Online Conversation | The Seven Deadly Sins in a Secular Age with Elizabeth Oldfield

  • The Seven Deadly Sins in a Secular Age with Elizabeth Oldfield

In our time people sense that much is wrong – in the world and even within themselves. Many feel that they are somehow less than “fully alive,” yet might never consider turning to religion for the answers they long for. Can the ancient concept of sin become meaningful, and even liberating, in a secular age?

In her new book, Fully Alive: Tending to the Soul in Turbulent Times, popular British podcaster Elizabeth Oldfield uses the seven deadly sins as a framework to help such people explore how a Christian theology of sin – and forgiveness – speaks to their deepest questions.

We held an Online Conversation with Elizabeth Oldfield on June 21 to consider what the concept of sin has to offer in a secular age.

Thank you to our co-host, Brazos Press, for their support of this event!



Online Conversation | Elizabeth Oldfield | June 21, 2024

Tom Walsh: Hello everyone, and welcome to today’s Online Conversation with Elizabeth Oldfield on behalf of all of us here at the Trinity Forum. We are delighted that so many of you—about 900—have registered for today’s conversation. We’d especially like to welcome about 50 first-time guests and over 100 international guests from at least 18 different countries that we know of, from Slovenia to the Republic of Congo to even the exotic United Kingdom, where today’s guest is joining us from. So across all the miles and the time zones, welcome.


If this is your first time joining us or you’re new to the Trinity Forum, I will just note that we work to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best in Christian thought leadership and to provide a place where leaders can wrestle with the big questions of life and come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope today’s conversation will provide just a small taste of that.


Our guest today, Elizabeth Oldfield, is the host of The Sacred podcast. She’s the former director and now senior fellow of Theos, which is a Christian think-tank in the UK. She is also a contributing editor at Comment magazine, the chair of Larger Us, and a coach and consultant working with purpose-driven individuals and organizations. Elizabeth lives in an intentional community in south London with her husband and children, and I hope we’ll get a chance to hear a bit more about that in the conversation. As you heard from Campbell, our starting point today is her new book, Fully Alive: Tending to the Soul in Turbulent Times.


Elizabeth, welcome.


Elizabeth Oldfield: It is very lovely to be here. Thank you for having me.


Tom Walsh: Yes, you’re so welcome. It’s a pleasure. Well, starting with something some of our guests may be familiar with, you host a podcast called The Sacred. And those who don’t already know it, I hope they will seek it out and get to know it. And what I noticed is that, in the podcast and in your life at large, as becomes clear from the book, you are in deep conversation with a lot of people who do not share your Christian faith. So I just wanted to start by asking, how have those relationships shaped your life and pointed you in the direction of doing this book?


Elizabeth Oldfield: Thank you. Yes, it has felt like a very natural thing for me to be wanting to listen to those beyond the Church who have different political beliefs from me or religious beliefs or just of different backgrounds and identities. I see the example of Jesus, actually, as one of the key threads I’m trying to follow, that when I read the Gospels, I see someone who has no regard for tribes, for purity codes, for who’s in the in-group, who’s in the out-group, who he should or shouldn’t be talking to. He makes eye contact with everyone. He stops and listens to people from radically different backgrounds and perspectives. And he asks them questions and he listens to them.


I think it’s just part of my vocation, really, to be a kind of edge-stalker, is one of the phrases that’s sometimes used about it. And I think that sense of deep listening, that sense of wanting to be someone who can build bridges across divides, that can sometimes actually translate different tribes to each other to help them maybe see the best in each other, see the common ground in each other, is just really part of my vocation. And it definitely was one of the things that led up to the writing of this book.


Tom Walsh: So maybe a good point to start is: what is this book? What are you doing here? What’s it all about?


Elizabeth Oldfield: I wish I knew, Tom! It’s not necessarily easy to pin it down to a genre, which my agent and then my various publishers and their PR teams have had to scratch their heads about. It really felt like the fruit of lots of conversations I was having with people who would not call themselves Christian, but who I was suddenly seeing—amongst those friends, those connections, that are often spending a lot of time in our little intentional community—this huge spike in openness and interest and curiosity around spiritual matters, deep matters, metaphysical questions. And this has always been my bag. This is always where I’ve wanted to be, you know, in these conversations. But it felt for a long time, particularly—you know, I live in London, I used to work at the BBC—the kind of highly educated elite would not have gone there five, seven, ten years ago. That it was just not something that you would admit to, that you might have some metaphysical yearnings, that you might actually be interested in questions of meaning—and certainly not religion. That was, you know, beyond the pale.


But I’m seeing that change and finding such wisdom myself in my tradition, some of it that I didn’t even know was there, frankly, even though I’ve been walking this path for a while now. And finding that their questions about, you know, consumerism and materialism and the climate crisis or rising polarization and division or status anxiety and a very kind of unstable sense of self in a very performative world or, you know, the loss of community and the rise of individualism—all of these questions, actually, there are riches in my tradition that I wanted to be translating. And so it’s a series of personal essays loosely structured around the seven deadly sins trying to offer and argue for this seam of ancient wisdom as something that curious people hungry for wisdom actually might want to go looking in. Certainly in the UK, it felt like, for some tribes, any other form of ancient wisdom they would take before Christianity. And I just wanted to change that a little bit.


Tom Walsh: Yeah. So to read a quote on this point from your book, you mentioned, “I’m increasingly convinced there are deep and applicable insights, rituals, and practices in the Christian tradition helpful even for those who would never go to church. The long withdrawing roar of secularization has left the vast resources within increasingly inaccessible. This worries me.” Can you talk a little bit about what you observe in the circles you’re in there?


Elizabeth Oldfield: I think it’s probably a different— it’s a difference in our cultures. But the UK has been ahead of the US in its secularization. It’s much closer to Europe. The idea that thinking people would be formed by these ideas, think they were humane or useful or true has been on the decline for a long time. And I think that we are seeing the fruit of that in some of the challenges that are facing our societies. It really came from quite a personal place, actually. It was partly in response to these conversations that I was having with lovely friends who, you know, are wise and kind and searching and genuinely wanting to understand what it was that I had found. But also it was for me. It was a sense, I need wisdom. I need to dig deep into this tradition. I need to take seriously the gifts and the treasures of this path, of these clouds of witnesses that have wrestled in more turbulent times than ours, in times that also sometimes felt like they might be the end of the world. So it was seeking wisdom for myself and then hoping that I might be able to translate it to those who would not expect to find wisdom under this particular label.


Tom Walsh: I noticed the book is really— there’s a lot of you in it, really. I mean, of course you’re the author, but there’s a lot of your life, a lot of memoir in it. Was that the original intention or did that turn out to be something necessary to accomplish what you were trying to accomplish?


Elizabeth Oldfield: Yeah. It was— there was none of me in it to begin with. It was a book of ideas. And I have the real gift, actually, of an agent who is sort of doggedly non-religious, quite sort of eyebrow-raised at the whole idea, who had taken me on to work on a different book project because she likes my book and it just didn’t feel like it’s quite working. And she said, “Liz, what you really want to write?” And I said, “You’re not going to want to hear it, Sophie. I don’t think you can sell this book. I want to write about the wisdom of my theological tradition for those outside the Church.” And she sort of looked at me and she went, “I like a challenge.” And it meant that all the way through, she worked with me on making sure that it was something that people who might be suspicious or skeptical of the Church or Christians could pick up and enjoy and find relevant to them and would not be preachy, would not be pious, would not have jargon they didn’t understand. 


But the key piece of feedback that kept coming from her was, “It needs more of you, because this is going to be a big ask for the audience you’re trying to reach. I will listen to you on this topic because I know you and I trust you. They don’t know you, so they can’t trust you. And if you don’t put yourself in the book, they can’t come to trust you and therefore you can’t take them on the journey that you want to take them.” And so it was really about expressing some vulnerability and some complexity and some “here’s an actual messy human person” as usually a better messenger of something that I wanted to express.


Tom Walsh: So one comment that really struck me in terms of the situation or the reality that you’re speaking into that is lived by many, many people around us—and I would say this is true in America as well as Britain; we’re not that different—quoting you, you say, “Our sinless society, which promised liberation from the psychological harm that externally imposed guilt brings, has begun to feel a bit suffocating. No one is really responsible for anything, but neither can anyone really be forgiven.” That strikes me as a profound statement. Can you just describe the outworking of it that you observe in the circles you’re in?


Elizabeth Oldfield: I just feel like we’re at a very graceless moment. You know, the old adage about the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart, you know—what a good theological anthropology gives you is a sense that the problem of evil is something we are caught up in, right? That we are not separate from. The plank in your own eye. Rigor and self-reflection of my tradition has gone, and we are much more comfortable locating evil in the much more convenient place, which is other people, and blaming them for all the world’s problems, retreating into our tribes and policing purity boundaries. And I see that, you know, we talk about it perhaps most in kind of progressive circles and cancel culture; I see it just as much in sort of more conservative right-wing circles in parts of the Church as well. And that sense of, if you lose actually personal practices of confession and acknowledgment of our own fragility and our own failures and the narrow path of seeking to grow in—I would say the fruit of the spirit, you could talk about “in virtue”—then it’s not that evil goes away or human fallibility goes away, we just really focus on it in other people. 


And when you both remove responsibility— and I think a lot of the trends have been helpful, psychological frames and understanding can be very helpful, understanding trauma can be very helpful. I’m not saying that any of those psychological insights are— you know, they can be very useful. But ultimately the dignity of a human person relies on us being able to take responsibility for our actions. And when you couple that with, then, the possibility of forgiveness and redemption and restoration, it just feels more humane. I find it a relief. I find it more livable than the kind of strange mash-up moral universe that’s offered elsewhere.


Tom Walsh: So this book has been out for not very long but a little while in the UK. I think it’ll be new to most of our American audience here. How’s it going? How has the reaction been in the early weeks, among both the folks that you intended it for and perhaps others?


Elizabeth Oldfield: Yeah, I’m really encouraged, actually. The risk was always that people who are not Christians would not go near it with a bargepole because they would be nervous that it would be preachy or judgy or whatever the associations they had with it was. And that for Christians it would be, you know, maybe stuff they already knew or, frankly, a little bit too honest. And I’m quite frank in places. And, you know, there is some salty language that I’m deploying very carefully for theological reasons. But, you know, it’s not a careful devotional-seeming book of the standard tone that Christians read. So I worried that it might fall between two stools. 


But, in fact, the mainstream audience, there seems to be an appetite. And so I’ve been on Radio 4 and in the Times and in the Independent and in some women’s magazines and just actually that hunch I have that people are so desperate for wisdom that they are beginning to be ready to hear, that it could be from this place that is actually the ground beneath our feet, has borne fruit. And lots of my early readers and blurbs and reviews are coming from people who are way beyond the Church and finding value in it. And Christians also are writing very beautiful messages to say, “Gosh, it’s really lovely to see my faith through fresh eyes, to sort of see it almost from the outside, to see these things that I take for granted have the dust blown off them and remember that it’s beautiful.” It’s beautiful, and we are inheritors of these gifts, and we can kind of stand in the confidence of that. Rather than being in this defensive, sort of cringing crouch that I think a lot of Christians end up in.


Tom Walsh: By the way, as we go, I hope folks will start to enter some questions in the Q&A box there. When we get to around the top of the hour, we’ll start to turn to some of your questions. So following up on what you just said, Elizabeth—while we’re very grateful for Trinity Forum participants who are not Christian believers—the reality is many of them are. So, can you talk a little bit more about how you’d like your fellow Christians to engage with the ideas you’re sharing in this book, which we’ll be getting to shortly?


Elizabeth Oldfield: I really hope that it’s confidence building. I hope that we can be reminded of just— you know, the chapter that I write about wrath, which is about polarization and division, I really dig into the nonviolent tradition based on the words of Jesus, about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies and the way he models, as I was saying earlier, just completely blowing up all the tribal boundaries. And the power in that nonviolent tradition, in that New Testament approach to the other and the enemy, is astonishing when you start practicing it properly. And I’m not practicing it properly, but I’m trying. The way it shifts dynamics, it changes situations. Magic is sort of the wrong word, but it is also magic. You can see the fresh air blow into places that feel stuck. And again and again, every time I kind of went after a sin and started really digging deep, just realizing there’s our deep well. There’s a deep well here. There is water here for us.


So I hope that Christians feel an increasing confidence. And I hope that I am modeling a posture and a tone that is something that we try to embody at Theos. The phrase we often used was “confident non-defensiveness,” that, I think—and we can go back to fight or flight—that too often we either have conversations with people who are not Christians, if we’re Christians ourselves, and because we’re often a bit tense and nervous about that—for reasons I unpack in the wrath chapter around people-like-me syndrome—we either go into slightly fight—kind of snippy, critical, contemptuous, judgy, superior, or worse—or we going to flight, which is this withdrawn, you know, parallel cultures, avoiding contact with people not like us.


[Audio loses connection briefly.] . . . I listen, be quite relaxed, actually, be in conversation. Really want to understand where people are coming from. Earn their trust. Earn the right for them to be curious enough to say, okay, so tell me how you see that. What does that mean in your world? How is this question showing up for you? And those are the most life-giving, adventurous moments of real human encounter and relationship. So, yeah, the tone and posture and the building of confidence and a sense that actually these conversations are right beneath the surface. If we’re relaxed enough and we have gained people’s trust, you can get to metaphysical longings quite fast and go to some really interesting places.


Tom Walsh: Can you talk a little bit about the centrality of the idea of formation for you in this book and in your life? To quote a bit from what you’ve written, you write, 
“I’m doing the precise opposite of what books on faith are supposed to do. My argument, and it is more like an invitation, is that the only way to understand what Christians mean by God is to train your attention in a different way.” Can you tell us what are you getting at there?


Elizabeth Oldfield: Oh, I’ve gone deep, Tom. That’s in the God chapter. That is the sort of, yeah, tender heart of the thing. So, I mean, the book is about formation in the sense it’s about how do we become the kind of people the world needs. A lot of people, certainly my friends who are not Christians, do feel very worried about the state of the world. And one helpful response to that I found is, okay, I can’t control geopolitics, can’t control elections, can’t control climate change, I can at least take some—or can’t control—I can take some agency over the kind of person I’m becoming. And I want to be someone who can love their neighbor even when things are getting more polarized. I want to be someone with steadiness of soul. And so the book is about formation in that sense of rituals and practices and postures—communal, ideally—from my tradition, that feel like they shape our attention. And it is our attention, our repeated attention—you know, Jamie Smith says no formation without repetition—and the relationships that we’re in, that form us, that change us, that [influence] the kind of people that we become. So that’s the basic argument.


The way it connects with what you were talking about is, the reason that I don’t feel bad about leaving the G-bomb, the God chapter, till last—and this is not because I think God is irrelevant in my tradition or— and it’s all over the— you know, I hope that Jesus walks through these pages because he has walked all these things with me. But a lot of the kind of people I’m trying to talk about would like to believe, but feel they can’t. There are lots of people in my life who would say they are Christian-curious, often highly intellectual, largely men, interestingly, in their 30s and 40s, for whatever reason, this real spike in sort of jealousy of Christians that certain intellectual classes in the UK are expressing. But for them, starting with belief doesn’t seem to— it bounces off. It’s not even a possibility.


And I draw a little bit—I only reference it in the book because it’s quite a complex argument—but for my life, draw deeply on the work of Iain McGilchrist and his hemisphere hypothesis about left-hemisphere and right-hemisphere forms of attention. And my basis hunch is, in a very secular, you know, Charles-Taylor secular age, mechanized economic universe, we have used narrow left-hemispheric forms of attention that make it hard to conceive of the possibility of the love of God. Right-hemispheric forms of attention—embodied, imaginative, intuitive, communal practices like going to church, like singing, like praying, like meditating, like using our bodies, like all the things that I talk about in the book—it’s not you don’t believe but you’re pretending by doing these things. It’s in the practices, in the belonging and the practicing, those right-hemispheric forms of attention actually change what we’re able to see. And I think they might make it easier for people to see what’s really there, which is a loving God with his arms open. 


But that’s kind of what I’m getting at, I think. I don’t think it’s a sellout to start with the rituals and practices and postures and themes without making people sign on the dotted line around the metaphysics.


Tom Walsh: Jamie Smith is one of our senior fellows here at the Trinity Forum. And we’ve had him on to talk about these themes. So some of them will be familiar to our audience. I did find this discussion about right- and left-brain thinking in the book very challenging. And I think many others will resonate with what you’re describing. Something I want to sort of get into is this idea that sin, as a central concept in the book, is this idea of connection and a central way of understanding sin is a lack of connection. And conversely, that connection is related to this concept of being fully alive, which is in the title of the book. So I would like to just hear you talk a little bit about this concept of connection and how it figures into your argument here.


Elizabeth Oldfield: I mean, you could replace that with the word relationship. And I think anyone who has a sort of Trinitarian anthropology has some very deep intuitions about relationship as the deep logic of the universe, as the what was before we were, you know, as the dance at the heart of the Godhead. And so it was a really intuitive sense for me of relationships being everything, of a kind of healthy relationship with our own soul, not numbing or distracting or shoving down what we’re actually yearning for, which is relationship and relationship with others and relationship with God as fully aliveness. You know, when someone asks Jesus, “How should I live?” And he says, “This is the whole law: love God, love your neighbor.” 


And I struggled for a long time with the kind of legal language around sin. And to be clear, the kind of sin framing is in Scripture and is entirely noble and dignified way of understanding what we think about sin. But I think because [the Bible is] this polyphonic, multifaceted, extraordinary book, there’s so much richness in there. And I think it is also an entirely legitimate way to be thinking about sin as really about connection and disconnection in relationship. We move towards love with others and with God or we move away. When I came to understand sin as fracture, as break, as broken relationships, it really helped me. It really helped me just— it felt very true to my lived experience of, you know, the moments when I feel not fully alive, when I feel like I’m moving towards death, are always because there is some fracture of relationship, there is some breaking down, there is some withdrawal. And that, you know, I think Augustine and then Luther used this phrase homo incurvatus, humans turned in on themselves, as their definition of sin. This withdrawing, this wanting to be God, this wanting to be individuals, this wanting to be not needing others, not needing help, not wanting other people to need us.


And so that’s really the idea that I’m playing with. And it’s not as a theologian or as a pastor. I’m not trying to offer a grand theory or, you know, to say that this is how you must understand sin. I was trying to speak about my lived experience of why I find this concept so helpful and so human and so liberatory for people who actually have a lot of baggage around the word sin and for whom the legal framing might have been translated very badly. And they, I think, sometimes have some good reasons to be quite nervous of the bad translations of that legal framing. But the relational thread, which I think is there, it’s really helping a lot of people go, “Oh, okay. You know, I can see why this is helpful.”


Tom Walsh: Well, to then dig into some of the sins as you have alluded to, the basic structure of the book is that you take each of the seven deadly sins and you explain that there’s somewhat different lists of what they are at all. So you choose a list. But you basically describe a movement from one state of life or being to another. And so just since you’ve mentioned it already, why don’t we talk a bit first about wrath and how just of-the-moment it seems, and you really particularly zero in on this distinction we make between PLM—people like me—and NLM—not like me. So I’d just like to hear you talk about how you see that sin playing out at the individual, at the societal, at all the different levels where we experience it.


Elizabeth Oldfield: So I, as part of my work, also work with peacebuilding, reconciliation, anti-polarization charities just in the kind of mainstream charity sector. So these theories about what drove tribalism—why were we getting further apart?—were very much in the air. But it was reading a book by John Yates called Fractured where he makes this distinction, and scientists call it homophily—preference for people like us. And so his shorthand is “people-like-me syndrome.” And it just feels like a baseline fact about human beings. We prefer people like ourselves, and at a very granular level. I have a new friend who I adore, and part of what we’re realizing is we’re just very, very similar. Like, I kind of love that she reminds me of myself, and that’s embarrassing. But I think it’s true of us all. Right? There’s all these studies that show if someone’s wearing the same shirt of this football team you support, you’re more likely to stop and help them. It’s really kind of teenage when you start drilling down into how endemic people-like-me syndrome is. You see it everywhere. It explains so many things. 


And I don’t think it’s necessarily a terrible thing. Right. It’s not something that we need to feel bad about. We all have it. But it needs keeping an eye on. It really can be amplified and weaponized against us at the moment, and I think— and was in the first century. And you see Jesus kind of walking through all these tribes who have walled themselves off from each other. You know, the supporters of the different rabbis, the different sects, the different races that are there in the first-century Jerusalem. And he always is going to the person in any scene that is the most not-like-me person in there, the most outsider, the person no one else wants to be seen with. No one will be on a platform with. No one wants to have their reputation tarnished by being around. The canceled people. You know, the impure people, the fallen people. That’s who he’s with. 


And as I began to see how central this ministry of reconciliation is in my tradition, this sense that the Jesus I see in the New Testament calls us to be radically resisting our natural tribalism and building communities and building neighborhoods of people radically unlike themselves, loving our enemies, crossing those divides, it just felt very urgent, very urgent work for us now as Christians to be modeling rather than modeling the opposite, which is allowing ourselves to get drawn further and further apart, and not just not loving our enemies, pouring contempt on our enemies, which feels not what I see modeled in the New Testament.


Tom Walsh: Yeah, I’m sure that resonates with every one of us as we look inside ourselves as well as in the society around us. Another of— I mean, really, we could go through all seven. I don’t think we’ll have time for that, but maybe people will ask about them. But one of the others that struck me was your discussion of envy, where you described a movement from status anxiety to belovedness. And I, again, think all of these will resonate for all of us. So can you unpack what envy in our times, how you observe it, how you experience it? And as you do in all these chapters, how Christian practices offer a way out of it or a way to deal with it?


Elizabeth Oldfield: Again, it’s so beautiful. The resources in our tradition are so beautiful and so powerful when we can actually allow ourselves to receive them and to internalize them. You know, we all know how, when you start paying attention, status is everywhere, you know, writing an email to someone that you don’t know, you’re sort of subtly signaling, “I am worth your time.” Social media is built on it. But even in neighborhoods: what you wear to pick up the kids from school, these tiny and completely universal little calculations that we’re all doing. Are you worth my time? Am I worth your time? Who’s up, who’s down, in an organization, in a church, in a local group. If you just start looking at the world and trying to read the status games that are going on and noticing in ourselves the way we are still teenagers trying to get attention, trying to be worth people’s time, showing off our badges and our CVs and our bouncing new hair or whatever it is. Humans are so adorable. We’re so fragile and we’re so foolish and we’re so loved.


And the theological anthropology of my tradition really subverts all of that. It’s very, I think, bracingly robust in its condemnation of people who play power games and are obsequious towards the rich. You know, it’s all over James. Terrifying. It’s kind of status hierarchy seems to be upside down. You know, the first shall be last. The meek shall inherit the earth. Those who are hungry, those who are thirsty, those who are on the edges, Jesus is always going for the low-status people, even if they’re low-status because they have collaborated with the enemy, right, and are actually very rich, but they are rejected by their community. And the idea that I could really believe that I am made in the image of God, that I am already enough, I don’t have to earn anything, that I have nothing to prove because of Jesus, and that I can look at everyone else through those eyes and see their beauty and see their value—particularly those who the world is not saying that to—felt way more fun than this, like, posturing status game that the wider culture is trying to form me into.


Tom Walsh: One of the others that you go through that I think people would be perhaps encouraged to hear you talk about is pride, which you really link to individualism in a direct way. In fact, you describe dismay at learning that “My Way” is the most popular funeral song of all, which for some of us, especially New Yorkers like me, is fighting words. 


Elizabeth Oldfield: Sorry to malign the patron blue-eyed saint. 


Tom Walsh: I’m sure you had a good point there, but, no, really. So what is it about pride and individualism and the contrast with community? Community is the contrast you’re describing. So maybe you could talk a little bit about that. You particularly mentioned church life for you and living in community as ways of countering your pride. Can you talk to those? 


Elizabeth Oldfield: Yeah. Being as interdependent persons as we are meant to be is really inconvenient. Yeah, I just don’t really believe in individuals anymore. I believe in persons made for a relationship. I do believe being is communion. I believe that we are little reflections of the Trinity and that we can’t actually— I’m not sure we image God fully on our own. I think humans are made in the image of God maybe more collectively than we tend to read that verse.


But so much of me does not want to be interdependent. I want my autonomy. I want my choice, I want my freedom, I want my preferences. I want my bed sheets. I want my kitchen. You know? I want not to have to compromise with anyone else’s plans or needs or vulnerabilities. And I’d rather my vulnerabilities were dealt with, you know, through the sort of faceless market transaction rather than in connected human need. And I think that instinct in us is poison. I think it’s probably the beginning of sin. And keeps us from getting on our knees and keeps us from asking help from these other image bearers that are around us, and we are designed to flourish together. 


And so church is really annoying for that reason, that humans are annoying. Not me, obviously. I’m not annoying. But the showing up and the seeking to serve and the learning to love each other and the treating friction as, you know, a polishing force, not something to be avoided at all costs, feels important for how I want to grow up my soul. And similar with the little intentional community that we live in, this quite radical covenant relationship we have beyond our nuclear family. I feel more discipled in three years living in community than I think I did in the previous 20 years in church.


Tom Walsh: And yeah, maybe you can just briefly tell us what is your living-in-community situation?


Elizabeth Oldfield: We call it a micro-monastery. It’s not really a monastery, but it is a monastic-inspired, very small community of two families. So we have turned the garage into a chapel and we pray a very light-touch version of the liturgy of the hours, a morning prayer and Compline. And we read the Bible aloud. And we share food and we share money, and we offer hospitality to seekers and people who want to come and spend some time with us. And yeah, we live up pretty close with other people in a way that I’m finding very life-giving indeed.


Tom Walsh: Well, thank you, Elizabeth. Let me let me turn to a few questions from our audience. One comes from Anthony Ko, who wondered, “You don’t appear to have much room in your thesis for the action of the spirit.” But he says, “Well, maybe you do. I haven’t read the book. I would like to hear your comments on the work of the Holy Spirit in our own spiritual growth and in bringing others to people, specifically drawing on the idea of the fruits of the Spirit.”


Elizabeth Oldfield: I hope I have room for that. I certainly need it in my own life. I think because this book is very much written for those who don’t have any familiarity with the tradition at all, a lot of it is just really trying to shift their imaginative structures to the way these questions show up in their life and the fact they might long for more connection and more relationship in these ways. The final chapter, it would not be possible or indeed wise to talk about Christianity without talking about God, without talking about Jesus, without pointing to the cross. But it gets there in a very— a way that hopefully, for those who have got there and are hungry, will need to go looking for more. And, you know, as the people who— I hope that for some people this book will whet their curiosity and they’ll want to go and explore. And they shouldn’t get too far in any good church without realizing that reconnection and relationship and moving towards life is not a matter of the will. It is a matter of gift and that we need help with it. But yeah, it’s probably not a central thread in the way I am framing the translation in this way for people who it might be their first contact with things.


Tom Walsh: Interesting question from Rick Lawler who says, “The church and the culture seem to have a capacity to deal with, understand, provide treatment for, all the deadly sins except lust. A hint of it and the church system shuts down and you’re on your own. Any thoughts on that?”


Elizabeth Oldfield: Interesting. So my last chapter is very frank. I think that, yes, the way we talk about sex in the church is not serving us. Sorry, I’m processing what you asked. And I think the fear of talking about it and the fear of actually being a bit more honest about human sexuality—and I was trying to do that actually from a female perspective, which I don’t see very much in the church—that whenever we talk about sex and lust and the challenges of that in holiness, it’s almost all framed through male sexuality and what women can do not to cause problems. And so it felt important to me to be bringing a woman’s voice into that perspective. But I would like us to be more frank and more honest and more open, appropriately, with good boundaries, about that area of human life. Which is why I did feel it was important to write about. But honestly, it feels risky. Sorry. I think your question is really interesting, and I don’t have a more coherent answer to it than that.


Tom Walsh: Yeah, I recommend the book. You do treat that along with all the others, in a very thoughtful way. Another question, this one anonymously, referred to your comment earlier that there’s talk about early signs of a Christian revival in the UK or increased spiritual hunger, as you mentioned. Do you agree? And as far as you can tell, is it really kind of an elite phenomenon or do you really think it’s throughout society?


Elizabeth Oldfield: Yes. I did an [inaudible] UnHerd about this which has proved to have quite a long afterlife. And what I said there was, I don’t think we could call it a revival. I am seeing both individually, some people that we have been walking with becoming Christians, and some public conversions at a much higher rate than I would have done previously. And what I’m definitely seeing is much widespread spiritual openness. Honestly, I think I am—and I hope by calling—mainly in contact with people who might be put in the category of elite—not in my church, in my local neighborhood, and my congregation. But the people that come through our doors that want to have discussions are philosophers and writers and journalists, and that’s just our people, and that’s who we’re called to. And there I am definitely seeing something shifting quite rapidly. I think the definition of a revival should be kind of outbreak of the Holy Spirit and not just the sort of forces of cultural change happening. So I’m interested and hopeful and cautious and it’s a bit of a wait-and-see situation.


Tom Walsh: One of the other seven deadly sins, perhaps the one that’s most unfamiliar, at least the label for it is, to most of us is acedia, which is sometimes translated as sloth. But I think you find a lot is lost in that translation. So I’m wondering if you could dig into that. What is acedia in our modern life as individuals and collectively? And how do we get out of it?


Elizabeth Oldfield: Yeah, yeah. That subtitle is “From Distraction to Attention.” And it’s both something that has clearly always plagued human beings, or it would not have been one of the eight bad thoughts that the Desert Fathers were dealing with in their lonely cells. You know, it’s not that this has never been a problem for humans. But again, what we have done is set up a cultural formation, a set of cultural liturgies, a context, that is weaponizing our worst tendencies to disconnection against us and amplifying them. I call it the acediac economy, I think. That distraction, listlessness, you know, aimless scrolling kind of snackish search for some satisfying treat of something that we’re not quite sure what, when all the actual important tasks, when all the actual important relationships of our lives are left overlooked is— I’ve spent time doing it today. You know, the discipline and the structures and the rigor required to push back that cultural tide to resist that formation is enormous. We try and have a collective Sabbath in our house, and the only way it works is if I get either my housemate or my children to hide all of my devices because I have no willpower. But when we do it together, it’s possible. When we’re trying to do it on our own, as we’re trying to do almost all of this on our own, it’s really, really difficult thing to create a different culture.


Tom Walsh: Here’s a question from Madonna Hamel. She says, “My experience in having conversations with people who haven’t grown up in a religious tradition is a misunderstanding of the vocabulary of faith, so I’ve started to ask them to define their terms. But how do you deal with this question of the language of faith?” And actually this makes me think a bit of your podcast, The Sacred, where you’re often having guests who are from a different faith tradition or from no faith tradition. Maybe you could just reflect a little bit on language, and what it means for addressing this need in our world now.


Elizabeth Oldfield: That’s interesting. I mean, I think if you’re— if asking them to define your terms is a reason just to listen to them, then that’s a great place to start. And that’s usually my answer to everything. Is just—I’m talking to myself—just shut up for a bit and listen. And the case in point is the sin word, right? Just bandying that around as if 1) everyone knows what it means, or 2) it couldn’t possibly do more harm than good to be using it in poorly thought-out ways. Even the word God, frankly. I put it in square brackets for most of the book because I think my husband always says God is not a proper noun, right? It’s not—. The God that we are trying to follow is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It has a story and a name. There’s a particularity. But God as a noun, God of the philosophers, you know, that—. People will be bringing a set of semiotic associations, a set of baggage. We will be triggering things in them that we probably won’t intend if we use that word without unpacking it a little bit. So I think, yeah, your approach of actually just trying to say, what do you mean by that? And what’s your understanding with that, and what language would you tend to use instead? Or, this is what I mean when I use these things. You need quite a lot of trust and a lot of time to get there, but it’s very rich and meaningful relational work I think. So I just cheer you on.


Tom Walsh: Here’s a question from Fredrik Perez. He asks, “Can you share some ways you bridge the conversations to be able to talk about people’s relational needs and open their eyes to the relationship God desires with them?” I mean, clearly listening is job one. From what you just said, that’s really where you start. But, yeah, do you have a—? Does that question even seem to be the right question to you about how to get people to open their eyes to see a broader horizon?


Elizabeth Oldfield: Interesting. I sort of hesitate to say this because I think it might be annoying, but I find that happens quite naturally. The more I just listen and ask really good questions—. That’s sort of what The Sacred is trying to do in some ways. It’s a peace-building project to help people listen to each other across tribes, but by accident, by asking people things like “what is sacred to you?” and getting people who might not have any experience of actually reflecting on their deep values to reflect on their deep values, it just opens up a different imaginative space and quite quickly and quite often they will get on to metaphysical yearnings. And where do we find meaning? And where do we find belonging? And then people get curious, is my experience.


I think the thing I would say is, if we start out with an agenda, that people can smell that. If our posture and our desire is to really understand the person in front of us, then usually it opens up a space for a different kind of conversation. It’s why—. I mean, the book is not an evangelistic tract. It does not stick the landing in the gospel. It is not going to do the whole journey from hostile and closed to surrendering their life. I’m not sure any book could. And that wasn’t what I felt called to do. I wanted to write a book that was useful and helpful and meaningful and inspiring and funny for people who are way off and have no interest and still might never darken the doors of a church, might not even read the chapter on God, right? I wanted to keep the contract with the reader that I am there to be a blessing to them. I am there to be of service to them. And I would not be able to call myself a Christian if I didn’t generally get very excited and jump up and down when people came to know the love of God. It’s sort of baked into the tradition. Christians who don’t care about people coming to know that they are loved by God, I worry about us, you know. Have we actually received the thing? So I don’t hide the fact I love it when people come to understand what I think is at the heart of this story. But the thing I’m prioritizing is the relationship, is the conversation. And when that is at the center of things, everything else seems to happen quite naturally, honestly. I think. Sorry.


Tom Walsh: No. No need to be sorry. Well, let me let me link a couple of questions here if I can. One person asked about—this is Rick Lawler also—”Who are some of the authors in the tradition that are formative for you?” And another question from Tasha Dallin: “Is there a particular historical person you have discovered in your research from the great cloud of witnesses of the Christian faith, whose voice seems especially prophetic, and who you were most excited to translate into our present cultural context?”


Elizabeth Oldfield: What lovely questions. This is when I go completely blank on my pages and pages and pages of notes. Who is it I’ve actually quoted? Honestly, it surprised me sometimes I’ve written a nonfiction book because I mainly read fiction and poetry, and those things seem to me to come closest in that they’re very right-hemispheric forms of knowledge. They seem to come closest. And so the great Christian poets, often Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne, Mary Oliver, actually, not consciously for some of her life and then consciously later on, I think, is praying with words all the time. Marilynne Robinson. It’s the storytellers and poets and then the mystics, those that are comfortable with the strangeness and the spikiness where theology is sort of an attempt to systematize ideas into a machine of doctrine. I begin to get a bit itchy and not feel like I can connect it with my lived experience of the life of faith.


And then, you know, the obvious ones. Doctor King, and actually James Baldwin, who had a very complex relationship with faith. I don’t know that he would have called himself an orthodox Christian, but his understanding of responding to an enemy with love, the way he writes in “A Letter to My Nephew,” extraordinary glimpse into the heart of God, feels to me.


Tom Walsh: Here’s an interesting question from an attendee. “Do you think a community has the ability to evangelize, or maybe we could say to be a witness, in a way that an individual cannot?”


Elizabeth Oldfield: Yeah, I do. And I know that from experience. And it is also partly just like human prurient curiosity. You know, we live in a small, intentional community. And as soon as I’m on—. And we have these open table dinners and we invite people we don’t know very well. I was on Radio 4 with someone the other day and she was interested. I said, you want to come for dinner? She said, so radical to have someone ask you to dinner who you don’t know. Why is that so radical? And showed up. She was just astonished that there were these people who didn’t know each other and were not just old friends from university, but were from all over the community. So you get to depth much quicker because they’re already outside the tram tracks. You’re already weirdos. I feel like living in community gives you permission because I’m already a weirdo, and so I don’t—. Everyone’s always slightly off the conversational map. So you have permission to ask slightly deeper questions, slightly more profound questions. And because longing for community and loneliness and this sense of a loss of belonging is such a key— it’s the sort of defining psychic mood, I think, certainly for my generation in the UK, a functioning community that actually loves each other and has each other’s back and meets each other’s needs and shares and knows each other. It’s like a city on a hill. It’s like moths to a flame. 


Tom Walsh: You talk in the chapter on pride, you mentioned the other family yours lives in community with, but you also talk about church and one you were part of, no longer are, one you’re part of now. And, you know, there’s some of the good and the bad wrapped up together in those experiences. Can you relate that to us a bit?


Elizabeth Oldfield: I mean, I probably wouldn’t go into detail because I wrote those passages with a lot of care because I wanted to honor people that were involved, are involved, but I think it probably connects with a lot of people’s experience as the gap between what church should be and what it is. You know, it gives you blisters, it aches. And yet. And yet to whom else shall we go? I think there is no escaping the call to be together and to learn to love each other, even as the institutions are almost laughably disappointing at points. And I am also laughably disappointing, you know, that the sort of moral realism of sin I think is really helpful. It’s like, well, yeah, you know. Humans. Trying to do a thing through a glass darkly. We’re doing our best, you know? So yeah, I have been hurt by churches and continue to find church really quite difficult at times, and I’m sure I’m really quite difficult to have in churches at times. But this is the body. I don’t want to amputate myself from the body. That seems like a bad plan. 


Tom Walsh: Indeed. Well, I’m going to turn to Elizabeth in a moment to give us a last word. We’re just about out of time, so be thinking of it. But in the meantime, I just want to say to all our participants, thanks for being here today. Immediately after we conclude on your screen, you’ll see an online feedback form. And it’s a huge help to us if you can share some thoughts on how we can make these conversations even more valuable to you. And as a small token of our appreciation we’ll give all of you who do it a free digital gift of a free digital copy of the Trinity Forum Reading of your choice. We have over 100 of those by now, Trinity Forum Readings. And here’s your chance to check one out that you’re interested in. Some of the ones that we particularly recommend that relate to today’s discussion are “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, “Wrestling with God” by Simone Weil.


We’ll also be sending all of you registered the video and audio links, actually, to this conversation that you can pass along to friends. You’ll get those tomorrow. We hope you’ll share them with others. And we’ll include recommendations for readings and such. We’d love for you to get involved with us, all of you, and become members of the Trinity Forum Society. You can help support events like this by being a member. You can join today online at And we’ve put the link there in the chat box. And a special incentive is a free and signed copy of Elizabeth’s wonderful book, Fully Alive, when you join with a gift or with a gift of $100 or more. So here’s your chance. Get on it. Good summer reading, I would say. 


And if you’d like to sponsor one of these Online Conversations in the future, we’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch.


A brief word about our upcoming events—and you can sign up for these also via the links in the chat box. Our next one of these is this coming Friday, June 28th, with Mia Chung Yee and David Bailey on the theme “Creativity, Reconciliation, and Flourishing.” So I think there will be a chance for some of the right-brain sort of things that we’ve been talking about with Elizabeth in this hour there. And then this Monday evening, June 24th, we’ll have the next of our monthly online reading groups in our series that we’re calling “Navigating 2024 Faithfully.” And this one is on our Trinity Forum Reading by Vaclav Havel on “Politics, Morality, and Civility.” It’s a really an exceptional reading, and I’d love to see a number of you there. And in about a month, we’ll do another Online Conversation with Shirley Mullen on her new book, Claiming the Courageous Middle: Daring to Live and Work Together for a More Hopeful Future. So that’ll be on July 26th. And looking ahead farther, on August 23rd, we’ll host Abram von Engen to discuss his book, Word Made Fresh: An Invitation to Poetry for the Church.


We’ll be adding some more things over the summer, so please stay tuned. And all the ones we’ve done to date you can find on our website along with our podcasts. Okay, over to you, Elizabeth, for the last word.


Elizabeth Oldfield: I guess I just want to offer a provocation, which is for those of us who are Christians—and if you’re not on this call, I’m really glad you’re here and I look forward to chatting more—but if you are, what would it look like to approach conversations with people on deep things who don’t agree with us, with a sense of playfulness and curiosity and fun and to allow ourselves to relax. I think we might find we had a few more adventures.


Tom Walsh: Thank you so much, Elizabeth, and thanks to all of you for joining us. Best wishes for a joyful weekend. Bye-bye.