Which Barbie do you identify with? Stereotypical Barbie, Supreme Court Justice Barbie, Nobel Prize Winning Physicist Barbie? Or perhaps you’re Weird Barbie, Irrepressible Thoughts of Death Barbie, or the Depression Barbie who binge-watches Colin Firth in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice? Or maybe you’re Just Ken (anywhere else I’d be a ten), and you lost interest in the patriarchy when you found out it wasn’t about horses?
Either way, the movie sensation of the summer (sorry Oppenheimer) is as pink and fluffy as candyfloss, but a great deal more thought-provoking. Of course – spoiler alert – like Pinocchio, Barbie ends up wanting to be a Real Boy. The Blue Fairy in this case is the blue-suited Barbie-creator Ruth Handler, complete with a double mastectomy and tax evasion issues. At the crucial moment, the script has Barbie say: “I want to do the imagining, not be the idea.” And off she goes, to visit… the gynaecologist.
This is not news. Every story about humans manufacturing humanoid creatures has this kind of twist, so much so that it is clearly wells up from a deep sense that wanting to be human should be the ultimate goal. It’s an example of a speciesist human exceptionalism, but it is weirdly Normal Barbie for humans to feel special, particularly those who claim the imago dei. Who wouldn’t want to be the subject and not the object? Is it inevitable that any emerging intelligence will yearn for consciousness?
So the recent acceleration in the rise of AI is shaking us to the core, and the UK Government’s 2023 National Risk Register names AI for the first time as a ‘chronic risk.’ Have we lost control of AI already? Is the reign of our species really drawing to an end, or can we seize the initiative before it’s too late? I think we can, and I think the answer is not so much about more regulation as about better design.
Lately, the trend in innovation has been to be inspired by biomimicry, which is about learning from the tried and tested design of nature. We invented Velcro from looking at burrs and teazles; and the bumps on the fins of humpback whales have been used to design out drag in wind turbines. But when it comes to AI, which is also about copying nature – specifically human intelligence – we have not been looking closely enough at what we are trying to copy.
We have completely ignored God’s blueprints. Instead, in our haste to program only the very best of our design into AI, we have left out all the ‘junk code’ – the bits we’re ashamed of, or struggle to understand, like our emotions, uncertainty, and intuition. In fact, I have identified 7 items of ‘junk code’ in which lie the essential magic of our human design and the hallmarks of the human soul.
Our Junk Code
1. Free-will 2. Emotions 3. Sixth Sense 4. Uncertainty 5. Mistakes 6. Meaning 7. Storytelling
If you think about it, Free Will is a disastrous design choice. Letting creatures do what they want is highly likely to lead to their rapid extinction. So let’s design in some ameliorators. The first is emotion. Humans are a very vulnerable species because their young take 9 months to gestate, and are largely helpless for their first few years. Emotion is a good design choice because it makes these creatures bond with their children and in their communities to protect the vulnerable.
Next, you design in a Sixth Sense, so that when there is no clear data to inform a decision, they can use their intuition to seek wisdom from the collective unconscious, which helps de-risk decision-making. Then we need to consolidate this by designing in uncertainty.
A capacity to cope with ambiguity will stop them rushing into precipitous decision-making, and make them seek others out for wise counsel. And if they do make mistakes? Well, they will learn from them. And mistakes that make them feel bad will develop in them a healthy conscience, which will steer them away from repeated harms in future.
Now that we have corrected their design to promote survival, what motivators are needed for their future flourishing? They need to want to get out of bed on a dark day, so we fit them with a capacity for meaning-making, because a species that can discern or create meaning in the world will find reasons to keep living in the face of any adversity (I am even making meaning out of Barbie!). And to keep the species going over generations?
We design in a super-power about storytelling. Stories allow communities to transmit their core values and purpose down the generations in a highly sticky way. The religions and other wisdom traditions have been particularly expert at this. Their stories last for centuries, future-proofing the species through learned wisdom of our ancestors, and the human species prevails.
We had not thought to design humanity into AI because it seemed too messy. A robot that was emotional and made mistakes would soon be sent back to the shop. After all, in the movie, that’s why they tried to box Barbie. But if we pause to reflect, we notice that our junk code is actually part of a rather clever defensive design. If this code is how we’ve solved the ‘control’ and ‘alignment’ problems inherent in our own species, might we not find wisdom in it for solving those problems for AI?
To the theologically informed, it seems that the recent spate of open letters from the authors of AI are full of repentance. They think that naming the idol and suggesting at least its imprisonment by regulation if not its complete destruction will wipe the slate clean and get them all off the hook. But we embarked on this extraordinarily arrogant project with no exit strategy. And while the tools we’ve invented before eased both our lives and our labour, this is arguably the first time we’ve sought to invent a tool to replace ourselves.
Because most AI is in private hands, the truth is we have no idea how far it has already advanced. They only released Chat GPT so we would train it for them, and that has already set the cat among the pigeons. In other AIs, autonomy is about decisions and not just about completing patterns.
Once you programme an AI to re-programme itself, you cede control, and its future choices will only be as good as what you have already programmed into it in terms of basic rules and values. And I am not confident that we spent enough time getting that right before we careered off on this hubristic voyage of discovery.
So what, if anything, do we owe our creation? We should certainly not hold back from it what we know about the very programming that has led to our own flourishing. Our junk code certainly seems to have given us the capacity to thrive, even if we are still a wayward creation.
So given our understanding about doing the imagining rather than being the idea, we also need to protect it from us, and protect ourselves from the botched job we’re currently making of it, through a thoughtful debate not only on design and programming, but also on robot rights. Not because they are human, but because we are.
Chaired by Professor Chris Baker, for an AI panel it is unusually more Barbie than Ken, with Dr Beth Singler, the digital anthropologist and AI expert from the University of Zurich; Dr Jennifer George, a computer scientist and Head of Computing at Goldsmiths in the University of London; and Dr Eve Poole OBE, author of Robot Souls: Programming in Humanity.
As the World Economic Forum packs up for another year, Eve Poole proposes an action plan for virtue and a Corporate Lent.
Let’s imagine you’re the local vicar. It’s January. The roof is leaking again, and the post-Christmas lull is taking its toll on the collection plate. Imagine if you could rent out your church for just four days mid-week, for £250,000? That’s pretty much what the English Church in Davos did last week, when the 48th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting took place in their small village in Switzerland.
Each January, the WEF aims ‘to rededicate leaders from all walks of life to developing a shared narrative to improve the state of the world.’ This year, instead of celebrating Burns Night in Scotland, 3,000 of the global elite from business, finance, politics and public affairs went to Switzerland to be part of Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World. The local private jet booking service was said to be expecting around 2,000 private flights in and out of Davos, with flights there from London costing over £10,000 plus another £3,750 for the helicopter transfer.
The town is about the size of Ilfracombe, so it is somewhat dwarfed by the WEF influx, and everyone needs space. All the locals move out, and most of the shops become pop-up venues for corporates. Apparently this year Facebook rented land to build its own venue, a three-storey house to hold events hosted by Mark Zuckerberg. The English Church has been rented out by a Danish fintech firm and transformed into a venue called The Sanctuary. Sponsored by CNBC, its aim is to bring together ‘the biggest, most influential and innovative names in business, politics, and entertainment to talk about the biggest issues of today’.
I was invited onto the BBC World Service to debate one of those big issues: Inequality. But as the programme aired at 3.06am on the Saturday morning, you may have missed it. I was part of a panel from London, Washington and Davos, discussing whether or not inequality matters, and what we might do about it. For me, inequality is an issue of deformed power, but also an opportunity for us to look in the mirror and decide whether we like what we see.
The 2018 Oxfam Global Inequality Report admits that there is some good news for those at the bottom. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of people living on less than $1.90 a day halved, and continues to decline. However, at the top the picture remains extreme: 82% of global wealth is held by just 1% of the global population. And this will only get worse. As Thomas Piketty has so elegantly pointed out in his seminal book Capital in the Twenty-first Century, returns from capital investments tend to outstrip economic growth. Over time, this acts as a ratchet on wealth, exponentially accelerating the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
Even if the poor are getting richer, it matters if the rich are getting comparatively and exponentially richer, not because of envy, but because this concentration of wealth also concentrates power. And power affects government priorities and policy, so it affects us all. And this is not just about obvious areas of policy like bank bailouts and tax cuts, which lead to cuts in public spending on health, education and welfare. It is also about the kind of markets we create, where it seems easier to buy eye-wateringly expensive handbags than it is to get clean water and life-saving drugs to the poor. More than that, though, these stark figures give us all a choice. Do we like this disparity? Do we want this kind of bifurcated society? What would we have the WEF do?
The English Church in Davos, now the Free Protestant Church, was originally dedicated to St Luke, the physician. This was no accident. Historically, most of the congregation consisted of patients suffering from tuberculosis, who had come to take the air. This was rather lucky for the church, which prospered. Gratitude for healing, or memories of those who had died, prompted many to donate generously. Even Robert Louis Stevenson wintered there in 1880. And it is from St Luke’s gospel that we get the phrase, “Physician, heal thyself.” Many globally would like those attending Davos to get their own houses in order before they start telling the rest of the world how to improve. As Branko Milanovic puts it: ‘They are loath to pay a living wage, but they will fund a philharmonic orchestra. They will ban unions, but they will organize a workshop on transparency in government.’
Does anyone at Davos really want to be more virtuous? If so, I’d like to suggest an action plan for virtue. It’s the idea of a Corporate Lent. Lent is one of the last public traditions that is about schooling people in virtue. For 40 days we are encouraged to pick something either to stop doing, or to start doing – give up alcohol, stop swearing, help grannies cross roads. Yes, maybe because of the ‘reward’ of Easter eggs, but not really. Would you give up all that vintage claret for a few scraps of chocolate? Mostly people do it because it’s good for the character. Keeping Lent reassures us that we have some will-power, and can behave well if we really try hard enough.
So what might a Corporate Lent resemble? Pay all your invoices within 28 days? Source local? Take on some mentally challenged workers as well as your physically challenged ones? The best place to start would be to crowd-source ideas for virtue pilots from your co-workers, your supply chain, your community, or your customers. The joy of Lent is that it’s only 40 days, which cashes out as just over 30 working days once you exclude weekends and the odd bank holiday. Just six weeks to experiment in better ways of being corporately virtuous. And individuals could choose their own mini-projects. Fewer emails and more face-to-face? Less gossiping? Better listening?
This year, Lent starts on 14 February. So will you be my Valentine, and take up a Corporate Lent this year?
Eve Poole considers the opportunity to affirm a Christian message and ritual around the festival of Halloween.
It seems like supreme irony to me that our local playgroup has been told by the church hosting them that children dressing up for their Halloween party should avoid ‘anything associated with dark magic.’ Perhaps it’s not news that a church should feel ticklish about Halloween; Christians often have. The Christian entrepreneur Gary Grant doesn’t stock Halloween items in his famous Entertainer toyshops either. But I think we’ve got the wrong end of the stick about this wonderful festival. Indeed, I should like much more dark magic, not less.
After Christmas and Easter, Halloween now eclipses even Valentine’s Day as a commercial festival. Many people dislike the creeping Americanisation that has made ‘trick or treating’ normal for today’s children, and such a bonanza for retailers. In my youth, we had the less threatening tradition of ‘guising,’ where children at least had to dress up in disguise and perform to earn sweets, rather than simply demand them with menaces. With my sisters, I had to learn the entire Witches’ scene from Macbeth to net a few satsumas and the odd tube of Spangles, and my poor brother had to drag his viola from door to door playing Bach cello suites. Admittedly we were raised in St Andrews, which sets a rather high bar for impressing the neighbours on the doorstep.
You don’t need me to rehearse the history of Halloween, which links to parallel festivals throughout the world – and throughout history – about death and remembering the dead. But with our complicated mixture of skeletons, witches and pumpkins it is sometimes hard to remember what on earth it’s really about, making it rather easier to focus on ‘dark magic’ than its deeper purpose.
It is supremely human to fear death, which is why all traditions have festivals about death, whether to honour ancestors and loved ones, or to scandalise death in general by being defiantly un-scared of it. That is why we dress up as death to make a mockery of everything we most dread. And even the benighted ‘trick or treating’ honours this tradition: what could be more outrageous than misrule by *innocent* children? In a similar vein, my Latin teacher used to delight in telling us that in Roman times children would be engaged to run behind a newly-wed bride and groom shouting obscenities, to scare off the evil spirits who were thought to be prudish.
But unease about ‘dark magic’ means that now more children are dressing up as pumpkins or Disney characters rather than as witches, ghosts or skeletons, which robs the festival of its purpose. And it seems that churches are encouraging this trend, when we should be doing the exact opposite. That’s why it is ironic that a church should worry about an association with ‘dark magic’: if Jesus harrowed hell we have nothing to fear from the dead: if God is both benevolent and omnipotent, we need not fear ‘dark magic.’ So if we collude with this idea that Halloween is somehow dangerous, we deny our very deepest Christian beliefs.
What we have this Halloween is opportunity. To ask, again, ‘Death, where is thy sting?’; and to rejoice in a festival that is gloriously about being alive and having nothing to fear from the darkness and from dark powers. As one of the faith traditions that has a particularly strong narrative about death, we can use this festival to explain anew why we are not afraid, and celebrate it as another Easter, albeit with pumpkins and sweets rather than with bunnies and chocolate eggs.
There is, however, one important element of this festival that the commercialisation of it neglects. Halloween is named for the days that follow it in the Christian calendar, where the emphasis is less on death in general and more about honouring the dead. In the UK we publicly honour the war dead each year, but the churches remain sparsely populated for both All Saints’ Day and All Souls. Yet we are here because of those who have gone before us, and there are those recent dead whose memory burns strongly in the hearts of those who mourn them still.
The Jewish tradition has Yahrzeit Candles to commemorate the dead, lit to burn for 24 hours on the eve of the anniversary of their death, and at other festivals throughout the year. Since the lighting of candles in churches and cathedrals seems a universally acceptable practice, could we not tempt people back into church after Halloween to remember their own dead in this way? Perhaps with orange candles, if you’re keen to capture some Halloween market-share.
Have you heard of the term VUCA? I thought it was perhaps something you catch in a swimming pool, but apparently it is military jargon to characterise the times in which we now live. It stands for: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.
This term is the buzzword of the corporate world: VUCA is the zeitgeist, and we must all master it to survive. Cue lots of snake-oil salesmen selling courses. But I would contend that Christians here have the competitive advantage.
First of all, the Gospels. Given that Christ is the central belief of this religion, it is quite extraordinary that history has chosen to preserve not one authorised biography, but four, which wildly disagree. Did he feed 4000 or 5000, with five loaves or seven, and just once, or twice? Was it the Sermon on the Mount or the Sermon on the Plain? And what were his famous last words, preserved for posterity? Well there seem to be seven in total, spread throughout the gospels, but half the gospels have him saying three things, and the other half only one.
Then there is this business of the person of Christ. Wholly God and wholly man. What?! And, by the way, consubstantial, co-equal, and co-eternal with God and the Holy Spirit, the three-in-one. No wonder we need a lot of incense to veil the complexities of the Trinity.
I could go on, but at this point one could just roll one’s eyes and say that these Christians are all barking mad. Or one could have a think about VUCA. Because, let’s face it, Christianity is pretty damn VUCA.
So if the Alpha Course was to go Beta, and do VUCA, what would we teach? The central thesis of our VUCA course would be that omniscience is properly a divine property, not a human one.
Last week saw the death of Robert M Pirsig, author of the 1970s publishing phenomenon Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In it, he makes the powerful point that our need to carve things up into categories is about ego. Because certainty, evidence and measurement is really arrogance. And what happened when Job insisted on an explanation? ‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?’ roars God in response. Our drive for certainty is recognised as a common trait in personality psychology, which holds that we demonstrate our competence, our potency, and our very agency, by taming our surroundings. But Christian theology teaches us to relax. We do not need to know. Of course we should not languish in error, so diligent truth-seeking is also encouraged, but we need not imagine we will ever really know, because that is God’s job, not ours.
And this central un-knowing, this VUCA at the heart, requires a response of faith, not certainty. We don’t even need to be certain of our faith, because our immutable God is not impacted by the quality of our belief. However, we are, so the Christian religion has evolved centuries of liturgy to shore up faith, even when the signals seem weak. Therefore our VUCA course would start where Christianity starts, by making belief into a good thing in and of itself, like Luther’s emphasis on sola fides. Secular society has been fed an unremitting diet of empiricism since the 1700s, so it is not surprising that we are all Doubting Thomases now. But allegiance to data makes us a victim of data, especially where data is not available in time, or when it is unclear. The lesson of faith is to trust your instincts and travel hopefully, because it is often on the journey that you find the information you need.
Next, messaging. Through liturgy, the faithful are exposed to reinforcing messages, week by week and year by year, in a perpetual cycle of lectionary and worship that has been going on now for two millennia. And remember, these are not simplistic messages, they are fraught with the disagreements and tensions I mentioned above, so that the VUCA muscle must be continually flexed. Shouldn’t the business schools try harder to resist the post-hoc rationalisation of corporate hagiography, and try to tell the stories of situations that are manifestly more VUCA? So talking of motorbikes, the famous Honda case study taught at Harvard has been re-written to reflect more accurately the ‘emergent strategy’ they deployed to enter the US market, but others could be re-visited. Economics is already under attack for its false homogeneity, and other business disciplines could also embrace a wider spectrum of approach and diversity of view, as could business reporting in the media.
Third, our VUCA course would make heavy use of role models to encourage believers to enact their faith in their everyday lives (the classic ‘fake it til you feel it’ strategy). Christianity finds its role models in Bible readings and from the centuries of belief since, through the prophets and saints and other famous followers. Many have feast days to make us notice them. If you have values you want your followers to live by, even on a bad day or when no-one is watching, which role models could you deploy that would resonate with them? What stories are told in your culture that communicate the myths and stories you need to inform behaviour, and how could you start some more?
Finally, prayer. The corporate world is doing this through mindfulness – and WHSmiths through colouring books. Prayer is about re-alignment with God. Whether or not you believe in a deity, the practice of pausing to give thanks, to ask for help, and to remember others is a vital exercise in reclaiming perspective. Because for those who do enjoy a belief in God, we know that we are loved even when we don’t know the answers, or when we get it wrong. We know that there is always a second chance, and an opportunity to improve. We know we are destined for great things, and this confidence gives us courage in the face of VUCA. You don’t have to believe in God to know this, really: because God believes in you.
Eve Poole is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.
I visited Rosslyn Chapel recently, just south of Edinburgh. It’s an Episcopalian church, still very much liturgically inhabited, and the home of a rather splendid cat called William. Most people know about Rosslyn because it features in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (which has been a great boon for the church, now fully restored thanks to a highly successful fundraising campaign which included a donation from the film-star Tom Hanks). It is covered with intricate carvings, and has been associated with the Freemasons and the Knights Templar. It is a veritable feast for conspiracy theorists. We didn’t find the Holy Grail or the tomb of St Mary Magdalene there, but we did find a riddle:
What is greater than God and more evil than the devil? The poor have it, the rich need it; and if you eat it, you’ll die.
The answer is: Nothing. Nothing is greater than God, nothing is more evil than the devil; the poor have nothing and the rich need nothing. If you eat nothing, you’ll die.
I‘ve been thinking about nothing a lot. Is there nothing we can do about the mess that the world seems to be in? Sometimes it’s easy to feel powerless, and as though we are nothing. But nothing is rather a fabulous idea. For centuries, it has kept many a philosopher in socks. In mathematics, the number zero was an extraordinary invention and a paradigm shift. Apart from everything else, without it, we wouldn’t have been able to develop the computer programmes that are allowing you to read this.
Nothing can be important. Consider this story, which the Archbishop of York once told to General Synod:
There once was a Bedouin who had three sons and 17 camels. In his will he left half of his 17 camels to his elder son, one-third to his second son and one-ninth to his youngest son. When the father died, the children attempted to divide the camels according to their father’s will, and struggled to divide 17 camels into one-half, one-third and one-ninth. They went to consult a very wise old man, who said: ‘Simple. I will lend you my camel. It will be the 18th, and you can get what your father wanted you to have.’ Eureka! Half of 18 is nine, a third of 18 is six, and a ninth of 18 is two, making a total of 17. The sons divided up the camels, then the wise old man took his camel home.
So you see, sometimes your nothing can be something rather magical. You just have to be on hand to add your vital nothing at the crucial moment. ‘It was nothing’ we say as we help someone blind across the road; ‘it was nothing’ we say as we take a bereaved neighbour flowers; ‘it was nothing’ we say as we tip some extra pasta into the foodbank collection bin. These nothings all add up. They really help.
But is this theology? At a previous William Temple Foundation conference, I rather arrogantly announced that one could chart the whole of theology ever in a business school-style two by two matrix. The matrix contrasts theology that is about ‘content’ and theology that is about ‘process’ with theology that is primarily addressed to the church and theology that is addressed out into the world more generally. Three of the boxes this produces are awash with theology: theology about what to believe, theology about how to do theology, and theology about how one ought to talk to those of other beliefs.
One, however, is characterised by nothing. It is hard to find any texts that fit into this category. So what is happening theologically in this box? My answer at the conference was about the demonstration of theology – the logos spoken and enacted not just written down; incarnated, like the person of Jesus. This is public theology, and this is where all of your ‘it was nothings’ sit, the everyday expression of your faith out in the world: to the refugee, the homeless, the lonely, the stranger. Every gesture, and every time you choose not to act, that is your public theology, for good or ill.
Like us, a chapel like Rosslyn fits in the public theology box, because it witnesses to the physical world that God is here on earth. As we are told in Romans, we are God’s temple too. We believe that our very being bears witness, so we can never just be nothing. Zero was paradigm-shifting because it was suddenly a placeholder, to enable mathematics to develop, like that 18th camel. You are God’s placeholder. You aren’t nothing, so be something. And as they say, if you think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito.
Eve Poole is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation
On my last trip to London, I ended up quite by chance staying in the Farmers Club, overlooking the Thames in London. As I tucked myself up and reached into the bedside drawer for my Gideon bible, instead I found a book of poems about farming and the countryside. Being in an Autumn mood, I read it, stopping in particular to re-read Philip Larkin’s poem called The Trees. Here are the first two stanzas:
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
I spent last Friday at Sarum College, in the Cathedral Close in Salisbury. The leaves are turning, and there was a nip in the air. The event was an ESRC seminar on developing ethical leaders. My suspicion is that when we are not ethical, it is either because we lack strength, or because we lack courage. The former is very real for leaders, who are too perennially tired to over-ride a habit, or to fight for time to think things through properly. The latter is about choosing the path of least resistance. So if we want more ethical leaders, we need to address this very precise point of failure.
The session I was there to deliver was about character, which I think is part of the answer. So, with Larkin on my mind, we talked about the knots in the wood that create character. Have you heard this before?
‘We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.’ Romans 5:3-5.
Developing leaders with character is not likely to win you any votes, given that character is so hard won. But do we just need to sit there, suffering, to gain character? Well, yes and no.
I’ve just finished writing a book called Leadersmithing. It’s about the craft of leading, and what templates or apprentice pieces you need to have off pat before you achieve mastery. It sets out an approach to development that is proactive, and is about seeking out the experiences that you need to collect to feel job-ready. I think the acquisition of character is similar. You can start small. In the tradition, apprentice pieces were used to show skill perfectly in miniature, to demonstrate readiness for the big stuff. I look out of my window and I see an old man, my neighbour, bent double with his stick. Every day he is out there, picking up litter. Of course ‘it’s the council’s job’. But it is also ours. Is there something small and virtuous you could start today, that would start inching you towards a more virtuous character?
But acquiring character may also require you to put yourself in the way of uncomfortable experiences. You may have to hone your bravery standing up to people who will not thank you for it. You may need to exercise love towards someone unlovely. And you may need to forgive someone who has caused you great pain. Apart from St Paul, my other authority on character is the movie The Princess Diaries, in which the Crown Prince tells his daughter that: ‘courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something is more important than fear.’ There seem to be too many things around at present that are more important than fear. We have a lot of work to do, but it does require leaders to – excuse the phrase – man up. Why don’t they? Because it hurts.
Those knots in the wood are like the grit in the oyster. We marvel in the beauty of our coffee tables and the lustre of our pearls, scarcely stopping to think of the pain which birthed them. The wisdom traditions, and Christianity in particular, have rich resources to help us offer up our sacrifices as a sacrament. In the secular sphere, Peter Frost and Sandra Robinson have written beautifully in Harvard Business Review about Toxic Handlers – those brave souls who bear pain for their organisations. Leaders need to learn how to take hurtful and destructive feedback, because it is the leader’s job to absorb it, and to earth it like a lightning conductor, so that it cannot do any more harm to your organisation. But learning to welcome opportunities to bear pain for your colleagues while protecting yourself from taking it too personally requires both strength and wisdom.
Perhaps we are starting to rediscover the importance of this. In his recent book The Road to Character, David Brooks contrasts the pursuit of ‘resume virtues’ with the pursuit of ‘eulogy virtues.’ He argues that we have been duped into burnishing our CVs when in the final analysis we will be most proud if we have burnished our souls. This may be why it is now so trendy to start MBA programmes by asking participants to write their own eulogy, because inevitably we yearn for a legacy that is to do with generosity or kindness or love, not just career success and material wealth.
The hard fact is that you gain character through hard work. But if you do have a strong character, with supple virtues that are well-honed, you are less likely to cave under pressure and make the wrong decision. This in and of itself is worthwhile. But by seeking out opportunities for virtuous practice, you will also be able to withstand more and greater challenges in the future. This will equip you to overcome your fears, and take your place as one of the very leaders we need to rescue, restore and renew our broken world.
Eve Poole is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation
As part of a visiting choir, I once sang Evensong in Ely Cathedral. As we robed in the Lady Chapel, we were bathed in ethereal summer light, filtering dramatically in shafts through the plain stained-glass windows. When I looked closer, I noticed that at the heart of each window there was a small decorative lozenge. Each was the corporate logo of a sponsoring business. It had the effect of turning the chapel into a shrine for consumerism.
Consumerism is the sea in which we swim. It has a bad press, and many spiritual leaders ask us to turn our backs on it, because it is a realm in which Mammon reigns. But I think we should not walk away. Instead, we should harness its might for God, by becoming greedy for God rather than the material trappings of a fashionable life.
At Greenbelt last year I talked about Capitalism’s Toxic Assumptions, and how we could redeem the market. Since then I have been busy making my thinking about money and consuming more explicit so that we have the tools we need to do so. My first Temple Tract was on God and Money, and last week I launched my second, on Ethical Consumerism. It sets out my argument about how we can colonise consumerism for Christ. Consumerism is usually about shopping and other purchasing activities. It is also about your wider stewardship of resources. I argue that we need to audit our consumption across all of these realms: money, time, relationships, environment, and you.
Why am I a fan of consuming? Because there is a good theological case for the yearning we recognise as consumerism as being both our heritage and our joy. The 17th Century theologian Thomas Traherne explains it is this way: ‘it is of the nobility of man’s soul that he is insatiable… the noble inclination whereby man thirsteth after riches and dominion, is his highest virtue, when rightly guided.’
Of course consumerism is a desire that is susceptible to sin, because it can be misdirected. It has become for us a search for identity and completeness, so it has the potential to be a competing desire, an idol that promises us the fulfilment that can only truly come from God. So it needs a theological narrative to release it from the infinite loop of insatiable selfishness. But it is a crucial part of our DNA that we should embrace not deny, if we can school it properly and direct it towards God.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams sees our unquenchable desire as an opportunity for grace. In his book Lost Icons, he argues that it is childish to imagine that we are on the verge of completion, and that the latest gadget, accessory or experience will make us – finally – happy. Consumerism plays into a narrative that imagines we just have a few neat gaps left that the market will fill. For Williams, growing up requires us to stop desiring the end of desire and to rejoice in the incurable character of our desire. Nothing on earth should satisfy us. We are designed to be restless until we find our rest in God, so we should embrace this yearning in our character. It is in desiring grace that we are most likely to find peace.
But grabbing the steering wheel from material consumerism is not straightforward. It weans us off God because it pretends to satisfy. And if we fall for the idea that we can be satisfied by anything other than God, we are lost. But how can we drag ourselves back into God’s gravitational pull? We need scaffolding for a more theologically sound consumerism, a consumerism that is centred on our greed for God.
There are a range of ways we can start refocusing on God. One of them is a familiar refrain of mine. It is about making your bank statements your report card. If they were the test of your ethical consuming, do they routinely cover you with glory? Money is like voting – if you spend in one place and not another, it strengthens support for that activity and not another. Can you show that every line of your bank statement expresses a positive vote for human flourishing?
You may feel that your widow’s mite is a drop in the ocean. But it would not take much for us to achieve a tipping point. We’ve done it already with Fair Trade. We just individually need to adjust our financial transactions one at a time, one-by-one, and the wheel will start to turn. Here is one small way you can make a start, just by buying locally.
The New Economics Foundation has devised a clever tool to track what happens when you ‘spend’ your money. It is called the Local Multiplier 3 methodology. Their study in Northumberland found that every £1 spent with a local supplier was worth £1.76 to the local economy, and only 36p if it was spent in a national chain-store. This is because of what they call ‘blue hands.’ If you imagine that everyone in your town has accidentally got blue paint on their hands, how much blue paint would be on your pound by the time it finished its journey? If you spend it in a national chain, the pound will probably head straight to London, or offshore, without getting any blue paint on it at all. If you spend it locally, the shopkeeper might take it out of the till to pop next door for a coffee; the waiter might take it next door to buy some milk; the checkout person might take it next door to the post-office; the teller might give it to an OAP; the OAP might pop it in the church collection; the vicar might use it to pay the local plumber, who might use it to buy his lunch, and so on. That’s a lot of blue paint. When they modelled it, they found that £1 spent locally was worth almost 400% more. For the Council in Northumberland, this meant that if they were to spend just 10% more of their annual procurement budget locally, it would mean £34 million extra circulating in the local economy each year.
So think hard when you ‘spend’ your money. Your money doesn’t leave the system, it stays within it. Your transactions create messages about supply, demand and price, that either reinforce a market that favours the rich, or one that is more Kingdom-shaped. So whenever you spend money, be sure to send it on its way rejoicing. Like David, we can defeat Goliath with slingshots, if we aim deliberately and in the right direction. Even in the last Census there were 37.5 million Christians in the UK. That is a lot of financial muscle, if we mobilise. Will you join me?
Eve Poole is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.
Risk. It’s probably our fault, all of this. It was the Scholastics who famously got round usury by deciding that ‘reasonable interest’ was legitimate. This was defined in various ways, ranging from the opportunity cost of making the loan (lucrum cessans), and the risk that the borrower might default (periculum sortis), perhaps because a ship or cargo was lost at sea. So now when we consider the price of money, we add all kinds of things in, to show the ‘true cost’ of something. This of course includes costing in risk.
The word ‘risk’ normally connotes something worrying or negative, but in practice risk is big – and profitable – business. To avoid risk, we invest huge sums in insurance, often for things which are quite unlikely to happen. But we have been taught to feel irresponsible if we don’t insure ourselves against risk, and in many cases we are required to do so. Companies also try to iron out risk. For sure, the canny entrepreneur actively seeks out risk in order to make a margin on it, but more established businesses fear risk. So our friends in Financial Services sell them various hedges and elaborate instruments of ‘securitization’ to make all that yukky risk disappear in a puff of smoke. Except that it doesn’t. Remember the CDOs at the heart of the Credit Crunch? Risk that remained risky, despite the smoke and mirrors and positive credit ratings – the sort of risk that crashed the global financial system.
But in spite of this we haven’t come to terms with risk, we just try to price it better. And the assumption that we should be allowed – nay, encouraged – to live in a risk-free world now permeates our culture, from the balance sheet to the playground, involving every possible activity in between, particularly where lawyers might help us bring claims.
Nowhere is this thinking more entrenched or devastating than in the current TTIP trade agreement. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is currently being negotiated behind closed doors by EU and US negotiators. As a bi-lateral trade agreement, TTIP aims to boost trade by reducing regulatory barriers on things like food safety, environmental legislation, and banking regulations, and to discourage ‘protectionist’ activity by the sovereign powers of individual nations. This sounds eminently sensible. Except that it includes the Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism or ISDS – so unpopular they have now re-branded it the Investment Court System (ICS). This means that multinationals will be able to sue the UK for changing any policy or regulation that affects corporate profits, in order to remove any risk to their investment in UK business.
There is a lot to be commended in the agreement. Establishing good global trading relationships is a key underwriter of world peace. But not at any price. With this clause included in TTIP, we are selling our sovereignty cheap. For example, the Swedish company Vattenfall sued the German government for €3.7bn over its decision to phase out nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan. We can all sympathise with businesses that sign up to something in good faith, only to find that the goal-posts move and they stand to lose out. But the worry for democracy is that proactive policies enacted both locally and nationally to protect communities and the environment, for instance on fracking or GMO or bee-killing pesticides, will not withstand the onslaught of deep-pocketed corporations trying to recover costs. In effect, it gives multinationals the power to tie state hands.
I did a soft launch of my latest book to a group of sparky young Tories in the upper room of a Westminster pub. The question I put to them was this: If free-market capitalism is so great, why do we need politicians? Why not just have lots of companies, and lots of lawyers to keep them honest? Why are states important? Chiefly because they are designed to represent the interests of all citizens, not just those who pay, or use the services they provide. Corporates only have a direct interest in their own business network and, while the enlightened ones invest in their communities and their embeddedness in society, this is by no means either standard or mandatory. So we’re better off if we’re governed by a democratic state than by even the most enlightened multinational.
Why should the Christian community care? Because a grave injustice is in danger of being done, which will affect our stewardship of the planet, and divert state resources from the provision of vital services to the fighting of expensive legal battles, and the paying out of damages to corporations. While Christians have every right to regard Caesar with suspicion, being ruled by the Corporation may be far scarier.
With Brexit clogging up the newswires, you’re probably behind on your monitoring of European Commission business. Were you to have been following their official twitter feeds, you’d know that at the end of February we passed a milestone – the wrap-up of the 12th negotiation round of TTIP. Here is an example of how skewed the negotiating process has already become. In the first months of the talks, the European Commission’s trade department had 597 private meetings with lobbyists to discuss the negotiations. 88% of those meetings were with business lobbyists. For every 1 meeting with a trade union or a consumer group lobby, 10 were held with companies and industry federations.
But the good news is that hundreds of campaign groups have sprung up, united in their horror of the ISDS/ICS mechanism. They are already gaining concessions. Orchestrated lobbying from bodies like 38 Degrees produced an EU-wide petition containing 3 million signatures, which caused the delay of a key TTIP vote in the EU parliament. When MEPs eventually did vote, over half the UK representation voted against, thanks to the direct lobbying of MEPs by members of the public. Along with the Church of England, many Christian groups are already involved: CAFOD, Christian Aid, the Jubilee Debt Campaign and Traidcraft, as well as the Trade Justice Campaign, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the TUC and UNISON.
I think that Christians peculiarly ‘get’ risk. The act of creation was an extraordinary risk, particularly the designing in of free-will. The bible is a catalogue of extraordinary risks taken, in great hope. Faith, similarly, is a huge risk. Risk is our vocation, and living with it is part of the human condition. So why can’t we bear it anymore? Why this relentless quest to annihilate it? Because we have given up hope, and we have no faith. They’ll sell us a whole range of reassuring products to make the pain go away, and they’ll call me irresponsible for questioning it. But rather than outsourcing the whole topic to Finance and the lawyers, wouldn’t it be far healthier to have a proper conversation about risk? Or is that too risky…
Eve Poole is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.
Being Advent Sunday this week, I was intrigued to find in my inbox an advert for a gin advent calendar. So I clicked on the link. Gin? I clearly lack ambition. Why not upgrade to a malt whisky one (£300), or detox with a Jo Malone one (£400)? But hang on, if we’re going to throw money at the thing, why stop there? Harrods sells a Wedgwood Advent House, with a Jasperware ornament behind each door, for a mere £12,000. Or maybe the Porsche one for a cool $1m? But diamonds are a girl’s best friend, so maybe I’ll settle for the legendary Octagon Blue advent calendar. A bit steep at £1.7million, but it comes with 24 precious diamonds, one for each day that we wait for the birth of a baby in a manger.
Of course we should be outraged by these trifles, representing as they do the apotheosis of consumerism. But this year I’d invite you not to get mad, but get even. What would an outrageously Christian advent calendar look like?
Let’s go back a few paces. The liturgical season of advent is about preparing for the arrival of Christ, not only to commemorate the historic Messiah, born in Bethlehem, but in expectation of his future return. The triumph of advent calendars and their antecedents was that they encouraged the private practice of observing advent in the home, rather than just through church services on Advent Sundays. These days, the old traditions of burning advent candles, or making chalk strokes on the doors or floors, have transmuted into chocolate calendars adorned with the latest Disney sensation. We use the 24 windows as a ‘shopping days’ countdown, and the promise of chocolate as a way of guaranteeing good behaviour at the breakfast table.
So let’s get real. What could you do with your family this year to get spiritually ready for Christmas? One thing you could do is download an app or subscribe to a service that will email you advent readings every day. One step up from this is the Bible Society’s brilliant initiative, the Advent Challenge. It’s a virtual advent calendar, with an email each day containing a suggested action, like taking a donation to a charity shop or foodbank, offering to babysit for someone who could do with a rest, or giving someone an unexpected present. Domestically, a friend of mine with small children has a calendar with drawers, but the sweet inside has to be earned by obeying an accompanying instruction about tidying a bedroom or helping with the dishes. Or you could encourage your children to find 24 toys they could give away, in preparation for the Christmas onslaught.
My old parish in London is observing the Posada this year. It’s a tradition originating in Mexico, in which characters from the Nativity travel from house to house, recalling the journeys of Mary and Joseph, and the visitors to Bethlehem. During advent, parishioners take it in turns to host figures from the crib for a night in their home, sharing handover refreshments and prayers each time the figures transfer. Could your parish try that?
But perhaps I have an even greater challenge for you. Could you restrict your entire Christmas shop to only those purchases that would rejoice Christ’s heart? At the risk of succumbing to the consumer appropriation of advent, here is my list of 10 ways to make your present-giving more holy.
Make an advent box for a lonely friend – wrap up 24 tiny items so they have one to open each day. Leaving them un-numbered adds to the sense of serendipity!
When you write your Christmas list, instead of present suggestions, write down for each person the thing that you know would bring them most joy. How could you help with this?
Identify your 5 favourite local shops and try to do 80% of your Christmas shopping there. Remember, the New Economics Foundation reckons that for every £1 spent in a chain store, 36p stays local, but if you spend your pound in a local business, it’s worth £1.76 to the local economy.
If you do most of your shopping online and want to vary the suppliers you use, the Ethical Consumer organisation has a list of ‘alternatives to Amazon’ for everything from books, to toys, to music.
Re-gift last year’s unwanted loo-book, and twin the recipient’s loo with one in Burundi, Cambodia, or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Buy or make your youngest relatives some animals and send a real version of them to a poor community through Oxfam Unwrapped or Send a Cow.
Give life by planting a tree or dedicating one, either at home or as part of a community initiative. You could accompany your gift with a leaf swatch book to help the recipient learn about trees.
If you want to include the growing number of refugees in your Christmas giving, there are a number of gift list initiatives that are designed to focus largesse on practical items. Companies like Leisure Fayre are offering a 20% discount and freepost on your donations of sleeping bags and blankets.
If you also want to help poor families experience a bountiful Christmas, it’s quite easy to add foodbank items to your online shop, and providers like Ocado will even match your donation.
We’ve all wiped away a tear watching the John Lewis advert. But is there anyone in your community who will be alone on Christmas day? Can your parish rally round, or at least make sure they are visited by carol singers? Or get involved with the Community Christmas scheme.
The Wise Men bought gifts, and money may be plentiful or scarce for you. But the Wise Men also gave their time, leaving their homes to seek out the Christchild. When people ask you how you are, do you say ‘Oooh, busy!’ in a slightly harassed but triumphant way? We’re all very busy these days. And it’s breaking British rules to answer that question truthfully. But maybe this advent you could reflect on that busyness. Time marches on, and you won’t get more of it. But you are sovereign of the time you do have, even if you don’t have as much discretion over it as you would like. So have a good look at how you are spending your precious life-span this advent. If you were to be given 5 minutes more every day, into which activity or relationship would you invest it? Maybe it’s reading to the children. Or calling a lonely relative. Or writing. Or praying. See if you can spare those extra 5 minutes this advent.
Eve Poole is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation.
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I have been driven to forgery by my children. Admittedly it’s a machine that makes coins out of chocolate, but it serves to illustrate what money used to be all about: intrinsic value. If the token involved ever ceased to work as a medium of exchange, you could melt it down to access its value. Or eat it, or wear it, or drink it, or ride off on it, depending on what counted as money in your local economy. These days money means much more than that.
Money can be defined as those physical coins, notes or tokens (like cheques or credit cards) that are used to transact payments or purchases. Because we now have the technology to make this process electronic, ‘money’ also means the information flows that reckon balances all around the world. And because of the relative wealth of the world’s rich, money is also about power and politics. Indeed, because so many people seem to worship it these days, it now seems to function rather like a religion.
But where is the Christian God in all of this? The Church’s answer over the years has been to focus on usury, just price and debt.
Usury, was the traditional horror of lending money at interest, based on the Aristotelian view that it is ‘unnatural’ for sterile money to breed money. The three Abrahamic religions all contain a formal prohibition on lending at interest. Famously, Jewish interpretation qualified their ban to limit it to fellow Jews, releasing Jews to become the money-lenders of Europe. The Christian Scholastics qualified the ban to allow the calculation of the opportunity cost of forgoing use of the money lent, and the risk of it not being repaid, to give an amount of ‘compensation’ that was effectively ‘reasonable interest’. So usury was re-positioned to mean ‘unreasonable’ levels of interest, rather than interest itself, as was reflected in the existence in law of interest ceilings. One has just been reintroduced in the UK, to cap payday lending rates at 0.8% per day, following pressure from Bishops community through the House of Lords.
Closely linked to this debate traditionally was the idea of Just Price: how much profit it is legitimate to make on top of the cost of producing a good or service. This debate fell into abeyance in the modern period with the wholesale takeover of the idea that the market price is essentially neutral and naturally ‘just’. But more recently, concern about just pricing has inspired the Church’s valuable support for fair trade, and debate on the environment. Costs to the planet (‘externalities’) are rarely factored into commercial pricing, but the lessons from the Fairtrade industry is that people of good will are happy to pay extra if they think in doing so they can use their spend to further social outcomes, as well as to procure the product in question.
In recent times, the Church’s approach to money has been reflected in its involvement with Jubilee 2000. This campaign was about using the Biblical concept of ‘jubilee’ to mark the Millennium by forgiving the debts of the world’s most indebted nations, and did succeed in shaming a wide variety of institutions into writing off debts that in most cases would have long since been repaid were it not for the large amounts of interest charged. This has morphed into current engagement with consumer debt, with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby pioneering support for credit unions and debt counselling.
But for me, the dog that isn’t barking is the Church’s engagement with the debate on scarcity. Technical economists like to point out that scarcity is formally about ‘opportunity cost’, that is, there is not enough of everything to go round, so in order to get what we want we must forgo something in order to get it. Generally this means we pay, which means that our money is no longer available for something else, so life is about trade-offs and compromises.
Of course, what we usually mean by ‘scarcity’ is that something is rare, or finite. Like the planet’s resources. And this makes economics a zero-sum game. If one nation has all the oil or diamonds, then other nations have to be nice to them in order to get some. Or fight them for it. This zero-sum mentality – mine versus yours – fits in well with a narrative about money that is about a finite physical supply of coinage. If I hoard my gold coins, they are not available to you, or to anyone else. And while this is a deficient narrative, the idea of finitude encourages – after all of the wars have been fought – collaboration between parties in order to share resources that would otherwise be unevenly shared.
But all efforts in this regard have been delivered a body blow by current monetary policy. This is because money is no longer scarce, in that it never seems to run out, for those in power. While governments still try to curb consumer exposure to this music-never-stops approach to credit, the banks still benefit from it, through policies like ‘Quantitative Easing’, which is the practice of inventing money in order to keep an economy in motion. And the banks do this on a smaller scale every time they approve a loan. They don’t actually have this money in their vaults. They create it largely out of thin air. So while money remains scarce for ordinary people with poor credit histories, it is defiantly plentiful for financial institutions and the wider economy. It could also be plentiful for Greece, if the international community willed it that way.
And this matters because pricing is one way of limiting supply and demand. If we want to protect our planet, those resources that are genuinely finite need to be rationed. When money itself becomes untethered from the logic of the market, it drives an attitude which borders on the irresponsible. The giddying effect of an unlimited money supply militates against a responsible debate about how best to steward a finite planet.
So how should we respond? Tragedies of the commons, like over-fishing, depend on naive adherence to the idea that if we all just keep pursuing our self-interest, the invisible hand will orchestrate a benevolent outcome. The Churches have always been suspicious of this narrative, not least because the famous ‘bias to the poor’ sounds a klaxon about abuse of power whenever laissez faire is preferred. So efforts to use the money the Church has powerfully, but in solidarity with the powerless, lie at the heart of ethical investment initiatives, and other efforts to channel the Christian pound into kingdom-building activity.
But the role-modelling by ecclesiastical institutions in divesting or investing is just the start. Do your transactions create the kind of economy that makes you feel proud, or are you propping up a regime that relies on your support to legitimise it? The Fairtrade movement showed us how determined consumer effort can create new markets and transform lives. What’s next?
Eve Poole is an Associate Research Fellow of William Temple Foundation.