Friday, March 14, 2014

Comments on a CFP: Christian Prophecies and Competing Concepts of Order, 1500-1800

This CFP came across H-Soz-u-Kult this week (in German, English, and Spanish):
Christian Prophecies as a Reflex to Competing Concepts of Order (ca. 1500-1800)
Numerous cases of early modern prophecies are strongly bound in certain research traditions, e. g. national and religious contexts, or the interpretation as religious or social deviation. For the planned conference, main discussion topics are concrete case studies of early modern prophecies from a broad range of cultural, political, social, and religious backgrounds. There are no geographical limits for the provenance of the case studies; they can have their origin in Europe, the New World, or anywhere else. Thus, we will be able to compare a wider and more diverse range of these case studies and specific aspects of the prophecies. Prophecy is in this context defined as a discussed “divine” revelation to an individual which is linked with concrete instructions and which is addressed to a certain parish, the church as a whole, Christendom, or mankind

Prophecies are more than textual phenomena or rhetorical camouflage. They can rather be seen as a possibility to understand concepts of social order: Whereas one group of individuals could accept the present social order as a divinely ordained system, another group could perceive the divine will to change this very order and propose an alternative, new social order. The competition of diverging concepts of order made it necessary for each group to justify their own analysis of the status quo as the “correct” perception of the current order on earth and of the normative and divine conception of order. In these situations, implicit assumptions and unreflected practices were expressed, reflected, and actualized on a performative level.

Potential prophecies were, however, examined by specific institutions or individuals. In formal proceedings it was discussed whether a case was based on a divine revelation or not. Thus, in a way, ‘real’ prophecies were generated by a process of examination.

In the analysis and contextualization of each prophecy case study, the following main aspects should be discussed:
  1. To which concepts of order does the prophecy refer?
    Here, apocalyptic concepts as an offered interpretation of social order are especially of importance, expressed in the diagnosis of the status quo and in an alternative order. Which time concepts are expressed in this context?
  2. Which institutions or authorities examined the prophets and prophetesses?
    In this way, the social relevance of the prophecies could be explained. By considering which other types of offences also fell under the cognizance of the institutions concerned, one can reconstruct the social category and context of the phenomenon of prophecy and of the prophetic texts. Whether these authorities at the same time interpreted prophecies for their own needs could be checked.
  3. Which arguments are raised in debates on a concrete prophecy case?
    The prophet’s threat can claim evidence through authentication strategies. The so-called “discernment of spirits” (discretion spirituum), for instance, could be based on empirical methods as well as emotions, and could moreover refer to specific bodies of knowledge. A Prophet was not judged immediately, but only after a discussion between different interest groups.
Please send a proposal (max. 2 pages), along with a short CV to Dr. des. Fabian Fechner ( by July 1, 2014.

This should be a good conference, and I'll be very interested to see the papers that come out of it, but I don't know if I would have anything to contribute to it. I've published some things about early modern prophecies, but the organizers seem to be primarily thinking of a specific kind of prophecy that I haven't often encountered.

Although the geographic scope is broad, the definition of prophecy is quite narrow: "eine zeitgenössisch diskutierte Offenbarung Gottes gegenüber einer Person, die mit einem Handlungsauftrag verbunden war und die sich über das Individuum hinaus an eine einzelne Gemeinde, 'die' Kirche, 'die' Christenheit oder die gesamte Menschheit richtete." Many of the early modern prophecies I've worked with do represent themselves as revelations to a specific person, but others are simple statements of events to come that don't attempt to represent the moment of revelation or an authorial persona. Texts can also move between these two categories by creating a fictive author and revelatory context for a previously anonymous prophecy. It's quite possible that the conference organizers are primarily interested in the preaching of living prophets, which is of course a much different kind of thing, but not all of the early modern prophets I'm aware of were instructed to act or to transmit their revelations to an external audience.

Some early modern prophets certainly were directed to act and to deliver their message to other people - I'm giving a paper about such a case at GSA this year - but the organizers of the Tübingen conference are specifically interested in prophecies that promote "konkurrierende Vorstellungen sozialer Ordnung." While the early modern prophetic texts I work with have a good amount to say about the existing social order, few of them want to upend it; some want to improve it (with rulers who are more just and clergy who live more humbly), and others want to preserve it. So I may not have anything to contribute to that aspect of the conference.

The other question that the conference organizers are interested in concerns the "[k]onkrete Institutionen, Instanzen und Akteure[, die] mit der Überprüfung von potentiellen Prophetien betraut [wurden] oder von sich aus aktiv [wurden]." Here again, I'm not sure that what I work on is relevant. Printers who published prophecies seem to have undertaken their activity on their own, but without a great deal of interest in demonstrating the authenticity of the prophecies; the usual attitude is "discard the false and keep whatever is good (while I make a quick buck off your purchase)." As for the institutions that examined prophecies, the ones that I've come across appear to have always suppressed and never authenticated a prophecy, but that may be due to the nature of the specific material I work with.

So I don't know about this one. It looks like a very interesting conference, but I'm not sure I can address the specific questions that the organizers are interested in. addressing.

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