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Christ as the Greatest Black Swan: At the Center of History

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“I am a historian, I am not a believer.  But I must confess as a historian that this penniless preacher from Nazareth is irrevocably the very center of history.  Jesus Christ is easily the most dominant figure in all history.”

H.G. Wells

 

 

 

The third part of our Advent look at Jesus as the greatest Black Swan event in human history.  Go here to read part one and here to read part two.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his 2007 book The Black Swan, took a look at the impact of events in history for which our prior experiences give us no inkling.  Taleb states three requirements for a Black Swan Event:

First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

“Extreme impact” is such an understatement if used in reference to the impact of the coming of Christ on the History of Man.  Such an outcome would have been considered impossible judging strictly from the facts of His life.  A brief three year preaching ministry in a backwater of the Roman Empire, born a member of a conquered and widely despised people.  Opposed from the start by the leaders of His people and ignored by the Roman occupiers, His movement was strangled at its inception by His death on the Cross.  All but one of His Apostles fled from Him in panic, desperate to deny any connection with a clearly doomed cause.  Few lives seemed more complete a failure than did that of Christ when His body was deposited in a borrowed tomb.  His destiny seemed clear:  to be forgotten by History, not even a footnote.  Then came the Resurrection, His appearances after the Crucifixion, and his movement experienced a glorious dawn.

However, the odds against this movement accomplishing anything of note remained quite daunting.  No powerful supporters; no homeland embracing their faith;  cultures, both Jewish and Gentile, which were hostile to the preaching of the Gospel;  countless other religions which were well-established and intolerant of a new rival;  disputes quickly arising to split the movement, and the list of handicaps for these Christians as they were soon called was a lengthy one.

Yet, the new Faith also had advantages.  First, an endless line of fearless missionaries, at the head of which stands Saint Paul. Willing to go anyplace and speak to anyone, they spread the seeds of Christianity around the Mediterranean and beyond.  Second, Christ had taught them to love God and love their neighbor and Christians became quickly known for good works:  rescuing abandoned babies, tending to the forgotten sick, caring for the elderly and always demonstrating that no one was beyond the scope of God’s love manifested in His Christian followers.  Countless Christians were made by the example of simple Christian kindness.  Third, when persecutions came, most Christians, including women and children, conducted themselves like heroes, drawing an often reluctant approval for their courage from the pagans who observed their deaths.  Christianity had staying power and the power to make converts, seeming to draw strength and numbers from persecutions.  Fourth, hope beyond the grave, which caused countless men, women and children to face death with courage and dignity.

Three centuries after Christ died on the Cross, a Roman emperor bowed to the Cross.  An enormous and completely unlikely achievement for what had begun as a small and despised sect.  Thus Christianity entered into an often uneasy relationship with Caesar as Christianity became the dominant faith of the Roman Empire.  Few parts of human life were not transformed by Christianity thereafter in Europe and beyond.

In the centuries to come Christianity would know persecutions, schisms, heresies and the threat of Islam.  Often the Faith of Christ seemed destined to be submerged, but each time it came back stronger than before in spite of the formidable forces arrayed against it and the frequent blind folly of too many of its leaders.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, a British statesman and writer of the nineteenth century, and no friend of Catholicism, paid tribute to the ability of the Church to weather the tempests of History:

There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustin, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila. The number of her children is greater than in any former age. Her acquisitions in the New World have more than compensated for what she has lost in the Old. Her spiritual ascendency extends over the vast countries which lie between the plains of the Missouri and Cape Horn, countries which a century hence, may not improbably contain a population as large as that which now inhabits Europe. The members of her communion are certainly not fewer than a hundred and fifty millions; and it will be difficult to show that all other Christian sects united amount to a hundred and twenty millions. Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.

It is impossible to overstate the impact of the life of Jesus Christ on all of History since His birth.  The forces placed in motion over 2000 years ago in Bethlehem are still being played out around the Globe and doubtless will continue to do so until, as His believers await, He comes again.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

6 Comments

  1. Of course, Macaulay couldn’t write that about today’s Catholic Church, though–God willing–a future Macaulay might. A papacy “full of life and youthful vigor”? Hardly–we are the captive audience to a bunch of gerontological relics attempting to revive the heady days of the 1970s. Zealous missionaries? Hey, we’re to convert merely by passive attraction these days, don’cha know? You aren’t dune kind of proselytizer, are you? Confronting hostile kings? If by “confronting”, you mean “endorsing all their daffiest schemes for immanentizing the Eschaton”, then sure.
    .
    But seriously: great series, Don.

  2. Murray, I think today’s aberrations are no different than the corruptions which existed in the 11th century and the 15th century. The Church outlived her wicked Popes, and will still do so with the current occupier of the Seat of Peter. Liberalism and progressivism will follow the way of Robespierre’s Revolution and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Eco-wackism will die as its Gaia-worshiping pagan predecessor did. But the gates of hell shall not prevail.

  3. I believe the Catholic Church has a built-in immune system that releases it own version of killer T-cells to fight intrusions by the devil in all his forms. One of these killer T-cells is the American Catholic fighting the undermining of the faith which is so prevalent today. It would appear it is up to the laity to lead the way. Keep up the good work Don.

  4. You are welcome Don. I would like to expand a little on the Killer T-cell idea as it regards the defending the Catholic faith. Just as the body’s immune system creates Killer T-cells to fight cancer so our Catholic faith produces individuals who wish to seek out and destroy those ideas that oppose orthodox belief. In terms of symbolic imagery we can think of the Killer T-cell as representing Truth and the Cross. It is thru the Truth and the Cross that we all come to salvation as proclaiming the Truth often involves suffering, just as Christ preached. Indeed, for you and others like you, orthodox blogging is a true and essential vocation in our times for the preservation of the faith.

    Maybe there should be a ‘Killer T-cell’ Seal of Approval to designate truly Orthodox blogs.
    And with this thought I nominate ‘The American Catholic’ and ‘St. Corbinian’s Bear’ for the Killer T-cell seal of approval. Anybody have other suggestions?

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