When prophecy fails

Interesting discussion over at Crooked Timber on apocalyptic christianity and the response to failed prophecy. John Quiggin got the ball rolling with this question:

Revelations-based prophecies have similarly failed time after time, but they seem to be more popular than ever. What is about apocalyptic Christianity as a belief system that protects it from empirical refutation?

There are a number of sub questions in this:

What happens when prophecy fails?
How does the meaning making system of apocalyptic belief work?
What is the relationship between belief and empirical evidence?

I think the first thing to understand is that “apocalyptic Christianity” is much more than a belief in specific apocalyptic events. As I noted in my post yesterday it also includes what Cynthia Burack has called a “politics of desert”. It is a resistance theology that constantly constructs and reconstructs oppositions, that comes from a place of such certainty that the “signs of the times” become a fluid collage that reinforce that central resistance identity.

Some of the posts in response to John mention When Prophecy Fails, by Leon Festinger. Festinger proposed that adherents basically redouble their efforts when prophecies fail as a way of resolving their experience of cognitive dissonance. Post-Festinger scholarship has tended to agree with Festinger’s conclusion that adherents work hard in a post-failure moment but most scholars disagree with his specific conclusions about how this works.

In Expecting Armageddon: Essential Readings in Failed Prophecy, Jon Stone has gathered fourteen articles that dialogue with Festinger’s conclusions. For a strange but interesting review of this collection go here. (Haven’t read this but have it on order from Amazon)

In his article on failed prophecy in the Lubavitch movement Simon Dein gives a good summary of some of the arguments in this literature. His reference to Melton ( Melton, J. G. 1985. Spiritualization and reaffirmation: What really happens when prophecy fails. American Studies 26(2):82.) supports my contention that apocalyptic belief cannot be limited to the predictive, but must be seen as a more general belief system:

Melton (1985) points out a number of problems with the thesis…[one] problem involves Festinger’s assertion that millennial groups are organized around the prediction of prospective events. This is seen by Melton as a one-dimensional view of millenarianism which neglects the presence of a complex cosmology. Indeed, prediction often springs from a broad context of belief and disconfirmation provides a “test” which generally strengthens a group. Third, the problem was noted of the researcher’s standard for logic not necessarily being consistent with the internal definitions of the group studied.

John Quiggin’s post also had a reference to Hall Lindsay as an example of apocalyptic christianity. As Stephen O’Leary has shown in Arguing the Apocalypse, the fascinating thing about Lindsay is that although his work is littered with prophetic readings of current events he avoids any major predictions of end events. Instead he produces a dispersed apocalypse that calls for a continuing sense of readiness.

O’Leary shows that between his first book The Late Great Planet Earth and his 80s sequel Countdown to Armageddon Lindsey updated his theology to show a role for America and “a ray of hope” that led to the more activist new right politics of the eighties. This is epitomised by Jerry Falwell’s telling comment that Christians are called “to occupy until he comes.” This is a phase he still uses today. In a September 2004 interview: Falwell: Evangelicals ‘Energized’ for Bush he sets his beliefs out very clearly:

NM: We hear a lot these days that many Christians believe that, based on current events, perhaps Christ’s second coming is near. What do you tell people who ask you about that?

JF: Well, Scripture is clear on that. No man knows the day or hour of His second coming.

It is my feeling, and has been for the 52 years I’ve been a Christian, that we’re to live every day as though the Lord were returning today…but we’re to plan and work as though we had another 100 years, with the next generation in mind.

The danger, if there is a danger in believing in the imminence of the Lord’s return – and I do, is to become a fatalist, that certain things are going to happen regardless and there’s nothing we can do about them. That isn’t true. We’re told to occupy until He comes. We’re told to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. And we’re given clear instructions about raising our children up in the nurture and admonition of Christ.

Falwell’s theology reflects the fundamental change in premillenial beliefs from the widely believed but failed predictive prophecies of William Miller in the 1840s, which led to what is known as “the great disappointment“, to the current “dispensational premillenialists” of today that believe we are in the end times but won’t hazard a guess at the day or the hour.

Falwell’s beliefs seem to show a gradual merging of elements of the premillenial and the postmillenial belief systems but that’s another story for another posting….

(For a reasonably good but abbreviated precis of O’Leary on the Millerites and Hall Lindsey go here)

One thought on “When prophecy fails

  1. As my post indicated, I think we really need a comparative study with revolutionary political movements. The same set of rationalisations can be observed, but decline in belief seems to be much more prevalent.

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