Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On Prophets

A prophet is simply a spokesperson (προφήτης).  Historically, spokesmen for divinity divide pragmatically into two predictable groups: (1) the divine spokesperson who speaks for some human establishment or institution (the Sanhedrin, the Synod, Senatus populusque Romanus, the LDS church, Harvard); (2) the divine spokesperson who speaks for him- or herself, and for humanity outside any particular establishment or institution (Amos, Jesus, Cato, self-appointed Mormon apologists, rogue academics).  The two kinds of prophet have a history of fighting one another tooth and nail, with the establishment predictably winning battles (Jesus is killed) only to lose wars (when the response to their crackdown is the foundation of a new establishment dedicated to preserve the memory of a martyred prophet).  The new establishment relatively quickly becomes everything it claims to loathe in the old establishment (read Mormon writings on the Great Apostasy and then compare the modern Mormon establishment with Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox establishments: from the metaphorical 30,000-foot view, they are virtually the same in terms of how they relate to outsiders and insiders via bureaucratic process).  The original sin of fallen prophets or their followers, it would seem, is that they found a church to entrain, contain, and disseminate in some controlled fashion that which is fundamentally unstable, unentrainable, uncontainable, and beyond institutional human control.

We need communities, of course.  But these communities will not be managed (not for long at least) by visionaries who speak meaningfully for interests outside the community.  To lead a community is, historically, to shut oneself off to the world, to commit oneself to a position that cannot be changed easily, to become fragile (and make others fragile as a means of protecting the fragility one has discovered by incorporating as a community with explicit procedures for life).  Caiaphas is the leader of your community, semper et ubique.  He is not always a bad dude, viciously or maliciously punishing people who shouldn't be punished.  He is legitimately a prophet.  He is a punitive prophet, a conservative stick-in-the-mud who pulls society back from the wild ideas of anti-establishment prophets (who are also dangerous, though not the same way he is).

Outside the community or on its fringes, we get another kind of prophet.  Jesus does not write books.  He does not live by protocol (until he visits the temple or the city, where he makes a good show of paying tithes and taxes--and occasionally busts some heads, when he finds the establishment cheating flagrantly at its own game).  He does not have a church.  He does not aim to exist in history, but in eternity: the atemporal present wherein individuals become aware of themselves confronting a unique and personal mystery--that I exist, inexplicably, and there is something else out there around and with and through me, something larger than I am that has the power to mould my life in interesting ways.  Communities, history, taxes, bureaucratic process: Jesus dispenses with these things (necessary and helpful as they are, for the down-to-earth inhabitants of this world).  "My kingdom is not of this world," he says, deliberately abandoning church, country, and even the family to live naked before his Father in the wilderness (fasting and praying and being generally useless or even detrimental to the community, from Caiaphas' perspective). 

When too many people follow Jesus into the wilderness, bad things can happen: society might collapse entirely, or (what more often happens) the check Jesus provides on community values (traditional values) may be lost--as Caiaphas moves into the desert without leaving the world behind.  "We can build heaven on earth here with you, Jesus.  We can make it an external, communal experience.  We can deliver it to groups through an organized, efficient process of education that I will oversee carefully."  Wrong.  There is no church of Christ.  Paul, the Christian missionary to the West, was just another Caiaphas.  He was building community, not running away into the wilderness to commune with God and then speak to friends.  The paradox of Jesus is that the gospel must be preached without ever being established.  You cannot put new wine in old bottles, and even when you put new wine in new bottles, it ages (and becomes old, i.e. other than it was).  As Caiaphas runs the risk of being a vindictive, reactive stick-in-the-mud, so Jesus runs the risk of being a cheerful onlooker to the collapse of human civilization (which requires rules and procedures and tradition that is communal and so at some point antithetical to the prophetic gospel he embodies).

At the end of the day, all prophets are dangerous--for they are human beings, and carry within themselves the seeds of mortality.  We are all going to die at some point.  We are all going to do things on the way to death.  At some point, all of us will embrace or avoid tradition in ways that are dangerous.  There is no way to "fix" this, no way to make death go away (or become innocuous).  Integrity is something we seek as we embrace mortality, our own and that of the species (collectively).  No individual is made to last, just as no community is.  Integrity exists as we seek and discover the means to negotiate this reality with dignity and respect that looks both inward (to ourselves and the mystery of life as we perceive it) and outward (to other people and the mystery of life as it appears to communities).  We need Jesus and Caiaphas, and both are prophets.  But neither one will save us from death: nobody and nothing can do that.  The only way to deal with death is to die.  Die well, my friends! 

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