Hieronymus Bosch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Troubleshooting Prophecy

illustrated drop cap for the letter TTwentieth century philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich delivered his sermon “The Shaking of the Foundations” to a world more or less in tatters and ready to hear his version of the Word. In the late 1940s, as in the 1920s, world leaders and citizens resolved to prevent future mass death and violence on the scale they had just seen during World War II. They erected institutions like the United Nations as a second attempt to govern through global diplomacy, hoping to succeed where the League of Nations had failed.

Tillich opened with Biblical verses from Prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, repeating a central Abrahamic refrain: Their Word warned that the earth can literally shake, split, and shatter. With such a tenuous hold over the fragile space it occupied as well as a propensity to find fleeting solace in false prophets, humanity faced two options, Tillich argued: despair, certain of inevitable destruction, or faith in the way of the Prophets, certain of eternal salvation. To him, every word of the Prophets carried the force of a hammer’s stroke. “There were decades and even centuries when we did not take them seriously,” he said. “Those days are gone.” 

Tillich’s eschatology emerged from the tragic wellspring of his own experiences. A German Lutheran theologian of renown, he served as a chaplain in the trenches of World War I, and was among the first academics banned from teaching in Nazi Germany in 1933. He and his family left the country only months later for a post in the United States; colleagues at Union Theological Seminary in New York City secured the funds needed to offer him a position there as visiting professor, rescuing him from immediate danger. But the weight of the various horrors that he survived—the Battle of Verdun, the grip of fascism—shaped his theology and the urgency with which he shared it. 

Despite his sermon, the promise to heed the warnings of Jeremiah, Isaiah, or, indeed, Tillich, was short-lived. As growing and new forms of colonialism and wars of “containment” killed millions of people over the coming decades, false prophets proliferated. They apotheosized unlimited human power through vague gestures to progress and spoke of good tidings where none existed. Tillich anticipated their coming. He tried to alert us.

Political idolatry through leader-worship, nationalism, and factionalism has clearly survived and gained strength in our present era. False prophecies have taken on new forms, too. They surround us as commanding, deadpan predictions of the future: political polls, climate change estimates, even models of the spread of the coronavirus. With increasing power and presence, these technologies and the figures behind them strangle political imaginations and invite inaction through their aura of objectivity, inevitability, and truth. This has been disastrous. Polls offered false prophecy and, more dangerously, a feeling of complacency and inevitability in 2016 and 2020; largely-respected climate modeling assumes a similar role as false prophecy, rewarding a lack of urgency as our “decades-early” climate apocalypse has arrived replete with massive perennial wildfires, relentless hurricanes, and a melted Arctic hellscape

While the climate is certainly changing, eisegetical scientific methods remain de rigueur and inform widely-cited ecological predictions. A consistent, hurried gravitation towards the quantifiable forecloses a widespread response to messy planetary realities. In A Farewell to Ice: A Report from the Arctic, climate scientist Peter Wadhams contends that data worship has created a scientific consensus wholly divorced from hard facts. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, has consciously ignored alarming observational evidence from scientists like Wadhams in favor of computer models based on historical data. This decision generates a more soothing alternate reality in which Arctic sea ice can only disappear by mid-century. It’s a glaring oversight, if not a totally delusional vision, since the ice is already gone

“The advice of such modellers, when given to policy makers, has helped to paralyze them into inaction in the face of a climatic catastrophe which is bearing down on us like an express train,” Wadhams writes. He derides the IPCC as no less a denier of climate change than “normal suspects” like fossil fuel lobbyists or ignorant government scientists. Despite the diverging intentions and rhetoric of these factions, false prophecies sustain them all.

Modern prophecies, Wadhams affirms, seek to take on sublime meaning of their own as simulacra of fact; the veneer holds but can collapse upon deeper inspection and intervention. Anand Giridharadas, in Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, scrutinizes some of the very human figures inventing and peddling these predictions of the future. They don’t hide in Oz-like fashion: They speak openly, if obliquely or negligently, about their political ideals.

Giridharadas’ most striking vignette emerges from the Summit at Sea, a seafaring conference branded as a summit for social change that unfolds in reality as a “four-day-long maritime bacchanal” aboard a Bahamas-bound cruise ship. He retells how Shervin Pishevar, a former demi-god in Silicon Valley venture capital circles (with sizeable investments in life-extending technology startups) holds court with an assembly of eager attendees. He advises them with the somber tone of an unassuming oracle to “stay alive,” because the cavalry that is artificial life extension looms just years over the horizon. He has seen what modern prophetic technologies and modelling reveal as imminent: a longer life, a better life. His followers just need to hold out; keep the faith. 

“Pishevar was engaging in advocacy that disguised itself as prophecy,” writes Giridharadas, which “convinced people that the future they were fighting for would unfold automatically, would be the fruit of forces rather than their choices, of providence rather than power.” Idolized by the movers and shakers around him, positing a high return on investment as social inevitability and moral good lets Pishevar conceal his self-serving agenda and massive power while rallying larger ideological and material investment behind his vision. 

Pishevar is far from the only tech world icon to mask his portfolio as prophecy, Giridharadas continues, pointing to Mark Zuckerberg’s nonplussed but strategic prediction at the 2016 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. (He prophesied that the world would soon consume more video than any other online content—a potential sea change that, if realized, would generate a windfall in ad revenue for Facebook and other Goliaths of Silicon Valley.) Even tech billionaires with (relatively) more respectable haircuts and reputations like Bill Gates have long sermonized on the salvific potential of technology as a great social equalizer. The prophetic whole is greater than the sum of its plutocratic parts: In chorus, Pishevar, Zuck, Gates, and others position themselves as mere actors and not key instigators, making the new world of their visions the subject of larger concern and participation rather than the product of their outsized wealth and influence. 

Tendrils of Bill Gates’ philanthropic empire demonstrate that these fulsome prophecies render structural political issues redeemable through technology and innovation instead of comprehensive changes in policy, which would no doubt lead to higher taxes for the ultrawealthy. Sociologist Eve L. Ewing points, for instance, to the impact of the Gates Foundation on Chicago Public Schools. Bolstered by its deep pockets and drunk off its “expertise,” the Foundation maintained a “dogmatic attachment” to creating smaller schools within schools, an unproven pedagogical intervention, which transmuted the city’s educational landscape to something more in-line with the Foundation’s vision. Choosing not to appreciate education within a larger social fabric determined by income inequality, housing insecurity, and a racist police state, the Foundation charged forth with its singular, shiny idea. 

“Now ten years later we’re left with the aftermath,” said Ewing, as thousands of students have passed through the experimental learning environment—which, the Foundation admitted, fell short of anticipated educational outcomes, deciding to now pour its money into other inadequate initiatives. The IPCC, Summit at Sea, and Gates Foundation alike circulate ideas of the future radiating technological immanence. But the worldviews they worship reward unimaginative, cosmetic changes to complex social failures, leaving its real drivers untouched, often more powerful than before. This is what false prophets do.

Even elections, the most symbolic of political rituals, can be sapped of potential and significance through modern prophecies. Patron Saint of election polling and FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver has made a living off boiling democratic processes down to an ostensibly predictable science. Up- and down-ballot, politics becomes a sport of numbers and chance. The margins of the FiveThirtyEight homepage even project elections directly adjacent to NFL predictions, sharing similar visuals, percentages, and tenor. If this overlap is a product of worldview and not just a sloppy editorial decision, it suggests an approach to politics that treats the public as mere spectators instead of participants. It sweeps away any notion of politics as a literal arena of life and death. Along with the notorious New York Times election needle, Silver’s political prophecies contributed to stymied public investment in the 2016 election, instructed to sit in the stands, as a landslide Clinton victory appeared inevitable (to many). 

At the core of Silver’s most recent electoral work remains an unwarranted faith in both himself and the sanctity of the Oval Office and its traditions. In the weeks leading up to the most recent presidential election, Silver referred to the dogged, systemic efforts to corrupt the U.S. general election as “extraconstitutional shenanigans.” He did not account for them in his calculations for the 2020 presidential election, nor did he account for the potential outcomes of such “shenanigans,” like the POTUS-sanctioned storming and occupation of the U.S. capitol by a fascist mob. This episode does not represent an insurrection’s conclusion: It may have functioned instead as a harbinger of and dress rehearsal for even greater and more sustained violence. To say the bare minimum, efforts to undermine the November election were, and are, a more significant and extended threat than Silver admitted. In this version of a false prophecy, the frequent, minor tweaks and quantified pontifications that encourage frantically refreshing FiveThirtyEight contributed to a fundamental lack of context in which the events of January 6 could be surprising, as if they deviated—grossly, statistically, historically—from a half-millennium of settler colonialism, slavery and policing, and white Christian supremacy

illustrated drop cap for the letter TThe track record of these contemporary prophecies suggests that we should jettison them—and probably many others. But just how we do that is not immediately clear. Every pixel of this essay suggests that neither I alone (yikes) nor any singular figure has the authority or lone-genius foresight to declare our next steps. And the nagging question of what comes next rings stubbornly: Citing Jeremiah and Isaiah, Tillich would argue that, as beings in time and space and on unstable foundations, a more just landscape features honest prophecies that warn of the destructive power of modernity. These prophecies could present themselves not as empirical facts but as possibilities of the present grounded in truth and deeper meaning. Though commanding, they are conditional like Moses on Mount Sinai and require changed human beliefs and practices for their vision to come to fruition. 

In this framework, prophecies about elections, the climate, our health, appear not as dictums of future times, but more as calls to action; our new prophecies point urgently to structural issues that thwarted our models in the past, expanding our political imaginations. Election forecasts sound the alarm on longstanding and novel forms of voter disenfranchisement, be they armed or administrative. Climate models look beyond reassuring historical data, eschew diplomatic niceties, and opt for the drastic and radical. Debates over technology’s role in health care recognize the racist, deadly effects of U.S. economics and politics both in the middle of the novel coronavirus pandemic and long beforehand. They treat no loss as collateral damage or mere statistic and call for universal care informed by empathy and mutual concern.

Other religious figures prove that prophetic practice is no simple undertaking. The Prophet Muhammad, according to various interpretations, received revelation as a violent and terrifying experience that begat bewilderment. The Messenger of God turned pale or red, in pain or in sweat, as he received the weighty Word through Gabriel. And the Buddha, nearing Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, faced the demon Mārā. After a series of challenges, through the bhumisparsha mudra, his hand touching the earth, the earth roared, defeating the demon. The Buddha shattered the foundations. 

“The prophetic spirit has not disappeared from the earth,” said Tillich. It takes form in the most reticent of figures, he argues, as nobody with truly prophetic possession enjoys foreseeing the doom of their own period. Prophets lurk behind the current cacophonous din of competing takes and agendas. You won’t find them waxing poetic on a cruise ship or crunching numbers in a boardroom.

Adam Willems (@functionaladam) studies religion and economy at Union Theological Seminary. They write Divine Innovation, a somewhat cheeky newsletter on spirituality and technology.