What on Earth is Prophecy?

Whenever the topic of prophecy is brought up, the great and somewhat disappointing rift between the Christian and his non-Christian brother becomes apparent. The non-Christian will see thousands of Christ figures developed by hundreds different cultures over thousands of years and — taking non-Christianity as a premise — assume that Christ is merely one of many myths, a man embellished into divinity, messiah, and redeemer.

The Christian — and he really can’t help it, so do excuse his behavior — would be shocked if there weren’t thousands of Christ figures developed by hundreds of different cultures. The Incarnation of the Christ is the central event of human history. His cross is the stake around which the world blossoms. Pardon the poetry, but it’s only the logical conclusion of the Christian premise.

I love the similarities between this painting — Prometheus Being Chained by Vulcan, by Dirck Van Baburen, 1623 — and Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter.

See, if an infinite being were to enter human history, this event would be all-encompassing in nature. I’ll put it another way: If a man who exists outside of our notions of past, present and future were to come and die for us, this sacrifice would necessarily encompass the past, the present and the future. A timeless act would be the only act uniting men separated by the course of time.

Thus if one wanted to prove that this event did not happen, or at the very least was not infinite and divine in quality, the best thing he could do would be to look to the past and see no images of the Christ there. If it was a blank slate up until the life of Christ, if there was no yearning for a paradise lost, no whispers of a coming redeemer, no myths of the infinite and the finite crashing together, no God-Men, savior-children, no Horus, no Mithra, and certainly no Prometheus tied to a rock, suffering the loss of his liver for his attempt to lift mankind out of the darkness and into the marvelous light of the Gods, well. Then the Christian would and should have a hard time believing the historical life and death of Christ amounts to divine importance.

But as it turns out, the world is and has ever been murmuring the name of Christ.

With this I arrive at another delightful pagan prophecy, or rather, a philosophical prophecy. I came across it in C.S. Lewis’ wonderful little book, Reflections on the Psalms. Lewis points to a passage in Plato’s Republic, in which Glaucos asks the question: If a man were to be born on earth representing the utter fullness of righteousness, what would happen to him?

Here’s the passage:

We must, indeed, not allow him to seem good, for if he does he will have all the rewards and honours paid to the man who has a reputation for justice, and we shall not be able to tell whether his motive is love of justice or love of the rewards and honours. No, we must strip him of everything except his justice, and our picture of him must be drawn in a way diametrically opposite to that of the unjust man. our just man must have the worst of reputations for wrong-doing even though he has done no wrong, so that we can test his justice and see if it weakens in the face of unpopularity and all that goes with it; we shall give him an undeserved and life-long reputation for wickedness, and make him stick to his chosen course until death….the just man, as we have pictured him, will be scourged, tortured, and imprisoned, his eyes will be put out, and after enduring every humiliation he will be crucified. (361c-362a, Desmond Lee’s Penguin edition, p107).

Now again, there’s two false ways to view this passage, just as there were two false ways of viewing Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue. It’d be a stretch to say that this is a prophecy of Christ in the manner of the Old Testament. It would be silly — pious perhaps, but still silly — to view this as the direct product of the Holy Spirit, and not as a passage in a dialogue on whether it is better to be just or unjust.

On the other hand, it’d be moronic to dismiss this passage as only coincidentally coinciding with the historical event of the crucifixion, for there is clearly a reasonable and logical unity between Plato’s theoretical event, and the actual, historical event.

Lewis gives us a better way:

“Plato is talking, and knows he is talking, about the fate of goodness in a wicked and misunderstanding world. But that is not something simply other than the Passion of Christ. It is the very same thing of which that Passion is the supreme illustration. If Plato was in some measure moved to write of it by the recent death—we may almost say the martyrdom—of his master Socrates then that again is not something simply other than the Passion of Christ. The imperfect, yet very venerable, goodness of Socrates led to the easy death of the hemlock, and the perfect goodness of Christ led to the death of the cross, not by chance but for the same reason; because goodness is what it is, and because the fallen world is what it is. If Plato, starting from one example and from his insight into the nature of goodness and the nature of the world, was led on to see the possibility of a perfect example, and thus to depict something extremely like the Passion of Christ, this happened not because he was lucky but because he was wise.  If a man who knew only England and had observed that, the higher a mountain was, the longer it retained the snow in early spring, were led on to suppose a mountain so high that it retained the snow all the year round, the similarity between his imagined mountain and the real Alps would not be merely a lucky accident. He might not know that there were any such mountains in reality, just as Plato probably did not know that the ideally perfect instance of crucified goodness which he had depicted would ever become actual and historical. But if that man ever saw the Alps he would not say “What a curious coincidence”. He would be more likely to say “There! What did I tell you?””

Again, it goes back to the question of what, precisely, is prophecy? If prophecy is viewed as a eyes-rolled-up, here’s-your-future, no-other-explanation-but-the-supernatural, then yes, Plato’s prophecy is no prophecy at all — it is merely coincidental. If prophecy must be separate from Reason in order to be prophecy, than the only views we could hold are those of the non-Christian and those of the — for lack of a better term — ultra-pious.

But if prophecy amounts to telling the Truth, then the cramped horizon expands beyond the Christian, the Jew, and the mystic. Prophecy becomes the province of the honest. AnD let me be the first to claim that any man who looks at the world and declares it fallen and in need of a savior, and to resolve this tension goes on to create the story of a divine being giving his life for mankind, dying and rising again, that this man — on the most fundamental, human level — is being honest.

We’re creeping up on my main point, The Prophecy of Indie Rock. Do stick around for a few more posts.

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