Epiphany 4: A Prophet in an Echo Chamber

The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the LORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” Then the LORD replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak–that prophet shall die.” (Deuteronomy 18:15-20)

In my course on Sufism last semester, our teacher, a Sufi sheikh from Morocco via Oakland, explained to us that Muslims believe that there have been 144,000 prophets throughout history – and not only those mentioned in the Abrahamic Scriptures. Why would God send so many messengers into the world if He had already sent the Prophet-with-a-capital-P, the Messenger with the Message, Muhammad (praise be upon him)? Our sheikh answered this question in terms of Islam’s deep and abiding concern with language. For many Muslims, the Qur’an is no longer the Qur’an in translation. Instead, it is merely that: a translation, an interpretation, a provisional rendering of the Message transmitted by God to Muhhammad in Arabic. However, not everybody speaks Qur’anic Arabic, of course. So God sent other messengers, to carry God’s revelation to many different peoples in many different contexts. “A prophet must speak in the language of his people,” our sheikh told us.

The Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA. You can’t see UC Berkeley’s famed Sather Tower in this shot, but having a literal ivory tower dominate the skyline just across campus is a brilliant visual metaphor, trust me.

A prophet must speak in the language of his people. As I begin a new semester of seminary, those words stick with me (amended for inclusive language, natch). In many ways, seminary is quite unlike any other graduate school program on the face of the earth. I mean, we’re here to study God. What does that even mean? How do you develop a curriculum around that? And more to the point, how crazy do you have to be to decide, “Yes, I am going to dedicate three (or four, or five) years of my life to studying the Tao-that-cannot-be-spoken”? This is a place where I can pitch the idea of daily morning prayer and actually have half-a-dozen people say, “Yep, that sounds like a great idea, let’s drag ourselves out of bed at daybreak every morning and sing through a centuries-old Benedictine order of service” – and then go out and get arrested for civil disobedience with the same set of crazies with whom I pray every morning. To be fair, I don’t know the oddities and idiosyncrasies of other graduate programs, but seminary remains a very unique kind of odd and idiosyncratic.

In other ways, however, seminary is like any other grad program – that is to say, a self-selecting bubble, populated by folks who share, for the most part, a worldview and a specialized lexicon to accompany and articulate that worldview. Every profession and specialization has its own jargon, to enable practitioners to communicate efficiently and effectively within their field, and grad school is where we go to learn the tools and tricks of the trade. Little wonder then if we pick up some of the characteristic modes of speech and thought of our field – to a certain extent, that’s precisely the point.

The danger arises, however, when the time comes to interact with the “outside world.” I’m not even talking about theology’s well-documented tendency to get stuck in its own head, to fail to relate Scholastic proofs for the existence of God and arguments for and against the ontological unity of the Trinity to the concrete facts of human living. I’m talking about those of us who are committed to living our faith, to creating peace in the world and justice in society. My school happens to occupy a particular corner of the culture of leftist academia where we toss around phrases like “neo-imperialism” and “intersectionality” and “q***ring the binary” and “radical inclusivity” and “internalized oppression” and “theologies of disruption” like Russell Wilson throwing a touchdown pass.

Language and football are much the same: sometimes, despite our best attempts and intentions, we simply fail to make the pass. (Photo of Russell Wilson from USA Today.)

It’s not that I think the ideas to which these words refer are necessarily wrong, “postmodern liberal fascism” or what have you. But not unlike Mr. Wilson’s game-ending pass in last night’s Super Bowl, I worry that our meaning will be intercepted en route to those with whom we’re hoping to communicate. Because the vast majority of people just don’t talk like that! Certainly not the people we’re hoping most to reach in our struggle for a more caring, more just world. It’s a textbook example of what famed Harvard linguist Steven Pinker refers to as the Curse of Knowledge: “[the] difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” It’s almost as if, despite our rhetoric, we’re more interested in talking to one another than in talking to the rest of the world.

If faith leaders are called to be raised up as “prophets from among our own people,” as Deuteronomy puts it, prophets whose voices the people will actually heed, then we have to speak in the language of our people. And that is not the language of the academy. Ideas like privilege and oppression are important. Making the realities of privilege and oppression clear to a world that would like to deny their existence is important. But constant, mantra-like repetition, combined with the lack of clarity characteristic of academia–as if it were only too obvious what we were talking about, and thus hardly worth clarifying–has rendered such words impotent to many of the people for whom they might actually become meaningful concepts, who only need a prophetic nudge to understand themselves and their world in a new light.

Of course, the Curse of Knowledge is hardly a unique condition of progressive seminaries. As Pinker points out in the essay I linked above, it is one of the defining characteristics of academia in general. It is also, I would argue, one of the defining characteristics of the Church at large (I could write an entire sermon on why the words “God” and “Jesus” may be in fact the most alienating words in the whole ecclesiastical lexicon). We need to find new ways of talking about the work of justice–hell, about the work of faith–that invite our listeners into reflection and transformation, rather than hold them at arm’s length or baffle them with bullshit. We need to speak, not in the language of the activist or the theologian or the seminarian, but in the language of the people. As Frantz Fanon once said, “Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you want them to understand.”

So as this new semester begins, I ask: do we want the people to understand or not?

Amen. –Tom

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