White Swans and Black


By Nathaniel Brown mailto:Nathaniel.Brown6@verizon.net



I want to talk to you today about white Swans - but before those of you who really do know something about birds spot me as an imposter, let me put your mind at rest: I want to talk about logic and what I like to refer to as "intelligent Christianity" - not birds!


I recently finished a little book called Christianity - Two Thousand Years , a collection of public lectures delivered in Oxford over the academic year 1999-2000, to mark the end of the second millennium and to look ahead to the third. Ten experts were asked to give fifty-minute lectures on the period of Christian history in which each specialized, and the broad topic was "what brought us to where we are?"


The seventh lecture, by Jane Shaw, focused on the late seventeenth century and the eighteenth century, the centuries of the Enlightenment, which saw the start of the revolutions that changed European life with the first beginnings of the great democracies. These were the times when the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights all took as a basic premise that all men were created equal. But as Shaw points out things were not so simple as the sanitized version of the period that has been standard text. As she says, "... the Enlightenment opened up, and yet did not solve, the question of who has equality and rights, who is perfectible, and who, through the power of their own thinking, can begin to understand the nature of God."


Which brings us back to the swans.


If we say, "All swans are white," we are saying something we can never prove. We may see ten thousand white swans, and happily conclude that we are right - but all we need to do it to see one black swan to discover that we are not right - and that is where we start to learn something useful, if perhaps also a bit unsettling. Now, the pre-Enlightenment way of dealing with our black swan might have been to say that its not really a swan - but I don't think this takes us anywhere useful.


Around the beginning of the twentieth century a philosopher of science named Karl Popper formulated a new approach to science that has become so much a part of our modern - or more accurately, our post-modern - way of thought that we hardly think of it any more. Popper's perception was that science does not move forward by studying phenomena and then formulating a theory, but by the exact opposite route: by formulating a theory, then testing it by observation: if the observations prove the theory to be wrong, or to need refinement, then we move forward; if we refuse to admit error, our theory simply ossifies and becomes useless.


Popper went on, during the Second World War, to write The Open Society and it Enemies. In this book, Popper examined the political theories of Plato, Hegel, and Marx. In each case he showed that societies based on these theories would eventually die, crushed by their own weight. Popper showed that a society which strictly enforces one point of view, one dialectic, becomes incapable of changing when new circumstances or needs or opportunities arise; it cannot take on new methods of dealing with change, it suppresses innovation and criticism, devalues dissent by calling it treason. In a word, it shoots the black swan, and hopes no one finds the body. This is the reactionary impulse.


In a recent Newsweek (April 8/April 15 in the International Edition), Ann Widdecombe, a feisty conservative MP, told reporters why she converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. For her, the "last straw" was the ordination of women in the Church of England. "It seemed to me that [the Anglican Church] was always sacrificing faith to fashion, creed to compromise, doctrine to doubt." Perhaps these are valid criticisms in so far as the Anglican and Episcopal Churches have not yet found a clear voice to articulate something resembling Popper's essentially liberal view. Perhaps we need someone to write The Open Church and its Enemies. But we must not confuse the ability to learn and change with fashion or lack of faith. We do not need to shoot the swan. Indeed we cannot afford to.


So I want to go back to Jane Shaw's Oxford lecture: Who has equality and rights? Who is perfectible? Who can begin to understand the nature of God? In terms all too familiar in much of what passes for religious teaching, what tradition? Whose family? Which values?


We cannot pretend that Christians' perceptions of the meaning of the Gospels has never changed. Indeed, it has never stopped changing from the controversy between the essentially conservative Jerusalem-based church centered around James, which felt that Jesus was for the Jews alone, and the radical, out-reaching and dynamic new "good news" which Paul took to the Gentiles. The Church fought and divided over the insertion of "and the son" into the creed. It battled the birth of science by imprisoning Galileo. It fought over slavery, over giving women the vote, over segregation, and it is fighting over divorce and re-marriage, birth control and gay rights. There are always those who would like to shoot the black swan, and - thank God! - those who perceive that the black swan is a clue which can show us a way to learn and grow.


Unhappily, we live in a period - a brief one, we can only hope - where dissent in politics is branded as unpatriotic or even treasonous. We live in an era - all too protracted - where people with different opinions are branded as having caused the attack on the World Trade Center. We live in an era where a newspaper like the Washington Times puts words such as "nondiscrimination" and "tolerance" in quotes as if these things were ridiculous or pernicious ideas, and where the President dismisses criticism by saying that some folks have some silly notions.


All this is dangerous. It is shooting the black swan, and it is closing the doors to criticism and dissent, which are the best tools we have to help us grow. Ultimately, as Popper showed half a century ago, shutting the doors of knowledge and debate may even doom our society.


So let me go back to Jane Shaw once more: "Who, through the power of their own thinking, can begin to understand the nature of God?"


We are here to day to celebrate the Eucharist together as Christian sisters and brothers. None of us can comprehend God, none of us has the right to say that his or her music is the only legitimate form of music, or that our brother or sister may not have a prophetic glimpse invisible to us - of the glory and the unfathomable and unconditional love of God. Change, dissent, criticism - these are the ways we stumble forward. They are not comfortable, any more than adult life is comfortable. But we must not worship the idol of what someone tells us has always been, nor dismiss the life-giving possibility of change and growth. We must use our wits and all the honesty and humility we can summon up to grope our limited way forward in God's love and unending mystery.


We are all black swans.


St. Maarten, April, 2002


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