Reg Naulty, Canberra Regional Meeting.
Perhaps the most baffling thing about prophecy is the mode by which it is experienced by the prophet. It is hard to avoid being confused about this because of the sheer lack of context into which to place such experience.
Fortunately, there is a plausible suggestion in a little known work published in 1972, Essays In The Philosophy of Religion by H.Price, who had been professor of philosophy at Oxford from 1935 to 1959. The book has a chapter "Paranormal Cognition, Symbolism and Inspiration" which provides illuminating context for prophecy.
The idea of the unconscious was popular at the close of the 19th Century. The American philosopher William James wrote “the further limits of our being plunge, it seems to me, into an altogether other dimension of existence from the sensible and merely ‘understandable’ world."1 In Russia, at about the same time, the novelist Dostoyevsky wrote that our roots go down into another world.
"Inspiration" is the word we use for appropriate ideas which just "come to us” or "occur to us". They come into consciousness as the result of unconscious mental operations.
But although these operations go on "behind the scenes", we can do something to set them going, and to open our conscious minds to the results, when they are ready. For instance, you may suggest to yourself, just before going to sleep, that thoughts about such and such topic will occur to you at 10 o`clock tomorrow morning, when you need them.
At the time you are making the suggestion the night before, confidence is needed. If you are anxious or fussy, you are suggesting to yourself that you will fail. But when the confidence is there, writes Price, the procedure works quite well. We can try it and see. There is another little dodge which seems to make it work better. When we are shaving, or putting on our lipstick, it is helpful to say to ourselves "I wonder what the ideas will be which will come to me at 10 O`clock…?".
Why do we have to work on getting these ideas up from the unconscious? Why don`t they come up by themselves? Price writes that there seems to be some sort of censorship or blockage which tends to keep them out, or repress them.
Such censorship may well be biologically useful. We would not be very successful in adapting ourselves to our environment if ideas kept on intruding from the unconscious.
It would help if the censor were off guard or off duty, and that is what happens when we are tired or relaxed and not thinking of anything in particular. When we are in the bath or shower is such a time. They are a time when useful ideas just occur to us. Perhaps the most famous example is that of Archimedes in his bath discovering how to find the volume of an irregular solid. A more modern, though less congenial, example, is that of the Russian physicist Sakharov, who got the idea of how to make a hydrogen bomb while he was waiting in a shopping queue.
It seems that we have to be in the right frame of mind, and which we are not if we are focused on items in the physical environment. The censor is too much on the alert for intrusions. But, as we have seen, there are ways of minimising its effectiveness and opening ourselves to ideas from the unconscious.
Could it be that one of the functions of the Quaker Meeting is to lay the censor aside? It is not uncommonly remarked that just as one was about to stand up and minister, someone else does so on the same topic. That is sometimes put down to telepathy, but perhaps it was that both people were open to the same message from the Spirit.
The suggestion is that prophecy comes up through the unconscious, indeed that it is a particular kind of inspiration, which, of course, is what has usually been held. Price has provided a model of how it works. A prophet is one in whom the door to the unconscious is unusually open. Of course, they also have to be close to God, which presupposes a life of prayer.
If I may say so, I have had one vision — personally valuable, but without religious import — and that was on the borderline between sleeping and waking, when the censor had not yet returned to duty. Price remarks that we have to be willing to receive what the unconscious has to offer, and many of us are not. We are afraid of it.
As for prayer, one of the best comments about it was made by that visionary, Julian of Norwich: God teaches us to pray.
1. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Collins, The Fontana Library, 1968, p.490.