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Prophecy and power

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It has become a national past time that every year’s end and every beginning of January we are heavily inundated by catalogues of prophecies by men – and they are invariably men – who call themselves “prophets”. For many years I used to ignore them. And then out of curiosity, I started reading them in the manner one reads “your weekly stars” in the newspapers. I approach them from the angle that, ab initio, they are not meant to be believed, even though they serve an entertainment value.

My strongest intellectual passions are in development economics, monetary policy, probability theory and the philosophy of science. My humble understanding of the world and of the extent and limits of human knowledge convince me that, even from a purely intellectual-scientific viewpoint, prophecy cannot be dismissed out of hand.

There is also the theological angle. I once lived and travelled widely in the Muslim world. There are Muslim clerics and mystics who have the gift of prophecy, although Muslims are forbidden to call anyone a “prophet”. For those of my gentle readers who happen to be Christians, the New Testament talks about the “five-fold ministry” open to believers. Some are called to be apostles; some prophets; some evangelists; some pastors or shepherds; and others teachers. Although there is no hierarchy in those ministries, convention normally accords the highest status to apostles. Apostles are those who break new ground – who reinterpret the gospel for their generation. It is also possible to combine one or more of those ministries. Paul was not just an apostle; he was a great missionary evangelist, teacher and shepherd. He was also a prophet. The late Billy Graham’s ministry was not only apostolic; he was a great teacher, evangelist and pastor. Some would say he was also a prophet sent to call America and the world to repentance.

From a purely intellectual-scientific angle, prophecies do exist. Known reverentially as “the Rambam”, Moses Maimonides was a medieval Jewish doctor, scientist, philosopher and counsellor to kings. His famous work, “A Guide for the Perplexed”, is a manual for all those who seek to understand the mystery of our universe. I believe that St. Thomas Aquinas may have gotten inspiration for his magnum opus, Summa Theologiae, from the Rambam.

 

Maimonides declared that anyone “who says prophecy does not exist and knowledge is not communicated from the Creator to the heart of man” cannot be taken seriously. But he insists that the gift of prophecy can only be given to wise sages of a strong character; who are driven, not by the baser angels of our human nature, but by a high order of holiness — in that exalted realm in which it is possible to hear the mind of God.

 

It may surprise many to know that there is a strong relationship between science, prophecy and dreams. Francis Crick, the Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, declared that the neural electrical networks that make up human brain cells normally scan the environment and unify our daily experiences which come out in the form of dreams. Dreams are, according to him, a way of “unlearning”.

 

Remarkably, the history of science provides several examples of great discoveries that were made through prophetic dreams. The great Russian chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev was obsessed with finding order within the world of chemicals. According to him, during one night, “In a dream I saw a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.” Thus was born the periodic table that we all had to learn as school children.

 

The German organic chemist Friedrich August Kekulé was working very hard on the chemical structure of benzene in a cold winter night in 1865 when he fell asleep on his chair. According to him, he began dreaming of atoms dancing; they had arranged themselves in the form of a snake that had turned around and bitten its own tail. He woke up and got the interpretation of his dream to mean that benzene molecules are made of rings of carbon atoms. This discovery opened up a new field known as aromatic chemistry.

 

The Indian mathematical prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujam who rose from nothing to become a scholar of Trinity College Cambridge and Fellow of the British Academy of Sciences, claimed to have made some of his discoveries through prophetic dreams: “While asleep, I had an unusual experience. There was a red screen formed by flowing blood, as it were. I was observing it. Suddenly a hand began to write on the screen. I became all attention. That hand wrote a number of elliptic integrals. They stuck to my mind. As soon as I woke up, I committed them to writing.”

The German Nobel laureate and father of neuroscience, Otto Loewi, was struggling for years to understand how nerve signals are transmitted using chemical instructions, until the whole thing was revealed to him in a dream in 1933. The dream showed him the experiments needed to prove his hypothesis, thereby establishing the field that we know today as neurology.

Two of the greatest intellectuals of the Enlightenment, Isaac Newton, and the German statesman and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, discovered the differential calculus independently about the same time. Both were mystics and both dabbled in occultism and Kabbalah. But science is yet to fully explain the mystery of prophecy. In the words of the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, “If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God”.

There are many in our country today who pitch everything on prophets. That is foolish. God gave us the brains to think. We are to live by faith and righteousness, not prophecies. But we must never dismiss them either. They are meant to warn and to guide and instruct.

Throughout history kings and emperors have consulted seers and prophets about what the future holds. The ancient Greeks used to consult the Oracle at Delphi. Napoleon Bonaparte, the conqueror of Europe, not only consulted oracles; he was himself a mystic and occultist who deployed those skills in winning major military battles. American President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy were often beholden to psychics. So was French president François Mitterrand. During a summer holidaying with his parents in colonial Yamoussoukro, Côte d’Ivoire, seventeen year old Jacques Chirac encountered an old Baoulé woman who prophesied that the young man would one day become president of France. He later served as president during the years 1995 to 2007. I know many of my Yoruba friends who consult the Ifá oracle before making major decisions in business, politics or matrimony.

The world is indeed a mystery. Those who boast about being purely philosophical rationalists are missing the point. The best attitude is to keep an open mind while remaining sceptical. In a world replete with crooks and charlatans, prayer contractors and bribe-taking “prophets” scepticism is a moral virtue.

Let me conclude with my prophecy for 2019: The first round of the presidential elections will prove inconclusive. During the second round, a third force will emerge under the leadership of a relatively new party. The winner will be a dark and relatively unknown technocrat. It will shock the world. Our country will breathe a new lease of life. The economy will improve, as investors arrive in droves. The reign of murderous infamy will come to an end. There will be a great and perpetual peace. Righteousness, justice and enlightenment will reign. And the government shall be upon His shoulders. Nigeria will become a light unto the nations – a city set on a hill.

 

Obadiah Mailafia

 

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