Monthly Archives: May 2016

Antifragility and Heaven

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:23)

An often erroneous conclusion is that, therefore, it is easy for poor people to enter Heaven. Yet, this is an error, as the answer Jesus gives to the follow-up question ‘Who, then, can enter Heaven’ isn’t ‘Poor people’ but rather

With God, all things are possible.

What is often missed in discussions of these passages is the concept of ‘Heaven’ (‘kingdom of God’). Quite often, people think of Heaven as a ‘place’ you are ‘transported to’ after bodily death.

If, however, Heaven is understood along the lines of Benedict XVI’s definition – wherever God’s will is being done (see his discussion of ‘Our Father who art in Heaven’ from Jesus of Nazareth) – then the significance of the passage changes.

If this is our understanding, then the passage becomes ‘… than for a rich man to actively align himself with God’s will.’ This comports nicely with Jesus’ teaching that a man cannot ‘serve two masters, God and Mammon’ (Mammon being a personification of material possessions). To serve is to carry out the will of, i.e., we are talking about something active.

Why can’t a man serve material possessions and God at the same time? I think Nassim Taleb’s discussion of Seneca – a Stoic – and antifragility is relevant here (Antifragile, p. 151). Seneca is a very wealthy man, one of the most wealthy in the Roman Empire. Yet he recognizes that material possessions tend to possess their owner, rather than the other way around (this is a great theme in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where the ring of power comes to control its owner).

Yet, Seneca also recognizes that wealth can be a good (otherwise, as Taleb points out, why wouldn’t he have gotten rid of it?). Therefore, he cultivates practices which reduce the ‘fragility’ of owning a large number of material things. In particular, he writes them off in his mind. Therefore, the thought of losing them no longer bothers him, and so they lose part of their grip on him, while still retaining the good they can do for him, his family, and so on.

To connect this with the passage from the Gospel of Matthew, men who have great material wealth tend to be owned by their possessions instead of owning them, and this leads to an inability to follow God’s will. Therefore, these men can’t really ‘enter Heaven’, i.e., be part of the communion of Saints who are aligned with God’s will. Heaven is not a place you are passively transported to (a popular and erroneous conception), but a place you actively ‘go’ to, and which begins in this life (‘thy will be done’ – when? now. by whom? you.).

When Jesus tells a wealthy man to give away all he owns, and come, follow me, the man refuses, demonstrating he is, in fact, owned by his possessions instead of owning them. The proper response would be to cheerily cast off one’s possessions at that moment!

It is only if a man can do so, and is willing to do so if the right circumstances arise, that he can truly make use of material wealth for the Good – i.e., align those material resources with the will of God, which is to say that he can ‘enter into Heaven’.

Christianity as heuristic

In his 2012 book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb distinguishes between three main categories: ‘fragile’, ‘robust’, and ‘antifragile’.

To illustrate the concept of ‘antifragility’, Taleb uses the hydra. If you chop off one of its heads, two grow in its place. Similarly, if you damage your muscles while lifting a heavy object then, given enough time, they will repair with more strength than before. These are not just robust, but ‘antifragile’.

In a table listing various kinds of fragile-robust-antifragile types, Nassim Taleb has under ‘science’

Theory (fragile). Phenomenology (robust). Heuristics, practical tricks (antifragile).

This seems right. A reliance on theories in science leads to epistemic fragility. In particular, when people start conceiving of science as a group of specific theories, their worldview becomes highly fragile, because it is open to being undermined whenever evidence suggests one of those theories is wrong.

Science’s real strength (its antifragility) is in science-as-process. This is why you can keep disproving various theories within science, and yet science as a whole becomes stronger. It is this basic ‘antifragile’ conception which is the main source of science’s great successes. That is to say, science is essentially a heuristic – a way of generating ideas that are then tested, and so on, ad infinitum. It embraces uncertainty – there is much we don’t know.

When people conceive Christianity as a collection of theological theories, this tends to develop into a fragile worldview. A better conception is of Christianity as essentially a heuristic – a way of generating practices that are then tested. Christianity isn’t essentially this-or-that-set-of-theological-theories (trinitarianism, penal substitionary atonement, and so on), but a more basic approach to living (a trusting, lived relationship with God). The latter not only contains practical tricks (discernment, and so on), but is a heuristic – a way of generating ideas that are then tested, and so on, ad infinitum. It embraces theological uncertainty – there is much we don’t know.

When either science or Christianity set into fragile theory-centric conceptions, they lose their vigour. When, instead, the focus is essentially on heuristics and practical tricks, they become ‘antifragile’.

Heuristic questions

Two useful questions to ask habitually are

“What can I learn from this?”

and

“How can I use this?”

To use Nassim Taleb’s neologism, these are ‘antifragile’ heuristics.

Christianity lends itself naturally to these questions, because it views the universe as essentially purposive. God has a plan for the universe -> that plan can (if we so choose) involve us -> therefore, events that occur (can) fit into this plan.

Therefore, it’s a natural question for a Christian to ask

“What purpose can God have for this?”

which leads fairly naturally to the two above questions.

If you think of God as a creative, on-going God, then you also can think of God as consistently asking himself the two above questions, and then coordinating people and things (to the extent they are willing – see process theology) in creative solutions.

The ‘Our Father’ as scriptural core of Christianity

Our Father

Who art in Heaven

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy Kingdom come,

Thy will be done,

In earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those who trespass against us,

and lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil. Amen.

My sense is that many repeat this prayer without thinking about what it means.

This prayer is probably the most important in Christianity.

‘Our Father

The whole prayer can be reduced to this line. The key word here is ‘Father’, which is the key metaphor Jesus uses to understand God. God is like a loving, wise Father. This leads to the central part of Christianity – a trusting relationship with God. Without this conception, much of the rest of the prayer doesn’t make sense.

‘who art in Heaven

Taken at its most basic, this is a disambiguator. We are talking of a spiritual Father, not a biological one.

Hallowed be thy name’

This doesn’t just mean that the name of God is holy, but that it shall be made so. This applies at both the individual and societal level. Hallowed means holy (which is to say, harmoniously good), and in this context means ‘recognized as such’. Recognition enables action, ultimately on an individual level (the concept is an anchor, which enables us to act).

‘Thy Kingdom come’

Key here is the nature of the Kingdom. The Kingdom will not appear in signs with ‘lo, there it is’, but rather it is ‘in the midst of you’. Which is to say, this is a Kingdom which develops out of people’s mental habits and actions. The Kingdom is the development of a good (harmonious, loving, just) society. Which leads to the next section.

‘Thy will be done’

One of the most basic practices in Christianity is ‘discernment’, i.e., figuring out what God’s will is in a particular situation. This is the way that the Kingdom comes about (us doing God’s will, where God = the Good).

In earth as it is in Heaven’

The point here is that we ought to do good things to make earth more like Heaven, i.e., to bring earth (the universe) into goodness. The point is not to wait around until one dies to ‘go to’ Heaven, but to do things here and now so as to make earth more like Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread’

This has connections to ‘Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened unto you’. The point is that we ask. The term ‘bread’ can be misleading, as it is a richly adorned concept in the Gospels. It does not mean ‘bread’, or even ‘food’, but rather that which nourishes us (body and spirit). Nourishment is tied to growth or learning, and in particular theosis, or growing to be more like God. Daily nourishment has as its main objective spiritual growth, which in turn is one of the main objectives of Christian practice.

‘and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’

The story of the prodigal son is apt here. God will forgive you your trespasses (alternatively translated as ‘debts’). This relates to the concept of ‘sin’, which in its essence means things which separate us from God (the good). The prodigal son becomes separated from his father (literally), but as soon as he chooses to return home his father ‘runs out to meet him’, celebrates, and forgives him.

In turn, we ought to forgive those who trespass against us. Forgiveness – in particular, letting go of negative emotions towards other – helps us. Not letting go of negative emotions gets in the way of us connecting to God. Holding on to negative emotions first and foremost negatively affects the one holding on to the emotions, as they stew in negative emotions.

‘and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’

Evil = sin = that which obstructs our connection to God (= the good). A connection to God isn’t theoretical, it is a lived connection. Almost routinely, there are ‘temptations’, typically in the form of short-term thinking combined with wishful thinking, harsh words for loved ones, and so on. We ought to be on the look-out, in a sense, for these, and use our connection to the good to call their bluff, so to speak.

It is important to remember this isn’t so much a set of doctrines as a practice (‘How am I to pray?’) – a mnemonic for remembering and then focusing on key aspects of how one is living day-to-day and thinking it through, so as to change one’s habitual actions.