The Way of the Promise

Last week I posted some reflections on the Praxis group’s “Designs for a Different Future” series.  Their first article laid the foundation for moving forward by acknowledging the role that the extremes of control and withdrawal might be playing in how we understand Our Current Moment.  The second article talked about the potential for normalcy snapback as a response to things even though we could easily acknowledge much that wasn’t necessarily good about the way things used to be.  The third and final article has to do with a topic on everyone’s minds these days: the tricky art of prediction.

I mentioned something about time and prediction a few days ago in a post about the book Antifragile.  I’ve just spent the last week in the section of that book where Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about the difficulty of prediction, particularly when people are already obsessed with the “new.”  Funny enough, Crouch and Praxis make mention of the idea of “black swans,” which is something Taleb concurs that Our Current Moment is not (though I see both sides).  The article starts with this about prediction:

We live in an era of prediction. We gather data about the past and present, construct implicit or explicit models that seek to explain those data, and project events in the future. Human beings have always tried to infer the future — Jesus referred to an ancient method of weather forecasting based on the color of the morning or evening sky. But in some domains, we can now make predictions over far longer periods of time, with far more confidence, than our ancestors — including the weather, with everything from the dew point to the path of hurricanes reliably forecast days in advance.

Crouch and team admit the weaknesses of prediction (and are much more kind to the concept than Taleb:

The problem with prediction is not actually that we have too few well-informed predictions, but that we have more than enough — and it is not until after a “black swan” appears that we realize we could and should have acted on the predictions that were available to us.

And then:

Predictions, especially when based on rigorously refined models, are modestly useful and often much better than nothing.

But prediction itself, as we are all now viscerally aware, is a very fragile way to live.

But it’s really the turn that the group makes next that sets things in a better, more hopeful direction.  They set us in the way of promise, and the imagery they start of with is the picture of the marriage vow.

The language of the vow itself is designed to emphasize that the future this couple will face is unpredictable: it may be better or worse, involve financial gain or loss, it may be medically untroubled or may bring terrifying illness. The only future event predicted in the entire vow, in fact, is death.

From there, they double-back to the earlier connection with withdrawal and control:

The quest for better predictions, on the other hand, is almost always a move toward control — to reduce risk while increasing the likelihood that our actions will matter. And yet predictions often leave us strikingly passive, tending toward withdrawal, as they suggest that the forces determining our future are fixed and immutable . . .

Predictions aim to decrease risk — the uncertainty that we all instinctively fear. But because predictions are so fragile, those who rely on them actually end up exposed to new risks.

Promise, they assert, is the better way of preparing for the future.

Promises, on the other hand, would seem to increase risk. Andy’s life has been in countless ways exposed to more risk because he made a promise to Catherine — exposed not just to uncertain loss, which is what risk usually means, but also to the certain loss of being parted by death from someone he has vowed to have, hold, love, and cherish.

And yet, while promises greatly increase the risk in our lives — and no one should ever imagine that it is not terribly risky to promise anything in this unpredictable world — promises also introduce new resources to handle whatever risks and actual losses we may face. Because promises build trust.

The article has much more to say, of course, particularly about the role of trust in whatever happens next.  Beyond that, the article also brings things back to the hope of redemption found in the Christian faith.

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Over the next weeks and months much will be written and revised about how to handle what comes after Our Current Moment.  I feel like Crouch and the folks at Praxis have provided some framework that gives direction without defaulting to fear or pride.  I’ll be curious to see what else they say as we enter the summer months.

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