‘Oxford: Impressions’, by Andrei Lambert

From the Editor: As we reach the end of a term (hopefully in one piece), here’s a reflection on Oxford and the academic vocation by the Benetian philosopher in residence (I hear his nickname is Confucius, can’t think why…)! Perhaps it will inspire you for next term…

What does Oxford mean for you and I? As with all questions of meaning, it is probably best answered only after the thing is experienced. Fortunately, the best answer is often not the most revealing one, and this is what gives me confidence to reflect, now, amidst the excitement and momentum of it all, upon what Oxford means for me. Years later the same reflection might be subject to the mellow gaze of nostalgia; now, though infantile, it is coloured and raw.

At least for the time being, we students have an intellectual vocation. Even now each of us has a concrete calling from God: to study. This can be a strange thought in light of those hours of toilsome and often seemingly senseless work—that interminable and verbose chapter on a dull topic, or that lecture that went in one ear, and came out the other. Beyond such moments of aridity, our calling invites the broader and inevitable question, ‘Why am I studying?’ Merely in preparation for the next phase in life? Because it is interesting? Because it is true? On this last point the French Dominican A.G. Sertillanges writes that the intellectual must ‘submit not only to the discipline of work, but to the discipline of truth’. He might describe the whole of the intellectual vocation as ‘yielding ourselves up to the truth’. Certainly, all knowledge (or skill) is good in itself, but its most authentic orientation is to reveal something of the world, of human nature, or of God, and to harmonize itself into one global vision of reality. I think this is what is meant by the pursuit of truth. Knowledge misses the mark if it exists as isolated units in the mind or if it does not contribute to our understanding of reality—to our grasp of truth.

In this light fulfilling the call of study can feel daunting. The academic world, in general, does not profess this aim. Not only is the object  of study sometimes so narrow and specific that we struggle to connect it with the rest of our knowledge base, but the ultimate truth-value of things is either deemed irrelevant or treated as a matter of personal opinion. I might study in great depth the theologies of Cyril and Nestorius, and know all about what each thought of the title ‘Mother of God’; but I will never be expected to argue who got it right. I might compare and dissect Shakespeare to the point of exhaustion, if such a thing is possible; but no essay would ask what Hamlet reveals about human nature. In the academic world, to study is to explore, to argue, to develop one’s interests, but to grow in one’s understanding of reality—perhaps we might say gaining wisdom—lies outside of its scope. This is not to deny the benefits and qualities of the modern scholarly method. Nor must it be overlooked that a desire and a disposition for truth can in itself bear fruit, even in the academic world which it inhabits. To a listening mind God speaks eternal truths in all matter of places. And, importantly, the intellectual is more than a scholar; this too is a source of consolation. Sertillanges speaks of the unity of person which characterizes the true intellectual:

The intellectual I have in view is a man of wide and varied knowledge complementary to a special study thoroughly pursued; he loves the arts and natural beauty; his mind shows itself to be one in everyday occupations and in meditation: he is the same man in the presence of God, of his fellows, and of his maid, carrying within him a world of ideas and feelings that are not only written down in books and in discourses, but flow into his conversation with his friends, and guide his life.

We can gather instinctively from his words that Oxford is more than study. Indeed, somehow from that single sentence there emerge all the things which give this place meaning for me. The arts—my mind goes to the many congregations of concert posters throughout the city, all chattering about the newest performances, embodying the ideal of advertising which has been lost everywhere else. Natural beauty—I recall the deer-spotted, river-rounded Magdalen gardens, or the majesty and peace of Port Meadow, or the song of a bird even on a January evening. I am inclined to believe that in Oxford, natural beauty and man-made beauty are in constant brotherly competition, each one trying to outdo the other. Then there is the presence of God, which pervades these things, and meets us most intimately when we enter his House, like that moment when the organ swells up, and the bells rings out, and the heads bow down, and the Host comes up. Finally, there are friends, who bring us to the presence of God, and bring to us the presence of God. They even have very much to do with music, according to Sir Roger Scruton, because ‘the sense that we find in music a transcendental voice that we can engage with and enter into communication with is something that has its origins in our everyday need for each other’. Friendships—to be taken lightly, by enjoying them, and seriously, by cherishing them. Study, art, nature, friends, God. Perhaps my entire life, not just Oxford, will find its meaning in these. If that is so, and if I am right that a thing is best understood after it is experienced, then only after life has been lived, and the Saviour gazes upon it, will this meaning be illumined in its fullness.

Andrei Lambert, BA Theology and Religion, St Benet’s