Is God a Black Swan?: Part 2, Disruption, the Narrative Fallacy, and Antitheology

One of the buzz words theologians toss around is interrupts. That is, God is seen as interrupting the trajectories of history, both globally and personally. My read is that the theologians are using interrupts as a close synonym for prophetic. The prophetic voice interrupts our plans, assumptions, status, and sense of security or superiority.

But if God is a Black Swan, as I think he might be, then perhaps a stronger word is needed. God not only interrupts, God disrupts. Let me explain.

To be a Christian is to make a claim so radical about God that it can be destabilizing if properly internalized. That most Christians are unaware of the claim they are tacitly making goes to illustrate Taleb's observation about retrospective certainty in the aftermath of the Black Swan.

To be a Christian is to claim that God can be so disruptive (i.e., a Black Swan) as to create a whole new world religion. That is, God's actions in Jesus were so unanticipated, so novel, and so different that a rupture was created between the trajectory of the Jewish faith and the subsequent Christian faith. In the language of the gospel of John, the Word entered the World and the World did not recognize him.

This rupture is so theologically problematic that the most sophisticated theological treatise from the early church--the Epistle to the Romans--is devoted to rescuing God's reputation in the face of this rupture. Summarizing, Romans is essentially about how God can be trusted if God does, in fact, act like a Black Swan (as he apparently did in Jesus Christ). That is, it could be claimed that God's actions in Jesus were so disruptive that it gave the Jews no realistic chance to accept Jesus as the Messiah. If this is so, how can God then judge the Jews? The fault is rather on God's Black Swan disruption. God was, in short, too surprising.

(BTW, Islam doubles down on this problem claiming that God acted, post-Jesus, in a second disruptive, world-religion-creating, Black Swan action.)

This, then, is the claim I think Christians often fail to confront: Christianity claims that God acted in such a disruptive fashion in salvation history to effectively create a whole new world religion. That is a bit more than interruptive, it's downright disruptive.

If Christians claim this, as I think we must, then how can we ever claim to predict God's current or future activity? To be a Christian is to say that God acts like a Black Swan. And if God is a Black Swan are we not just as likely to find ourselves in the position the Jews faced when they encountered Jesus?

This worry echos in the Christian consciousness. We often ask ourselves: Would we recognize Jesus if he came to us today? We wonder, would Jesus even BE a Christian? Would Jesus go to my church? Would he attend a Christian university? Would he be white? Male? American? What if Jesus was a poor women from a third world country from a different religion? Is that scenario even possible? Isn't being a Christian a claim that, yes, indeed, such a disruptive act from God is possible?

All this makes your head spin.

One of the ways we can prevent this disorientation is to retrospectively look back at the Incarnational rupture and tell a story how, if the Jews just knew their bibles a bit better, Jesus would not have been disruptive but wholly expected. Can't we look at all the fulfilled prophecies about Jesus as a bridge over the rupture? Can't we see that signs were in place, functioning as sutures in a wound, at the time of Jesus' arrival?

No doubt prophetic pointers were in place (the New Testament points to many of them), but we must beware of what Taleb calls the narrative fallacy, the tendency to misremember the randomness by smoothing over the surprise of the Black Swan with post hoc story-telling. Events always look inevitable in the rearview mirror. Look at 9/11. After the events of 9/11 all kinds of data came to our attention suggesting that someone in the government should have see the attacks coming. Someone was to blame because the signs were there. But this kind of retrospective analysis misses the fact that signal and noise are not so easily separated in real time. Hindsight is always 20/20, but we can't expect that kind of clarity from people trying to peer into the future. In short, yes, there were prophecies about Jesus in place but we expect too much to suggest that the Jews should have read those signs clearly. An appeal to prophecy doesn't appreciably attenuate the disruptive character of Jesus.

So where does this leave us? How do we do theology in a faith created by a Black Swan? How are we to peer into life and the future knowing that God has, and can, act in highly disruptive and surprising ways?

Taleb has a suggestion. He suggests that we pay more attention to what we don't know than to what we do know. He suggests that we become antischolars rather than scholars (pp. 1-2). That is, we study what we don't know and about the limits of our knowledge. Taleb has a name for this person, an epistemocrat. An epistemocrat is someone possessed of epistemic humility. As Taleb describes: "Think of someone heavily introspective, tortured by the awareness of his own ignorance. He lacks the courage of the idiot, yet has the rare guts to say 'I don't know.' He does not mind looking like a fool or, worse, an ignoramus. He hesitates, he will not commit, and he agonizes over the consequences of being wrong. He introspects, introspects, and introspects until he reaches physical and nervous exhaustion." Taleb is, I believe, using a bit of hyperbole here, but his point is well taken. Would that churches were filled with epistemocrats! That churches would function, to use Taleb's word, as an epistemocracy! A place filled with epistemic humility where people are introspective and even tortured about their claims concerning God and are more than willing to say "I don't know."

Because, it seems to me, as I argued above, that to be a Christian one must function in just this manner. The Chrisitan faith was founded upon a Black Swan rupture. To be a Christian, therefore, means that we must believe in a way that allows God to surprise us, and radically so. Our beliefs must allow room for God's Black Swan activity.

Many of the Church Fathers understood this. And like Taleb's antischolar, the Fathers posited a kind of antitheology. It is called, grandly, the Via Negativa, the "Negative Way." This is also called apophatic theology, a theology focused on what cannot be said about God. Apophatic theology converges with Taleb's account in that (p. 192) "The Black Swan [epistemic] asymmetry allows you to be confident about what is wrong, not about what you believe is right." That is, we are always going to be much more confident about what we don't know about God than about what we do know. The antitheologian will claim that the only claim you can make about God is simply this: "I don't know." And in that claim God's radical freedom and Otherness, His Black Swan character, is recognized, honored, and preserved.

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2 thoughts on “Is God a Black Swan?: Part 2, Disruption, the Narrative Fallacy, and Antitheology”

  1. Harold Bloom's Jesus and Yahweh makes your point from a Jewish perspective--that there is a conceptual break that cannot be reconciled between what he as a Jew delightfully calls the Old and the "Belated" Covenant. (2005)

    BTW: Does Taleb ever make the connection between the larger moral of his arguments and Socratic irony?

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