When I chose to study abroad at Oxford University, I had the option of two different programs. One was impressively called, ‘The Scholar’s Semester in Oxford,’ while the other was simply labeled ‘OSAP.’ Immediately I was drawn to the first program. It had the prestigious name, required better academic standing, and would permit me membership into Oxford’s theological college, Wycliffe Hall. The other program, OSAP, seemed to be less appealing in every way. The academic requirements were lower, the name was boring, and I would be subjectively placed into some affiliated Oxford college.
My prideful nature desired the accolade of being accepted into the first program, and yet I found myself deciding to apply for the second program. Yes, I was choosing what I saw as the simpler program and pursuing admittance to OSAP- the Oxford Study Abroad Programme. In truth, the two programs were remarkably similar. Both offered the opportunity to learn from world-renowned Oxford professors through the esteemed tutorial-style lessons as well as full immersion into Oxford life through college membership. As a visiting student in either program, I would have access to the libraries, lectures, athletic teams and community of Oxford University.
What then was the difference between the two? The Scholar’s Semester offered an additional component of Christian Learning as well as housing with other Christian students in the program. At the time of applying, I was a sophomore at Messiah College and thus I was perpetually surrounded by Christian activity. We had the opportunity to attend an on-campus chapel service twice a week, there were worship nights, and we had a plethora of weekly small groups, bible studies, and informal gatherings. By choosing the Oxford Study Abroad Programme, I would have to intentionally seek ways to learn more about Christianity. I don’t want to be ‘spoon-fed’ my faith while I’m abroad, I thought, I want to make it my own.
Regardless of our religion, or lack there of, we each experience this desire to solidify our understanding and beliefs about the world. Day in and day out we are constantly bombarded with information professing to be the truth. At some point, consciously or unconsciously, we ascribe truthfulness to some of claims we hear and falsity to the others. Entering college, I had many doubts about the reality of Christianity, but over the course of my freshman and sophomore year I began to warm up to some of its ideas. However, I knew it was easy to have faith in Christianity when I was living in a Christian environment surrounded by others with the same beliefs.
Oxford, in my mind, would be a time for me to test my faith outside the security of my Christian college bubble. I didn’t want a structured program to continue learning about Christianity. I wanted to read books, spend time in contemplation, and perhaps find a church to join. Basically I envisioned an individual effort where I would learn and grow solely through my own intellect. Which, in retrospect, was rather absurd.
The Christian God, as you may know, is a triune God. I won’t get into the nature Trinity in this post for numerous reasons (the greatest being that I’m ill-equipped to discuss the nature of the Trinity), however I will share the truth that the triune Christian God exists in perpetual relationship between God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. When God saw it good to create mankind, he made each of us in his image, and thus one trait we inherit is this need for relationships, community, friends, and partners.
The absurdity of wanting to test my faith solely through my own individual effort was derived from my staunch denial of the need for both a mentor to teach and a community to learn alongside. Consider this, were I undertaking the task of learning mathematics, would I seek to only learn through books and my own mind? No! I would seek out a qualified teacher, and I would study with friends. Of course, there is also the need in both mathematics and matters of faith for the truths to become known and accepted in one’s mind, a process that can only happen through a personal understanding. However, the path of learning about these truths is not one that should be walked alone.
I began my journey in Oxford with this weakness and folly of individualism. In my mind I was an adroit explorer on a wild expedition, but truly I was merely a lonely girl on a wayward road. The first few days after I arrived, I explored the city, making note of the local churches among other interesting establishments. I found the CS Lewis society and attended the first meeting, doing my best to keep to myself and refrain from speaking to any of the others in attendance. I was cordial with my flat-mates but made no effort to connect with anyone from the larger OSAP community, including the people I knew to be Christians.
In what I can only explain as God’s providence, I was rather quickly plucked from my lone journey of going nowhere fast. During the first week in Oxford, OSAP offered a bus tour to London and I went along, as did most of the other students in the program. While we were on the bus, one of the students decided to strike up a conversation with me. He had seen me at the CS Lewis Society meeting and was apparently undeterred by my quiet and reticent demeanor. We quickly hit it off and spent both the bus ride to and from London discussing philosophy, CS Lewis, and Christianity among other things.
In addition to his Oxford tutorials, I soon discovered this student was studying an additional course with a small group of students. He seemed to think I would enjoy attending their weekly lectures. The course itself was focused on ‘World Views,’ a term that has become almost trendy in the last few years, however at the time I was unfamiliar with it. Since then, I have learned that a world view is simply the collection of philosophical beliefs one holds about the world, or the basic understanding that shapes ones conception of reality. Of course, I felt an immediate rejection to his offer. He was inviting me into a group of Christians! That was exactly what I had decided I did not want.
At the same time, his offer was enticing. I did so enjoy the conversations I had been having with him and I was intrigued by the possibility of more discussions of the same nature. I was also interested in meeting the teacher of this worldview course and his family. And so one Friday, soon after our bus trip to London, I found myself on another bus. This time I was heading west towards the small town of Eynsham, where I would find myself a seated around a large table in a room full of books.
My cavalier hopes of doing everything on my own were quickly doused and a new kindling of desire was born: I wanted to be a part of this group! I wanted to learn under the tutelage of a knowledgeable and thoughtful instructor. I wanted to participate in intellectual parrying to uncover true wisdom. I wanted to read these books, with these people, and discuss them under this teacher.
24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. – Hebrews 10:24-25 (ESV)
In what seemed to be fortuitous and auspicious circumstances, the teacher and students wanted me to join them as well. The director of the program, Kevin Bywater, soon officially extended an invitation for me to become a bonafide member of the Oxford Study Centre. I am glad he did for it was with those students and under his direction that I gained a deep understanding of my faith, the intellectual integrity of Christianity, and critical thinking tools to enter into difficult conversations. While it all seemed a rather lucky turn of events perhaps my joining the group was intended all along.
I know it wouldn’t be the first time God’s path for my life was much better than my own imaginings.
Share with me: What was your most memorable involvement in Christian Community? Where do you currently find people with whom you can grow and learn? Seriously, call me up, write me a note, send me a message or comment somewhere. I would love to hear your thoughts.
For more information about the program I studied with, the Oxford Study Centre, please visit their website and take some time to look around the wealth of information on Kevin Bywater’s personal website.