In 2005, Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, completed a twenty-year study on predictions.
“Tetlock interviewed 284 people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends.” He asked them to assess the probabilities that certain events would occur in the not too distant future, both in areas of the world in which they specialized and in regions about which they had less knowledge. Would Gorbachev be ousted in a coup? Would the United States go to war in the Persian Gulf? Which country would become the next big emerging market? In all, Tetlock gathered more than 80,000 predictions. Respondents were asked to rate the probabilities of three alternative outcomes in every case: the persistence of the status quo, more of something such as political freedom or economic growth, or less of that
“The results were devastating. The experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned equal probabilities to each of the three potential outcomes. In other words, people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options. Even in the region they knew best, experts were not significantly better than nonspecialists.” (Thinking Fast. Thinking Slow, Daniel Kahneman)
The reason I’m starting my homily with this disconcerting lesson in human error is because I’ve spent the last week making my own predictions: when a vaccine will be found, what will happen if so-and-so gets elected, whether or not we’ll get a supreme court justice, where the next riot will break out…what will happen to my senior Theology students if they don’t start turning in their blasted homework…. None of this makes me feel any better. Yet I keep doing it, because in “these uncertain times” making confident predictions about the future calms me. Admittedly, the calm doesn’t last long. I know deep down that human predictions are about as dependable as dart-throwing monkeys—and perhaps more dangerous.
Our readings this Sunday are predictions of a different sort. “The LORD of hosts will provide…” says Isaiah, “he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples… he will wipe away the tears from every face…he will remove the reproach of his people…on that day it will be said: Behold our God…” (). The Psalmist too makes predictions: “I shall not want” he says, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” () And Saint Paul makes a prediction for the Philipians: “My God will supply whatever you need” ()
Herein lies the difference between prediction and prophecy: that the first puts frail and fallible humans in charge of our future, while the second entrusts that future to God. It’s very similar to the difference between magic and miracle; it’s a question of where we put our trust.
Jesus himself, after all, makes a prediction in todays gospel: “There will be wailing and grinding of teeth,” he says. Jesus, you see, is more concerned with keeping us good than keeping us calm. And that’s what happens when you surrender to the uncertainty so as to live the present moment. That’s what happens when you submit in humble docility to God’s will: you get peace and joy—but not necessarily comfort or happiness. “If I did not simply live from one moment to another,” wrote Saint Therese of Liseux, “it would be impossible for me to be patient, but I look only at the present, I forget the past, and I take good care not to forestall the future.”
So let’s stick to the present moment: “Many are invited, but few are chosen,” says Jesus (Mt 22.14) You are invited. I am invited. Here we are in the sacrament of this present moment. “There is not a moment,” wrote Jean-Pierre de Caussade, “in which God does not present Himself under the cover of some pain to be endured, of some consolation to be enjoyed, or of some duty to be performed. All that takes place within us, around us, or through us, contains and conceals His divine action.”
We are here at the wedding feast. Many are invited, but we are chosen. “May the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ enlighten the eyes of our hearts, so that we may know what is the hope that belongs to our call.”
“In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”