St Paul's Institute

Risk, Fear and Faith

by The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby

Posted: 30 Jan 2014

The terrible scenes from the Somerset Levels brought back a memory of my time living and working in Worcestershire. The River Severn (which is in fact involved in the Somerset problem) is a really beautiful, though at times rather unfriendly, river. Although the flooding was never on the scale we are now witnessing in Somerset, it could be very serious. Friends' cottages on the west bank of the river in Worcester were often inundated, and they would have to move out for months while their downstairs rooms were dried out.

On one occasion, following the news that one of our towns was flooded I made a pastoral phone call to the Vicar to see if I should come, or offer some practical help. His response was fairly laid back: 'People who buy houses here know very well that flooding is a very likely event; they may have problems selling their houses, but if they want to stay here long term they just take that risk into account: it's part of the cost, outweighed in their minds by other advantages.' I had a feeling at the time that not all of his parishioners would feel as laid back as his statement implied; and I also thought that not all of them would have quite as much choice about where to live and whether to move house as his statement suggested: certainly the sight of newspaper photographers wielding long lenses just added to their burdens.

Last week's Economist carried a reflection on risk-aversity. After such a serious set of floods will people want to go on living on the Somerset Levels? Will they be able to sell their houses if they decide to move? That is not just a question about whether they will be able to insure their property - insurance is after all one of the ways in which we share risk. It is also a question of whether the risks of personal disaster engulfing life and property are worth the beauty of the scenery and the fertility of the land. And will such a disaster have a wider effect on the risk-aversity of those who have experienced it, and indeed in the society as a whole.

The Economist article went on to relate that question to the aftermath of the 2007/8 banking disaster, one that continues to dominate headlines as its scale, measured in the costs we shall incur as 'shareholders' in RBS. The writer observes, 'Exposure to economic turmoil appears to dampen people's appetite for risk irrespective of their personal financial losses.' Is this likely to be a long-term effect of the events of recent years, and if so does that matter?

Of course it is entirely right that the lessons implicit in disasters should be learned - and in fact many of us have wondered if the lessons of this most recent disaster to the financial system have been sufficiently taken on board by policymakers and CEOs, where the depressing aim seems to be a return to business as usual, business as it was before the catastrophe. But the research summarised by the Economist seems to suggest that sometimes trauma results in actions that look 'less like a proportionate response to the losses suffered and "more like old-fashioned panic"'.

And if that is so it does matter. If risk-aversity leads to a reduction in business start-ups or a reluctance to launch new inventions on to the market would that not be something that is not just economically serious but also a real dampening of the creativity of the human spirit? If there's one reflection that is transparently obvious from Jesus' oft-cited 'parable of the talents' it is that fear - however justified (and it was certainly that) - is not a good basis for making decisions. Learning the lessons of prudence and wisdom is certainly desirable; 'old fashioned panic' certainly isn't. So the evidence that the events of recent years have raised fear levels needs to be taken very seriously.

For what is at stake here is not just the springs of economic behaviour. There is no human event, from falling in love to learning to swim, that does not involve at some level the overcoming of fear, and we have the experience of people too traumatised to manage that overcoming. Therein lies the meaning of the most repeated biblical injunction, 'Fear not': it is not that we are to avoid noticing what are the forebodings and anxieties that threaten to make fear the wellspring of action, and as a result to lead us into wrong decisions; rather it is a call to a proper assessment of our fears and the harnessing of the inner resources of love and faith to overcome them. The fact that the parable, founded in a profound understanding of the business activities and economic issues of his time, was addressed to the 'children of the Kingdom' tells us that the summons to faith, and to a commitment to a world of justice and peace, involves just as much overcoming of fear as do the more self-interested activities of daily living.

So those whose imprudence led the banking system, and indeed the whole economic system, to the edge of collapse need to be held to account not just for what their actions have cost in money terms but for the reality of the effect of increased risk-aversity on all of us, and on our willingness to undertake the most worthwhile leaps of faith that creative living and zeal for the Kingdom of God require.

About this author

The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is the former Bishop of Worcester. Following his role as part of the Interim Directing Team from 2012-2014, he continues as an adviser to St Paul's Institute.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.