Trust the Terrain: Why Reality Trumps Revelation

Trust the Terrain: Why Reality Trumps Revelation September 28, 2015

When the map and the terrain differ, trust the terrain.
– Swiss army proverb

photo Richard (CC BY-SA 2.0)
photo Richard (CC BY-SA 2.0)

If you are reading this, congratulations, you survived the apocalypse. (Well, probably. Time will tell whether we’ll find out if it was another one of those spiritual raptures.)

Granted, a fair number of religious people, even the evangelical Christians who are most likely to have bought into the “blood moon”/shemitah eschatology, will go on without a second thought because they never thought any of it was likely. And of course, there is a long record of failed prophecies just regarding eschatology, so any religious person looking at such a claim would be well within their rights to consider them just another example of “boy who cried wolf.” (Even though no one really ever seems concerned with going all Deuteronomy 18 on these false prophets, not even in less drastic ways like simply stripping them of their credibility.)

But the thing that always gets me about this is that these claims are very rarely based solely on individual revelations but instead rely to some degree, usually heavily, on the revelations that religious people do accept. And many such people will reject these prophecies, which are often the result of fringe thinkers or groups (but sometimes not – John Hagee popularized this last round of failed prophecy), but readily accept others which enjoy broader support or a longer tradition. Some Christians will even still agree that a rapture is coming (despite that idea being historically very new and still somewhat limited in its acceptance or confidence), even though all of the past predictions have been failed. One will be right, and possibly there won’t be any successful specific prediction because reasons.

I admit that prophecies are one of those things that I always looked somewhat askance at even as a Christian, perhaps because I came from a tradition that put less of an emphasis on prophecy (that was the charismatics’ shtick). To this day, seeing a religious leader call themselves “Prophet” makes my spidey sense tingle. But I feel like I have more of a reason for this now: I think that the idea of prophecy itself is bunk. These prophecies are 1) self-fulfilling, 2) demonstrably false, 3) fulfilled only by fiercely rationalizing the failure into a success, and/or 4) so vague that they are worthless.

What I think that these failed prophecies and the attempt to rewrite them into successes really tell us is that revelation itself is not a credible source of knowledge.

At the risk of using another cartographic metaphor, I think the epigraph provides the principle that even the above Deuteronomy passage seems to concede: When we are confronted with a difference between an allegedly authoritative holy text and observed reality, we should trust reality.

More to the point, when we notice that our map gets all of the details wrong, we should realize that our map is not worth trusting in.

But that’s not what will happen here. It almost doesn’t matter how wrong things are (and religious texts are often prudent enough to skimp on the details to mitigate that), since those who believe in the revelation will always try to save it from its own failures.

I think the problem is even deeper, though: Even if you forget about the failed prophecies (which are common among religions willing to make specific ones), there is no reason to take those prophecies are anything but claims that must still be evaluated by examining reality. And while religions like Judaism and Christianity are right in saying that some people will make false prophecies and that they must be tested to see if they are true, that very frequently is not how it works out in practice.

Prophecy is, after all, a method of validation. It is less likely that prophecies will support a belief than that the belief will support the prophecy because there is a great incentive to allow confirmation bias to run wild. If the prophecy doesn’t have a straightforward interpretation that comports with the situation on the ground, there are always ways to force an interpretation. In terms of our metaphor here, if the map shows a bridge where none seems to exist, then maybe you just aren’t of pure enough heart to see it or maybe it’s a spiritual bridge or maybe it’s just a metaphor and thus is of a different kind of validity. Thus any instruction to falsify prophecies to make sure that they’re genuine is useless in the face of prophecies that are unfalsifiable because they aren’t specific enough or because they can be twisted into whatever shape you need them to take.

So if you’re patting yourself on the back for not falling for this latest round of unfounded prediction, just remember that taking a high view of revelation means that you are more likely to have gotten lucky to believe the prophecies least vulnerable to falsification rather than the most reliable ones.

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