A Peek Behind the Veil

August 21, 2009


OK, so, into a bar walk an Anglican priest, a Muslim imam, a Jewish rabbi and an atheist. Sounds like a ramp to punch line, right? No. That was my panel last month at the 20th anniversary of the Oxford Round Table, at the University of Oxford, England.

Apparently, a peek behind the veil of ORT is needed. Recent posts in the academic blogosphere about this invitation-only academic symposium feature adulation for the intelligencia it attracts and castigation of Oxford for trading on its name for summer business, like some sort of pedagogical Judas.

Fact is, they’re both right. Mind, matter and merger summarize why the event both enchanted and irritated me.

Mind Over Matter

Firstly, pundits need not dismiss its scholarly girth. Formidable participants do darken the doors. My symposium, “Religion and Science After Darwin -- Effects on Christians and Muslims” -- featured sessions with distinguished thinkers in physics, biology, religion and law from all the intellicrat schools you might imagine: Oxford, Harvard, Boston U., UNC-Chapel Hill, Rutgers, etc. It’s not every day you spend time with David Browning (icon for Christian-Islamic comity), Robert Neville (23 books and counting), Amedee Turner (European Parliament while the Euro was established), or the ardent atheist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion).

Further stamps of legitimacy on the program include ORT Trustee Charles Mould, former secretary of Oxford’s 400-year-old, 11 million volume Bodleian Library, and a 16-member advisory committee of university presidents and rectors from eight countries. Also, the manuscripts in its blind reviewed journal, Forum on Public Policy, bear characteristics of quality.

However, since the program began in 1989 with ministers of education from 20 countries, an internalized invitation system eroded to include mid-level researchers or engaged academics like me from teaching institutions -- from ministers of education to an educator with ministerial credentials (and a few relevant publications). Try to tame the jokes for Darwinian devolution.

The intellectual temperature was warm, not hot. This is where I’m supposed to say, “but all were meaningful contributors.” Truth is, some members of our panel were alien to the work, sending more than one head scratching. The good news is that neither title, institution type, or academic discipline were the indicators. Candid confrontation carried the day, based on the quality of ideas. I’m the better for hearing it all. (I’m supposed to say that, too).

As for how aliens gather, one candid comment by an event organizer confessed that the University of Oxford bills the ORT organization heavily for use, and like most universities in modern economy Oxford depends on summer conference “hotel” business to get by.

The ORT itself is, of course, a business (albeit nonprofit), which explains why they folded two smaller symposia into one fumbling theme. That irked me. It was like bringing a fruitcake to a wine and cheese party. I was dressed for interfaith democracy since 9/11. Others came with erudite philosophies of science.

Most organizations can’t get away with last minute theme mergers, but the collective transfixion over a week at the world’s first English speaking university seems to place otherwise central concerns, like the event purpose (!), out of mind for most participants.

Matter Over Mind: Pub and Pulpit

Oh, but the place is intoxicating, and place matters. If space inspires thought or ambition, the ORT venue should produce the most luminous luminaries on the planet. I’ll spare you predictable fawning over this medieval city, where every castle and cathedral issues such artisan care the place is fabled “the city of dreaming spires.” The point: ORT wouldn’t work in Albuquerque.

It’s not intention that the American Southwest lacks, but history, deep academic history, and the continuity one feels holding forth at an ancient lectern presided over by 800 years of political, scientific and religious savants.

Both pubs and pulpits nurtured greatness here for centuries. Their understated, six-inch plaques tagged across the city commemorate landmarks in a prevalence of meaning only Oxford could afford.

To the pub: on one side of town is a tiny booth in The Eagle and Child tavern where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met every Tuesday for 25 years -- “the conversations that have taken place here," its plaque reads, "have profoundly influenced the development of 20th century literature,” from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Lord of the Rings.

And to the pulpit: across town is an unassuming though well-crafted podium in a Gothic cathedral from which John Wesley preached his conversion story and launched the Methodist Movement that, in part, propelled my own institution into being. There brother Charles penned hymns now sung in every Christian church on the planet. In a word, cool.

The significance of location fits ORT, as described by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space: Certain places reduce us to silence. They contain more than their objectivity. Sometimes you feel “inside an essential impression seeking expression.” And recall of such spaces, as I perform for you now, become not history -- “I was there” -- but a kind of poetry that memorializes moments. Bachelard says, “The great function of poetry is to shelter dreams.”

For too many academics, the dreams of significance are extinguished in a chemical bath of routine responsibilities (e.g. recommendation letters, grading, meetings). But such dreams require opportunities to perform. The University of Oxford’s space holds sufficient cachet to revive academic dreams, requiting love for elevated and sublime learning.

Mind and Matter Merger: Leaving in Tension

Alas, learning without tension is entertainment. Mind and matter merged for me during one session in the centuries-old Victorian Oxford Union Debate Chamber -- affectionately called “the last bastion of free speech in the world.” Recently, the Holocaust-denier David Irving and “sex-positive” community builder Joani Blank spun yarns. The likes of Yasser Arafat, Desmond Tutu, and a Kennedy or two are tossed in here and there. In that space all the tensions of the Oxford Round Table, real and symbolic, came together for me.

Standing at the podium was Dawkins. I’ve never been insulted with such kindness. He artfully delivered wink-and-smile sarcasm against bald jabs of theist stupidity, and appeared to relish the provocation. Had I not read some of his work, I would’ve thought it mere gamesmanship, superficial wordplay for positions not fully held.

Yet there’s a likability in him somehow, a most unexpected thing for me to feel as an evangelical Christian. I wished I had more time with him, but not in the way that morphed middle-aged scientists into giddy children after the Q & A, lining up hurriedly with the front flaps of their Dawkins books in one hand and autograph pen in another. Here was an orgy of secularism, loud and proud, baby.

Seated next to him in poetic paradox was the head-in-hand, the veteran Vicar Brian Mountford of millennia-aged University Church of St. Mary’s, original site for Oxford coursework, and the physical and spiritual hub of a city and campus with 40 chaplains. Twice per term, in fact, the “university sermon” is delivered here, dignitaries in tow.

Not only does this priest share the platform with Dawkins, shepherding souls in a landscape of logical positivism, but imagine this: He’s also Dawkins’s neighbor. What a delicious irony! That’s better than McDonalds and Burger King on the same corner.

Mountford reconciles this tension, in part, through self-described liberal theology. Our talk, his Spring sermons, and his book, Perfect Freedom: Why Liberal Christianity Might Be The Faith You’re Looking For, express: a “low view of the church” (it institutionalizes discipleship, stripping salvation of its freedoms); an “embrace of the secular” (the Church should not assume society is ethically less sophisticated than itself); soft judgment (“God would not condemn his creatures to eternal torment”); and the “championing of doubting Thomases on the fringe.” He sees this as being “more evangelical than the evangelicals” -- courting scoffers almost Socratically while provoking believers (“sermons send us to sleep because they are totally uncontroversial”).

But for me, a theological conservative, here strikes another strand of tension, beyond the ridiculing atheist “neighbor” we’re charged to love. Here is faith diverging between two likable people -- a theological gap Mountford once described as “chalk and cheese,” things that just don’t go well together.

Such was ORT for me: enchantment and irritation, the merger of chalk and cheese.

En route to the airport were two books under wing, Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Anthony Flew’s There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.

Agitations get me thinking. I’m the better for it, remember?


Gregg Chenoweth is vice president for academic affairs at Olivet Nazarene University, and practicing journalist for a variety of magazines and newspapers.

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