Thinking Theology in Turbulent Times Must be Rooted in the Earth

Bonhoeffer and Nassim Taleb on the Antaeus Myth

Nassim Nicholas Taleb begins his book, Skin in the Game with a broadside directed at political and academic elites who implement public policies without considering carefully their ramifications. He highlights the disasters which follow the recent military interventions in Libya and Syria. The unintended consequences of ‘regime change’ resulted in thousands of innocent victims being kidnapped, enslaved, incarcerated or blown to smithereens. Nevertheless, the policy makers are not held responsible for the misery of the victims; they continue to enjoy security and comfort in their air-conditioned offices thousands of miles away.

Nassim identifies the root problem. These policy makers do not have “skin in the game.” That is to say, they are not exposed to the painful consequences of their idiotic policies. Naturally, they remain nonchalant and fail to learn since they don’t have to pay for their mistakes. “So these interventionistas not only lack practical sense, and never learn from history, but they even fail at pure reasoning, which they drown in elaborate semiabstract buzzword-laden discourse.” As the old proverb says, “No pain, no gain.”

What catches my attention is not Nassim’s damming judgment on these incompetent and ‘skinless’ policy makers but his comparison of contemporary political and academic elites with the semi-giant Antaeus found in Greek mythology.

Antaeus was the literal son of Mother Earth, Gaea, and Poseidon, the god of the sea… Antaeus was deemed to be invincible, but there was a trick. He derived his strength from contact with his mother, Earth. Physically separated from contact with Earth, he lost all his powers. Hercules, as part of his twelve labors (in one variation of the tale), had for homework to whack Antaeus. He managed to lift him off the ground and terminated him by crushing him as his feet remained out of contact with his mamma.

Nassim concludes,

Just like Antaeus, you cannot separate knowledge from contact with the ground. Actually, you cannot separate anything from contact with the ground. And the contact with the real world is done via skin in the game—having an exposure to the real world, and paying a price for its consequences, good or bad. The abrasions of your skin guide your learning and discovery, a mechanism of organic signaling, what the Greeks called pathemata mathemata (“guide your learning through pain,” something mothers of young children know rather well). I have shown in Antifragile that most things that we believe were “invented” by universities were actually discovered by tinkering and later legitimized by some type of formalization. The knowledge we get by tinkering, via trial and error, experience, and the workings of time, in other words, contact with the earth, is vastly superior to that obtained through reasoning, something self-serving institutions have been very busy hiding from us.

I came across a similar reading of Antaeus in 1984 when I read Bonhoeffer’s lecture delivered to his church in Barcelona in 1929, “What is Christian Ethic.” Bonhoeffer declares that “ethics is a matter of history; it is not simply something which has descended from heaven to earth, but is rather a child of the earth.” He elaborates,

Ethics is a matter of earth and of blood, but also of him who made both; the trouble arises from this duality. There can be ethics only in the framework of history, in the concrete situation, at the moment of the divine call, the moment of being addressed, of the claim made by the concrete need and the situation for decision, of the claim which I have to answer and for which I have to make myself responsible. Thus there cannot be ethics in a vacuum, as a principle; there cannot be good and evil as general ideas, but only as qualities of a will making a decision. There can be only good and evil as done in freedom; principles are binding under the law. Bound up in the concrete situation, through God and in God the Christian acts in the power of a man who has become free. He is under no judgment but his own and that of God.

But through this freedom from the law, from principle, the Christian must enter into the complexity of the world; he cannot make up his mind a priori, but only when he himself has become involved in the emergency and knows himself called by God. He remains earthbound, when his desire is towards God; he must go through all the anxiety before the laws of the world; he must learn the paradox that the world offers us a choice, not between good and evil, but between one evil and another, and that nevertheless God leads him to himself even through evil. He must feel the gross contradiction between what he would like to do and what he must do; he must grow mature through this distress, grow mature through not leaving hold of God’s hand, in the words ‘Thy will be done’. A glimpse of eternity is revealed only through the depth of our earth, only through the storms of human conscience. The profound old saga tells of the giant Antaeus, who was stronger than any man on earth; no one could overcome him until once in a fight someone lifted him from the ground; then the giant lost all the strength which had flowed into him through his contact with the earth. The man who would leave the earth, who would depart from the present distress, loses the power which still holds him by eternal, mysterious forces. The earth remains our mother, just as God remains our Father, and our mother will only lay in the Father’s arms him who remains true to her. That is the Christian’s song of earth and her distress. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords (Fontana, 1970), pp. 36, 42-43]

I am not sure whether Nassim read Bonhoeffer, but the similarities in their appropriation of Antaeus is striking.

Bonhoeffer’s Earth and Blood Theology

For Bonhoeffer, fidelity to the earth is foundational for Christian theology. Put concretely in missional terms, the rightful place of the church is at the centre of the village and alongside other institutions in the public square, especially in times of national crisis.

Perhaps, Bonhoeffer was casting a glance at the storm clouds portending the outbreak of Spanish Civil War in 1936, and the disintegration of the German Weimar Republic which led to the rise of Hitler in 1933. Theologizing in such dire circumstances will be hazardous, if not fatal to any theologian who speaks truth to power. But Bonhoeffer chose to forsake the opportunity to teach with safety under Gothic arches at Union Theological Seminary in New York which was one of the prestigious seminaries at that time. Bonhoeffer explained to Reinhold Niebuhr why he turned down the teaching appointment:

I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make that choice in security. [Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. Rev. Ed. (Fortress Press, 2000), p. 655]

One can only be impressed by way in which Bonhoeffer concretely and directly confronted Nazi tyranny. His theology is ‘all skin’ and “a matter of earth and of blood.” He paid the ultimate price as he was eventually executed under Hitler’s personal orders for his resistance to the Third Reich. The absence of triviality in his theological oeuvre stands in stark contrast to the lightness of being that pervades much of contemporary Western academic theology. Bonhoeffer and Nassim would agree that it is difficult to have “skin in the game” and “earth and blood theology” when life as a theologian is leisurely and cozy under the Gothic arches of prestigious universities.

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1 thought on “Thinking Theology in Turbulent Times Must be Rooted in the Earth”

  1. Your article will be complete and sublime when you include also the only model displayed by the coming of Christ with full skin in the game and all blood that surprising to us earthlings is the great victory and policy solution to our troubles and woes.
    Dare more besides Bonhoeffer and the likes to follow Him in our times ?

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