On prophecy, prediction and prognosis

A message from Executive Dean of Theology and Philosophy Professor Dermot Nestor.

When one has lived with prophecy for so long, the moment of revelation is a shock …
Frank Herbert, Dune (p.55)

Faculty success in the recent round of Australian Research Council funding (congratulations to Michael Hanaghan) highlights the enduring appeal of prophecy, prediction and prognosis. Leaving aside the irony that Australia is a country once described as having no vision for itself, ‘future thinking’ is not always an accurate or helpful descriptor of prophecy: a fact that exposes the frivolity of some modern appellations and alignments. The Hebrew term נבוא (Navi) that is conventionally translated as ‘prophet’ is better understood as designating a ‘spokesperson’; one who communicates the divine will.

How anyone might know the divine will and what might ensue when the prediction on which it is based comes to pass, or not, raises some intriguing philosophical and theological questions. The status of the prophet as intermediary however, provides for a more grounded type of analysis. Often inspired by ecstatic visions, the biblical prophets issued omen and admonition (Amos 4:2) designed to invoke change and inspire conversion. Such provocation was not offered from the margins of the society to which it was directed, but from within it. Such proximal sensitivity to cultural, political and religious realities, along with the traditions that informed them, meant the prophetic imagination was less concerned with future utopias then it was with contemporary institutional customs and conventions. The stimulus for future development came from an inspired understanding of the conditions of the present, not from beyond them.

Affirming the primacy of the present is neither concession to despair nor a symptom of that mental decline attributed to Hamlet’s Ophelia (Act IV, Scene 5). On the contrary, it is a powerful antidote to a naïve and dualistic religiosity; one that accredits wisdom to those who claim the material world is that which is merely apparent, beyond which lies that which is real. It provides a sobering reminder that one of the goals of life is not to transcend the obvious and objective but to engage with it, and to see within it the horizons of future possibility.

As we embark on the collaborative journey that will reformulate strategic priorities and shape the future of ACU, let us be reminded that the imagination, and the inspiration, required for the task be borne from, and give expression to, a deep understanding of our distinctiveness, our mission and our identity. To be what we may be, requires us first of all, to know who we are.

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