Wil Darcangelo, Spiritual Director at First Parish Unitarian Universalist.
Wil Darcangelo, Spiritual Director at First Parish Unitarian Universalist.

We live much — if not all — of our lives according to a set of rules that someone else usually came up with. However, we often don’t realize it is we who pick and choose the rules we decide we will follow. We may not feel we have much choice in the matter sometimes. For instance, we could choose to ignore the law against theft and go steal a car, but since jail time is the likely consequence of stealing it, we might think of it as having no other options but to purchase one, even though there are, technically, other ways. So we choose to follow a rule because following it is the more pleasant option, or the least problematic, among the list of available options.

But how many options are really available to us? How many options do we know about, or are blind to, or are ignorant of? How much do we believe in the rules we follow?

Let’s define what we mean by words like rules and options. Rules are laws or, more accurately, suggestions that one chooses to follow. They become your rules. People can say: “Here are the rules,” and they may use the word rules if they want, but until you agree to them, they are, in reality, suggestions with consequences. Options are slightly different from rules. Options are the things we have to choose from when making our moment-to-moment choices. Left or right? Starve or steal? Buddha or Jesus? Note that not all options are mutually exclusive.

But when we empower ourselves, not only with knowledge but also self-worth, our list of options grows. Left and right are joined by up, down, sideways and backwards. Starve or steal are joined by get a good job, start a business, go back to school, go to clown college. Join the Peace Corps. Open a lemonade stand. Invent something. Produce an infomercial. Sadly, these are options that have often been brainwashed, beaten or bullied out of many people.

When we increase our list of philosophical options, Jesus and Buddha find they have good company in Muhammad and Confucius and Gandhi and Madame Curie and Tesla and Stephen Hawking and literally thousands of prophets and masters and wise ones throughout the ages from whom we derive our own personal beliefs, each saying similar things in similar ways for different kinds of people and for different reasons. But prophets all.

Who knows what will happen to our spirituality, to say nothing of human society, when we increase our list of available options and begin to allow the voices of other prophets into the conversation?

Traditional religions would often rather you only focus on one source for your inspiration. But more liberal traditions recognize the value of some healthy comparison here and there, a little philosophical reinforcement. Who knows what strengths we shall find in ourselves when we seek to discover just for the sake of discovery? Who knows what will become of us if we lower our guard and listen without resistance to the voices of others?

No harm will come from listening. Trust that your heart secretly knows the correct answer already and that it will ring when it resonates with truth. Truth knows truth when it sees it. Listen for the inner bell. Fear not.

The last remnants of our innocence have now been lost, and within our own lifetime. It’s a good but painful thing. We’re already nostalgic for the times when we didn’t know about all the horrors in the world. We are realizing now that we don’t want to rebuild the same world as before, even if it were possible.

Prophets are those to whom we turn for inspiration in times like these. They are the central guidance for the exploration of ourselves and our relationship with the wider world. Some prophets claim their messages come from God or other non-earthly sources. Some claim no special provenance at all for their ideas. They just share them without a background of special origin and allow wisdom to speak for itself. For if it truly is wisdom, it needs no special origin to be identified, and it can always handle scrutiny.

That, ultimately, is what constitutes a true prophet. Not the source of their wisdom, but that it actually be wisdom. The message has to have value beyond its source. For who can say from where inspiration comes? Who can definitively say with any surety where the Bible comes from? Or the Qur’an? For all we know, they may be the inspired word of God, but how can we know what that even means? And in the absence of knowing for sure, what do we do?

Some faith traditions can’t tolerate this scrutiny, either because the individuals being asked, who represent these traditions, have not yet gained the courage to ask the question themselves, or they are clearly aware that the answer is tantamount to letting you see behind the green curtain. What they don’t realize is there’s yet another green curtain behind that one that even they have not looked behind. They may not even know it’s there. There’s a higher conspiracy at hand, and it is one of benevolence.

If a statement of faith is worth its salt, it can withstand any test with dignity and grace. It can answer your questions. It would already possess the humility to know that not all answers are evident, and it can be OK with that. Sometimes we just don’t know. If, in the sometimes withering light of scrutiny, an idea loses its dignity, if it loses its grace, it has never been anything but salt with no flavor. Worthless as anything but an abrasive, capable only of smoothing us to a polish, but not destroying us. A true faith will have faith in itself. Neither boasting nor proselytizing required. Good news travels according to the availability of good ears.

Do not be afraid of prophets, or those who say where they believe their inspiration comes from. It doesn’t matter where it comes from in the end. All that matters is how what they say makes you feel. Do you feel love when you hear it? Do you feel inspired? Do you feel empowered to take a positive action, create something beautiful, care for someone who is alone? Then it may be a piece of truth. Keep trying it and see how it turns out.

The Hebrew word “navi” is translated as “prophet,” but it actually means spokesperson. A prophet is an enthusiastic spokesperson for a philosophical idea. It doesn’t have to be an idea you agree with. A prophet is someone who believes in what they are saying with utter conviction and they speak it with courage. But you still get to decide for yourself.

Much like art and artists, what defines a prophet is not the quality of their work or even the truth of it. Like art, you have to decide if you are in alignment with it or not. If you’re brave, you’ll also think about why. If you’re utterly fearless, you’ll also ask what if. You might be surprised at what your inner voice reveals to you. Be brave. Be fearless. You are safer than you realize.

Most religions will tell you a true prophet is only a higher being communicating a message on behalf of Source. Don’t believe them. A prophet is much more than that, and much more accessible than we realize.

Be your own prophet. Turn to the writings of women and men who speak of uncomfortable truth and glorious human potential, and use them as tools to learn how to discern truth for yourself. Use what you discover to unlock your own potential to reveal truth. We each have this compass within us.

We must first learn to be fearless and honest with ourselves in order to share the spirit of inner honesty with others. For if we can avoid telling someone else how to think and instead shine a light on their own personal agency to decide for themselves, that’s the best type of prophet we can each of us be.

Wil Darcangelo, M.Div., is the minister at First Parish UU Church of Fitchburg and First Church of Christ Unitarian in Lancaster. He is the producer of The UU Virtual Church of Fitchburg and Lancaster on YouTube and host of the Our Common Dharma podcast series. Email wildarcangelo@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @wildarcangelo. His blog, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at www.hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.