The song of different voices

The Dawn of Midnight/15 - God’s highness saves us from talking only about our dreams.

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 30/07/2017

170730 Geremia 15 rid

"From the aimed image / I am keeping watch on the instant / With imminence of wait / And I am not waiting for anybody:
In the lit shade / I am spying upon the bell / Which, imperceptible, is spreading / A pollen of sound – / And I am not waiting for anybody:
Between four walls / Astonished of space / More than a desert / I am not waiting for anybody:
But he must come; / He will come, / if I resist, / To blossom not seen, / He will come all of a sudden, / When I least realize:
He will come almost pardon / Of what he makes die, / He will come to make me certain / Of his and my treasure,
He will come as a relief / Of my and his pains, / His whisper / Will come, perhaps it is already coming.”

Clemente Rebora, Dall’immagine tesa  (From the Aimed Image, English translation by Roberto Filippetti)

False prophecy in good faith is perhaps the most abundant thing under the sun, and it’s among the most dangerous phenomena in the world. There have always been and there are still false prophets in bad faith, who do not give voice to any voice and they know it well. But there are also false prophets in good faith, who don’t give voice to any voice and do not know it, and confuse the "voice of God" with their own fantasies, emotions and thoughts. False prophets are not all scoundrels and swindlers, some of them are convinced to be prophets even though they aren’t.

Communities, movements and ideal-driven organizations abound in false prophets in good faith, to be found at all levels and in all roles of government, even among the founders. In fact, their subjective good faith just makes it more difficult to exercise discernment of the spirits for those around them, because the sincerity of their feelings often creates a "curtain effect" that prevents them from seeing the vanity of their words. And it makes the role of true prophets unpopular and difficult as they seek to identify this kind of false prophecy by vocation because, almost always, the people, confused by their genuine emotions, defend false prophets in good faith. Blunders caused by self-deception are very common; they are perfect traps from which it is very difficult to escape because the good faith of the deceivers and the deceived reinforce each other. How to be saved?

Jeremiah has just finished prophesying the end of Israel and the ruin of its corrupt kings, using ever stronger and harder tones – “Therefore thus says the Lord concerning Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah: »They shall not lament for him (...) With the burial of a donkey he shall be buried«” (Jeremiah 22:18-19) – and he immediately astonishes us with the announcement of a great hope: “Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. (...) neither shall any be missing” (23:3-4). True prophets are like this: today they announce death, tomorrow life, because they are the mouth of another mouth that they do not command and control.

In chapter 23 of his book, Jeremiah reaches the culmination of his teaching on false prophecy. He has already spoken about it several times, but now, with the passing of years, the prophet has come to a great synthesis and offers us an authentic spiritual and anthropological masterpiece, which may well have been unsurpassed ever since. Only a true prophet is able to recognize and unmask the false prophets: “In the prophets of Samaria / I saw an unsavoury thing: / they prophesied by Baal / and led my people Israel astray. / But in the prophets of Jerusalem / I have seen a horrible thing: / they commit adultery and walk in lies; / they strengthen the hands of evildoers, / so that no one turns from his evil”. (23:13-14). There is an interesting first note here: the prophecy in the name of other gods (Baal), more common in the realm of the North (Samaria), where contaminations of cults were more frequent, seems a less serious problem than that of the prophets of the Temple of Jerusalem: though they (often) prophesy in the name of the God of the Covenant (YHWH), they have completely fallen and been perverted. The first strategy he uses to expose them is the most commonly used one at any time: to incriminate their perverse moral conduct by stating that they cannot be true prophets because their concrete life says the opposite of the words of their mouth.

But the moral strategy alone is not enough to detect false prophecy because there have always been, and there are, prophets of a dubious moral conduct saying true words. The morality of the instrument of the voice can be a clue, but it is never the experimentum crucis (a decisive, crucial experiment, Lat. - the tr.) to prove the falsehood of a prophetic word. The prophet is not chosen because he is better and more honest than the others: he almost always has the average morality of his people, sometimes he is better and at others he is worse. It is not the moral consistency of his conduct that is the first and most convincing proof of the truth he says - indeed, many times showing the morality of one's own person as a proof of the truth of their own words is a sure indication of false prophecy. The greatest fatigue faced by those facing prophetic words pronounced by those who have turned morally corrupt is to understand whether this moral conduct is unworthy as a symptom of false prophecy or it is just a sign of fragility and/or sin of the instrument of the voice. It’s a great fatigue, which usually leads to condemnation, but sometimes depends on a quick discernment confused by the turmoil of feelings and the heart. Prophets, like all men and women, have weaknesses, illnesses, sometimes even neurosis - and these coexist with their vocation; they affect it, sometimes too much, but remain different things, although we almost always end up making a vocation only a matter of ethics.

In fact, after the moral accusation, Jeremiah passes on to a different, more complex, deeper level, directly touching the heart of the question, that is, the nature of the prophetic vocation: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord” (23:16). Here we can see another decisive point in the phenomenology of prophecy: those false prophets announce only "visions of their own minds," and not what comes “from the mouth of the Lord.” Here Jeremiah shows us something new: false prophets who may be in good faith, but simply announce their own ideas, perhaps honestly convinced of speaking God's words. Some verses later Jeremiah makes us see a variant of this form of false prophecy, too, the dreamlike one: “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, »I have dreamed, I have dreamed!« How long shall there be lies in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart?” (23:25-26). In order to understand this judgement by Jeremiah we must place it in the Middle Eastern world, inhabited by a large number of dream-readers, soothsayers, sorcerers and magicians who were often regarded by the people as prophets - a typical form of suffering of the true prophets is to be equated with the many tricksters whom the people consider their colleagues: “Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let him who has my word speak my word faithfully” (23:28). Here too we are dealing with people who confuse the "visions of their own minds" with YHWH's different voice, although the two things are different and must remain distinct.

It is increasingly clear that what matters to Jeremiah is not so much the good or bad faith or the morality or immorality of the people who declare themselves or are declared prophets. So what is really important, what comes before everything else? Jeremiah has already provided some criteria for the discernment of prophecy in his book, but now he is about to lead us to the heart of the matter. He tells us that in fact, there is only one criterion, but it is so simple that it may not satisfy us: false prophets - of any type - are false because they do not have the prophetic vocation: “I did not send the prophets, / yet they ran; / I did not speak to them, / yet they prophesied” (23:21). It’s all very simple and it’s all very complex. But the only truly important question is still the one on vocation when we want to (and we always have to) distinguish true prophecy from false, in all its many forms, in the life of the spirit, but also in art, science, professions and families. You may be a more or less creative and good Franciscan, but first you have to be a Franciscan, that is, one who has received the same vocation of Francis. An artist can be great, insignificant, immense; but first they have to be an artist, that is, someone who has received an artistic vocation. No morality, no good faith can replace the absence (and essence) of vocation. We do not know what this vocation truly is, and we have to accept to live with this lack of knowledge, about others and about ourselves, which is at the origin of the greatest surprises and the greatest pains.

However, Jeremiah tells us something important: the essential element to recognize an authentic vocation is the awareness of the otherness, the consciousness that is, before and different from the other voices that inhabit the soul there is another voice, or at least a whisper. Being aware that that voice, though intimate and present inside of him since his mother's womb, is not his own voice. That there is another who speaks, one that Jeremiah calls YHWH, other prophets with other names, others do not name him but know that he is there and he speaks: “Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God far away?” (23:23). It’s a voice that comes and goes, disappears and returns, which is always a gift and a surprise, to the very end. An otherness that coexists with the experience of the greatest intimacy of the bowels. It is the close and the faraway togetherness that makes a prophet. The prophet who loses the intimacy of the word (the "God at hand") has no depth, poetry or pathos; but if the prophet loses the otherness and transcendence of the voice (the "God far away"), he can only tell his own fantasies and dreams, and become himself the source of the words he says. Some true-born prophets become false because they consume the "deviation" between their own voice and the other voice, and one day the first dialogue of voices becomes a song by a single voice.
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