Shaping debate on religion in public life.

From Alpha to VUCA: The Art of Unknowing

3 May 2017

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.

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