Oxford Convergence 2024

A unity to live and share: Oxford Convergence 2024

A two-day cultural event in Oxford to address the question: “Can we live without fear today?” Meetings on the most pressing challenges of our time, to rediscover that we all have a responsibility to assume, and have the freedom to change history.
Giuseppe Pezzini and Maria Ubiali

"Imagine the experience of those born (as I) between the Golden and the Diamond Jubilee of Victoria [1887–1897]. Both senses or imaginations of security have been progressively stripped away from us. Now we find ourselves nakedly confronting the will of God, as concerns ourselves and our position in Time."

Many could apply these words of J.R.R. Tolkien to their own experience during the past three years, which have been marked by a series of events that have ‘stripped away’ all securities, from the Covid pandemic down to all sorts of crises in our smaller or larger communities. It is as if history has come back, with all its force.

History has in fact not come to an end, despite what people used to say years ago. War has returned to Europe and to the world, with old and new imperialisms inflaming their rhetoric day after day. Globalization is no longer perceived as an inescapable happy outcome. Even the ethic of capitalism is no longer attractive to the younger generations. Old ideologies have returned, accompanied by an exacerbation of culture wars. Social cohesion seems on the verge of collapsing, with a worsening of the economic gap, and a radicalization of the conflict between different factions, cultures, and generations. Technology and social media often do not help, and many people are trapped in bubbles filled with anger and loneliness, no longer understanding each other. Mental health has deteriorated to a tipping point, especially among the young. Most certainties about the nature of human beings and human society are under question, or conversely are upheld with a resentment that often betrays inner fears and doubts, or a stubborn lack of realism.

From the meeting on Artificial Intelligence

The desire at the origin of Convergence (a two-day cultural event, which took place in Oxford, UK, 23-24 March) was closely related to this experience.

In front of all the challenges of our times it is common to withdraw from history and find ways to avoid looking at reality in the face. These can take, among many others, the form of a wild individualism, looking after our own little garden (which day after day becomes smaller and shadier) and can yield to a nostalgic inertia, as if the best days of our life were gone for good. Or they can fall prey to an ideological approach, of any variation, including a purportedly Christian ideology, which only leads to hatred and violence.

The starting point of our cultural attempt was a friendship among us that reawakened in each of us the urgency to live fully “the time that has been given to us”, with the conviction of John Henry Newman, who said that “the only way to be perfect is to change often.” That is to say, that the only way not to lose oneself is to engage with the present and embrace the new beginnings that always await the seeking eye. The change we sought in preparing and living the Convergence was not a break with one’s past, with tradition, blindly embracing the errors of new generations, but rather the growth and development of a living being. It is a change that wants to avoid both traditionalism and progressivism, and in general of any polarization. It is a change which requires a clear identity, to be shared with courage with the world.

Convergence 2024 – and especially the work that led to it – has verified and exemplified that all of this can be true. The main theme of our two-day event (which was attended by almost 300 people) was the possibility of facing times of crisis, risk, and uncertainty without fear. One of the main inspirations was the video documentary “Living without fear at an age of uncertainty”, featuring contributions by Rowan Williams, Charles Taylor, and Julian Carron. Some excerpts were shown during the days, but above all the video inspired something new: this resulted in the preparation of an exhibition (‘Provocations’), displayed during the event, which was built around the experiences of an art curator and a writer. Starting from their reactions in front of contemporary poetry and art, and through their friendship, they looked for resonances that made them delve deeper and deeper into themselves, until the discovery that was so beautifully expressed in a sentence of Fr. Giussani on the final panel: "I am, I exist because You make me. This is a discovery that fills my heart with gratitude."

The core of the Convergence was a series of panel discussions dedicated to what had been identified as the most pressing challenges of our times, as mentioned above: Artificial Intelligence, War and Reconciliation, the Social Crisis, the Nature of the Human Being, and Mental Health.

The panel on mental health at the Convergence

One of the things that struck us the most was the variety of the event, together with an unexpected unity that emerged throughout the whole event. A variety of backgrounds and sensitivities, among both the people who organized the events and attended them. A variety of approaches, with some panels offering more direct answers on how to face the challenges of modern times, especially the dialogue with theologian Daniel De Haan on Virtue Ethics in the age of social media, who stressed that it is a lack of an experience of community that leads to tribalism. Other sessions were more aimed at raising questions, and appropriately led to long Q&As. This was especially true for the session on Artificial Intelligence, led by Jonah Lynch and pianist Francesco Pasqualotto, who gave a practical example of the exceptionality of human creativity, which is also paradoxically what allows us to hope that the challenge of AI might be transformed into an opportunity for humanity. Two of the other sessions might more properly be described as witnesses. The first, which was accompanied by a dedicated exhibition, focused on the figure of Takashi Nagai. Gabriele di Comite showed us how Takashi’s war experience was transformed after his conversion, and led him to become a positive force of reconciliation after the horror of the bomb, for the good of the world. James Nolan showed us, through the eyes of Takashi Nagai and of the people who encountered him, the meaning of suffering and how the hope that this man had transformed the lives of so many people. The other session instead centred around the testimonies of practitioners engaged in one of the most fervid battlefields of our society, the mental health crisis among children and teenagers, who shared their experience of pain, and indicated that the only possible hope is to be in a relationship. Finally, another panel featured a dialogue between an educator and an economist, who pointed out how the economic and educational collapse of our society are facets of the same crisis.

This variety of backgrounds and approaches was also reflected by the variety of the people who attended the event, which also became an opportunity for different groups and identities to come together (including the various Catholic communities who live in Oxford, and beyond).

The musical evening dedicated to the Beatles at the Convergence

Despite this variety, the Convergence was, however, marked by an unexpected unity, and the result was so much greater than the sum of what the organizers and volunteers had put in, which filled all of us with wonder and the desire to continue on this journey. It was a thematic unity, in the sense that every event became a step on a cohesive journey, which eventually led to the realization that each of us has a responsibility to assume, because we all have the freedom to change history – not according to the measure of the world, in terms of performance or political impact, but at much deeper level, by collaborating to create places where pain can be shared, where our hearts can be changed, and where hope can be found, in the recovery of a true human personality.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, a lived unity among the people who contributed to the event, in all its different forms; as one of us wrote in a message, during the Convergence we could “touch a tangible unity, a unity within which each of us found their place, and where any opposition between the affirmation of the ‘I’, and the affirmation of the ‘we’, was overcome.

The videos of all talks are available on the Youtube Channel of Convergence: