breaking news from the world of ideas

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Wednesday, 27
May 2020
Reaction
11:33

When will churchgoers sing again?

Plans for the reopening of churches, along with many of our great institutions, remain hazy. It seems likely that services, as well as being masked, deep cleaned and socially distanced, will be devoid of song. The debate over whether singing could be possible behind masks, or if singers were far enough away still rages, but most cautious church leaders will opt to avoid the risk altogether.

Sensible, maybe, but also heartbreaking. Choirs up and down the country will be experiencing a similar grief. The news for close-knit communities, who have transitioned to digital rehearsals, that they can’t make music together for some time will be a blow. We’ve had enough pro-choir popular television for us all to know the arguments — singing together releases endorphins, builds social cohesion and is a tonic for our mental and physical health. Hundreds of thousands of non-church goers will feel the lack of it. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Wednesday, 13
May 2020
Reaction
17:11

Normalement, or back to normal?

There are many phrases I have grown tired of since the coronavirus crisis began. ‘Strange times”, ‘we’re out of milk’ and ‘shall we zoom?’ all come close, but the most grating must be “back to normal”.

It has echoes of my children asking “are we there yet?” on long car journeys — the impatient desire to speed up something that will take its own sweet time. But it’s not just the impatience behind the desire to get “back to normal” that is troubling me, it’s also the implication that we a) want to go backwards and b) the world we had before was as it should be.

My francophile husband clarified this tension for me by pointing out the different ways ‘normal’ is used in French and English. For English speakers, it just means sort of average, everyday, how things are. In French there is much more a sense of what ought to be, what we hope will be, not just what is. Where we would use ‘normally’ they would use ‘habituellement’ with its connotations of things done out of habit. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Friday, 24
April 2020
Audio
10:47

Bim Afolami: the sacred has found its way into politics

This week I released a podcast with Conservative MP Bim Afolami, one of the BBC’s MPs to watch in late 2019. He is a black politician and trustee of the Oxford Union, and our conversation ranged across free speech, identity politics and the polarisation of public life. We explored the idea, which I first came across via Michael Wear, that the withdrawal of stable, lifelong forms of belonging, identity and meaning, primarily religion, has left politics bearing too much emotional weight. Afolami said:

The Sacred Podcast · #63 Bim Afolami
Human beings have a yearning for something transcendental, something that makes their existence have meaning beyond their immediate self. If you no longer have that in religion then logic would suggest, and history would suggest, that you’re going to have to find that in some other way.  
- Bim Afolami

Although, as Afolami admits, this is a hard trend to evidence — we are definitely in the realm of correlation rather than causation — it does chime with wider thinking. Scholars including Jonathan Haidt have suggested that part of the reason political polarisation has deepened is that it has become riven with “sacred values”, or indeed that these sacred values are playing a more central role in our politics. I was intrigued by one statement in particular in a 2016 lecture...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Thursday, 26
March 2020
Response
07:00

Exile in Babylon: nature needs a sabbath

Among all the relentlessly grim news, pictures of nature flourishing as humans withdraw have been little moments of light. #rewildtheworld seems the appropriate Instagram hashtag, but I’m reminded more of a line from the biblical book of Chronicles. After Israel is carted off for exile in Babylon we are told: “The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed”.

Nature needed a sabbath, because the nation had not obeyed the mosaic law, which set out clear limits on humankind’s use of the land in order that both could flourish, and had instead exploited and mistreated creation. History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Friday, 13
March 2020
Idea
08:37

Forming new relationships in a time of Coronavirus

There will be many repercussions from this moment’s particular crisis — the rapid and alarming spread of COVID-19. Our interrelatedness and dependence on others moral actions has rarely been so clear, nor the fact that health is ultimately a common good.

There is a tension for me though, in that to serve the common good in this moment, we might need to withdraw temporarily from our common life into a highly individual, atomised lock-down. This withdrawal, the cancelling of public events and refraining from travel, increasingly looks like the wise and kind course of action in order to protect those who are most vulnerable. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Friday, 28
February 2020
Idea
07:00

The zero-carbon future might save our communities

What makes a community strong? I’ve just got back from a two-day conference on this question, and one theme emerged repeatedly: long term local relationships. These relationships form the bedrock of a community, where people stay for a long time and flourish as active citizens and leaders. They are bound by a high trust and a culture of neighbourliness which can withstand shocks, from economic contraction to natural disasters like floods.

This was a gathering of practitioners, social scientists and public servants who were most concerned about vulnerable communities which lack these networks of relationships. There are all kinds of academic ways of speaking of it — social capital, citizenship scaffolding, community anchor institutions — but it comes down to something that we used to do naturally, and now don’t. A highly mobile, highly individualised culture has great benefits for those that can leave, opening up opportunities and horizons. For the communities they leave behind, it’s not so great. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Wednesday, 5
February 2020
Reaction
08:29

RIP George Steiner, prophet of attention

George Steiner died this week, aged 90. The polymathic literary and cultural critic was a holocaust survivor obsessed with high culture, who was always mining the relationship between goodness and art. He wrote in 1967 “We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning.”

I didn’t know much of his work, but learning about him this week I’m struck by how central attention was to this thinking. A review in the New York Times said “An intensity of outward attention — interest, curiosity, healthy obsession — was Steiner’s version of God’s grace. There is something both exalted and wonderfully mundane about that.” ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Friday, 24
January 2020
Idea
08:30

Time to introduce virtue into AI ethics

What could Augustine (pictured) add to the debate around AI?

It can be a lonely and unrewarding road, trying to talk about how we define goodness, and what it takes to develop virtue. Outside university seminar rooms these subjects get short-shrift in our noisy, events-led public conversation. So I’ve been pleased to see the emerging field of AI ethics bump them, if not to the top of the agenda, at least onto it.

Goodness-talk, in our deeply diverse society, is usually written off in one of two ways. It either sounds insubstantial and naïve, a pastel-coloured pop-gun in a red-clawed world. Only those too ‘nice’ to understand reality would bother. Alternatively, it seems like judgemental finger-pointing with a side helping of hypocrisy. The charge of “virtue signalling” covers both. We distrust the motives of the messenger, and the message by association. ...  Continue reading