We sat down for a candid discussion with Elizabeth Oldfield, director of the Theos think-tank, about her podcast The Sacred, how to disagree well, navigating the public conversation, and how to speak to non-religious people about faith.
What do you hold sacred? And has it changed since starting the podcast?
I think my sacred value is healthy human relationships. I first realised that’s what was important when I broke my leg during my first job. I’d done well at uni, left and got a job at the BBC, and 3 months into my 6 month contract I shattered my leg, ended up in a wheelchair and they told me I couldn’t go back to work. I had to move back in with my parents, I couldn’t even wash myself, I didn’t have a job, and I was wrestling with thoughts of worthlessness. Then I went to two funerals sort of back-to-back, of people close to me, both while I was in the wheelchair. I was completely struck by how neither of those funerals mentioned that person’s professional accomplishments at all, they focused on the network of relationships that they were embedded in, and how kind they were and how loving they were. So I came to quite a deep sense that the most important thing in life is relationships.
Can you explain how the podcast came to be, and the thinking behind it?
My career has been driven by my interest in the public conversation, the stories that our culture tells about itself, and how we’re shaped by the stories we consume. I recently went on maternity leave and didn’t go on social media: I tried to step outside the public debates so I could be present with my kids. When I came back to work I was like ‘what’s happened?!’.
My son was born a few weeks before Trump was elected so I’d sort of missed a lot of it. We’ve always been adversarial, particularly in Britain, our Parliament and media is set up that way, but it felt like the gloves were off. People were totally disdainful of anyone that disagreed with them. Suddenly it was self-righteous to be permanently outraged at those ‘stupid other people’, which just felt really wrong. I felt like I could get swept up in it and particularly that Christians were not immune to it. So I was thinking about writing something but I realised I didn’t know very much! It would be silly to set myself up as an expert, but one thing I’m good at is talking to people and asking them questions. My background is in radio so it just seemed like a really obvious thing to do. I started asking people I already knew, who were in some way engaged in the public debate, how they thought public conversation was going, what had they learned, and framed those conversations around this idea of what they hold sacred as a way of getting them to speak personally, and recognising their own implicit assumptions about the world.
One of the things you mentioned there is that you’re good at asking people questions. Guests do really open up on this podcast in a way that I think is probably unexpected even for them. What do you think it is that enables you to ask these difficult questions and have these conversations?
Some of it is just personality type. I’m nosy. I came up through a journalistic world, and the best way of finding stuff out is by asking people. I was trained as a particular type of media researcher which just involved mining people’s brains! I became really bold about asking questions, because if people don’t want to answer, they don’t have to. Innate curiosity about things, but also a fascination with people and how they tick stands me in good stead. I just really like people. My mum is from a really working class background, but my dad is very middle class and went to boarding school, so that’s really helpful because it means I can get on with anyone.
I’m also an optimist about people. I think if you get deep enough, there’s something good in everyone. People who are angry have most likely been wounded, and on this podcast, people might have been wounded by Christianity, so I’m just not scared of them or their response because I understand where it might have come from. I think people get warmth from me, and actually warmth as a posture isn’t that hard. Everyone likes talking about themselves and if you’re a good listener and you’re not out to get them, people will open up.
Are there any conversations that you’ve had on the podcast that have been particularly challenging for you?
Well it’s part of the discipline of it. If I’m speaking about modelling difficult conversations and talking across difference, then I’m learning that stuff myself, right? Part of the reason the podcast exists is for me to practise it in public, and sometimes fail at it, to normalise it so we can go ‘well no these conversations are not easy, but it’s not rocket science: you have to keep trying and you will get better’.
I’m friends with a lot of atheists, and most of those conversations are really productive, but occasionally you come across something that’s really difficult. I spoke to Ian Dunt recently and his understanding of religion was frustrating. He kept saying things like, “I’m big on rationality and your religious listeners won’t understand that”! That concept of religion being antithetical to rationality is a very common assumption but it’s not easy to unpick quickly. So I found that difficult because the point of this podcast isn’t to educate him: I needed to explain that I disagreed with him, but I’m not trying to do an apologetics demonstration.
The other one was Tom Chivers, who I really like and respect but is a hardline physicalist, doesn’t believe in free will, and just requires so much evidence to contemplate belief in anything. I don’t actually know how he functions, it’s just a bit incomprehensible. In some ways it was a lovely chat because he finds me incomprehensible as well, but it doesn’t mean we have to hate each other.
I loved that episode because you really opened up about your experience of Christianity and your testimony which was fascinating. His response was to say he’d never had a conversation with anyone about a religious experience before, which was so interesting because it seems obvious in a church setting to talk about those experiences, but lots of non-religious people never have.
And that’s a common thread with everyone I speak to who’s quite defined as an atheist: they don’t know anybody who’s religious. So that’s a real challenge to Christians! Why aren’t we friends with them? I’d say stop being lily-livered and go out and speak to someone who disagrees with you. And not even as strategic evangelism, just go out and learn about people who think differently. Do you have friends who are atheists, and do you talk about this stuff with them?
In that conversation with Tom Chivers in particular you were very vulnerable. I’ve heard you speak before about how difficult it is to be a woman in the public eye and in the media, let alone be a woman of faith, so I was kind of surprised at just how candid you’ve been because you could be opening yourself up to so much backlash. Was that a conscious choice?
Well if you’ve listened since the beginning you might realise it’s taken a while for me to get there! My whole premise on the podcast was ‘be personal’. Lots of people pretend that things aren’t personal, but I wanted to show how we all come from a particular outlook and way of thinking. We’re scared of being personal and vulnerable because we think it’ll be held against us. My experience has been that the more I do it, as a real human not as a kind of false power play, there’s very little backlash and actually there’s been high levels of respect.
When you’re being a human in public with all your flaws and fragilities and failures, it’s harder to attack than someone who’s pretending to be all knowing. We want to tear down the person who’s supercilious, pretentious and puffed up, but someone who’s just saying ‘well I think this but I don’t know, and it’s a result of where I come from and I’m doing my best’, everyone’s relieved by that.
We now live in a society where everything you’ve ever done and ever said can be held against you, so it’s really refreshing to see someone being so vulnerable about themselves and about faith, and still be so respected.
Yeah it’s not easy. I mean I had five years working at the BBC first before I sort of ‘came out’ as a professional Christian, which lots of people never do. I felt very clearly led into this job at Theos, and once I was there I felt like it would be ridiculous for me to pretend that I was just a neutral observer. One of things we say at Theos is that there’s no such thing as being objective on existential questions, and pretending doesn’t help anybody. So when I’m in lots of secular contexts talking about religion I’m like, “Can we show our cards? Can we be more personal?”
The reason public conversation is so fraught with distrust is because everyone’s so guarded. Not being guarded is a radical act. And yes, I get abused for it but less than you might think, because I don’t use my Christian identity to demean anyone else, or bash people over the head. I am a Christian, but it doesn’t mean I hate you! You’re able to connect with other people once they think you’re enough like them for them to let their guard down, and that requires trust and respect.
I guess with some of my friends who are opposed to my beliefs, I just got to know them as people and then one day they found out I went to church and we could talk about it easily, because I’d already shown them that I wasn’t here to judge their way of life. I think in public though that’s a lot more difficult because you don’t get the chance to make that connection first?
If you can establish that whoever’s speaking is relatable in some way, they’re a parent, or they’re a teacher, or they like poetry, like you do, then it stops the Christian thing being this ‘other’ tribe of people. The principle I have when speaking about this stuff in public is to accept the fact that people will have a reaction to religion, because it’s a big scary thing. It should set off an emotional reaction, for people who do and don’t believe, because the possibility of a loving God raises hope but also provides the opportunity for disappointment, and life is disappointing right? Also, lots of people have history with religion, they’ve been burned by the church or been burned by other Christians. I think we should just have the psychological awareness to go ‘I’m going to probably set off an emotional firestorm in this person’, and navigate that, and care for them because we love them. We can’t just swan off feeling smug that we’ve delivered our message with a disregard for their feelings because that’s deeply un-Christlike. Understand your audience. Like your audience. Don’t see them as the enemy.
You said earlier that your thoughts on sacred values have become crystallised, but is there anything else you’ve learnt through doing the podcast?
I think I just understand non-religious people better. Talking to people about what they believe is really hard, and on this podcast not only do I get to do that but people know that’s what’s going to happen! It’s been a real privilege to talk to people about what they believe and why, and I feel like I understand the imaginative world of non-religious people better. Some people feel the lack of God in their lives as a loss and an absence, and some people really don’t! We need to be careful that we don’t project that onto them. We don’t want to prise open a God-shaped hole in someone, that’s not very loving! All these conversations just need a lot of thought. I’m really grateful for people who have trusted me enough to talk about this kind of stuff with me. I think it’s really brave of them.
A lot of us look at the world around us at the moment, especially online and in the media, and see everything as a little bit bleak. Christians perhaps have a tendency sometimes to feel marginalised in this new world of ours, that public conversation seems very different now to how it used to. What’s your take on how optimistic/pessimistic we should be at the state of public conversation, and are there things we can be doing to positively contribute to it?
Well I would first say go and listen to Krista Tippett’s podcast called ‘On Being’ because she is much wiser than I am on this.
One of the wonderful things about Christianity is it helps me hold optimism and pessimism together. It means I can acknowledge the tragedy of living in a fallen world, I can see sin, especially my own, and name it as a brutal dreadful reality. I feel the weight of that. But the thing about the gospel is that those things are true but not the end. What the person of Jesus offers is hope for the future but also for now. There is original sin but also original glory, and a human being who knows they are loved can make such a difference by loving other people.
I see the both the church and the non-religious working tirelessly for justice. And there’s something in that verse ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right…think about these things’ [Philippians 4:8]. Seek out the good! We know we’re programmed to pay more attention to the negativity. God knows that. He knows we’re going to struggle, so he says work hard on focusing on what is good. Switch off from that idea of being responsible for knowing all the tragedies in the world. Tragedy that we can do nothing about is toxic to our psyches.
Action is the cure for helplessness. I do so little, but there is a defiance against injustice by giving, by serving, by helping, by loving, and no matter how small the action we can feel like we’re doing something positive.
Specifically in terms of public debate; follow people you disagree with. Delete all the Christians on your timeline for a while, and engage positively with people you understand less. Acknowledge what’s true, cheer them on, and model calm, empathetic disagreement. Practise it!
Find out more about The Sacred podcast here, or listen to it on iTunes or Soundcloud.