prove an incredibly elaborate and beautiful architectonic — as we would expect in a universe designed by God — but in the first instance, it is a blindingly simple revelation of one isolated aspect of that universe.
Everything human beings know that is significant has emerged from prophecy. I would say it is among the definitions of man: “the prophetic animal.” Perhaps it is the key definition of what sets us apart from the nature that spawned us. Other animals have speech of a sort, as dolphins and bees in their several lines of work. But humans alone have prophetic speech, and the capacity to see into things, and see through things, by divine guidance.
This is a notion communicated prophetically in the line about being “made in God’s image.”

  • David Warren

    David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is www.davidwarrenonline.com.

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