In order to talk about the numinous unknown, whether that is God, the gods, the hoped-for afterlife, or just the mysteries of our existence, humankind from ancient times have used symbols and metaphors.
One such symbol is the white swan. It may have been its beauty, its graceful movements, and its fragility that inspired numerous cultural legends. The white swan, for example, appears in the prehistory archaeology of the ancient peoples of Scandinavia with their boats adorned both fore and aft in the form of a swan’s head and neck, personifying the Sun-god. And not only in Scandinavia, but also in Greece and India, we have the Swan representing the sun-like gifts of light, radiance, and fruitfulness.
Then there are numerous stories of humans being transformed into swans. We are maybe most familiar with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake or the Brothers Grimm Six Swans, but Greek mythology long pre-dates these – like with Apollo’s birth amongst the swans, or the courting of Leda by Zeus who was the guise of a swan. The symbolism, whether from human to swan or swan to human, or god to swan, is about miraculous transformation or, to use a religious word, resurrection. The symbolism also speaks of the possibility of a bodily union between humanity and divinity.
Given the power of this symbolism it is not surprising then that the white swan was used in reference to Jesus. There emerged in Europe the image of the White Christ – pure, graceful, beautiful, innocent, loving and just. The white colour also signified chastity/loyalty – emblematic of the ideal of perfect love. In France there was the symbol of the swan with its neck draped around the cross.
The swan’s ability to fly led to the image of Christ the divine swan of heaven – the intermediary between this life and the next, between the known and unknown. And the swan’s capacity to travel over oceans to distant lands led to image of Christ the guiding swan. So to the ideal of beauty was added both mystery and courage.
In the Ezekiel vision we read today [37:3], “The Lord said [to Ezekiel], “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”” Or, in other words, Ezekiel had no idea how the impossible can become possible. ‘Thou knowest O God but I don’t.’ The message seems to be that the Word of God, spoken by the prophet, can make the inanimate bones come alive again.
The lectionary ties this vision with another piece of creative writing from the Gospel of John [11:23-25], “Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.”” In the high Christology of this Gospel Jesus is now the Word of God [1:1, 14]. He is the one who can make the impossible possible, and make the inanimate dead come alive again – not in some future time but right now. But it’s not clear how.
These readings of course are not about historical events but mythic understandings. Just as a swan is not a human, or dead bodies come back to life, we need to grasp the symbolism these stories point to – namely that sometimes, through factors completely outside our normative understandings, what seems impossible becomes possible. A disruption has occurred in normality. New, renewed, life can come to an individual or a community via something extraordinary.
From the ancient times of Europe right up into the 16th century there was an assumption that all swans were white. There were popular sayings like ‘a good person is as rare as a black swan’. They should have asked an aboriginal Australian.
Nassim Taleb in his book The Black Swan[i] uses this as an example of the fallacy of inductive reasoning. That is we presume because our experience is that all swans are white that there is no such thing as a black swan. Taleb extrapolates from this example to ask how we can confidently predict the future based upon our past experiences when we have no idea what the future will bring. We routinely predict a future full of white swans, orderly and predictable; and yet black swans enter our world bringing disruption. These black swans come from beyond the horizons of our knowledge.
Richard Beck, writing in his blog Experimental Theology[ii], asks the question ‘Is God a black swan?’ Beck points to biblical stories like the call of Abraham, the Exodus, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection. Each event, though dressed up by storytellers in mythic clothing, fit features of Taleb's definition of a Black Swan event – namely something rare that has an high impact, fracturing normality, and only retrospectively ‘makes sense.’
Beck also wonders if religious people might also suffer from the Taleb’s triplet of opacity – 1. the illusion of understanding our surroundings, 2. the tendency to assign retrospective explanations to make events seem more logical than they are, and 3. the tendency to assign information to neatly-defined categories.
Don't we religious people suffer from the illusion that we know what God is up to? Don't we religious people clean up the past making God's actions appear more expected and rational than how they really were experienced? And doesn’t this lead to overconfidence in predicting God?
If God is a black swan, what are the implications for our spiritual life?
Instead of a God whose nature is to interrupt maybe we should consider a God whose nature is to disrupt.
For is this not the Christian message: that God’s actions in Jesus were so unanticipated, so novel, and so different that a rupture was created in the Jewish faith tradition? Paul’s Letter to the Romans is devoted to rescuing God’s reputation in the face of this rupture. Romans is essentially about how God can be trusted if God does in fact act like a Black Swan (as God apparently did in Jesus).
If then Christians claim God acted in a disruptive fashion Vis a Vis the norms of Judaism (the mother faith of all the first disciples) 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 those first century Jews faced when they encountered Jesus?
This worry echoes in the Christian consciousness. We ask ourselves: Would we recognize Jesus if he came to us today? We wonder would Jesus even be a Christian. Would Jesus go to church? Would he be like me – white, educated, nice? What if Jesus was a poor woman from a developing 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?
One of the ways Christians have traditionally fooled ourselves about how this disorientation could have been avoided is to say that if those around in 1st century Palestine just knew their bibles a bit better [like Isaiah: ‘Unto us a child is born’], Jesus would not have been disruptive but wholly expected. If they’d just understood Ezekiel 37 about the dead bones coming back to life, then they would have understood the ministry and resurrection of Jesus?
Taleb calls this 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 rear-view mirror. Look at all the post-election analysis of Donald Trump’s ascendancy. All the leading pollsters got it badly wrong. Hindsight is always 20/20, but we can't expect that kind of clarity from people trying to peer into the future.
In short, the biblical so-called ‘prophecies’ about Jesus were retrospective attempts by his followers to try to make sense of this seismic disruption.
So where does this leave us? How do we do live a faith created by a Black Swan? How are we to peer into life and the future knowing that spirit of 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. That is, we study what we don't know and be humble about the limits of our knowledge. Beck suggests, using Taleb’s word, that churches embrace epistemocracy – namely be governed from the basis of awareness of ignorance, not knowledge. In humility we need to recognise that all our claims are subjective and provisional.
The Christian 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 worldview must allow room for God's Black Swan activity.
Many of the Church Fathers & Mothers in the first five centuries of Christian history understood this. And like Taleb's antischolar, they posited a kind of antitheology called the Via Negativa, the “Negative Way.” This is a theology focused on what cannot be said about God. 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 say 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, God’s [and Jesus’] Black Swan character, is recognized, honoured, and preserved.
The use of the symbolism of the swan and the biblical stories of miraculous resurrections are attempts to make sense of the life-changing disruption wrought by Jesus. That disruption was not understood. That disruption is still not understood. So we tell stories, appropriate old cultural stories and symbols, reimagine what ancient texts might be saying, but at the end of the day we don’t know. If someone asked me to explain the resurrection I could use lots of words, offer historical-critical analysis, stories and examples, but at the end of the day I don’t know. It is outside my knowledge and experience. There was a disruption. A black swan event happened. And history took a different turn.
[i] Nassim Nicholas Taleb The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable, 2010.