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Things I Learned in Europe: Part 2–Oxford’s Church

September 8, 2009

Katie and I spent most of the first half of our European adventure with Jacque and Mike. Jacque was a bridesmaid in our wedding, and is currently employed by ACU’s Study Abroad Oxford office, where she teaches humanities classes in Oxford. She recently married Mike, a computer technician from Zimbabwe. Mike is beginning a theological studies program at one of Oxford’s colleges in a few weeks; he explained that although he really wanted to study missions, the program is more geared towards apologetics. (Somehow, amongst the 400+ pictures that Katie took, none of them involve Mike.) Mike’s yearning to engage with the text was astounding and refreshing, and he began to explain apologetics; he admitted that he was anxious about the argumentative aspect of the term, but realized that in order to fully engage with Christianity, it’s imperative for him to gain a foundational understanding so he can defend it.

As Mike spoke, I was reminded of my past frustrations with the church, largely consisting of experiences in which the Text was abused and proof-texted to complete certain agendas. (I think the voice of this frustration needs a separate blog post. Briefly, my introduction to the Bible was a book of facts to be memorized, and the last several years of my faith journey have been rebelling against the idea as I try to discover a new definition of Biblical faith.) I tried my best to keep these thoughts locked inside my head, but I’m afraid a few slipped out of my mouth. Anyway, Mike said that he was envious of people like me who grew up in the “church culture”; I responded that I was envious of people like him who get to discover Christianity on their own terms.

This theme continued as we moved to our next location: Jacob and Lara’s flat, where we stayed the final three nights in Oxford. Lara is a clinical psychologist, so we had a common language to provoke some fascinating conversations. Jacob is a PhD candidate in theology; his dissertation combines Christian philosophy with Hindi and Islam thought, and has overtones of Christian apologetics. Jacob was a physics major in his undergraduate at UT and explained that he became a Christian as he realized that modern science proves the existence of God; for one thing, the Christian narrative has been proven through archaeological studies, but philosophers such as Alistair McGrath has expounded on the connection between science and theology.

At first, I had trouble connecting with this conversation, partly because I’m jaded by denominational sects who use the Bible to “prove” asinine theological nuances, and partly because I’m surrounded by a circle of “winter Christians” at Highland–men and women who embrace doubt, utilizing it to transform a deeper faith. After all, isn’t the scientific proof of Christianity at some level pointless? That’s where faith, belief in something that cannot be proven, steps in, right?

Then I realized how appropriate this study is in post-Christian Oxford.

Nobody challenges my faith in Abilene or in the American South; for example, the American evangelical, though at times ridiculous, still has a quantifiable following, and even the non-Christians/not-interested-in-becoming-Christians I meet have been indifferent to my faith rather than radically opposed to it. Phillip Pullman and other outspoken Christian critics live in the Oxfords of the world, not the Abilenes.

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Oxford has this unique tension; for over a thousand years, it has been an international center of knowledge and the expansion of humanities, science, and research. However, Oxford also has a rich religious tradition; St. Aldates, the church that Katie worshiped at in her year and a half in England, has been around for 900 years, and many of the colleges have their own chapels/cathedrals and current connections with the liturgies and politics of the Anglican Church. Although religion and scientific education coexist better in Oxford than other places in Europe, the history of tension between the two is still significant, and I would dare say has never been so volatile. Non-Christians in Oxford attempt to use knowledge as their weapons against “naive” Christians, so the apologetic movement has gained popularity in the attempt for Christianity to survive in Oxford.

Amazingly, St. Aldates has managed to create an atmosphere of warm, engaging worship and combine charismatic and apologetic language in the midst of this religious and philosophical culture, inviting hundreds of believers into its hallowed grounds each Sunday morning and evening. How this occurs is another blog post, probably written by another person.

Nevertheless, the second thing that I learned in Europe is a new appreciation for the proof of faith and religion, not so that I can beat a Biblical passage or idea down someone’s throat, but because Christianity survives in Oxford (and other similar post-Christian locations) with apologetics.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Drew permalink
    September 8, 2009 10:52 pm

    I think I probably would have had a very similar response (although I may not have managed to work through it as healthfully as you have!) It’s another reason I have felt so inclined to leave Abilene lately. I feel like I really need these types of experiences myself. I don’t really have anything to add to the conversation, but I appreciate what you’ve written. Thank you for sharing!

  2. singingjeremiah permalink*
    September 9, 2009 11:16 pm

    Just like to say that there are some factual errors that got corrected. Thanks.

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