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Risk Intelligence

Faith is not an insurance policy whose terms we are unclear about until we need to consult it; it is the heartbeat of a life passionately lived for God.

A strange dichotomy is in play in our management of risk. In public life, assessments are made with bewildering regularity over the probability of something going wrong, whether it be in laying on single events or making lasting strategy. Bodies are obliged to create registers which set out the levels of risk involved in every aspect of their business and must take steps to ameliorate inherent dangers. These mechanisms have been in place for some time, but were not able to inhibit in any useful way the global economic collapse or any number of lesser failings in public life for which the last decade will come to be renowned.

A point might fairly be made that we do not get to hear about the crises which public bodies head off by virtue of risk management, but evidence suggests that it is ‘the things we don’t know we don’t know’ which undermine us time and again. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has called these events ‘black swans’: events which surprise us, have a major impact and which we subsequently rationalise as inevitable, even though we didn’t predict them.
While the public world is replete with cautious risk assessment, private lives are becoming edgier as more people engage in activities which any public audit of their situation would highlight. Risky personal behaviour is becoming normalised, especially in the fields of heavy alcohol consumption, frequent drug taking, compulsive gambling and casual sex. Each of these has incrementally found a measure of social acceptance which suggests to the next generation that they can be both managed and enjoyed when there is much evidence to the contrary.

The chasm between the way risk is handled publicly and privately is probably an indication that we have what Dylan Evans has termed ‘poor risk intelligence’. Drawing on the work of the developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, who posited the existence of multiple human intelligences to replace prevailing rationalistic models – and building on the popular work of Daniel Goleman, whose emotional intelligence has passed into folklore – Evans has created another category of risk intelligence. His book Risk Intelligence: How to Live with Uncertainty (Atlantic, 2012) draws the conclusion that most societies are poor at managing risk.


In the UK there are plenty of examples to draw on, ranging from paranoid parenting which imagines sinister dangers round every street corner, to an endemic fear of crime, even in neighbourhoods which are peaceable. The media plays an insidious role by sensationalising manageable risks (like winter viruses), while governments across the world are tempted to magnify terrorist threats out of proportion in order to justify draconian laws. People should not assign their responsibility for managing personal risks to bodies which might have an interest in distorting them; panic should not be indulged when it is so contagious.


The issue of faith may transcend talk of risk assessment, but there are fruitful areas of overlap for us to ponder. The notable thing about personal faith in God in an economically robust society is that the props of material life easily become a substitute for trust in the one who created them. We can pass weeks, months and even years without the need to express an edgy kind of faith in God because the needs expressed in the prayer: ‘give us today our daily bread’ are comfortably met by capitalism. This may be cause for thankfulness, for no sane person would wish to be deprived of these sources, but one outcome may be the atrophying of faith as we are less called on to trust that God will provide.


The perceived need not to express faith much at all in this world of surfeit is risky in itself, for moments of crisis afflict us all and if the muscles of faith have not been exercised, we may find ourselves lacking in the strength (at least to begin with) to cope resiliently. Faith is not an insurance policy whose terms we are unclear about until the time arrives when we must consult it, hands shaking with anxiety; it is the heartbeat of a life passionately lived for God. For those of us who fear we are not expressing our faith creatively on a daily basis (which is probably the sense of most), there is a conversation to be had with God over how to make good on this weakness in the routines of life where we have blocked his entry.


In Hebrew 12 there is a triumphant chronology of faith and one striking aspect of this is its individual nature. Though Israel and the Church are the bodies by which faith in God has been demonstrated to this world, the author prefers to draw our attention to the difference that personal faith has made in history. This is the intended inspiration to everyone who expresses faith in God: to convert this trust from a passive to a dynamic expression of the living and redeeming God. In a culture which handles risk poorly, it is an antidote waiting to be shared.



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