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Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Is the Prophet ever a "Prophet"? 

by Aaron B
(You think you know what this post is going to be about... Well, you're WRONG!!)

I was having lunch recently with Cameron, an LDS friend of mine, when I made a rather shocking confession to him. "Cameron," I said, "I am a prophet. I have the gift of prophecy." Cameron looked at me skeptically. "No really," I said. "I'll prove it to you. I'll make a prediction of some future event, and you'll see that it will come to pass." Cameron waited in breathless anticipation. "I predict ... that at some point within the next 10 seconds, someone will lift this teriyaki chicken bowl two feet above the table, hold it there for several seconds, and then lay it back to rest on the table again." Cameron seemed intrigued. I then promptly grabbed the chicken bowl, lifted it above our heads for a few moments, and then put it back down. "See, aren't you impressed?" I asked. "I predicted it would happen, and sure enough, it did." Cameron was underwhelmed. I asked him why. A discussion ensued, and Cameron provided the following explanation for why my predictive powers were not impressive: "You were the causal agent that made it happen! In order for your "prophecy" to be meaningful, it can't predict an occurrence that you yourself CAUSED. It has to predict something that you couldn't cause, but that happened nonetheless." I reluctantly agreed.

"Fine," I said. "But I have another prophecy for you, and it's one that you can't say I "caused" to happen." "O.K.," Cameron replied. "Prophesy away."

"I predict that sometime within the next 90 days, a suicide bomber will blow himself up in Israel. You just wait and see." "Oh, come on!" Cameron exclaimed. "That's not a prophecy!" "Why not?" I asked. "Assuming it happens, you can't dismiss it the same way you did my teriyaki bowl stunt. Surely you're not suggesting I'm going to call up Hamas and order a terrorist bombing personally!" Cameron and I discussed his concerns with my claim. In a nutshell, his conclusion was this: "Even if you're not the causal agent, for your "prophecy" to be impressive, it would have to predict something NON-OBVIOUS. Any reasonably informed person could predict an imminent terrorist bombing in Israel!" I grudgingly accepted his analysis.

So what did Cameron and I learn at lunch, boys and girls? We learned that for a "prophecy" to really count as a "prophecy," it must meet two criteria:

(1) It must predict a future event that is caused by something other than the prophesier himself; and
(2) It must be a relatively non-obvious prediction.

So where am I going with this? Well, we believe that "prophecy" is part of the Prophet's job description. Granted, it is not the only part of his job, nor even the primary one. (How many of you sat anxiously on the edge of your seats at General Conference, waiting for the Prophet's next big prediction?) But we like to believe that President Hinkley, and those that have preceeded him, at least occasionally engage in "prophecy." Thus, many of us feel the need to tell ourselves (and the occasional inquisitive or skeptical non-Member) that we have a repertoire of examples that illustrate the Prophet's impressive "prophetic record." (I have talked about this before on T&S, as did Kaimi in a recent posting there). But if you look at the examples that LDS members like to give of "prophecy," they are, by and large, fairly unimpressive. In fact, as I will now argue, they inevitably fail to meet the two criteria that Cameron and I discussed over lunch. Consider a few examples:

(a) "Brigham Young predicted the development and settlement of the Great Basin" -- This is just one of many similar claims invoked to illustrate early Mormon prophets' amazing powers. And admittedly, what Young and the early Saints accomplished in Utah was no small feat. But say all the good things about Young's accomplishment that you want -- that it showed his impressive leadership, his goal-setting, his determination, his follow-through, his charisma, his organizational skills.... it simply doesn't constitute an objectively impressive "prophecy" in the sense outlined above. Young's vocalized plan for the Utah territory may have been many things, but an uncanny fulfillment of "prophecy" was not one of them. (It was more impressive than my lifting the teriyaki bowl, to be sure, but it wasn't a qualitatively different phenomenon.) In short, this "prophecy" fails to meet Criterion #1.

(b) Joseph Smith's "Civil War Prophecy." -- We all know this one. Joseph Smith predicted that South Carolina would be the first state to leave the Union before the Civil War, several years before South Carolina actually did so. Sounds impressive ... until you realize that South Carolina had been threatening to secede for years, and any informed observer of American affairs could have made a similar prediction. As with my prediction of a terrorist bombing in Israel, Smith's prophecy fails to meet Criterion #2.

And then there are the claims that don't technically take the form of "prophecies," but amount to more or less the same thing:

(c) "The Word of Wisdom was ahead of its time" -- So goes the canard. But contrary to popular LDS belief, it turns out everybody and their dog in the early 19th Century thought the Word of Widsom's prohibited substances were bad for you, even if they couldn't give you a 20th Century medical explanation. Conceptualized as a "prophecy" (i.e. "Joseph Smith predicted modern medical conclusions before they happened"), this example also fails to meet Criterion #2.

I could probably come up with other examples, but hopefully you see the point. Much as many of us might like to think otherwise, there aren't a lot of "crystal ball" moments in LDS history.

So what am I saying? Should we all dismiss Mormon prophets as frauds, seeing that they've failed to live up to the hype? No. What I am suggesting is that maybe it's time to QUIT THE HYPE. Most of us don't think about or value President Hinkley's powers of prediction nearly as much as we do his moral guidance and his official capacity to speak for God. I think we can still believe that the Prophet is capable of prophetic foresight, without feeling the need to tout dubious and trumped up stories to wow our friends and neighbors.

Am I making any sense here? Perhaps I'm preaching to the converted, or at least to jaded Mormon intellectuals who don't need me to point out the obvious? Or am I missing, in my cynicism, some fabulous examples of historical Mormon prophecies that should fill any and all observers with amazement?

Aaron B
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