We are all fascinated by the future and imprisoned by the past—especially when “there is distress of nations and perplexity”—but we needn’t resort to occult tomfoolery or fall under the spell of a seer, preacher, or latter-day doomsday prophet. Instead the answer is to dwell in the present moment.
The preachers of my Evangelical youth were formed in the theology of Dispensationalism—a system for the interpretation of Scripture invented in the nineteenth century by an Englishman, John Nelson Darby. Dispensationalism was made popular amongst American Evangelicals through the widely used Scofield Reference Bible.
Dispensationalism teaches that the Bible can be understood as the revelation of God’s work in the world unfolding through progressive epochs (dispensations) of history. The connection between the epochs (and proof that there is a master plan) is Biblical prophecy.
This is nothing new. From the beginning of the Christian story theologians and teachers have traced the fulfillment of the Old Testament in the life of Christ. St. Matthew especially, is eager to point out how Jesus Christ’s life and ministry fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament.
However, the dispensationalists, with a tendency toward literalism, picked up the ball of Biblical prophecy and ran with it. If the Old Testament prophecies foretold the future life of Christ, then it seemed logical that the Bible might also hold the key to understanding our present age and it seemed certain that we could trace in the Bible hints, guesses, and warnings about future events.
This led to a curious mode of preaching which focused on the prophecies of the Old Testament and the book of Revelation—not so much to understand the Scriptures themselves, but to use them like an Evangelical version of Nostradamus. The fundamentalist preachers held forth with the Book of Daniel in one hand and yesterday’s newspaper in the other, as if the Bible was some sort of crystal ball.
They scrutinized the Scriptures as a priest of ancient Rome might pick through the intestines of a sheep to prognosticate the future.
The dream language and bizarre visions of the Books of Daniel and Revelation were read allegorically. The Beast of Revelation was the global antichrist and the ten horns on his head were the ten nations of the European Union. The whore of Babylon was the Church of Rome and the nations of Gog and Magog were the modern USSR ready to sweep down from the North to the Battle of Armageddon.
Not that the fundamentalist Protestants are the only future forecasters. Catholics have their own version of apocalyptic prophets—not a system of Biblical interpretation, but the visions of mystics and the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Warnings from Our Lady of Salette, Fatima, Kibeho, and others are taken just as literally and seriously and books, blogs, and prophets proliferate predicting the future and warning of present evils based on their visions and inner locutions.
Nor are the future forecasters only religious. It occurs to me that the unbelievers also have their preferred doomsday scenarios, their prophets and their own systematic “theology.” It’s just that theirs is “scientific” and backed up with their chosen data. Whether they are climate change alarmists, population bomb prophets, predictors of meteorite collisions, a magnetic pulse disaster, upheaval by unchecked immigration, the atomic bomb or global pollution, everyone it seems has a future scenario and a book of the prophets to support their doomsday theory.
At this turning of a new year and new decade I am happy to believe them all and even happier to doubt them all. What they say echoes true not necessarily in facts and current events, but in the mysterious caverns and corridors of the human heart and mind.
While predictions of the future intrigue me as much as anyone, I have always wondered why prophecies need to be so mysterious. Why do the prophets, MacBeth’s witches, the Sibyls and Madame Sosostris always speak in riddles? Why can’t they tell us the future in clear and distinct language? Why are the prophecies in the Bible shrouded in cryptic language, bizarre visions and dream language? Why are they open to so many interpretations? Why are the apparitions to Catholic seers so often obscured by oblique references, generalities, ambiguous language and hedged about with conditions and commands?
They are mysterious because the future is mysterious. They feed our fear of the future because we fear the unknown. While fear of the future is natural, foretelling the future is futile.
In Dry Salvages T.S. Eliot rehearses the foolish fiddling about with fortune telling in in all its forms:
To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,
To report the behavior of the sea monster,
Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,
Observe disease in signatures, evoke
Biography from the wrinkles of the palm
And tragedy from fingers; release omens
By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable
With playing cards, fiddle with pentagrams
Or barbituric acids, or dissect
The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors—
To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual
Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:
And always will be, some of them especially
When there is distress of nations and perplexity
Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road.
We are all fascinated by the future and imprisoned by the past—especially when “there is distress of nations and perplexity”—but we needn’t resort to occult tomfoolery or fall under the spell of a seer, preacher, or latter-day doomsday prophet.
Instead the answer is to dwell in the present moment, and to redeem the time through “the Benedict option” of work, prayer, and study. Or as Eliot puts it:
Men’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint–
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
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The featured image is “Alexander Consulting the Oracle of Apollo” (1789) by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1725-1805), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.