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I preached about prophecy this morning at Mass. I was provoked (I won’t say inspired) by the whole non-Mayan non-apocalypse non-event that was Friday 21 December 2012. It shows how even an urban myth that becomes an uber-trending news story can stimulate some helpful reflection.

the end is not for a while by voteprime

Part of the attraction of the ‘crazy religious people waiting for the end of time’ story is that it seems to pit crazy religious people against un-crazy scientific people. But one of my small points this morning was that the desire to believe in prophecy, at least in its slightly over-simplified meaning of ‘telling you something that is going to happen in the future’, is actually one with the scientific instinct. It’s a longing to believe that everything makes sense, that everything happens for a reason, that the future is (through some very mysterious processes of futurology) pre-determined and knowable.

The belief that the world as a whole and every detail within it is meaningful, and that in theory this meaning can be discovered, is a belief that shapes both the worst excesses of superstition and the best endeavours of science. We don’t want to believe that everything is simply chaos; and in fact we have good reasons to think (if our epistemology is sound) that there is a fundamental order to the universe, and that our minds can gradually discover that order.

This hunger for order drives the scientist and the Mayan apocalypse seeker. It also drives the conspiracy theorist, as portrayed so well by Don DeLillo in his novel Underworld, who can’t conceive that a world-changing event like the assassination of JFK or the death of Princess Diana could have been caused by something as banal as a lone gunman or a tragic accident.

Yes, there are crazy prophecies; and there are non-prophecies (it seems that not even the Mayans really believed that this one was coming). But there are true prophecies as well, where God has spoken into history, and promised or predicted (perhaps they mean the same thing from the perspective of eternity) that something would happen in the future.

We see two of them in the scriptures today. First, seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Micah promising that a leader would be born in Bethlehem; one who would shepherd God’s people, unite and strengthen them, and bring them lasting security and peace. And second, the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, telling her that her cousin Elizabeth was with child in her old age. No wonder she went to visit Elizabeth with such haste; partly to share her joy at the Incarnation, but partly to see with her own eyes a truth she could only hold in faith up to that point.

Prophecy used to be such an important part of the Judeo-Christian imagination. It reminded us that all things – including the course of history – are in God’s providential hands; it showed us his power and his wisdom; it was a sign of his care for us and of our own dignity – that he would speak to us and involve us in the unfolding of his plans; and it was above all a powerful indication of his faithfulness to us, and our need and our duty to trust him because of the objective signs that he has given us in history, as well as the personal signs he has given in our own life story.

I think we have lost our confidence in all this, for all sorts of reasons: historical criticism of the Bible; a loss of the sense of the supernatural; the shift from a historical religion to a personal spirituality, from an objectively founded faith to one based on inner subjective experience; and many others.

Some of the scepticism about prophecy is justified, and it reflects a whole different world view. But some of it is not – it is an unscientific narrowing of the human mind: to think that there is no fundamental order to the universe or to human existence; that God the creator is unable to guide his creation or direct the events of history; that he cannot in his infinite wisdom know what he ‘is’ doing or what he ‘will’ do; or that he cannot share his knowledge of what he will do through revelation in general and through the prophetic word in particular.

This is our faith as Christians, that these things are possible for God. And it’s not just a credulous, superstitious faith; it’s based on our rational understanding of what it means for there to be a universe at all, and our conclusion that some transcendent power and wisdom must lie behind this creation, a power that we have discovered – in the Old Testament and ultimately in Jesus Christ – to be personal and loving.

Prophecy still matters. The fact that God has spoken through the prophets and fulfilled his promises is one of the factors that allows us to believe with more confidence. It may not provide a proof that what we believe is true, but it is a good stimulus to belief, and an ongoing support.

This is how the First Vatican Council put it, a teaching that is as relevant today as it was in the nineteenth century (Dei Filius, Chapter 3):

4. Nevertheless, in order that the submission of our faith should be in accordance with reason, it was God’s will that there should be linked to the internal assistance of the Holy Spirit external indications of his revelation, that is to say divine acts, and first and foremost miracles and prophecies, which clearly demonstrating as they do the omnipotence and infinite knowledge of God, are the most certain signs of revelation and are suited to the understanding of all.

5. Hence Moses and the prophets, and especially Christ our lord himself, worked many absolutely clear miracles and delivered prophecies; while of the apostles we read: And they went forth and preached every, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it [18]. Again it is written: We have the prophetic word made more sure; you will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place [19].

6. Now, although the assent of faith is by no means a blind movement of the mind, yet no one can accept the gospel preaching in the way that is necessary for achieving salvation without the inspiration and illumination of the Holy Spirit, who gives to all facility in accepting and believing the truth [20].

7. And so faith in itself, even though it may not work through charity, is a gift of God, and its operation is a work belonging to the order of salvation, in that a person yields true obedience to God himself when he accepts and collaborates with his grace which he could have rejected.

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I grew up in Harpenden, a small town off the M1 about half an hour north of London, with St Albans just a few miles to the south, and Luton to the north. I was back there at the weekend and took a walk along the River Lea, where I used to play as a kid. It was a place for swimming, fighting, fishing, general splashing around, and finding hidden treasure. Now and then it was a place of danger and nasty accidents – usually caused by the broken bottles on the river bed, or some unseen stretch of barbed wire.

The River Lea in Harpenden

Harpenden is only a few miles from the source in Leagrave, on the edge of Luton, so the river is only about 12 feet wide – not much more than a stream. But the walk got me thinking about its huge historical significance. I was oblivious to this as a child.

In the late ninth century the River Lea formed one part of the boundary between the Danelaw, the eastern area occupied by the Vikings, and Saxon England to the west. West of the Lea was the territory that King Alfred managed to hold, and to the east the Vikings had the run of the place. This was all codified in a treaty between Alfred and Gurthrum. So Harpenden (or the few hamlets in the area in the late ninth century) was right at the ‘national’ boundary between England and Scandinavia, between Saxon and Viking.

The Lea, with its course much altered over the centuries, runs through the Olympic Park at Stratford, and into the Thames near the Millennium Dome. You could never guess at its historical significance today, but there are a few remaining boundaries that betray its larger meaning. Part of the border between Essex and Hertfordshire, for example, follows the river’s course. And it’s interesting that when they were cutting off the Diocese of Brentwood from Westminster, the dividing line through east London is marked by the River Lea. So the ecclesiastical boundaries of the twentieth century reflect over a thousand years of territorial dispute, compromise, and eventual agreement.

Just for the record, I was born on the right side of the River Lea (Alfred’s/Westminster’s) at Tottenham Court Road, and lived on the Saxon side of the small valley that cuts through the eastern edge of Harpenden!

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If you are looking for something intelligent and thought-provoking to read on the net, and haven’t yet discovered it, then visit Arts & Letters Daily – an ‘aggregator’ that collects the best articles in the fields of:

Philosophy, aesthetics, literature, language, ideas, criticism, culture, history, music, art, trends, breakthroughs, disputes, gossip.

Dennis Dutton, it’s founder, died a few weeks ago. This is from an obituary by Margarit Fox.

Professor Dutton was perhaps best known to the public for Arts & Letters Daily, which he founded in 1998. The site is a Web aggregator, linking to a spate of online articles about literature, art, science, politics and much else, for which he wrote engaging teasers. (“Can dogs talk? Kind of, says the latest scientific research. But they tend to have very poor pronunciation,” read his lead-in to a 2009 Scientific American article.)

Long before aggregators were commonplace, Arts & Letters Daily had developed an ardent following. A vast, labyrinthine funnel, the site revels in profusion, diversion, digression and, ultimately, the interconnectedness of human endeavor of nearly every sort, a “Tristram Shandy” for the digital age.

As one of the first people to recognize the power of the Web to facilitate intellectual discourse, Professor Dutton was hailed as being among “the most influential media personalities in the world,” as Time magazine described him in 2005.

Arts & Letters Daily, which was acquired by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002, currently receives about three million page views a month. The site is expected to continue publishing, Phil Semas, The Chronicle’s president and editor in chief, said in a statement on Tuesday.

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Globes on the Wall, detail by IK's World Trip.A friend gave me a beautiful old globe recently. A wooden base; a fake bronze arm with the degrees of latitude marked; and even with the mountainous regions sticking up in 3-D relief.

Or at least, I thought it was old; and we spent half an hour trying to date it with our own native intelligence.

Without being very systematic, we looked around at the countries and borders. There was Russia, and no Soviet Union. A united Germany with Berlin marked as the capital. The Czech republic. So we are into the 1990s.

It was harder to find a date ‘before which’ the globe had to be made, especially when my political history is not very accurate. But eventually we found ‘Hong Kong (UK)’, so it couldn’t be this decade; and then Zaire, instead of the Democratic Republic of Congo. I had no idea exactly when Zaire changed its name, but I knew it was relatively recently.

That’s as far as we got. It was like a parlour game. And then we went to the internet and found that the Replogle website (the company that makes the globe) has a marvellous ‘how old is your globe‘ page, stretching back to 1939. It does for you exactly what we were doing ourselves, without the fun, but with some claim to accuracy. It turns out that we did pretty well. The page lists all of the political/geographical changes that have coincided with the production of new globes. Here is a selection of the most recent dates, with NEW NAME, DATE OF CHANGE, OLD NAME, and LOCATION:

  • Montenegro, 2006, Serbia and Montenegro, E. of Italy
  • Serbia and Montenegro, 2003, Yugoslavia (part), E. of Italy
  • East Timor, 1999, Indonesia, isle N. of Australia
  • Congo, Dem. Repub. Of, 1997, Zaire, Central Africa
  • Samoa, 1997, Western Samoa, S. Pacific Ocean
  • Czech. Rep., 1993, Czechoslovakia, S. of Germany & Poland
  • Eritrea, 1993, Ethiopia (part), N. of Ethiopia, S. end of Red Sea
  • Slovakia, 1993, Czechoslovakia, S. of Poland
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1992, Yugoslavia (part), E. of Italy
  • Croatia, 1992, Yugoslavia (part), E. of Italy
  • Macedonia, 1992, Yugoslavia (part), N. of Greece
  • Slovenia, 1992, Yugoslavia (part), E. of Italy

So with the Czech Republic and DR Congo we actually did as well as we could, and guessed into the mid-1990s (1993 to 1997 as it turned out to be); even though we hadn’t been sure if Zaire disappeared before or after ‘Hong Kong (UK)’. You can play this game whenever you come across a globe. But, like Trivial Pursuit, it’s ruined once you memorise the answers.

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