Insights from across the pond.
The lower common room of Wycliffe Hall was abuzz with students. Voices thrummed through the high, bright space of the ground floor room as rain gathered out the window and seats were snatched. Our orientation program was well under way, but the next few sessions were of especial importance; the kind with information to set a new student on her feet, point out the mountain road of study, and tell her exactly how to walk. I sat, pen at the ready in a restless hover over my blank notebook page (I still haven’t learned to take effective notes on a laptop), heartbeat a little fast.
To be a student in Oxford is to accept a flung challenge. Yes, you do have to jump through numerous hoops and answer many questions and do your best to sound intelligent, well-bred, articulate, and humble all at once to even get a chance at the challenge. But once you’re here, every thread of brain tightens, muscles tense, soul and heart grow taut with the sense that much is expected of those who come. Maybe it’s partly my own inner perfectionist, the girl who cannot stand to fail, that goads me with this forward motion, but the expectation of that day and of those around me was tangible. I was ready to write down every jot of library info, college standards, house rules, and tutorial expectations.
So when a tall, kindly tutor rose with a swift smile and a quick welcome, I was a little surprised at his ease. He had us laughing within a minute, and told us that what he wanted to talk about was what our thinking ought to be while we were here. Not merely how to footnote, but how to be faithful. I settled back in my seat. My fingers eased in their grip on the pen. I had expected solemnity and loads of directives. Instead, over the next half hour of Rev’d Dr. James Robson’s talk, I found a buoyancy of heart that grew with each point he made. For what he presented were seven ideas describing just what the point of all our study and reading and thought ought to be. Amidst the clamor of my arrival, when the larger point of my work here could have been obscured by details, or fear, Dr. Robson cast a visional framework that renewed not just my faith, but my sense of purpose in the mountains of work ahead.
So I couldn’t resist sharing his major points with you, because I think there are countless ways in which these principles could be applied. To cultural engagement. To childhood education. To mentoring. To formation of soul and self. To formation of church, or mission. We need thoughtful roadmaps like these to help us envision what we desire as we study, teach, read, and then create from all we have gathered along the way. Without further ado, Dr. Robson’s seven values (Dr. Robson very kindly gave me permission to use his material here; his points are in bold with the notes I jotted in italic bold, and my thoughts from that day are in italics). Our thinking ought to be:
- Informed :: The aim is to dispel ignorance. To know what we know with great depth and intricacy, whether that is the nature of God or the function of language. To read, question, and wrestle with those who have gone deep in thought before us, and to then form our own beliefs in conversation with them. I’m reminded here of how language expands our consciousness. How each word, thought, or imagined figure enriches the inner soil from which our belief, creativity, and selfhood grows. To learn, to read, to be informed is to widen the horizon of spiritual imagination. In learning, we become more than we were before, and our capacity to give expands as well. What a privilege, then, to learn, and what a gift.
- Humble :: We see in part, each limited by his or her own point of view. We see one aspect of the world, one facet of the cut, shimmering diamond of reality. We must value what we know, yes, but recognize its limitation. We must always be willing to question, or expand our ideas based on the challenge of Scripture. I’ve only been here a week and already I have heard so many stories, heard so many passionate ideas stated, and formed new friendships with people from vastly differing cultures and histories. My concept of the world has expanded. I am keenly aware of both my own unique story, and the fact that it is one of countless histories adding to the great Story of God. In that context, there is no room for pride of place.
- Critical :: Is this right? God gave us minds to discern between the good and the bad, the true and the false. Our learning is meant to strengthen us in this endeavor, so that we can ask the questions that must be asked about soul and mind, Church and culture. We ask for evidence, we read vigorously, we think with rigor. I feel often paralyzed by the plethora of choices, opinions, and beliefs encountered in the space of a day. This particular value is a tonic to me; an assurance that with Scripture, study, and careful thought, I am fully able to discern what is right, what is good, and what that knowledge requires of me. Life’s more simple than it seems when a cool mind and a peaceful heart are in place.
- Analytical :: Here, we practice the discipline of logical thinking. We learn to ask the questions that get to the pith of the matter. We learn to discern what is truly being stated, asked, or assumed in the thoughts of others. This, after my various spates as a student mentor, strikes me hard. One thing I had to learn in mentoring others was that often, the question verbalized wasn’t really the question being asked. To discern what truly is at stake, to ask the kind of questions that lay open the heart of a matter is a discipline I’ve had to learn with much last minute prayer. Of course, academically, this value is straightforward, more about intellectual clarity. Clarity of thought. And brevity. Those will take some work!
- Independent :: We are self-starting, self-driven educators who take ownership of our learning. Part of this is a resistance to herd-like thinking. We think in community, certainly, but we think independently as well, willing to question instead of simply assume. And this is why I’m at Oxford. “Think of yourself,” said a new friend here, a little ahead of me on the same course,” as a scholar in training. You’re just a ways back from the great ones, but you’re on the same path. And you have to do the same work with the same integrity if you want to follow them.” Hard work, that, the discipline of setting essay schedules for myself, doing the extra bit of research I really could skip, answering the question fully instead of in part. But an honor too. To be trusted to learn, to do work worthy of a tutor’s time. And then to take that learning, apply the same independence and give it back in a meaningful way to the world. Beautiful challenge.
- Integrative :: Our learning must rightly enrich our actions. Theological study must enrich and further our discipleship. Otherwise, it is a useless endeavor. Oh, this beauty-loving, life-making girl loves this. Our contemplations must find meaningful, embodied expression. To hold knowledge apart, in an isolated box in our minds, is to make it meaningless. It must be applied, lived, incarnated into every aspect of the lives we live here, the loves we give, the legacies we are building. If what I learn about the Old Testament prophets doesn’t teach me how to tell the truth in my own time, how to love the people God is calling to himself, then the hours I spent upon it were worthless. If church doctrine classes don’t equip me to speak, in the language and metaphor of my own time, the living language of Christ, then I have learnt nothing at all. This learning must be a part of “life and life to the full,” life rich in the beauty and quickened light of Christ.
- Faithful :: We learn in order to know the living God. Michael Lloyd, the principal here at Wycliffe, in a talk given just before this one, commented (I don’t have notes so I’m paraphrasing) that theological study is, at base, the study of Love. In that light, I understand every jot of my pen here, every page of old text read, every essay eeked out in the wee sma’s as a journey deep into Love. And a rigorous training that will give me the mental acuity, the written and verbal fluency to make Love plain in my time.
So, friends. There you have it! I’m working on a C.S. Lewis essay today. I just finished Till We Have Faces, and now I need to form coherent thoughts about it. So for now, I take my leave. Over and out from Oxford.
Sarah Clarkson is an author, blogger, and student of theology at the University of Oxford. She loves books, beauty, and imagination and wants everyone else to understand why they should too. She is the author of Read for the Heart (a guide to children’s literature) and Caught Up in a Story, an exploration of the way that narrative and imagination form a child’s sense of self. She wrote The Lifegiving Home with her mother, Sally Clarkson, and blogs about home, books, Oxford, and beauty at thoroughlyalive.com. When not chasing doctrinal mysteries down in the Bodleian, walking the meadows, or drinking another good cup of coffee, Sarah can be found at home with a good novel in the red-doored English house she shares with her husband, Thomas.