(RNS) – We am frequently invited to sign a declaration on lots of topic of general public concern. These days generally I decline to add my name to the list of signatories, despite the fact that I often actually trust what the assertion says.
It is sometimes a call – usually issued by academics or church leaders – for peacemaking. Or it is a petition about some justice-related matter.
I typically read the statement carefully. Typically I receive the impression that the only folks who will read the document carefully are like-minded persons. The declaration may be framed as “speaking real truth to power,” however the “in electricity” types will genuinely pay no focus. The drafters of the petition may understand that, however they take really an obligation to be “prophetic.”
I talked a lot about being “prophetic” in my early days of social activism,” but I just don’t use that phrase much nowadays. A while back I did a phrase search in my laptop computer files for everything I’ve written in the last couple of years, and I did not really find myself at any stage explicitly advocating becoming “prophetic.” When I’ve used the word at all, I’ve typically been quoting other folks, or talking about biblical “prophetic” literature, or arguing with my Mormon friends about whether a church nowadays must be headed up by somebody who is certainly officially labeled “Prophet.”
A cynic might recommend that having served for two recent years as a seminary president, I was wanting to raise profit circles where being “prophetic” will not attract donors with considerable offering capacity. I’ve tried to stay genuine with myself about this possibility.
But I do have what I consider to be the right theological known reasons for avoiding engagement in “prophetic” activity.
In ancient Israel there is generally a tension between the prophets on the one hand and the kings and priests on the different. In the brand new Testament, though, there is not any clear demand leaders to function as prophets. Indeed, there exists a solid theological traditions that says that the three “office buildings” of prophet, priest and king have come jointly in Jesus. The position of teacher seems to have become more important – as the Catholic Church recognizes in emphasizing the value of “the magisterium.” And the Catholic Church explicitly recognizes that one test of the potency of a doctrinal assertion is whether it’s “received.” Was the doctrine plainly stated? Possesses it been viewed as important to the life span of the believing network? Does it lend itself to confusion or even to clarity about what is supposed?
I don’t question there are moments on history when we haven’t any choice but to utter unqualified prophetic verdicts. This is certainly the case in Nazi Germany, when the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred for his opposition to Hitler, while so many in the German church possessed manufactured their compromises with the regime. He, combined with the superb theologian Karl Barth, recognized that there are occasions when we must proclaim a bold “No!” to a particular state of affairs, regardless if in doing this we will be voices crying found in the wilderness.
But outside of those extreme scenarios I see it as presumptuous – and failing to take full benefit of the teaching chances available to us – to see ourselves as simply making pronouncements. If we have something important to say, we ought to pay attention to how better to bring persons to see points our way.
Actually, whenever we see functioning simply because prophets as our only recourse, we might want to ask whether we got to that point because we have failed inside our teaching efforts.
Those of us who teach students know that whenever we plan an introductory course in a few important area of intellectual existence, we usually do not say everything we realize in the first lecture. Students ought to be invited into an exploration of brand-new and difficult subject matter, and they ought to be instructed in the basics before getting into the complexities. An effective teacher does not claim everything she is aware of on the first of all day. Good teaching will not consist basically in saying true points, however in leading people into the truth, regardless if that takes time. And much could be gained by emphasizing, whenever we can, the continuity between the new areas of learning using what students already know.
And classroom teachers even ought to be a little careful with the idea of “leading people into the truth.” We all have been learners. The best courses I’ve taught have been kinds where I came apart with the impression that I learned around – maybe even more than – my students in the process.
Much the same could be said, I believe, for the general public teaching position – as exercised by academics, pastors, denominational officials, laity leaders, and the like. Our public pedagogy takes a way of measuring empathy and reassurance toward those you want to influence – as well as a humble recognition that people ourselves are learners!
I find these qualities often missing found in those spiritual leaders who emphasize the need for “prophetic” statements on various topics.
If our aim is simply to say a lot of true things, in that case we can take comfort in the fact that people have performed our prophetic duties whenever we issue straightforward public statements that come off as critical, say, of the concerns of many other religious folks.
But if our assignment is to instruct the truth, then we have a far more difficult – and extra highly nuanced – task. Good teaching requires persistence – a trait that people don’t generally associate with prophets!