Prophecy, Progress, and Repentance: The Role of the Individual in Human History
The idea of progress exerts a powerful pull over the Western cultural imagination in the present era. This attraction is the culmination of a century of societal flirtation with the notion that the rapid development of technology and scientific methodologies has given mankind the tools that will eventually, with enough trial and error, construct solutions to the seemingly ineradicable injustices of society. If humanity is always in a state of positive refinement and forward movement, then it is only logical to assume that one day we will arrive at a utopic state. Such a belief emerges from the epistemological foundations that undergird modern conceptions of progress: the idea that man is able to apprehend, on his own power, all that can be known through the tools that history has bequeathed to him.[i] The fact that these assumptions have been forged alongside the decline of religious institutions in America is not surprising, though it is curious that systems of belief – Christianity in particular – are often characterized as enemies of progress, as if they are primarily concerned with blind adherence to archaic and oppressive structures. Given the disproportionate attention that cultural commentators afford to particular eras of church history (such as the oft-mischaracterized trial of Galileo), it is not unreasonable that many Americans conceive of Christianity in this way.[ii] But this unfortunate reality does indicate that general society has lost familiarity with many of the core concerns that characterize over two thousand years of Christian tradition – including a commitment to progress, though perhaps of a more expansive type. In fact, the Christian worldview provides a notion of personal and societal progress that purports to address the deepest fractures in the human condition and seeks to provide restoration that is rooted beyond the limitations of human maintenance. Indeed, it is rooted beyond time itself. Yet to understand what defines progress in the Christian vision of reality, it is necessary to understand the way that progress is brought about within that vision, which involves a different set of assumptions about the nature of man and what is considered possible as a result of his actions. Central to these notions is a concept often relegated to the fringes of modern church dialogue, but vitally important to the construction of a framework for the operation of the individual believer within history: prophecy.
Unfortunately, the biblical idea of prophecy has been subverted in recent decades by watered-down, overly mystical applications of the term in popular fiction. The collective characterization of prophecy that emerges is dominated by verbal portents of generally dismal future events, either exact or vague but always ominous, and usually prompted by an unknowable spiritual force that the speaker either seeks out or is arrested by. Most of these attributes are twisted renderings of the Christian understanding of prophecy, which rests on a stronger base of knowledge than mystical premonitions and is grounded in the relational and personal interactions between man and God. Yet this conceptualization also includes the paradoxical acceptance of a mystery that can never be penetrated by the human mind due to our fundamental nature as finite beings that know and perceive existence in terms of boundaries, from the endpoints of our own bodies to the restrictions of a temporal moment. Prophecy is undoubtedly concerned with the future, but this concern is ensconced within prophecy’s primary nature as a vehicle for drawing mankind back to right relationship with God through acts of repentance in the present.[iii] By seeking to curate hearts in specific moments, it safeguards the future that the will of God brings about.
In this sense, prophecy has a wider view than is often ascribed to it – it does not always, particularly in the case of predictions of destruction that abound within the Old Testament, seek to provide a definitive picture of what will occur in the immediate future, but rather to shape the present in response to the eternal. Any prophetic reference to previously unknown future events within the temporal progression of history must be viewed in light of what the Christian faith has already revealed as certain about the impending shape of the world, and how God claims the heart of each individual is impacted by that shape. Therefore, prophecy is primarily concerned with what may occur if the errant currents of the present are allowed to flow unaltered into the local or temporally proximal future. If God is certain to bring about his will for the ultimate future of the universe regardless of whether or not mankind tries to work against that will, it follows that he intends to definitively remove all barriers to this will’s realization. The Christian understands these barriers to be universally rooted in sin, which is endemic to the fallen human condition, therefore placing mankind in discordancy with the will of God. Yet God’s love for humanity, willing and able to overcome all discordances, offers man the option of participation in the goodness that God is bringing about; the choice, however, does not remain open indefinitely. Thus, the content of prophetic communication is animated by what God has revealed about the endgame of his plan for history and his desire to call people to repent from the sin that threatens to displace them from participation in this endgame.
The discussion has focused to this point on instances of verbal prophecy because they have received the most damage from popular culture’s appropriation of the term, but there is still greater territory that must be reclaimed, for even notions of what falls into the category of prophetic are often too narrow. While biblical instances of prophecy often involve human actors delivering messages from God to a specific audience, Christianity identifies a type of character that these events emerge from – a way of living and being that is opened by the foundational narrative of the faith and how it sketches mankind’s relationship with history. In fact, a rich comprehension of this pattern of being—which can be variably referred to as a prophetic attitude, character, or posture – precedes a truly robust understanding of prophetic messages and events. Thus, developing a framework for this pattern of being will be the focus of this discussion, which will ultimately contextualize prophecy’s redemptive purpose in the transition between structures of reality that Christianity claims is the ultimate goal of history: the imminent “breaking through” of the Kingdom of God on earth.
Before continuing, it must be stated what this discussion is not: an exploration of the spiritual gift of prophecy as referenced in the Scriptures, which is theoretically not discontinuous with a discussion of the prophetic attitude but requires a different set of analytical tools that is beyond the scope of this article. For now, it suffices to say that there is debate about whether such a gift continues to be actively manifested among Christians today or whether it ceased once the apostles had established the church in the two centuries following Christ’s resurrection. There is a rich and ongoing dialogue on the hermeneutics for identifying manifestations of prophecy as a spiritual gift, but this is not the place to sift through its intricacies. The present concern is to trace the characteristics and conditions for a pattern of prophetic being that the Christian vision arguably opens for any individual to cultivate.
All people, regardless of belief system, can readily acknowledge the human situation as both temporal and progressive – meaning that each individual passes through life until some sort of destination is reached, which appears at first glance to be death. Indeed, according to philosophical naturalism – the belief that matter is the ultimate reality, precluding the existence of any external input or force that influences the things that happen to arrangements of matter – death is the inescapable end that every life-form is bent toward. Yet very few individuals, even those who affirm all the tenets of philosophical naturalism, would claim that the aging of the biological organism until it ultimately falls into disrepair and ceases to function is the only sort of progression that occurs over the course of a human life. Moreover, even fewer individuals live as if that progression is the most significant progression they experience.
One of the most reliable and consistent characteristics in the midst of the vast diversity of human experience is the stance of pursuit. We have enduring records of humans persistently and often single-mindedly seeking a number of things: power, love, status, culture, and art, just to name a few. Research in social psychology has linked the relationships that humans establish with one another, with intimate objects, and with personal pursuits to a drive toward self-expansion.[iv] This concept exposes crucial clues that aid the creation of a rough portrait of the ends of human existence: there is a self, it is central, and it is somehow unfinished. Whatever current state the self is in seems perpetually diminished compared to what it could be – and there is an endless stream of “could be” that the mind is able to envision. Moreover, no mind is able to fully resist the allure of the “could be.” Thus, man is bound to walk some sort of path in order to achieve a change of being, which is variably cast in modern Western terms as self-discovery, self-actualization, personal growth, or identity formation, although other cultures and historical eras would employ a different set of vocabularies. Nevertheless, everyone is inexorably tied to the path – and moreover, all sense that there is a conceivable end that provides an overarching meaning to the journey, though different people may construct disparate ideas of this end. Even those who resign themselves to the fact that life has no discernable meaning will often turn the perpetual search for meaning into its own end, which testifies to the near-impossibility of truly living as if the path does not matter.[v]
Christianity joins the diverse assembly of worldviews that affirm the instinctual knowledge that the journey of life matters, but it uniquely grounds this intuition in the concept of destiny, which is at once unique to each individual and tied to the overall movement of the entire race.[vi] Christianity sharpens the context surrounding modern notions of self-actualization by locating the incomplete self within a framework of brokenness; the self has an ideal (indeed, an original) form that it no longer embodies, the result of a decision to trade the Creator’s vision for another vision that seeks to ascend beyond the human frame. Paradoxically, this choice led to the debasement of the self, though part of the self-deception enacted at the decision is an enduring denial of this reality. Thus, for the believer – made aware of her state through grace – the journey of life is a complex, mysterious, and unceasingly demanding process of “the temporal and free unfoldment of [her] essential being,” or the discovery of her true self in accordance to the vision of her Creator.[vii]
Already, one can see how prophetic contours – a sense of incoming, inalterable eternal realities – distinguish this understanding of personal progress from the modern language of identity formation. The destination, while generally obscured in mystery for the traveler, is not unknown from the vantage point of the divine. Indeed, the knowledge is in the hands of one who also promises to see the traveler through to her destination. Thus, the journey is shaped by the assurance that each step is unified by a concrete meaning that will soon take coherent shape, though it may only be presently discernable in a fragmentary and unsatisfying manner. Yet the act of steadily apprehending the overall arc, and how each moment experienced fits into the arc, is a crucial part of growing into one’s destiny. This lifelong process can be thought of as learning to grasp the overall end of one’s personal history while still existing within the temporal progression of that history. Such a conception underscores the ontologically bounded nature of human experience, yet simultaneously suggests that history is made significant precisely because it is bent toward eternity.[viii] The common characteristic shared among all human destinies is the steady march toward a plane of existence that is free of the restrictions imposed on mankind by time – restrictions that, in a fallen world, are dominated by the unavoidable fact that finite beings are ultimately extinguished in death. But according to the central claims of the Christian faith, a different reality is near at hand, one that man has already glimpsed through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ. This seminal event shatters existing notions of possibility and reveals, in vivid and unambiguous terms, the core ontological markers of the forthcoming Kingdom of God: a domain where the power of death holds no sway, and the people of all nations live in a state of both individual and corporate wholeness that is animated by boundless, other-centered love.
This revelation has several implications for the individual human who currently remains within the confines of time. The first is that, beyond the unique lives that populate every nation and era, all of human history is subject to one categorical destiny. At a minimum, then, it follows that each person’s destiny is indissolubly bound up with the ebb and flow of history, foundationally shaped by the burgeoning knowledge of the realm that all individuals will one day inhabit. Yet how one perceives the exact nature of this connection is crucially decisive in opening or closing pathways to cultivating a prophetic character, and is canalized according to what one understands to be the primal causative forces that drive the course of history. Even within a basic Christian framework, it is natural to observe the stream of events that continuously remolds current world affairs and arrive at the conclusion that a relatively small spectrum of human actors, often arranged into hierarchies and institutions, control the decisions that shape the lives of general populations. Moreover, these authorities are not consistent entities; as years turn into decades, they undergo significant changes in ideology, emphasis, values, and structure. Thus, if the average man is simply adrift in the vast seas of political and ecological activity that define the development of human civilizations, he lives in a stance of perpetual reactivity to the whims of institutions far larger and staggeringly more complex than he. He cannot hope to be an active agent in history. The efficacy of his actions will be determined largely by the utterly random flux of circumstances that define his situation and choices. The individual’s relationship to history is therefore preeminently unpredictable and, indeed, nearly uncontrollable.
In the face of this potential conclusion, it is significant to note that the tenets of Christianity – while not denying the reality that history is built on one level through human action – paint a picture in which neither the arc of history nor the dynamic nature of human affairs are ultimately ruled by the chances and limitations that should necessarily follow from human authority. Instead, ultimate authority takes the form of the will of God, which is sovereign over the entire progression of history. Moreover, St. Augustine of Hippo clarifies that this sovereignty is not solely manifested in events that might be categorized as explicitly supernatural (such as miracles), but “through the normal course of historical events and the lives of individuals as historical actors […] God does not act as a cause in history alongside other causes of historical events, but rather in and through those events themselves.”[ix] This dovetails mysteriously with several implications of the notion of destiny, for Christianity holds that each human being, created in the image of God and granted “glory, or participation in the goodness of all that has been created,” has an inestimable value in the eyes of the Creator that accordingly eradicates any categorizing power ascribed to inequalities that are visible to the human eye (such as variations in intelligence, physical prowess, moral intuition, and the like).x If the destiny of every individual, be they a king or a victim of the most wretched poverty, is equally significant in God’s estimation, it follows that each is equally purposed within the vast network of destinies that compose human history. Put another way, each person carries historical responsibilities that are directly connected to the realization of God’s will for his creation – yet which are intimately defined for the individual according to her unique self and situation.[xi] Thus, the realization of shared historical responsibility does not imply that all people are meant to produce an equivalent degree of impact on the progression of the ages. Indeed, it seems likely that human ideas of impact – defined in recent decades primarily in terms of quantification, data, and empirical measurement – contrast sharply with God’s emphasis on the qualitative worth of the individual.
Instead, what is indicated is the imperative resting on each person to cultivate a prophetic posture: a stance of attentive, critical engagement with his or her immediate circumstances and the larger historical forces that define them, while maintaining an awareness that his or her responsibilities proceed from the exigencies of the world to come. Thus, nurturing a prophetic character necessarily involves continuous, disciplined, and intensely personal negotiation of the tensions that must arise when one seeks to be both detached and involved.[xii] It means that one be relationally available to the demands of the moment and yet always seeking to discern the will of God amidst a tangle of internal and external rhetoric that, while largely attractive, is fully capable of subverting and contradicting divine wisdom. Indeed, the persistence of man’s brokenness suggests that some degree of crookedness, whether subtle or overt, is to be expected in the systems and plans that he constructs. Paired with the recognition that “the Christian doctrine of sinfulness does not enable us to know in advance just where our limits will be found to lie,” the process of a finite individual becoming a vehicle for divine work hinges on her developing deep capacities for patience and receptivity.[xiii] True prophetic character is defined by a posture of hopeful yet soberly enduring expectancy, waiting for God to act in history and then responding to those actions from a place of “steady attentiveness and availability to God in Christ.”[xiv] Thus, though there is always potential for responsive human action to be discolored by the fundamental misdirection of fallen motivations, the opposite potential – the ability to discern and effectively fight for the concerns of the heart of God – is activated and steadily developed.
At this point, it becomes clear why prophetic manifestations throughout history are calls to repentance for wrongdoing, even if such calls in secular contexts do not explicitly address the full metaphysical weight and stakes of the situation. In the Christian worldview, repentance is essential for the new reality of the Kingdom to break through the existing structure of the universe, but it is a challenging concept that is usually associated in popular consciousness with tragic instances in which the church has sought to incite unreasonable, disproportionate, and damaging levels of guilt and shame in both its own assemblies and society at large. Such an understanding casts repentance as the sorrowful reaction to punishment for an infraction of religious rules, which reflects a characterization of the faith that is inaccurately skewed toward legalism over grace. While genuine repentance does involve a sense of remorse, that sense is not meant to be confining nor scarring, but to motivate the reorientation or “re-becoming” of one’s heart away from its own designs and toward the pursuit of a relationship with God and his good vision for the human life.[xv] So, when one considers that the course of history is enacted through the decisions that spring from human hearts, repentance must be part of the story if the macro-destiny of history is to be realized – which, in turn, explains the prevalence of prophetic communication in addressing and rectifying social ills at key points throughout history. There are numerous well-known examples within the last two hundred years alone of individuals and groups that unify prophetic spirituality and tangible engagement with the atrocities of the day, such as Abraham Lincoln’s transformative words and deeds during the American Civil War, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s costly resistance to the Third Reich, and the role of black church leaders in condemning the South African apartheid and mobilizing efforts to eradicate it.[xvi] What ties them together is their shared commitment to advancing the common good through rooting out the sources of injustice and oppression in society and seeking, within their circumscribed humanity, to first discern and then act according to the will of God – a will that seeks to expose what is broken and to spare no effort in bringing about redemption. This, ultimately, is the type of progress that was intimated for humanity through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and is the purposive goal of prophetic being within the progression of human history.
i. Glenn Tinder, The Political Meaning of Christianity: An Interpretation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989), 169.
ii. See Macy Ferguson, “Conflicting Interpretations: Debunking Galileo’s Science v. Faith Controversy,” The Dartmouth Apologia Vol. 8 No. 2 (2014) and Trevor Davis, “Faith and Learning: Does Christianity Pose a Challenge to Intellectual Inquiry?”, The Dartmouth Apologia Vol. 10 No. 1 (2015).
iii. Mark J. Boda and Gordon T. Smith, Repentance in Christian Theology (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2006), 49-50.
iv. Sara Konrath, “Self-Expansion Theory”, Encyclopedia of Social Psychology (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2007), 827.
v. Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 215.
vi. Tinder, 27-29.
vii. Tinder, 28.
viii. Tinder, 76.
ix. Raymond Plant, Politics, Theology, and History (Cambridge: University Press, 2001), 53.
x. Tinder, 27 (and other).
xi. Tinder, 68, 77.
xii. Tinder, 69-71.
xiii. Tinder, 163.
xiv. Tinder, 224.
xv. Ellen F. Davis, Biblical Prophecy: Perspectives for Christian Theology, Discipleship, and Ministry (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 216.
xvi. See Tinder, Political Meaning, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, and Richard Elphick, Christianity in South Africa: A Political, Social, and Cultural History.
Jake Casale ’17 is from Redmond, WA. He is a major in Psychology, with minors in Geography and Global Health.Tags: Augustine, epistemology, eternity, faith, Galileo, grace, hermeneutics, love, naturalism, paradox, sin, utopia