There and Back Again—My Visit to “Oxbridge”

This is the sixth installment about my speaking in the UK.

After spending the weekend in Leeds, giving talks on eschatology and lament for the Thinking Faith Network, we headed for “Oxbridge,” where I would speak three times on the topic of biblical eschatology (“A New Heaven and a New Earth”).  For those who don’t know the term, “Oxbridge” refers the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the two oldest universities in England.

Although bound together by prestige and history, the two universities are in different cities; and they not connected by any clear, straightforward route—either by road or by rail (as I found out, when I traveled between them, twice).

Oxford

My first stop was Oxford, to speak at the Monday evening meeting of the Graduate Christian Forum, held upstairs in The Mitre pub. A small but collegial group of Oxford students, professors, and friends gathered for the lecture; and we had continued conversation for about an hour afterwards, interspersed with drinks and snacks.

I don’t know if C. S. Lewis and the Inklings ever met in The Mitre (I know they met in a variety of Oxford pubs), but I did see their most famous meeting place, the Eagle and Child (fondly known as the Bird and Baby).

So I’ve mentioned C. S. Lewis, and the title of this post alludes to J. R. R. Tolkein (the subtitle of The Hobbit), but it was Francis Schaeffer’s presence that I felt at The Mitre.

This was because I met Joe Martin, a retired American engineer, who had spent time as a young man with Schaeffer at Swiss L’Abri, the Christian study center that Francis and Edith Schaeffer founded in 1955.

Francis Schaeffer’s writings greatly impacted me as a young theology student, as I noted in the introduction to my book A New Heaven and a New Earth:

I was therefore delighted to meet Joe Martin, who functions as a pastor to Oxford students, nurturing their consciousness of a biblical worldview and its impact on all of life.

Joe gave me a theme issue of an Oxbridge journal that was devoted the topic of Jerusalem in history and theology. His article on the “New Jerusalem” made many of the same points that I addressed in my eschatology lecture (in his case, I was clearly preaching to the choir).

Cambridge

The next morning we headed for Cambridge, where I would speak twice—first at the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion (which I’ll report on in my next post), and then at the Jubilee Centre (on eschatology).

The Jubilee Centre is a sort of Christian think tank and outreach ministry that (according to their web site) “offers a biblical perspective on contemporary issues and underlying trends in society, of relevance to the general public.”

Among their forms of outreach, they publish a series of papers that bring incisive Christian analysis to a range of topics of concern to a wide audience in the UK and Europe.

My lecture at the Jubilee Centre was co-sponsored by the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE), which exists under the umbrella of Tyndale House at the University of Cambridge.

My initial connection with the Jubilee Centre came through Jonathan Chaplin (about to retire from being the director of KLICE), who was a fellow graduate student with me at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, before he returned to his native England to do PhD work.

It was great reconnecting with Jonathan Chaplin and meeting the staff at the Jubilee Centre, including Jonathan Tame, director of the Centre, who introduced my talk (above).

Oxford

The next morning we headed back to Oxford, so I could speak at Wycliffe Hall, an evangelical school of theology in the University of Oxford. Although this stop was added only at the last minute (in fact, I only found out about it when I was about to leave my home in Rochester for the airport), it was a worthwhile addition to the speaking tour.

I gave my eschatology talk to a group of faculty and students and after a brief Q&A, I gathered with a smaller group for more in-depth discussion of issues raised in the lecture.

I was glad to reconnect with Ben Johnson, tutor in Biblical Interpretation at Wycliffe Hall, who I had previously met at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in 2016 (we both gave papers in the Theology of the Hebrew Scriptures section). Ben is a friend of my colleague Josef Sykora, both having studied Old Testament with Walter Moberly at Durham University.

Ben Johnson is currently co-editing, along with my long-time friend Keith Bodner, two volumes of essays on Characters and Characterization in Samuel-Kings; I will be contributing an essay on the prophet Samuel.

In my next post I’ll talk about my time at the Faraday Institute in Cambridge.

 

 

The Times They Are a Changing (Institutions on the Move)

In a strange coincidence, I received notification today that two of the graduate schools I have studied at (and taught at) are selling their buildings. Both have been trying to sell their buildings for a while, and both have now found buyers.

I received both notifications by email today, with links that pointed to online postings from the day before.

Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School

First, I heard the news about Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (Rochester, NY).

I attended Colgate Rochester in the eighties as an M.A. student, while serving as Protestant Chaplain at the University of Rochester, and then I moved back to Rochester in the nineties for a tenure track faculty position in Old Testament.

It was as a student at Colgate Rochester that I was first introduced to the writings of Walter Brueggemann, whose vision of the relevance the the Old Testament has shaped my understanding of Scripture. And Brueggemann sent me a nice note of congratulation when I started teaching there.

I lived in the dorms for my first semester as a student at Colgate and then again for a semester when I began teaching (before my family had moved to Rochester).

But for a long time the beautiful buildings on the “Hill” have been underused, ever since the other theological partner schools that shared the campus (Bexley Hall and St. Bernard’s) moved to other locations, and the largely residential student population shifted to primarily commuting students.

So with all those empty buildings, including dorms and the large cafeteria, it makes sense that the Divinity School plans to move to a smaller facility in the city, sometime over the next two years. It would be a significant cost savings, while allowing them to invest the funds from the sale in the future of the institution.

Institute for Christian Studies

Later in the day I heard the news about the Institute for Christian Studies (Toronto).

I attended the ICS in the late seventies for my first graduate courses, before I transferred to the University of Guelph for my M.A. in philosophy. While studying at the ICS and during my time in Guelph I worked for the ICS teaching non-credit worldview courses on university campuses in southern Ontario.

It was at the ICS that I received an in-depth exposure to thinking about a Christian worldview, through the institution’s intellectual heritage that could be traced back to the life and thought of Abraham Kuyper.

During my studies at ICS my wife and I lived in a small apartment on the top floor (with roof access), which came with the position of being in charge of janitorial work for the entire building.

I later returned to the ICS in the nineties for my PhD, and taught many adjunct courses in Biblical Studies and Worldview Studies in the Master’s programs. At this point we didn’t live in Toronto, but I commuted to the ICS from St. Catharines a couple days per week.

It was during this time that I was introduced to the work of N. T. Wright, who spoke at the ICS on a number of occasions. Wright’s serious historical and theological interpretation of the New Testament has impacted my vision of the text, including its rootnedness in the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism.

Between the two times I attended the ICS, the school moved from the fourth floor of the building (where I first had classes) to the second floor, and then to the first floor, having sold the greater share of the five-story building they owned in downtown Toronto to investors.

But now, with the investors going out of business, and the option to buy back the entire building being too much at this time (given the price of real estate in Toronto), it makes sense to sell the entire building (including their own share), while continuing to rent one floor. Just as with Colgate Rochester, this would allow them to invest the funds from the sale in the future of the institution.

A Future Orientation

What do these two similar stories tell us about the state of Christian higher education today? What do they tell us about what is really important?

Yes, institutions need buildings with adequate space and facilities to pursue their mission. But these two stories point to the very real need to cut costs and become leaner and more efficient for the sake of the mission.

I have all sorts of fond memories of these two buildings (the beautiful stone towers of CRCDS and the old fourth floor of ICS). But it simply won’t do to focus nostalgically on the past. To be effective and faithful, institutions need to be aware of what serves the mission. So while being deeply grounded in tradition (never forgetting the past), faithful institutions need to be oriented to the present and to anticipate the future.

I am a grateful recipient of the formative intellectual traditions I inherited from both these graduate schools. And I am fully supportive of these ways in which each is preparing to meet future challenges.