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Atheists as prophets

March 26, 2010

I guess since I’ve been Mormon my entire life, I’ve been accustomed to seeing the idea of a “prophet” in a particular (and a bit boring) way. The prophet is something of a businessman. He is president of an organization, a corporation of sorts. President of the church. (Did I just say the same thing?)

And what do CEOs and Presidents do? They lead. They sustain their organization, and, if they are really good, they grow it.

Steve Jobs and the iPadSometimes, you get a really awesome CEO (e.g., Steve Jobs) who takes the company by force and leads it to prosperity, etc., But other times, you don’t. Regardless, even awesome CEOs and company presidents are…human. And, in particular, humans who don’t deliberately rock the boat.

After all, rocking the boat is dangerous and could capsize the organization. And a president cannot have that.

(Even when you have CEOs who appear to rock the boat, I think there are safeguards. I’m sure that whenever Steve Jobs releases his latest brainchild, he does so after an inordinate amount of thought…)

So, that’s how I’ve seen prophets. They don’t rock the boat. They have a church to lead. I find that many people’s disappointment with the church can be attributed (in whole or in part) to expecting something different from the Prophet of God.Do you really expect them to make decisions that you personally find to be morally progressive or courageous? Do you expect them to be at the forefront of honesty, integrity, and truth? Do you expect a huge and grand revelation every month?

Pssh. Prophets have churches to lead.

While I have been content with my very hohum managerial kind of prophet, I have rarely had a chance to look at how prophets have been seen by others.

Prophets are revelators. They are seers. OK, OK, that’s in the LDS church’s prophet’s title. But what else?

Prophets are social commentators. They are challengers of the faults in the status quo.

Whoa now! Where did that come from!?

Hmm…apparently, they keep on telling me that this is how Old Testament prophets frequently related to Israel way back when. Every time I hear such a novel concept, I keep thinking…maybe I should read the Old Testament? It is so fuzzy. I barely know anything about it, other than what I learned in primary.

But let’s get back to this. Prophets have been challengers of faults in the status quo.

In a sense, I guess LDS prophets do that. When it comes to gay marriage, I suppose. But in the end, I feel like the prophets aren’t really doing much challenging…

Who has been challenging recently? Well, in the religious world, it’s been the nonbelievers. The atheists. The “new” atheists especially.

A while back, I heard something that put things in a way that I had to sit back and think on it.

I want to encourage religious people not to get defensive when the New Atheists are attacking religion or attacking concepts of God. Instead, recognize that they are fulfilling the role of a prophet. Traditionally, a religious prophet is someone who has sensed what is real in the moment and what is emerging and then has given voice to what is emerging and what is real in a way that was challenging, that was pointed, that was prophetic. Prophets were not typically your most polite people. They were sometimes curmudgeons. They were sometimes quirky. But they spoke with the authority of reality.

I’m certain this idea won’t be too popular. But then again, I’m certain most historical prophets — whatever the tradition — weren’t too popular.


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  1. There are two jobs: revealer, and administrator. (Perhaps corresponding to ‘dynamic quality’ and ‘static quality’, if you’re into Robert Persig.) The two roles seem to have been handled by different people in Old Testament times. I always found the convergence of these roles in the LDS Church to be rather anomalous.

    The big difference between the ‘New Atheists’ and prophets is that prophets rely heavily on the Appeal to Authority, but atheists don’t really. For example, Sam Harris is a major figure in the New Atheism, but everyone rolls their eyes when he starts talking about meditation. It’s the message, not the medium.

  2. That’s a good point, Daniel (regarding appeals to authority). I was trying to see if I could try to make a comparison that would theoretically bring the two back together.

    It seems to me that prophets fundamentally appeal to a deity as authority. They are prophetic because they can discern the will of deity more relevantly or accurately than others around.

    I don’t think there’s anything that works in quite the same way for atheism. I mean, the best I could come ip with is an “appeal to reason” or “appeal to empiricism”, but it doesn’t make sense to speak of a person who can discern reason or experience more accurately than others…the entire point is that these things are accessible to all and can be retested by anyone.

  3. FireTag permalink

    Andrew, forgive the length of this comment, but I think what you are describing is an Apostle, not a Prophet. (I know that in the LDS that distinction may seem nonsensical, but bear with me a moment.

    The Apostle administers/elaborates/implements and witnesses to the truth of established doctrine out of a deep personal testimony. Interestingly, this concept is conveyed quite openly and unapologetically by a brochure put out under the Imprimatur of the Catholic Archdiocese in Washington in connection with the 2008 visit to Washington by the Pope:

    “The Lord… entrusted the keys of the Church to him [St. Peter]. The Bishop of the Church of Rome, successor to St. Peter…functions as the head of the Bishops, to work in unity with them to teach, lead, and sanctify – TO SAFEGUARD WHAT HAS BEEN HANDED DOWN, NOT INVENT NEW IDEAS.” [Emphasis added].

    Let me use an analogy to explain a theological view. When computers play chess, they make use of the ability to calculate all possibilities for more moves into the future than can their human counterparts. This alone makes them superior to most human players. The Apostle is like the computer that sees the “best” move when calculating one or two moves ahead. He or she finds the best move conventional doctrine can come up with given those limitations. This gift of the Spirit alone makes the Apostle “superior to most human players” at sensing the will of God.

    In contrast, I would liken the prophetic gift to the ability of a chess master. In more detail, the ability of a “Prophet” is the ability to see what chess players call “deep combinations”. In these combinations, the first move seems inferior to another move by all conventional doctrine, yet opens up hidden possibilities for the second, third, or forth move that would have been closed off and never considered by what conventional doctrine teaches.

    To reach the highest levels of chess playing ability, machines have to learn how to imitate the “inspiration” of a chess master and add that to their calculating ability. Programmers struggle to put that ability in computer algorithms because the chess master can only explain or understand part of what he or she is seeing or even what he or she is looking for. The “prophetic” chess master senses as if knowing the combination is there. So, too, “Apostles”, even when they act on faith that the Prophet is correct, understand the combination only later after they analyze it and test the robustness of the combination against alternative responses.

    In religion, the ability to see those combinations is often associated precisely with the ability of the prophet to “unbind time” and know not only what God is doing today in the present, but also recognize what He has already unleashed in the past and what He will unleash in the future that will make those unconventional combinations possible. It is faith not just that God will do something, but that God will act in specific ways and times that others cannot yet identify.

    Here we run into a quandary. In the traditions that descend from Abram, such prophets do not institutionalize well. It’s easy to see why. Prophets demonstrate their ability precisely by selecting moves that the other types of religious leadership would regard as morally irresponsible if not irrational, and so those leaders believe they must resist if they are to be faithful to their own understanding of God’s will and their own responsibility to the church. For this reason, prophetic leadership of any religious tradition always seems to be temporary. Eventually one of the other priesthood specialties moves into control, whether it turns out to be the Bishops/Patriarchs (Catholicism/Orthodoxy/Anglicanism), Apostles (Mormonism), theological scholars (Islam/Judaism), etc.

    As part of that recurring institutionalization process in all prophetic religious traditions, the prophetic line is gradually “domesticated” by the priestly and/or governmental classes. In the Western Church and the enlightenment cultures that sprang from Christendom, that has had to involve demolishing any prophetic claims to see beyond the immediate.

    A prophet will be drawn to seek prophetic solutions most obviously by some immediate crisis – how Old Testament Israel can survive in a world where it is caught geographically between regional powers like Egypt, Syria, or Persia; or how the early Christians must respond to the growing political infighting within the declining Roman Empire (with its resulting persecution of Christianity). He/she will also be influenced by the ferment of ideas emanating from the larger culture and will be drawn to explore the possibilities inherent in those ideas. Similarly, a chess master will not look for combinations at random, but will be drawn to look for them out of the immediate problems to be solved on the game board.

    By focusing on the very specific immediate situation, and/or by generalizing the prophecy up to a universal, least-common-denominator mush, even the most progressive of us try to make prophecy safe for continuing our existing life patterns and world views. But prophecy is not safe, not for the prophet or for the disciples who embrace it. It will, of course, lead to confrontation with earthly “principalities and powers” because, even if civil rulers are honorable men and women trying to do the best for their people, they won’t see the deep combination.

    But true prophecy must also be profoundly disturbing to many of the leaders of the church itself. After all, like the chess example, the deep spiritual combination can not be vetted in advance, precisely because the first move of a deep combination will seem inferior to elaboration of established doctrine. Note that if it didn’t seem inferior, the gifts of the Apostles and other leading orders would have enabled them to see that move without the prophet. It would have been merely elaboration of established doctrine, and the prophecy would have been unnecessary to open the creative possibilities! A prophet that is not disturbing to the leaders of the church (and to the larger society) is likely to be irrelevant.

    An Apostle asked to prophesy may be likely to affirm the conventional rather than come out with something truly disturbing. In such a case, the leaders may correctly feel the touch of the Spirit confirming that the conventional move is good. But the Spirit has no opportunity to confirm the greater good of a move that those who are not prophets cannot see in the first place. To paraphrase the New Testament, the Lord may truly have many more things to tell the Apostles – things that might open unimaginable creative possibilities – but the Apostles could not bear them now.

    To the contrary, to follow a true Prophet can feel like a betrayal of duty to a faithful religious leader. Leaders must risk that their own sense of the Spirit is mistaken in order to follow prophetic leadership, at least until the combination materializes or fails. That hesitancy, that freezing of the conventional doctrine and settling for minor elaboration because of the very real (and too often justified) fear of the false prophet and the heretic seems eventually to bury the prophetic within every religious line until the Spirit breaks forth again somewhere else, often in institutions or movements as opposed by the religious establishment as Jesus was Himself by the Masters of the Temple in Jerusalem.

    Thus, you cannot, even in principle, establish your credentials as a prophet until you’ve gone against the judgment of the legitimate religious and cultural elites and the deep combination materializes – until the prophecy comes true. Until the situation arises where the deep combination is vigorously pursued against the resistance of the religious leadership, the Prophet can never prove him or herself. That’s the “catch-22”.

    But notice that the argument doesn’t work the opposite way! The longer the Prophet goes on identifying the gospel with the pre-existing views of the elite of any current religious or civil culture regarding the best move, the more likely it becomes that the “Prophet” is merely a caretaker Apostle sitting behind the Prophet’s desk. Even when the elites are right, the caretaker thereby only demonstrates Apostolic qualifications, not Prophetic ones, because someone else must have passed the truth to the elites first, and the elites are already better positioned to implement the truths given them than is the Prophet. The prophecy is not false; the new prophet is merely irrelevant.

    Let me emphasize this, because it is a subtle point: the prophet must not only be right, but must be right before the elites of any culture embrace that “rightness” in order to be considered a Prophet. The true Prophet must be looking ahead to moves the elites cannot see or advocate, asking questions they do not ask, not echoing either side of an inter- or intra-cultural debate (even if the side being advocated is correct). The latter advocacy role is instead that of the Apostle.

    Thus, an inability of the Prophet to meaningfully state a church’s differences with the surrounding elites marks the transition from a prophetic church to an apostolic one, and it also marks the diminishing of further ability to “invent new ideas” (to see deep combinations) that God inspires to open new creative opportunities. Thereafter, the Apostolic church may preserve and spread the best gifts God has placed within its culture, but such a church gradually adopts the limitations and fate of that culture as well, no matter how strongly it may assert it is still Prophetic, proclaim the injustices inherent in continuing the existing system, or express hope for greater justice in the future. Indeed, our denomination traces its linage almost exclusively through those that over and over left the unity of the old, legitimate “apostles” once given by God to their ancestral religious cultures in order to seek out the new, untried “prophets” who might help them to greater light and truth. WeRestorationists have always been dissidents, not unifiers.

    This leads me to what I believe is a second major characteristic of the nature of a true Prophet. I also believe that the ministry of a Prophet comes from the ability to see how doctrinal principles can be combined in new ways when they do come into conflict with new evidence and new realities. In doing so a deeper, more general doctrinal principle comes through as a guide to “apostles” as they translate those principles into practical creative opportunities in the lives of those to whom they minister. This ability is equal in importance to the gift of time unbinding in creating a true Prophet, and is essential to providing protections against moral error and to avoid wandering into theological dead ends. This dual requirement is why such prophets are so rare and so important in the history of what God is doing in human civilization.

    So. if you’re looking for an atheist analogue to that, maybe it’s a chess master of history.

  4. Holy smokes Firetag!

    You’ve been thinking about that for a while, haven’t you?

    I’m going to need a few readthroughs to process all that…even if I can.

    However, my first impression seems to be that you’re using apostle is a rather foreign way to me, so it’s hard for me to keep up with that…

    I can see some of what you are saying about the tension between being a prophet (grand master) and being complacent/with status quo, etc.,

  5. @ Andrew
    That was a fun analogy. Thanks.

  6. FireTag permalink


    I’m sure the foreignness comes, at least in part, from a denominational difference. The LDS speak of the 15 living apostles. Presidents come out of the 12 and surviving councilors go back into the 12 when the prophet dies and the oldest living apostle takes his place. Do I have that right?

    In the CofChrist, the Prophet does not necessarily come from the 12, but is usually named by his own predecessor. Its even more common for councilors to the Prophet to be named directly from outside the 12, and I can’t think offhand of an example where councilors were called into the 12 by the Prophetic successor. Prophets can and do retire Apostles.

    So in the CofChrist, there is definitely a first and second presidency and the difference and function is supposed to matter.

  7. FireTag:

    OK, I am beginning to see what you’re saying. I did not know that about the CofChrist.

    But my confusion wasn’t necessarily from an LDS/CofChrist standpoint. After all, I already recognize tha the LDS expectations of prophets *and* apostles is pretty different.

    On the other hand, I was thinking about non-LDS use of the terms. Since most Christian churches don’t have modern prophets and apostles (and the term apostle isn’t even applicable to many nonChristian religions), I didn’t see how your distinction in the terms represented a historical distinction between apostles and prophets that is well-understood throughout the non-LDS (or, more broadly, non-Restoration) Christian or religious world.

    This post was written in response and in evaluation of a non-restoration understanding of prophets.

  8. FireTag permalink

    In the OT there were these “prophetic” types who annoyed the kings and the High Priests who fulfilled the role of preserving and regulating (the “apostolic” role) the truth given to Moses and the other early functioning prophets. Jesus played the prophetic role, and it got Him killed. Paul was prophetic, and fought with the established disciples until something crystalized when Constantine demanded doctrinal stability. Islam rose against the Arabian equiv of the “establishment”, the hallmark of a propetic movement, but what would now happen to a second Muslom prophet as opposed to an Imam who studies and interprets the first?

    How upsetting was JS — even to his own followers — let alone to the larger social order. MLK? Gandhi.

    Not all (or even most) upsetters are prophets. All prophets are upsetters. Apostles play defense. Prophets go on offense.

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