Unprofitable prophesies

Many Christians get a lot of mileage out of presumed prophesies. There’s no doubt that foretelling the future is a sure-fire seller. Associating successful prophesy with one’s religion is convincing proof not only of the supernatural, but evidence of support by a specific kind of supernatural entity and of a specific religious dogma. Messages from Mars to my tin hat can get very trivial.

There is no shortage of ancient beliefs and expectations about what the future would hold. They are part of the human drama and a rich source of allegories and figures of speech. Unfortunately, there’s also no shortage of the desire to find among them connections to modern events. Flying or flying machines were foretold in Ezekiel . . . or did the author merely reflect the human fantasy of flight? (You can imagine which meaning is proclaimed from a Baptist pulpit.) Or try the strange wording of Genesis 3 about the serpent and women swapping blows . . . maybe it has prophetic reference to the Christ overcoming the Devil . . . or not. Similarly, the future founding of the USA was foretold by Nostradamus in Century I:50 . . . or maybe it wasn’t. Having a few good prophesies is a religion’s claim to the universe’s favor.

Anyone can scrounge around in old writings and find passages that can be tortured into the desired prophesy. The trick consists of stretching the ancient meaning or by transferring its meaning from a previous situation to a modern one. Alternate interpretations that would not support the desired dogma are rarely held up as at least equally possible. Slavish adherence to discredited translations (think “virgin”) also occurs. Or how about Jesus’s picture of the “end times” afflicted by wars, earthquakes, and disobedient children? Isn’t that what is happening now (surely these are the end times; after all, it’s been two thousand years)? Of course, times like those have been the case for centuries if not millennia; Socrates complained about them before Jesus foretold them.

I am not saying there’s nothing to be gleaned from ancient texts including ancient superstitions. Indeed, I believe there is much to be learned from them. And although I have been using the word myth in only its derogatory meaning of “discredited explanation,” I don’t deny that there are myths that inform us with insights into the human condition, the experience of self or culture, and ethics. Truly, it would be foolish to contend that “modern” always means more accurate or wise.

The more a person’s reading and rearing are focused narrowly on religion and religious texts, the more that dogma-ratifying sense can be made of nonsense; consider madrasahs as an extreme example. And that mind-narrowing aspect of focus on the “sacred” goes beyond evaluation of reputed prophesies. For example, it helps in one’s search for truth to know that the miracles and doctrines in the Jesus story were heavily copied from stories circulated in other, earlier locations and cultures. It helps in the same way that knowing the evidence for a near-spherical earth puts Biblical reference to a flat earth in a different light. Evidence of the heliocentric system results in reference to the sun standing still to be seen differently. We might even develop a renewed appreciation of myth as myth, but the childlike acceptance of myth as literal reality would be in as much jeopardy as Santa Clause and the Easter bunny.

Knowledge, knowledge, accumulates. And as it does, old suppositions about reality fall like the fabled walls of Jericho. As Russell put it, the “god package” keeps shrinking. That is why religions stand ready to fight and oppress any new learning that endangers their stranglehold on the human intellect. Geology, evolution, art, music, dance, astronomy, philosophy, medicine, and other pursuits have been impeded at one point or another by religion’s reaching back in time to show why their long-standing, old interpretations of dogma and prophesy are more to be trusted than ”mere” human intellect.

My thesis is this: In searching for factual evidence about our world, ancient beliefs may occasionally be a source of ideas to be explored, but never proofs in themselves. Further, twisting them into interpretations based on what is to be proved, then using them as proof is chicanery, not verification. Ancient beliefs about the future are interesting, to be sure. But as a source of evidence, they supply little or nothing relevant to our never-ending, adventurous search to understand physical reality.

[Comments on, challenges to, or requests about this or any other posting can be sent to johnjustthinking@bmi.net.]

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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