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From Alpha to VUCA: the art of unknowing

02 June 2017

The complexities and uncertainties of the Christian faith are all opportunities for mission, Eve Poole declares

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. Cue lots of snake-oil salesmen selling courses. But I would contend that Christians here have the competitive advantage, be­­cause VUCA is actually our core com­­petence.

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?

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.


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.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig 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 unknowing, 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. We are, however; 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 are not available in time, or when they are 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 which 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.

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 till 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 which 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 WHSmith through colouring books. Prayer is about re­­alignment 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.

That is because those who do en­­joy a belief in God 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.


Dr Eve Poole is an associate research fellow of the William Temple Foundation and an as­­sociate of the St Paul’s Institute. Her book Leadersmithing: Reveal­ing the trade secrets of leadership is published by Bloomsbury. This is an edited version of a blog published at www.williamtemplefoundation.org.uk.

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