Reflections on the Oxford Study Centre

Chelsia Van Hierdan

Agnosticism — that word plagued my mind like some sort of distasteful acid, unveiling my religion to be little more than a flashy masquerade. I’d never tried to end up there. In fact, my struggle against emerging doubt had been vigorous and unnerving. I felt benumbed, no longer able to maintain the facade I had constructed for so long. Maybe, just maybe, it would be easier to let the whole religion thing go?

My family, since I was young enough to comprehend the English language, had deluged us kids with theology and apologetics. Before my thirteenth birthday I’d watched Del Tackett’s The Truth Project three times over. I already had eagerly written rallying calls summoning Christians to take up arms against secular humanism and relativism. In retrospect, these tirades were agonizingly naive. And yet, they represent the enthusiastic state of my faith at that time.

As time wore on, my enthusiasm for Christian growth developed into harsh dissatisfaction. As I understood it, churches were prone to using as their foundations vague biblical abstractions, which not only resulted in insubstantial theology but also superficial relationships, neither focusing on right thinking nor right action. My own church at the time seemed a confused goulash of divergent and opposed doctrines and denominations and over time its liturgy had been replaced by a painful combination of hip Christian worship and hyper-charismatic invocations. Emotionalism was king, to the depreciation and scorn of the human intellect. After expressing my alienation to a church leader, I was rebutted with, “You need more emotion. You’re doing Christianity wrong.”

The intellectual wasteland of southern Alberta had devoured the last pint of my patience. A month after my eighteenth birthday, I packed my bags and fled for the Oxford Study Centre.

The cool Oxfordshire dusk greeted my fugitive arrival at the Gloucester Green bus station on 7 January 2014. My fellow students, whom I have since grown to know and love, introduced themselves with as much haggard excitement as could be expected after their near-crippling trans-Atlantic flights. The Bywater clan likewise welcomed me, albeit with qualitatively more enthusiasm, the same evening. And thus, I began my term in the city of dreaming spires, jet-lagged, religiously adrift, overwhelmed by hospitality, and acutely aware of how far I was in over my head.

The irony did not escape me: arriving in Oxford to study the Theological Thought of C.S. Lewis and endure many hours of vibrant worldview discussions under the guidance Kevin James Bywater himself, all while lingering on the precipice of agnosticism. Undoubtedly the term would be in my best interest, for the Oxford Study Centre would come to unveil the beautiful link between a vigorous human intellect and enduring Christian convictions. At the Oxford Study Centre I came to see the grand coherence of Scripture, the mutual embrace of faith and reason, and three millennia worth of brilliant religious scholarship — and all this under the patient tutelage of two of the most respectable men from whom I have ever had the privilege of learning: Kevin James Bywater, a scholar, a Christian, and a human who is perpetually sharp-witted and uncannily insightful; and Jason Lepojärvi, a scholar whose robust intellectualism and zeal for life portrays an equally tantalizing picture of our Christian faith.

Looking back, it is clear that my time at Summit Oxford marked a distinct turning point in my life: for the first time, I actually wanted to be a Christian, to follow Christ.

Now, two years beyond the Oxford Study Centre, the memories remain vivid: gathered around long tables inside the refuge of a house in Oxfordshire village, surrounded by overflowing bookshelves precariously stacked to the ceiling, presented with a dizzying amount of knowledge that daily challenged our preconceived notions of theology, of ethics, and of Scripture. Under Kevin’s guidance, we explored channels through the Old and New Testaments as fresh visions of Christian convictions cascaded over our hearts and minds and imaginations.

Under Kevin’s astute tutelage I realized that the most distinct flaw with the Christian church was my misconception of it, and, as a result, I began to untangle the mess of incoherent judgment I had harbored. “There has never been a golden age of the Church. If it weren’t for sin and people, the Church would be great,” Kevin said, a single hand brought up to his chin, gazing beyond the leaded windows before meeting each of our expectant eyes in turn. He continued, “We must fall in love with the body of Christ, transcending denominationalism and human distortions of divine love and an excessive emphasis on sectarian doctrine.”

The Oxford Study Centre is not for the faint of heart. The intensive worldview sessions were combined with a merciless eight-week bombardment of papers, long hours in the Bodleian and New College libraries, and late nights desperately hammering out words. Weekly and biweekly tutorials simultaneously obliterated and reignited my chutzpah, driving me to hone my arguments, deepen my research, and stay on my toes — Oxford scholars are master jack-in-the-boxes who relish stumping their students with academic curveballs. Yet, I expected no less from the city that nurtured dozens of brilliant Oxford alumni before me: C.S. Lewis, Adam Smith, John Locke, J.R.R. Tolkien, William Tyndale, Edward Gibbon, Lewis Carroll, T.S. Eliot, and Stephen Hawking, just to name a few.

Oxford didn’t teach me what to think: Oxford taught me how to think. To think well. To think rigorously. 

The joy of Oxford lies not only in its intellectual vivacity but also in its beauty. During my time there, I was graced to watch the gray skies of Oxford slowly clear and the balmy English spring sun peek through clouds to bask brave daffodils that poked their golden heads through the rain-soaked soil. Trees began to bud, then blossom. College spires, bathed in warm light, cast long shadows upon bustling streets. Pink blossoms yawned wide in the New College courtyard and in the shadow of St. Mary’s Church, and, nudged by soft breaths of wind, their petals tumbled joyfully over cobblestone streets. Punters could be seen pushing themselves lethargically down calm tentacles of the Isis while daisies and purple crocuses bloomed along its tree-lined banks. The limestone of the Bodleian became warm to the touch. Amidst this turn of the seasons, students and professors in trench coats and bowler hats hastened to libraries and lectures, as they do every day.

Scholarship isn’t a dream in Oxford. It isn’t a reverie or a distant desire purported by some long-forgotten Latin motto. It’s real. It exists in flesh, in blood, in intellects, in architecture, in libraries rich with stringent research and words that form hundreds of years worth of thought. Studying at the Oxford Study Centre is not an event, but an experience that represents the coalescence of a thousand priceless moments — an experience which has remained with me years after the dreaming spires melted into the haze of Oxford’s receding horizon.

Note: The Oxford Study Centre previously was named the Summit Oxford Study Centre, or Summit Oxford, for short.