Courtesy of Jim, the Photographer.
This week Core I classes continue to read from a variety of modern and contemporary texts. My class read the second half of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, in the Core I textbook. How fitting (and lucky!) for me that during the second half of this past week, I was at the Symposium for Religious Studies, sponsored by Oxford University and held in the Church of St. Mary the virgin in Oxford. Since I went from Dickens to England, I immediately appreciated the intense and particularly English way the holiday is celebrated here. Going into Waterstone's Bookstore (iconic to my family), I was greeted at the door by a salesperson holding a tray of mince pies. The atmosphere was lively and cheerful, and I found a book dedicated to recipes from the works of Charles Dickens. As an American, I was pleased to see that former First Lady Michelle Obama was given two windows advertising her latest best-selling autobiography (this had nothing to do with Dickens, but it was gratifying.) The streets were bustling and traditionally decorated, echoing Dickens' description of the streets in London just before Christmas. I passed a church, selling Christmas cards to help the homeless and other charities. Dickens would have been pleased.
The Symposium itself, however, was the reason I had come to Oxford. My paper was on "The Impact of God on the Ethical Concerns in the Early Church." In this paper, I delved into how the early Christians radically challenged the polytheistic Greco-Roman world in terms of various ethical considerations, like sharing wealth and caring for the poor; brotherly/sisterly love for one another despite all class distinctions; an enhanced role for women in the church, along with examples of heroic martyrdom (including the story of Perpetua, part of Core II), the banning of infanticide (spoken of by Justin Martyr, also in Core II), and a deep presence of pacifism, though there were Christian soldiers. Other papers dealt with topics like race and faith in the Catholic Church; gender roles in Hindu mythological stories; the Ba’hai goal of universal peace; and many other topics. Participants from a wide variety of religious traditions explored topics important to them and interesting to others, over a course of three days' meetings, including lunch, taken together.
The site of the Symposium was the library of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, the University Church, which is also the site where Blessed John Henry Newman served as Rector, prior to his conversion to Catholicism. One could imagine his presence in this lovely Cathedral, sweeping into the pulpit and capturing the attention of the crowd, as Matthew Arnold has poetically described it: "Who could resist the charm of that spiritual apparition, gliding in the dim afternoon light through the aisles of St. Mary's, rising into the pulpit, and then, in the most entrancing of voices, breaking the silence with words and thought which were religious music—subtle, sweet and mournful?" Newman also has also been among the optional authors for Core II.
Finally, I was excited to be here in preparation for my own ETW Core III class, Fantasy and Faith, which explores the works of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both Oxford men and members of a group of writers and thinkers called the Inklings. Lewis was a tutor and Tolkien a professor, and both were close friends. Lewis, an atheist for many years, was persuaded to consider Christianity after a long night talk (and walk – along Addison's Walk, which I visited myself) with Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, another of the Inklings. Tolkien argued that Christianity was indeed like the myths Lewis loved so much, but that it was historically based, thus making it "a myth come true." This would explain, said Tolkien, why there are echoes of this story, of the dying and rising god, from all times and places. Lewis found this argument so powerful, he called his brother the next day, saying he was beginning to believe in Christ. I thought of this conversation as I walked along Addison's Walk, outside Magdalen College, where I was staying (and where Lewis had rooms for many years, the place where the Inklings often met – along with the pub, the Eagle and the Child).
I leave tomorrow, gratified to have touched the lives of many interesting scholars from an array of disciplines and traditions, and having visited places so important to many of the writers we study in the Core.