Success is a Miniature Kind of God

Listening to Life/15 The sale of illusions: the curse of adulator prophets

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 02/10/2016

Tronco ridYes, indeed, only stones could live without this inner drive. Everything else, all the living beings, could not exist but under the sign of Hope "

Susanna Tamaro, The Tiger and the acrobat

Mutual benefit is the golden rule of economy and much of civilian life. The economic, ethical and social development of nations grows if people generate always new relationships to meet each others' needs. There are, however, areas and moments of life that are good if and until they do not meet our tastes or our needs, because if they do they satisfy us but they do not make us either happy or good. When, for example, in some crucial moments we do not say the others the things they ask for or the words they want to hear, because we have to give them things and words that do not please them because they are uncomfortable; or when we manage to stand up in the 'gap' between the things that we ask from the non-false prophets and the very different words that they give us in response, leaving us uncomfortable and unhappy, without turning to the booming market of false prophets where we find everything and exactly what we ask for, but nothing more.

As we reach the central part of the Book of Isaiah, we realize that we are not accustomed to the non-efficacy of the word he is announcing. On the day of his vocation (Chapter 6) YHWH had said that the leaders of the people would not hear him, but he still does not lose hope facing this impotence of the word that he announces. No-one can remain a prophet for long without finding a convincing explanation of the non-effectiveness of their own mission. An honest prophet, therefore, must seek an interpretation of why many people, having encountered the word, do not believe it unless they settle for and console themselves with the faith of the believing remnant. Isaiah is especially great because he attempts the most powerful and radical explanation: "For the Lord has poured out upon you / a spirit of deep sleep, / and has closed your eyes, / and covered your heads. And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed.” (Isaiah 29:10-11) For Isaiah God himself is the one who clogs the ears and plugs the eyes, he is the one who hardens the hearts of those who do not accept his word. There is no more powerful or surprising explanation than this. This explanation has a deep and decisive logic: if it was YHWH to seal the book of prophecy, then it will be the same YHWH that on 'that day' will remove the seal, and save not only the faithful remnant. He will be able to save everyone, even those who did not and do not listen. The 'remnant' keeps the promise, the hope, the faith and the covenant alive. But there is a soul in Biblical humanism that says another fundamental thing: salvation, if it is true, cannot be only for a remnant: it must be for everyone. There is no complete happiness if we save ourselves in a world that gets lost, if below our paradise there is a hell that's not yet emptied. The highest and truest form of happiness is either everyone's or it is no-one's: In that day the deaf shall hear / the words of a book, / and out of their gloom and darkness / the eyes of the blind shall see. / The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, / and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. / For the ruthless shall come to nothing / and the scoffer cease..." (29:17-20).

The 'remnant', therefore, is not an elite, it is not a club of the elect, it is not the oasis to be saved in amidst an ocean of eternal perdition. It is simply salt and yeast, which therefore only make sense if they become the bread of all and for all. The remnant 'returns home' as a deposit for the return of those who have not yet done so. The remnant that comes back is not those who already share the table of the father, but the son that still eats the acorns of the pigs. The vocation of the earth is universal salvation, the waiting for the return of all those who are absent from the feast of the children. It takes much ethical and theological courage to make God responsible for the lack of faith in the world - the prophets come, and keep returning again and again, partly to tell us this and give us this encouragement. Salvations always seem distant because the 'remnant' are transformed too often into private clubs of the privileged that instead of being salt and yeast in the land of all stand in opposition to the masses and, not infrequently, condemn and curse it, too. No good yeast hates the masses.

In these 'deformations of the remnant' a decisive role is played by the false prophets - again - who, more than the leaders, are the real enemies of the people and faith, and therefore of the true prophets. Isaiah is merciless with false prophecy because it is the foundation of the most subtle idolatry, that which is born within the covenant people. The most dangerous golden calves are not the ones that come from foreign cults of Baal, from Egypt or Babylon. Instead, they are those made by the people itself in their forges, melting the gold of families, wives, daughters and gifts. Until the idols remain separate from the different God, who is invisible and indescribable, until they are only lifeless statues that adorn a temple that still contains the absence of YHWH (who is not an idol because he is not imprisoned in the temple that we built), there is always the hope of returning home, the chance that at least someone notices that the idols are stupid and makes a beacon: "its pyre made deep and wide, with fire and wood in abundance" (30,33). Salvation takes its final exit from the scene when the golden calf is given the name YHWH (Exodus 32), that is, when the true God of yesterday becomes the idol of today. These transformations and these manipulations are the main expertise of the false prophets who are producers of the worst form of idolatry, the one that turns YHWH into a fetish. These false prophets are not worshipers of idols: they are idolaters of God.

Continuing his systematic critique of idolatry, in this chapter Isaiah tells us something new and decisive. He is well aware that he is going to tell us a prime truth and so he exclaims: "And now, go, write it before them on a tablet / and inscribe it in a book, / that it may be for the time to come / as a witness forever." (30:8) And then he prophesies: "and to the prophets (they say), / »Do not prophesy to us what is right; / speak to us smooth things, / prophesy illusions...«" (30,9-10)

These false 'prophets of illusions' are adulator prophets. They are popular in all times, but become a multitude during moral crises when the 'offer' of false prophecy responds perfectly to the 'demand' of the leaders of the people. The powerful ("they") ask for illusions, and illusions are all that false prophets make and sell. This demand for illusory and adulatory prophecy always meets the offer. It is always offered by those who are self-proclaimed prophets, only to answer this demand - just as those cooperatives and companies that are born only to respond to public calls. But it is also offered by those who were born true prophets and one day, seduced by power, begin to change the content of their prophecy to render their words according to the expectations of the client. So they become the prophets of the palace, courtiers always ready to produce prophetic horoscopes on command, to say only things that leaders want to hear, in order to obtain success and money.

The adulating word is among the most common ones under the sun. We all know it, many of us use it. It is, in fact, much easier to align our feelings with those of our colleagues, friends and leaders by telling them only the words they want to hear, confirming their certainties, justifying their practices. It is much more difficult, however, to say uncomfortable (because true) words, to refute lies, to unmask false consolations. It is impossible to save ourselves if we are surrounded only by friends and adulating colleagues, and it is a great treasure to find an anti-adulator friend who is expensively honest with us, even when it hurts and injures us.

But if prophets are the ones who use adulating words, the consequences are much more serious. When the members of a charismatic community are adulators towards the founder or their leader, or the artists towards the powerful, the poets towards their readers, spiritual and civic life is halted and declines rapidly, and, not infrequently, totalitarian regimes of all sorts are born. The prophets, the charisma, the artists serve their own people and the world by saying words we did not know already, words that love us because they are not what we wanted to hear. Prophecy, unlike companies, does not have to meet the needs of the 'consumers': it is by leaving us dissatisfied and uncomfortable how they love us. Prophets are distinguished from false prophets precisely because they almost never tell us the words we want to hear, because they have others to give us that are much more true and better. But when the prophets' listeners become 'customers who are always right', one of the most dangerous ethical perversions under the sun takes place, which is the basis of many community and social diseases. And YHWH becomes the golden calf.

Adulating prophecy is the root of many idolatrous transformations. Instead of continuing to proclaim a God who is different from us, higher and not be manipulated (prayer is the opposite of manipulation), these false prophets shrink the truth to coincide with our falsehood that becomes theirs, too. Rather than serving us by showing us the 'not yet', they crush the reality of what is 'already' and / or what we want it to be. In the world and in the religions there have been and there are many prophets, but above all, there are countless legions of this type of false prophets, who always achieve great success because success is their only goal. And so it happens - too often - that the god that is presented is only an idol packaged to meet the tastes of the consumers in the religious market. It also happens that a lot, too much atheism, instead of being the position of those who deny God after having met him, is merely the discovery and then the refusal of the stupidity of the idols produced by false prophets. To hope to meet God or meet him again, at least that of the Bible, we simply have join Isaiah and start unmasking the false, adulator prophets in and around us. Then we have to drive them out of the temple, and finally hope that 'on that day' the salvation of all will also include them.

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