THE STATE of religion in politics today is a disappointment to those who hear echoes of fire in the voices of the prophets. Historically, the Left has veered away from religion. Today, it has considered religion primarily through the challenge of defending marginalized groups. But it must move beyond that and recognize the transformative power of the religious imagination to inspire change. Only a pluralist project of prophetic vision can accomplish the task.
We should not be quick to dismiss religious thinking as out of place in a secular world. Religious structure can be easily found in the secular, and the historical development of science offers a case study. Francis Bacon required the existence of a benevolent God to advocate for the viability of the scientific method, but eventually, Science took the place of God in Bacon’s system by guaranteeing its own success. While doing so, it also inherited God’s position in the system as guarantor of deliverance. We recognize this expectation of deliverance in a modern laity that mutters “technological solution” as a mantra against the current climate crisis.
But having a religious dimension to your thought is nothing to apologize for. The religious faith in the political sermons of someone like Heschel, Dr. King, or Óscar Romero is often misconstrued. From one side it is seen as rose-tinted, tender-hearted idealism; from another it is seen as disposable packaging for an essentially secular moral core—as if its only purpose were to sway the religious masses who would not act otherwise.
The remedy to both is to rediscover, reaffirm, and revitalize the religious undercurrents that already exist in our thought.
When thinking politically, the frame of prophecy naturally suggests itself. But the old prophecies of Progress with a capital “P”—take your pick—will not do anymore. Climate change has placed a limit on the time we have to act, and we cannot wait for historical forces to eventually take us to utopia. Yet it would also be a mistake to abandon prophetic thinking altogether. Prophetic structures can be at their strongest in compelling action and overturning assumptions precisely in moments like these.
Prophecy is in action when it wrenches our heads up from our self-interest and presents us with demands made of us in a moment of choice. This is a fundamental departure from the “marketplace of ideas” framing of dialogue, which treats speech as so many weights on the scale to be measured until one floats to the top. Prophetic thought, in contrast, reaches for words that can defy measure and break the scales. Prophecy is not in the business of pointing out more facts to be weighed on one side or the other of an argument. Prophecy is in the business of making demands of us over and above the facts. Without awareness of these demands, no amount of facts will lead us beyond the logic of self-interest.
Many already know that we lack a final push beyond the logic of self-interest, but few have looked toward religious imagination as a resource to accomplish this task. This mistake comes from a misunderstanding of what a prophet is. A prophet is not an individual who speaks about the future while standing in the present: a prophet compels change in the present by giving voice to something outside it. The purpose of the prophet’s speech is not to predict the future, but rather to articulate an outside demand that can shake and fracture the present.
The fleeting prophetic moment, when the infinite comes close enough for us to hear, will not be seized with one pair of hands. The prophetic moment of a pluralist culture requires a pluralist prophetic project, taken up by each person standing on their own patch of earth yet pulling the same cord. The pluralist project is a rope whose strands wrap each around the other without a central core—no one tradition and no one person need carry the weight of the whole. This river will be fed by many tributaries. There are many wellsprings already at hand for the task.
I have felt myself swept toward the feeling of a great prophetic moment by different voices, and I recognize there are still more that I do not yet hear. The poet James Russell Lowell thundered in my ears when he told me that “they enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.” The point was put more clearly (but with similar weight) by the Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld, who wrote, “You have never done enough, so long as it is still possible that you have something of value to contribute.” I hear these two voices wrapping around one another across the centuries that divide them, their temporal distance affirming the truth of the message they share: to do any less than what is good is to be complicit in evil. The demand made of us is a heavy weight indeed.
The weight is not just our own, for we carry all the past toward redemption with us. Walter Benjamin, a luminous soul if there ever was one, taught us that just as we find hope and meaning in a better future that we will not live to see, so do we already stand ourselves in this relationship to the souls of the past—who placed their faith in the possibility of redemption in our time. We in the present have the same power we grant to the future to redeem the suffering of the past. Since it falls to us to redeem the suffering of the souls of the past, our demands for justice carry the weight of the infinite sum of human suffering past and present.
To give in to admonishments to be civil or patient is to tell the voices of the past that their claims are not yet eligible. No meek apology can justify a moment’s inaction against the weight of the past. The past demands action of us now. The ecstatic rage of this demand harmonizes with the poetry of Muhammad Iqbal, who cried, “Grant me the absorption of the souls of the past, And let me be of those who never grieve; The riddles of reason I have solved, but now, O Lord! Give me a life of ecstasy.” The voice of Iqbal, like Lowell’s and Benjamin’s, corroborates the truth of historical redemption. They assign us the task of redeeming no less than everyone who ever lived.
These demands, like all prophetic ones, carry infinite weight, and they preclude the possibility of shirking our responsibilities. It can feel overwhelming for any one person, but we are not alone in our duties, and the task of drawing on religious imagination is no harder, in the end, than it was to draw from imagination in childhood. Like the imagination of childhood, it may feel hard to recover it in the modern day. Although it can feel awkward to stumble while relearning forgotten tongues, we are within our rights and should feel no shame in doing so. We can joyously relearn the use of our religious imagination, and we can resolutely take on the difficult task of speaking prophecies. It is not beyond us. We are, after all, children of prophets.
Image of Klee’s Angelus Novus from Wikimedia.