Jesus, the True Black Swan

5 Jul
 
Mark 6:1-13
 
 
“I do not have clear answers to current questions. I do have questions, and, as a matter of fact, I think a man is known better by his questions than by his answers. ”  (Thomas Merton) He goes on to say that he avoids the quick and easy answers the popular consumer culture provides.
 
The people in Jesus’ hometown were known, not by their questions, but by their answers. Jesus disturbed them by his behaviour and his speech. He raised questions in their mind, questions they had to find an answer to.
 
Note they move from what disturbed them – his authority and is power – to what they knew about him. He was just like them, a resident of a small village. The son of a woman they knew, one with an interesting story about his birth. They knew his brothers and sisters. There was nothing special about them. By deduction what ever was said about Jesus, whatever so called power and authority he had was to be dismissed based on the same premise we use to make decisions and to answer questions most of the time.
 
Despite how we like to think we critically analyse the situation, review all the facts and do our research, we generally decide based on ‘what you see is all there is” (WYSIATI). Author Daniel Kahneman proposes that we make our decisions based only on what we know to be the case, on what you see, you may not know what you don’t know and therefore find yourself making a decision based on only a small segment of the available information. Just how much do you or I know about the stock market, superannuation, global warming, buying cars or houses, having children or the motivation of our government on a particular issue?
 
At a Press Conference at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium, June 6, 2002, Donald Rumsfeld said, “There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.” While Rumsfeld was ridiculed for what he said, he is undoubtedly right. It is the unknown unknowns, the stuff we don’t know we don’t know which trips us up. This is the facts we do not account for in our decision making process because we concentrate only on what we know we know and what we know we don’t know.”
 
Kahneman suggests, ‘WYSIATI is the notion that we form impressions and judgments based on the information that is available to us. For instance we form impressions about people within a few seconds of meeting them. In fact, it has been documented that without careful training interviewers who are screening job applicants will come to a conclusion about the applicant within about 30 seconds of beginning the interview. And when tested these initial notions are often wrong.’
WYSIATI does not allow for what has become to be known as black swan events. Nassim Taleb coined this phrase in his book, Fooled by Randomness, referring to unexpected events of large magnitude and consequence and their dominant role in history. The phrase “black swan” derives from a Latin expression; meaning “a rare bird in the lands and very much like a black swan”. (Juvenal) When the phrase was coined, the black swan was presumed not to exist. The importance of the metaphor lies in its analogy to the fragility of any system of thought. A set of conclusions is potentially undone once any of its fundamental postulates is disproved. In this case, the observation of a single black swan would be the undoing of the logic of any system of thought, as well as any reasoning that followed from that underlying logic.(Wikipedia).
Before European explorers had reached Australia, it was believed that all swans were white. Dutch mariner, Antounie Caen, was the first to be amazed at the sight of Australia’s Black swans on Shark Bay in 1636
The people in Jesus’ village relied heavily on WYSIATI and dismissed Jesus out of hand. In their eyes he could not be anyone special because the rest of his family was so normal and ordinary. Just like them. They offered him little opportunity to provide evidence to the contrary because one, including Jesus, needs the faith of another to achieve their full potential. There answers to their own questions marked them as those who missed out on participating in the fullness Jesus came to share with them.
Jesus is their “black swan”.
 
In sending the disciples out in to the world he warns them of the danger of WYSIATI in those they meet. Don’t hang around when people fail to see what you have to offer. Don’t waste your time. People will make judgements based on what they know and will be unable to accept you and the message you have to bring because they have already made up their mind.
 
Having an open mind sounds simple but is not easy. To have a truly open mind and not just a steal fortress keeping any challenging idea out or a garbage dump accepting any old rubbish, requires great discipline. You have to be able to hold a number of different ideas and emotions at the same time without sacrificing one for another on the flimsiest of evidence. Such a position allows us to identify the unknowns, the factors powerfully affecting our decision making we may miss if we act too quickly or rely just on our own experience and understanding.
 
Working for a charity, I raised the prospect of using telemarketing to solicit donations. As a professional fundraiser, telemarketing is a key fundraising tool. The objections from the board included, “No, I don’t like telemarketers’ or ‘No, my mother doesn’t like telemarketers.’ My response was, looking at the positive impact such programs had for other organisations, there were more people out there than them or their mother. The facts showed it was effective for other organisations and, therefore would be effective for us. This proved to be the case.
 
The challenge for organisations and churches is to explore options wider than our experience, to be open to ideas we have yet to encounter or know exist, and to avoid using our own limited experience as the benchmark by which we judge an idea, person or opportunity. Jesus was ignored by his community because they did just that. Their familiarity with him and his family got in the way. He then pointed to the fact that the wider community would react, more often than not, in a similar way to those he sent into the world.
 
Our familiarity with our tradition, past practice and our ingrained biases diminishes our capacity to live the good news in our community. Our familiarity with who we are, where have been and what we know can get in the way of our encountering Jesus, either directly or in those opportunities or people we meet daily. We reply with the answers we have become comfortable with, based on what we have experienced. In every walk of life there are people who have had one years of experience over and over again. What Jesus seeks is those who are capable of moving from one experience to another, embracing different questions and not being satisfied with the same answers.
 
The Anglican church is being challenged to see, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves in the world, new questions requiring answers based on a commitment to being open to much more than we individually or corporately know or have previously experienced. St Oswald’s finds itself in exactly the same place.  This is not to mean that we ignore what we know, but that we suspend our tendency to rush to a decision based simply on what we know or the answers offered by the prevailing culture.
The answer, we are told, is to get more young people into church, be trendy and ‘ elevant’ and then our problems will be solved. We fail to see that this has never been the answer to the churches problems. If it was, we wouldn’t be where we are today. We would have benefited from the large Sunday schools and youth groups of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. They are not here. And they are not going to be here. In the period after the war, monasteries throughout America were crowded with young men coming home from wars, committing themselves to monastic vows. Today those very same monasteries  are almost empty. 
The church is challenged to be prophetic, not popular, and not to embrace the fetish of youth which predominates on tv, sporting fields and popular culture. We are to be who we are, and in doing so, we will be the answer to what is perceived to be the problem.
 
The challenge we face is to live with the questions regarding our place in this community, what the future holds for us, how to reinvent ourselves without closing up like a sunflower when the sun goes down because what we know now seems to be insufficient for the task at hand.
 
I love to travel. I am not a tourist. To Larry Broding’s question, “When you travel, do you intend to escape, or to seek out new things and new people?” I answer the latter. I am not interested in seeing the obvious, I want to see what is hidden, particular and distinct in the places I go. I want to find people and places off the tourist grid. Tourists see the sights. Travellers experience the questions people and places live.
The danger for us as Christians is to become tourists, seeing the sights our faith has to offer, but avoiding the questions and the unknowns it has in store for us, if we are but open to explore them.
Jesus sent his disciples out as travellers. He said live amongst those who welcome you, but do not become entrapped by the culture. Leave behind money, possessions and fads, and offer yourself to those who are living the questions. Offer no quick answers but be known by the questions you raise.
We are called to be black swans in a world where only white swans are recognised.
I like that idea.
Amen
 

  

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