Sunday, April 18, 2010

Notes on the Prophetic Mission

These notes are occasioned by reading again Henry Corbin’s essay titled A Theory of Visionary Knowledge. It’s part of a collection of his essays or speeches published as The Voyage and the Messenger, North Atlantic Books, 1998. There Corbin lays out the Shi’ite view of the prophetic mission. Pondering a passage there, it occurred to me that the eastern world lacks a corresponding conceptualization—although holy figures are found in that realm too.

The prophetic mission is solely associated with the Judeo-Christian-Muslim cultural continuum. Why is that? My own conclusion is that ours is the only one (large and powerful although it is), in which God is conceived anthropomorphically and, in one sense, a step removed from the creation. Anthropomorphically how? The human characteristics of this figure are evident in its interactions with humanity as an external lawgiver. God is envisioned as intervening in history, in choosing people to be its own, and in sending heralds to make his will known. The interventions become even more complex when we reach the Christian interpretation. A step removed? Yes. In our most elevated scholastic philosophy, we learn that God maintains the world in existence continuously; yet God also sends emissaries to guide us. The need for emissaries suggests a distance to me.

And, for me, this is a problem. If God maintains the world in existence, if God is the source of all existence and of all the laws that organize it (no problem there), not least the gift of free will to conscious entities like us, why is there need for periodic interventions, messages from on high, chosen people, and the like.

The East evidently never entertained a concept of God as an active, intervening ruler correcting his own arrangements at intervals; hence prophets are conspicuous by absence. The East also produces seers, mystics, and holy people—and others who travel in the Borderzone. But their interpretation of these experience has always had a quite different flavor. The Tao Te Ching is a theological work, no doubt about it. In it the Tao is the all-transcending Reality which need not correct its own creation.

The Eastern view fits the facts much better than the Western, in my view. It’s simply more sophisticated. It fits my observation that mystics, seers, psychics, and prophets will invariably interpret their visions and experiences based on the culture they bring to the experience. And if, indeed, reformist messages come from the Beyond and rouse the often reluctant prophet to act in the social realm, I for one assume that the source of these messages may be well-meaning—but it is certainly not God.

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