One of the most powerful images I have encountered to describe the symbolic location of the prophet is Richard Rohr’s concept of living on the outside edge of the inside. At the edge, you have not renounced the world, nor are you blindly loyal to it. You have one foot in and one foot out. Or perhaps both feet in but leaning out. Or both feet out but leaning in. Or coming and going, tending the doorway between.
On the outside edge of the inside.
Jesus was a Jew critiquing Judaism. Buddha had awakened from the world but remained within it, teaching to king and beggar alike the Middle Way between the two extremes of indulgence and asceticism.
In our history, Unitarians and Universalists were always on the edge because of their Christian heresies—that all are saved, that God is good, that divinity is within us. And now Unitarian Universalist churches are full of doubters and questioners who nonetheless show up to church—on the outside edge of the inside.
Many of us probably know what it feels like to be on the outside edge of the inside—circles we navigate where we don’t quite fit in, but can’t quite give up on completely: a teacher trying to transform the educational system; a consumer trying to minimize their ecological footprint and question the system itself; a citizen in an imperfect democracy working to fix it by protest, by voting, and by organizing; an artist who learns the rules to break them, and then puts their work where those who most need to see it can see it.
Richard Rohr says:
[The prophet] is always on the edge of the inside. Not an outsider throwing rocks, not a comfortable insider who defends the status quo, but one who lives precariously… It is a unique kind of seeing and living, which will largely leave the prophet with “nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 21:16-17)… You can only truly unlock systems from within, but then you are invariably locked out. When you live on the edge of the inside, you will almost wish you were outside. [But] then you are merely an enemy…a persona non grata, and can largely be ignored or written off. But if you are both inside and outside, you are the ultimate threat, the ultimate reformer and the ultimate invitation.
It takes courage and strength to live on the edge of the inside. All of the prophets said, “Why Me? Who am I to do this? What if I get it wrong? What if they don’t listen? Choose him/her instead.”
But they do it, because they are called by God. For non-theists, imagine it as a longing, a knowing, a fire in the belly, a gnawing at your conscience, a spark in your mind… and then an action on that pull.
We all have the power to be prophetic—or at the least (and this is not small), to do our part to support prophets. Unitarian Universalist Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker says, “It is a mistake to see [the prophet] as an isolated, heroic individual. It is better to see [them] as the crest of a wave.”
We, as individuals and as a religion, can be part of that wave.
If we do our part to stay awake, to question, to act up, who knows what great prophecy—what great vision—might rise to the top of our collective wave?