Each age has its visionaries, and the 21st century is no exception.
Prophets do not belong to the past, but indeed to the present and invariably to the future. They are timeless because their lives and the predicted fulfilment of their prophecies can span decades, even centuries.
Prophets are by definition those who provide insight into the future. Whether they are secular or religious, all claim superior knowledge and spark either interest, laughter or hostility. They find legitimacy in persecution; but they also deliver messages of hope, justice and the promise of a better future.
The very fact that their predictions leave no-one indifferent points to our subconscious fascination with them. The dominant attitude in our Western societies is generally to dismiss prophets as fools and impostors, relics from the most obscure times in our history. Yet we often forget that new religious movements also appear every year.
The umpteenth coming
The genesis of a prophet often follows the same pattern: a charismatic leader emerges in turbulent times – usually war, revolutions, famine, or natural disasters – and challenges secular and religious authorities.
The Zimbabwe Christian Alliance (ZCA), for example, has been defying Mugabe’s government to promote socio-economic reforms and conflict resolution through prophetic action. The recently suspended opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai likewise draws a direct connection between political change and divine intervention.
One can also hear church congregations speaking in tongues in London today. Numerous large fundamentalist communities engage in similar practices in the US. Many of these descend directly from the Reformation period.
Although modest in appearance, many modern prophets remain powerful orators. They often make extensive use of new technologies to communicate with their disciples and disseminate their teachings. The adaptation of such religious movements to our modern, materialistic societies makes us confront us our past. It also reminds us that prophecy forms an integral part of Christianity.
The economics of prophecy
Rational as we may think we are, we are still all ears whenever the end of the world is prophesied. The turn of a century generally marks a psychological milestone in our collective consciousness, and comes with its share of apocalyptic predictions – think of the millennium bug mania, or the end of the Mayan calendar on 21 December 2012.
Hollywood regularly exploits this trend with blockbuster films based on natural disasters and cataclysmic conflicts, and doomsday prepping (“survivalism”) is now a multi-billion-dollar industry in America. Religious or not, most of us accept that the world, like our lives, will end one day. The question is: when?
No doubt many of us would lead a different life if we knew the answer. Our perception and approach to the future conditions much of our present as both individuals and as a society. The weather forecast, medical prognoses, financial investments, insurance, retirement pensions, for example, all reflect or determine our choices and approach to the future.
Prophets and progress
Like astrology, prophecy suffers from modern prejudice and continues to be dismissed as superstitious popular culture. Yet many figures of what we like to think of as the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment – Galileo and Newton included – were also practising astrologers or dabbled in biblical interpretation and mysticism.
Today, the Raëlians seek to reconcile religion and science with an atheistic theory of extraterrestrial intelligent design; they conduct research in human reproductive cloning, and claim thousands of followers worldwide.
It is funny, even ironic, how the meaning of some words we casually use to describe prophets has evolved over time. In the early modern period, “enthusiast” (one inhabited by God’s spirit) and “visionary” (someone who has visions) were derogatory terms that could often see you imprisoned or confined to a madhouse.
Today, they have become highly praised attributes – at least in their secular sense. Steve Jobs is often hailed as a modern “visionary” for imagining transformative consumer devices that are now an essential part of our lives. Yet for many years his customers were compared to sectarian disciples, worshipping his kooky alternative technology in Apple’s temple-stores.
History, as we know, is written (and rewritten) by the victors. Yet prophets and prophecies deserve credit for challenging our preconceptions and certitudes.
We pride ourselves as the heirs of the Enlightenment, inculcated with ideals of individual freedom, scientific and social progress. We should not forget, however, that those who first promoted universal suffrage, freedom of conscience and expression, inter-religious dialogue, wealth redistribution, the education of women and black slaves, female preaching and the abolition of slavery were all once branded as dangerous fanatics turning the world upside down.
Tomorrow, perhaps, the fanatics of the past will be rehabilitated as the visionaries of their time.