How and Why Do Prophets Arise?

John Dehlin Understanding Mormonism 1 Comment

Q: Dear John – How and Why Do Prophets Arise?

A: This is my best attempt at explaining how and why prophets arise – at a high level.

Our Brains: As humans, we possess highly sophisticated brains that are capable of complex thoughts, emotions, language, interpersonal relationships, and social structures.  

  • We are self-aware.  We are able to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals (“souls” or “spirits”) — with names, identities, histories, etc.
  • We are capable of developing intense feelings of both love and fear – for ourselves, for our families, for our friends, and for our community.
  • We have the capacity to remember past events – this includes happy memories, but also includes sad and traumatic events.
  • We have the capacity for language, which includes the ability to imagine, remember, record, and re-tell stories of all types – non-fiction and fiction — victories and tragedies, acts of kindness and of unfathomable brutality.
  • We are highly evaluative, and are constantly assessing our present situations – Are we in pain?  Are our basic needs met?  Are we reaching our potential?
  • We are able to contemplate the future – envisioning in our mind’s eye our fondest hopes and our worst fears and nightmares – for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our society, and for the world around us.
  • As we contemplate our past, present, and future, we are capable of setting goals, and working hard to accomplish the things most important to us.  But we are also capable of becoming paralyzed by limitless fear, worry, and rumination.  Such fear, if not assuaged, can ultimately lead to despair and even self-destruction.

The World: The world that we live in, along with our very existence, can be simultaneously wonderful and terrifying.  At times life can feel safe, beautiful, and even miraculous.  At other times life can be unpredictable, chaotic, and even disastrous.  As humans, we have the potential to live 90+ years of a long, deeply meaningful life, or our life (and/or the lives of our loved ones) can be snuffed out in an instant.

Existential Questions….the Birthplace of Religion:  Almost universally, this combination of the complex realities of human life and a sophisticated brain leads to the formulation of several timeless questions:

  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • Where did I come from?
  • What is the purpose of life?
  • How should I behave?
  • Why do I feel so alone?
  • How can I find friends and community?
  • Why is there so much suffering in this world?
  • How can I protect myself and my loved ones from this suffering?
  • Am I special?
  • How can I reach my full potential?
  • What happens when we die?
  • Will I exist after I die?
  • Will ever ever see my loved ones again after death?
  • Is there a life after this one?

The excruciating truth is that these perennial questions are largely unanswerable in any definitive sense.  But collectively this non-answer has not been acceptable to us as a species.  In truth, we are terrible living with uncertainty, fear, chaos, and loneliness.

The Emergence of “Prophets”:  Throughout history, certain individuals have emerged to make three fundamental claims:

  1. That there is a “God” – or a divine source of power, meaning, and purpose in this life.
  2. That somehow, they have been able to directly and successfully communicate with this God. And,
  3. That God has been able to provide them with the answers to all of these fundamental, existential questions.

If a “prophet” happens to gain enough traction, their teachings or revelations of these individuals are written down into a consolidated set of texts, known as scripture.  Again, if these teachings gain enough traction, a religion and/or church is formed around the teachings.  

Throughout history, thousands of individuals have presented themselves to us as prophets, or “mouthpieces of God, to the world.”  Most were viewed as “crazy,” and have been completely forgotten.  Others were more successful at gaining traction or “believers,” and have become rather influential.  A few examples include Jesus, Mohammad, Mary Baker Eddy, Ellen G. White, and Joseph Smith.

It goes without saying that Joseph Smith was one of these “prophets,” and that Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is perhaps the most successful church ever to be founded in America.

Prophets, in essence, simply tell us what we want to hear, by answering the great unanswerable existential questions listed above (e.g., “When you die that is not the end!  You will live forever!  When you die you will go to a wonderful place with all your loved ones!”) – and we are eager to believe what they tell us.  As we signal these needs outwardly, an observant, charismatic leader emerges (e.g., Moses, Mohammad, Joseph Smith), claiming to have direct, privileged access to God, and/or divine powers – with answers to all of these questions and core needs.  Since we are not able to speak directly with God, nor do we have divine powers, and since we are likely suffering in our lives and starving for answers to life’s most vexing questions – we become eager to believe what the “prophet” tells us.

In this sense, prophets do not “covert” or “convince” or “deceive” us — as much as we actually CREATE prophets ourselves by signaling/expressing our questions and needs out loud – and certain enterprising and charismatic humans reliably rise to answer our questions, and meet our needs.  In other words, it is often a symbiotic relationship between a prophet and his followers.

An example of what these prophets teach us includes:

  • How to avoid pain and suffering.
  • How to find happiness and joy.
  • How to raise a happy/healthy family.
  • What the purpose of life is.
  • What happens when you die.
  • How to see your loved ones again after death, etc.  .

Who doesn’t want help with these types of issues, especially when life gets really painful, difficult, and scary.

Because people are generally starving for these sorts of answers, and because they do not feel equipped to answer these questions themselves, they are eager to believe what they are told by the new prophet, and to follow him (and it’s almost always a “him”).  Over time, the prophet becomes (in effect) more important and venerated than “God” in the day-to-day lives of his followers.

While this human tendency to can sound relatively benign and even exciting – the main problems with “prophets” is that historically, over time, prophets have a tendency to use their power in unethical ways.  This can include:

  • Teaching people divine “truths” that, in fact, are completely fabricated.
  • Defrauding people of their valuable time, reputation, and hard earned money.
  • Becoming sexual predators to both women and children.
  • Mistreating and (at times) abusing anyone who emerges to question, challenge, or threaten their prophetic authority.

And thus we, as humans, are often caught in an endless cycle of:

  1. Feeling sad, alone, afraid and desperate.
  2. Becoming enticed by the teachings of a prophet who promises us meaning, purpose, health, and happiness.
  3. Experiencing deception and/or abuse at the hands of the prophet and the institution he creates.
  4. Leaving the prophet and religion altogether.
  5. Some folks find joy, meaning, happiness, and fulfillment without the need to follow any more religions or prophets.
  6. Others (or their children) are not able to find joy, meaning, happiness, and fulfillment without a prophet/religion, and the cycle repeats itself.

What are your thoughts about the emergence of prophets?  Does this explanation sound reasonable to you?

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