The Prophethood of All Believers

Jesus said: What did you go to the desert to find? A reed that bends with the winds that blow? What did you go to the desert to find? A man who wears the clothes of a king? What did you go to the desert to find? A prophet? For sure, but also more, far more than just a prophet (J. D. Crossan's 'trans.' No. 1, cf. Matthew 11:7-10)

The teaching Jesus gives here seems to me to outline a basic process followed by most human beings - and I include here those who do not see themselves in any way as religious (at least not in any conventional way). It is the process by which, when faced with the awesome, wonderful, and sometimes frightening mystery of the world and existence, we are inspired to seek out answers to our questions about this mystery.

What did you go to the desert to find? A reed that bends with the winds that blow?

In the first instance we go out in the world simply to assess the lay of the land and the way what we, today, call natural phenomena, such as weather, tide, season etc., effect our being and place of abode. We seek to discern patterns in these phenomena that will help us negotiate appropriately and sensitively the complexity of our world. Throughout history many of these phenomena were perceived to be rooted in a God of some description; many of us today, however, see those same phenomena as springing from wholly natural laws (but don’t forget here Spinoza’s idea of Deus-sive-Natura - that is to say God-or-Nature). But, in whatever we think these phenomena subsist, we go out into the world to learn about them and their ways as Jesus suggested when he asked us to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air (Matt 6:26-28 & Luke 12:24-27).

What did you go to the desert to find? A man who wears the clothes of a king?

In that same process of seeking we, inevitably, come across people who seem to know more about the phenomena of the world than we do - sometimes they not only seem to know more than us, they do know more! The process by which we ascertain whether or not this is the case I won't address here but it forms another kind of seeking. However, in general, we may observe that since the world is so incredibly complex one person simply cannot know everything so we are wise also to seek out successful, good and trustworthy authorities and guides in the various fields of human endeavour and knowledge. Jesus' chooses the image of a man clothed in expensive garments fit for a king or his household to illustrate this but we can, in my opinion, legitimately replace it with that of a teacher, priest or minister, philosopher, scientist or even with a unifying idea or philosophy. All of these people and ideas can clearly be bad and/or dodgy but, when chosen well, they are often good and indispensable guides who can help us to live better, more fulfilled and compassionate lives.

What did you go to the desert to find? A prophet? For sure, but also more, far more than just a prophet.

But even in the presence of masses of external empirical evidence garnered from careful observations of the natural world, and even when that same evidence is digested and represented to us through what we have decided is a trustworthy authoritative figure or institution most of us intuit that this isn't really all there is to life - our own or the world as a whole. The prophet is any person who can convincingly point us to enlarged and deeper meanings because they have experienced it themselves. But the danger with many prophetic figures is that we remain content to let them tell us what lies just beyond our present views and powers without seeking to verify or disprove them ourselves.

But I, and the church of which I am a minister, belong to a religious tradition which has articulated a different view. One of our great twentieth-century thinkers was James Luther Adams who reminded us that "We have long held to the idea of the priesthood of all believers, the idea that [we] have direct access to the ultimate resources of the religious life and that every believer has the responsibility of achieving an explicit faith..." Given this he went on to suggest to us that we also needed a "firm belief in the prophethood of all believers." You see, in a liberal church such as this the prophetic role is not merely for one or two people but for all its members. Adams said:

A church that does not concern itself with the struggle in history for human decency and justice, a church that does not show concern for the shape of things to come, a church that does not attempt to interpret the signs of the times is not a prophetic church. . . . The prophetic liberal church is the church in which all members share the common responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behaviour with the intention of making history in place of merely being pushed around by it. Only through the [prophethood] of all believers can we together foresee doom and mend our common ways. (The Prophethood of all Believers in The Essential James Luther Adams, Skinner House Books, Boston 1998, p. 112)

If I may be so bold as to ask what did you go to the desert - or rather today to this blog/church - to find? A prophet? For sure, but also more, far more than just a prophet. Maybe you have heard good things about my addresses and this liberal church tradition in general. I hope so because I think I/we have got something prophetic to say in today's world. But, in truth, I’m really interested in that thing which we are seeking which is more, far more than a prophet.

I think that one aspect of the 'more' we all seek in our various ways is a community that understands the truest and deepest meaning of life is only found when we share the common responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behaviour with the intention of making history in place of merely being pushed around by it. And, not only that, but a community which, in its ongoing collective attempting to foresee the consequences of our behaviour, is also capable of changing us and helping us to mend our common ways. We seek nothing less than a genuine spiritual home that gives our lives purpose and meaning (and with it a kind of joy and happiness - ataraxia or equanimity) so we can become increasingly free to act well. But we also seek at the same time a community that is strong enough to critique our actions and beliefs and to be made accountable to each other and, in consequence, to changed, renewed and called back into an ever deeper, freer and more meaningful life of love and service.

Can this kind of church be a place where this happens? Well that depends on us all . . .
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