Can You Hear Me Now?
(On Speaking for God)
by: Vern Loomis
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It's often an expression of humility, or recognition that events are beyond personal control, but the utterance can have undertones. The candidate had just abandoned his quest for the presidency, stating "It is not God's plan that I be president in 2016, or maybe ever". It might have been simple recognition that his goal was inaccessible, but he said "in 2016", and stuck a "maybe" in front of "ever". He left an opening for God's plan to include his ambition in future events. While superficially voicing deference to God's will, the undertone is one of arrogance and presumption - that personal goals and ambitions are not simply one's own, but part of God's plan. Had he been, or should he eventually become successful in his quest, that too, will be God's plan. It's a dangerous projection. When we portray or perceive our goal as God's plan, aberrant behavior becomes allowed and excusable - it's all God's will.
We should be wary when hearing one speak of God's plan, especially when coming from a leader or potential leader. If one must mention God's plan at all, it should be in retrospect, and not looking forward. When God's plan is invoked in support of unfolding events, the path followed has an uncanny resemblance to human ambition. Quite possibly, the impact of one of those projections reverberates today. An evolving war begun more than ten years ago may have been initiated by a president’s attempt to insert God's plan into Middle-East policy. His dalliance with evangelical, end of times prophecy has been documented, but not widely dwelt upon. There's evidence it played a role in his decision to invade Iraq. Did President Bush really draw upon two-thousand year old prophecy to buttress his position and involve our country, and others, in war? It's a disturbing thought. Biblical end of times prophecy is often alluded to. Interpretations and imminent predictions are made year after year, and have been for centuries. Thus far, they’ve all been wrong. Given their track record, it should be unbelievable for a president to have entertained them, but it's not. Even later, in 2013, with the echoes of war not yet silenced, our retired president still saw fit to address the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute - an organization that proselytizes with end of times prophecy. Apparently the sympathy was real and still exists.
Let’s assume there were more immediate concerns than the fulfillment of prophecy leading us into war. Even if only periphery, harboring such belief would present a serious impediment to sound judgment. Imagine: You're commander of a great army poised and ready to invade a country that’s been less than docile. Your army has already passed through, and seemingly conquered a foe in Afghanistan so quickly it could appear to have been preordained. You're on the threshold of another campaign, one likely to end favorably, and as further inducement, could be interpreted as fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Such is conjecture: You might be God's vector of change, the special one, the chosen one to bring on the rapture and the end of times. Such thought would be intrusive, even intoxicating.
Of course the end of times didn’t come, but the end of lives did. Not just a few - hundreds of thousands, and in its repercussions, more die each day. Cities, homes, and families are torn apart, seeds of hate scattered on bloodied ground - perhaps because of perceived semblance to a prophecy's obscure symbols? Were the vain fantasies of a president even partially responsible for this unending reality? We should dwell on the vision and its outcome for a while and hold it in our heads. When another would-be leader utters "God's plan" or "God's will" we should question where the presumption comes from and where it may lead.
Much of "God's Plan" comes to us from ancient prophets. They were the purveyors that still influence us today. Speaking for God is part of culture and tradition with little incentive in place to question the established phenomenon. The opposite seems truer. To speculate on the veracity of those who speak for God can be met with disdain, scorn, and in some parts of the world, violence and death. How is it we've arrived at such a curious and dangerous station?
It might have begun thousands of years ago around the campfires of our earliest ancestors. In awe at what could be seen of the universe, with nothing more than imagination to draw upon, attempts at explanation were born. Some were likely better at conjecture than others – more insightful and creative - more entertaining. Maybe they began to speculate on dreams and the appeasement of spirits that seemed to lurk in the shadows of perception. The proficient story tellers, the most imaginative, the most charismatic, were likely sought after and conferred with. Possibly this is when the first speakers for God appeared – those seemingly able to connect with spirits and divine a message. Did they notice there was a power in this talent, something akin to being the strongest warrior or the most talented hunter?
About ten thousand years ago, with the dawning of recorded history, the world’s dominant religions were born and began their journeys forward. In today’s population of roughly seven billion, nearly five billion consider themselves to be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jew.
The prophets, those who convey God's will and demand attention, are most often of monotheistic origin. Hinduism and Buddhism, with multiple deities and levels of spirituality, are not very conducive to speaking for God in any imperative sense. Conversely, the words of a prophet in the Judaic/Christian/Muslim tradition carry the weight of a single authoritative god, with the added gravitas of heaven and hell as back-up. An ideal platform is provided for those who would speak for God in a compulsory manner.
Speaking for God, imparting his demands, and the observance of prophecy are at the heart of the monotheistic religions mentioned. All three share common heritage and interpret the same god. They diverge in the acceptance of speakers. From the same revered god, prophets deliver discordant messages. The faithful hear different words and receive conflicting directives. Too commonly, the discord serves to justify violence, murder and even war.
In the Bible's Old Testament, nearly fifty prophets are mentioned. They conveyed God's will, foretold future events, advised kings, and in some cases were kings themselves. In the New Testament era, Jesus continued the tradition, but went a step further. Not only did he proclaim himself as prophet, but also, to be the one prophesied about - the Messiah. He thus didn't simply speak for God, but was divine himself. This proclamation one-upped those who merely spoke for God, and threatened established position and prestige. There was resistance to the intrusion, and some chose not to recognize his deity. The dissenters held that Jesus was not the Messiah, and consequently, a false prophet. They now comprise the Judaic community, while those who accept Christ as divine are called Christians. The parting became the first great schism in Biblical based religion.
More prophets followed in the wake of Jesus. Most were advocates for him, advancing the message of Christ while offering narrative of his deity. Some were also prophesiers of an ominous future event.
Declarations of speaking for God didn’t end with Jesus and his apostles. It was almost seven hundred years later that another prophet, Mohammad, arrived to challenge the authority of both the Judaic and Christian communities. Mohammad and his followers aligned with Judaism in declining to recognize the divinity of Christ, but did accept him as a true prophet. Mohammed wasn't so audacious to proclaim himself a Messiah, but was deft enough to declare being the final prophet. His followers are called Muslims, and their religion, Islam. They comprise the third major group evolved of Biblical based theology.
Claims to divinity or divine communication continue with the sporadic emergence of new prophets and Messiahs. Since the time of Christ, there have been more than fifty proclaimed Messiahs of historical note and likely an uncountable number of small-time local prophets less newsworthy. Many gain some initial notoriety, and then fade away. Probably the last major and successful prophet in the Western world was Joseph Smith. About a hundred and fifty years ago, Smith claimed an angelic visitation. He was guided to a sacred text, and with the aid of a mysterious deciphering stone, was the sole person allowed to closely examine and translate it. Subsequently, the angels retrieved the book, keeping it safe from harm and the eyes of ordinary men. Around this set of phenomena, Smith founded the Mormon Church, which now enjoys significant traditional membership.
Today there’s such a wide array of prophets, old and new, from which to choose and consult. If we wish to see God as merciful, we can embrace a prophet portraying that image. If we'd rather view God as vengeful or even cruel, we can pick another to supply that need. Should we seek a loving and inclusive god, we can find a passage for it, and if we want the opposite, we can find that, too. It seems whatever our need or whatever position we wish to assert, it’s possible to find support from one who speaks for God.
"The Gods Must be Crazy" was a popular 1980's film featuring a seemingly innocuous Coke bottle tossed from a small plane flying over an isolated African landscape. It falls near a tribesman who recognizes it as a gift from God, and takes it home to his community. The village finds a multitude of uses for the single strange object - so many, that it causes jealousy and strife. After much unrest, the tribesman concludes the Gods must be crazy to have given a gift that causes so much trouble. He proceeds to walk to the edge of the earth in an attempt to return it. It brought smiles to see a throw-away object being thought a gift from God, and the lone tribesman was seen as noble and heroic in his journey to the edge of the earth to make things right.
We face a similar dilemma, but in opposite direction. God has given us too much. He’s sent us too many prophets - and keeps sending more. They overlap, contradict one another, and take us in different directions. It causes moral strife and even violence. God must surely be crazy to give such an over-abundance of this gift, right? In the movie, the solution was to give it back. We can't literally do that of course. Perhaps our journey lies in redressing the question. Does this "gift" really come from God? Is it possible the speakers are deluded or deceptive? Could it be that God’s word has been appropriated for human ambition or need?
After all, we’re only human - often overpowered by emotion and psychological need. We harbor bias and display ambition. We’re prone to misunderstanding and to be misunderstood. We observe our human flaws and tend to be less than universally trusting towards one another. God is portrayed as wise, all powerful, and just. He’s without error and capable beyond bounds. Would such a god choose imperfect messengers? We've been given so many prophets with so many directives. They contradict and sometimes disavow one another, and yet all claim to speak for God. We’re faced with a dilemma. Should we consider God inconsistent, changing his message? Should we think God constant, but that the speakers are unreliable? Or, is God consistent and the prophets reliable, but we the listeners are distorting the message? The God we have described could easily communicate directly to all of us, even in the same moment, if desired. So why instead would God implement a communication system lending itself to suspicion, abuse, and misunderstanding? To communicate in an unfair and perilous manner would not seem to serve God’s interest, and an unclear or distorted message would not benefit mankind. Such a privileged communication link would hold benefit for but one small group - those who allege it and deign to speak for God.
A significant portion of speaking for God involves prophecy - foretelling and warning of future events. If it's incredible that God would choose to speak to us only through special intermediaries, it's even more so that he would do so in riddles. The portion of Biblical prophecy that seems to garner most attention concerns the "End Times". This is when the world will experience drastic upheavals of war, plague, earthquakes, etc., prior to the second coming of Christ. At that time, the faithful will be uplifted to heaven, while others will be left in earthly misery, and eventually their souls banished to hell. The Biblical predictions are allegoric - full of colorful and ominous images, symbols, and numbers. Strange beasts with multi-faceted heads and bodies, various colored horses with frightful riders, vast numbers of angels and armies, a secret book with seven seals - all these things portend a time of reckoning and come together in a series of cataclysmic events that will end the world as we know it.
The symbols are vivid and attention grabbing. They’re also subject to human interpretation and prone to miscalculation. It's been said the allegories are written as such, so as to be understood and appreciated by the faithful. Curiously, the symbols and warnings have been misconstrued scores of times, most often by those considered faithful. Since the era of Christ, the End Times have been pinpointed nearly two hundred times by noteworthy personalities, predominately with Christian perspective. The forecasters were not just frenzied zealots, but include pope (Pope Sylvester II, Pope Innocent III) and scientist (Isaac Newton).4
In speaking for God, the message is meant to receive special consideration, and the speaker's divine proximity acknowledged. When it delves into prophecy, the message demands even more attention. It changes from a routine message of instruction to one of dire warning, often associated with the world’s end. If the prophecy is both allegoric and ominous, not only does the speaker come attired in a suit of urgency, the symbolic nature of the message places it beyond explicit meaning and verification. It's of double advantage. The prophet receives profound attention, and because the vision is allegoric, its application is flexible and has no expiration date.
To what end would God choose to send important information in allegoric prose? Human lives and souls are put at risk upon the whims of interpretation. Fanatics get it wrong. Popes get it wrong. Scientists get it wrong. Presidents get it wrong. Whenever we get it wrong, the miscalculation has the possible consequence of ending both life, and the spiritual development of those lives. Does it really serve a divine purpose to gamble human life and soul upon the human ability to correctly interpret symbol and imagery? As with the idea of prophecy in general, sending allegoric prophecy is prone to human error, manipulation, and misunderstanding. The confusion, the subjective interpretation, and the possibility of abuse have no benefit for mankind, nor does it serve God. The benefit falls to only a few – those with a need to speak for God.
A few thousand years ago it was presumably easier to speak for God directly, without arousing skepticism. There was little competition to the idea of divine intervention as an explanation for mystery. The speakers were among the stellar minds of their time and the best communicators. Today, there are competing explanations to mystery. There are more venues for ambitious minds and more paths to intellectual fulfillment. Speaking for God directly is no longer so likely to attract the best and the brightest. Such speakers today are more apt to be fragile and damaged. Instead of Jesus or Mohammad, we receive a Jim Jones or a Marshall Applewhite. If one now wishes to speak for God, it's far easier and more acceptable to do so indirectly, through the words of ancient prophets and within the confines of institutional religion. It provides for a similar linking to God, with less risk of appearing odd or unstable. Either way, the implication is the same - one is speaking for God through words received directly, or indirectly through the words of a deceased prophet.
If appropriated, to what purpose does a speaker for God pose his words and prophecies as being of divine origin? The obvious assumption is that he wishes to garner attention and add special importance to his words. If the speaker is not bipolar, does he suspect the thoughts might come from his mind rather than from God? Possibly, but he could reason that God created all things, including his mind, therefore his thoughts and words really are coming from God. Entertaining that notion though, would require the same supposition for all - that the expression of all human thought emanates from God and expresses his will. Accepting that position would nullify the special recognition desired, so he must either suppress it, or somehow contrive his own thoughts to be extra special, and sent as preemptive bulletins. It gets rather convoluted. The more direct and cynical possibility is that it’s all done consciously for selfish or manipulative purpose.
Let’s recognize that those who speak for God are human beings, with human needs. One such need is validation - confirmation that our lives are noticed, have consequence, and perhaps are appreciated in some way. Many are content receiving modest confirmation from family, friends, an occupation or maybe a recreational activity. Some have an expanded need, and seek validation though wider recognition or fame. Occasionally, the need appears misplaced. Rather than achieving validation directly, it’s done by proxy. Through displayed or imagined affiliation, one might seek validation through another's popularity or fame by wearing it as their own.
The need for validation is often exaggerated in those who speak for God. It resembles both validation by proxy and validation through fame. Their lives derive meaning in the wearing of God's mantel. Fostering the appearance of a close and intimate relationship to God provides validation through association. Speaking for God also requires at least a small degree of fame. Without listeners or a congregation of sorts, there's little recognition or reward in speaking for God. The larger and more fervent the audience, the greater is the derived validation.
Validation is usually part of a healthy existence, giving human significance to our individual lives. When we attempt to achieve it through juxtaposition with God, we forgo the human limit, and seek validation by projecting God's aura as our own. It infers that our thoughts, our words, and our lives are of greater importance than the ordinary, and are deserving of greater attention and respect. It's more than just validation of our own life. Because it's derived by posing special intimacy with God, divine validation is meant to trump or invalidate other lives not in alignment with our own. It's a preemptive approach to finding personal meaning in life, providing unique position, power, and control.
It’s not a one-way street. When we align ourselves with a speaker, we receive at least a supplicant’s share of validation. We fulfill his need, and in so doing, through association, our own lives are validated. We support the speaker and in return, receive assurance of being on the true path through life and perhaps to salvation. It can be a benign exchange with a sense of fulfillment for all, and often that's what it is - except when it isn't.
When a speaker assumes the mantel of God, any direction chosen can be expressed as God's will. If it's God's will, extreme action becomes allowable or even mandated towards the glory of God. So while a speaker often has a healthy relationship with his community, there exists the possibility of degeneration into a less than benign condition - or of an aberrant messenger arising. In placid times, under a placid speaker, it's easy to overlook the potential, but in various times, under various speakers, God's word has supported military invasion, murder, suicide, torture, sexism, slavery, and the extermination of people and cultures. It's not just historical, but is clearly visible in the world today. We might contend that today's atrocities committed in God's name come from wayward cultures not like our own. There should be little comfort taken in that stance. As noted, we recently elected (twice) a president who apparently consorted with Biblical prophecy in setting the course for our nation - we see and are responsible for the results. We currently accept and even applaud leaders who proclaim the arc of their expanding ambition as the projection of God's will. We expect of our political leaders the ability to pass a religious litmus test before serious consideration to higher office. Clearly, we're not that far from where we've already been, and the roads traveled are well maintained. When winds change and the embers are fanned, God's word may again make all things possible and permissible. A speaker will likely come along to proclaim it.
More than personal assurance that one's life is meaningful, speaking for God seeks public recognition and acceptance. It's both plea and demand to be seen and respected under special light. It's not a great stretch to see the exaggerated need for such validation as akin to addiction. In addicted lives, addled judgment abounds and self-gratification takes precedence over other values. Life becomes defined by the hunger for gratification and the need to appease it. Destruction of self and others become acceptable risk and restitution. When extreme, a speaker for God has similar cravings and the need to address them. Intimidation, violence, and self destruction have long been evident in the course of satisfying that hunger. Cults such as those of Jim Jones and David Koresh bear recent example of such violence and self destruction. Other forms of oppression and brutality can occur when God's word becomes institutionalized and part of social/political structure. The Islamic Jihad movement provides a most vivid current example, but violence and intimidation are by no means limited to a particular religion.
Blasphemy, disrespect, non-adherence, non-conformity, and failure to observe doctrine – these are some of the charges levied towards those who might be less than accepting of a speaker's claim to divine communication. The accused are posed as disrespectful to God, but the offense is actually taken by the accusers - those who would speak for God. Their addiction - the hunger for special validation - is threatened if derision, non-conformity, or even disinterest is allowed. As with physical addiction, prior values may be abandoned or turned upside down in appeasing the hunger. The desire and desperation are such that murder and suicide can be advocated and applauded as honorific to God. It's portrayed as homage to him, but really is for self-gratification and control that violence is done in God’s name. When we acquiesce to fill such a speaker's need, to enable and share his addiction, we become his drug, and he ours. We embrace in mutual craving, each bringing a needle to the arm of the other. We're then junkies, lost in the throes of self-gratification and spiritual delusion. When coupled with violence, "All praise to Allah" or "To the glory of God", is nothing more than a junkie's mantra as he sinks into oblivion.
That God's name is so often linked to violence by those who speak for him is stark evidence of self-deception or manipulation. As an all powerful being, God could launch perfectly pinpointed violence of his own accord and would have no need for human acts of violence. It's absurd to even consider God as an advocate for violence on earth, while contemplating a heaven where he presides in eternal peace. Why and how the dichotomy? How is it that God could be party to violence on earth, but divorced of it in paradise? The expected harmony in heaven would certainly have an ominous undertone. The absurdity reveals the human nature of the message ascribed to God. The coupling of violence to God's will serves the speaker's need for manipulation, but renders God as conflicted and with human banality.
There's irony in posing as speaker for an all powerful god. In speaking for a god of unlimited power, the need to be uniquely spoken to is eliminated. The pose is self nullifying. An all-powerful god could communicate to all of mankind in an unequivocal manner, with no need for a special envoy. Claims of such privilege or entitlement should arouse immediate skepticism - not of God, but of those who profess to speak for him.
There actually is a good deal of suspicion placed upon newly arriving speakers who claim special intimacy with God, but not so much towards the traditional prophets. The ancients are inscrutable. Their human fallibility, observable in the living, is no longer visible. They lived and died as human beings, but beyond our sight. They were buried, their bones cooled, and their hubris evaporated. All that's left are the words ascribed to God - words irreproachable because the humans that brought them are no longer approachable. If alive today, asserting a similar intimacy with God, it's likely they too would be met with skepticism. They've been with us for thousands of years and are embedded in our cultures. They and their words are now regarded as sacred. Current speakers interpret and reinterpret the prophets, speaking for God today by speaking through those who spoke for God yesterday.
If one ventures to speak for God, perhaps there's no way for the attempt to be judged totally harmless, even when the words appear benign and laudable. Speaking for God is not a disconnected event. When a tree is nurtured, all of its branches are strengthened, not just the one from which we hope to gather fruit. If we give credence to one who speaks for God, we nurture all speakers, not just the one we wish to validate. Any such recognition lends support to the more expansive notion of special emissaries appointed by God. All claims are then strengthened, benign or otherwise. Whenever and wherever God's word is appropriated, sound judgment and civility are put in jeopardy. When God's word is conjured and aligned to man's ambition, all action becomes permissible. Human responsibility is abrogated under the banner of God's will.
It’s human nature to desire certainty, to know things precisely and without doubt. We want to know the essence and origin for all that surrounds us. Labels and description provide that sense of knowing. Those who speak for God provide them, albeit ones claimed as coming from God. The declarations bring comfort and closure to human curiosity. It’s usually posed as faith in God that they be accepted – that to doubt the speaker’s word is the same as refuting God.
What if we do doubt the speakers? We’ve seen there’s good reason to do so. What if we conclude that those who speak for God are fabricating? What if we conclude that God has no need for special envoys, and never has – that all those claims, all through history, have been of human origin rather than from God? What are we left with? When we turn away from those who would speak for God, do we consequently set ourselves adrift - empty and godless?
What’s left behind is not God, but the words of those who claim special access to God. It’s letting go of demands that the unknown be experienced through the thoughts and needs of another. It’s letting go and accepting an unknown – that there’s a mystery beyond perception and the machinations of our human mind. It’s the recognition of freedom.
Thousands of years have passed since first we sat around the fires, gazed at the stars, and listened to the earliest speakers for God. He’s been named and personified a thousand times, and now, like geological formations, we’ve layer upon layer of words ascribed to him. There are so many declarations to excavate, so many words. Sifting through the layers, we can find an image to serve our purpose, one that brings comfort or gives license to our ambition and need. It comes with risk. The fires we gather around today are volatile and more dangerous than those of ten thousand years ago. The world is smaller and more vulnerable. When the word of God is invoked, the fires grow hotter, and that which is vulnerable becomes more vulnerable.
It’s possible to walk it back – to revisit the unknown. We can look back to a time before the speakers for God became entrenched in our cultures and traditions. We can look back to a time before God became tool and weapon serving the ambitions of man. We can stop digging through the layers and step away from the words. We can revisit the mystery, the same mystery experienced by our ancestors and is still alive today. It hasn’t changed, it’s always there. It’s just our words that cover it up.
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