‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else’ – C.S. Lewis
I have been reminded of this quotation often during my time in Oxford. It came to mind recently, on my morning commute cycling into college, as the golden leaves along the Thames path and the soft limestone of Oxford colleges dazzlingly reflected the autumn sunshine. It has rung true in my own studies, whether from traversing well-worn paths of Christian theology, or from ventures down lesser-known side streets of the tradition. Eternal truths shed light upon everything. As one friend, a seasoned theologian, wrote to me in a letter recently: ‘I am constantly amazed by how my studies illuminate the whole of my life, even things that seem very far from the theological’.
What has surprised me, however, is the fact that many intellectuals from outside of the Christian faith have been making the same observation recently. Take, for example, Tom Holland, an author and historian who last year wrote a bestselling book entitled Dominion, arguing that many of our secular and liberal values rest upon a deep Christian inheritance and cannot be understood apart from their deep roots in Christianity. Similar arguments have been made by Larry Siedentop, once fellow of Keble College Oxford, who recently argued that modern ideas of freedom and individuality have grown in the soil of Christian beliefs. Then there’s the craze surrounding Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and atheist, whose hour-long lectures about Biblical stories and their relevance to understanding life have 6.5 million views on YouTube.
It seems there is a growing awareness among many that C.S. Lewis was right: Christianity does help us to see everything else. This is the conviction that lies behind the brand-new Theologos Programme at Wycliffe Hall. The programme is designed for people who, for a wide range of different reasons, would like to embark upon a year of rigorous theological study, whilst being given expert guidance in seeing the illuminating power of Christian truth on the whole of life and culture more widely.
The academic core of the programme is the Certificate in Theological Studies from the University of Oxford. This allows students to go deep into the Bible, Christian doctrine, philosophy and church history. They are taught by leading scholars and have all the extraordinary resources of the University of Oxford at their fingertips. The author Evelyn Waugh, another Oxford luminary, described his conversion to Christianity as being like stepping into a new world and beginning ‘the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly’. The CTS provides students from a range of academic backgrounds with expert guidance in this ‘delicious process’ of exploring the deep and rich world of Christian truth.
Students also join a weekly reading group led by Oxford philosophy lecturer Dr. Max Baker-Hytch. Here they draw on the writings of Christian intellectuals in Oxford, such as C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Dorothy Sayers, and seek to apply lessons from them to a contemporary context. This term we are embarking upon a close reading of Mere Christianity, Lewis’ famous work of Christian apologetics, and looking at how the main arguments continue to be relevant in the world of philosophy and apologetics today.
Then there are regular ‘fireside chats’ with leading Christian thinkers from a wide range of disciplines. These take place four times each term. This year our speakers for these intimate seminars include renowned theologian N.T. Wright, Oxford Professor of ethics Nigel Biggar, art historian Rachel Coombes and R.R. Reno, editor of the magazine First Things. Each of our speakers has thought long and hard about the relationship between Christianity and culture and will help us bridge the gap between our academic study of theology and the world outside.
Finally, there are regular guided visits to art galleries and cultural sites, in which we will seek apply the principle that Christianity illuminates everything. This term we are visiting Young Rembrandt, an extremely well-reviewed exhibition at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford. This visit will happen the day after our ‘fireside chat’ with art historian Rachel Coombes, who will prepare us for thinking about the rich theological themes in Rembrandt’s work, as well as the relationship between the visual arts and Christianity more broadly.
I have been deeply impressed with the new cohort of Theologos students. They have come from all over the world and from a variety of backgrounds, with different goals in mind for life beyond the programme. Some are training for full-time Christian ministry, some are taking a break from their careers to grow in their faith and discern the future, whilst others plan to stay for a further two years and turn the CTS into a full Bachelors degree in Theology. I am excited about the year ahead, and have no doubt that the time we spend pursuing God’s truth will continue to illuminate our different paths and destinations for many years to come.
Jack O'Grady, Theologos Programme Coordinator