22 January 2009

What to do on Tuesdays in Oxford

5.oo on Tuesday: should I go to hear a former pupil, Professor Rana Mitter of this University, leading a China seminar with a couple of other distinguished experts? It would be good to hear him On the Job. I could compare his present technique with his deployment of his resources when he was a leading server in Lancing Chapel. It doesn't seem twenty years ago that I sat in Lancing's drafty Great School on Parents' Evenings and reported to his parents on how his Latin and Greek were going. The queue behind them tended to get quite long, because Rana's mama is distinctly fetching and I felt she would want to know about her son's progress in all possible detail. Even when behind them in the queue was a Foreign Office minister who claimed that he needed to get quickly 'back to the House for important business'. Happy days.

But, as she left S Thomas's after Mass on Tuesday morning, Dr E A Livingstone, benefactress of all who have ever relied on her Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, rather pointedly asked if I were going to the Bampton Lectures. I equivocated, because the subject was Blaise Pascal, and what I know about the intellectual currents of mid-seventeenth-century France could be written on the back of half a hand. But then, talking it over with Pam, who always knows best, I agreed that there was a lot to be said for learning something new. Obvious really, but we chaps are very slow at spotting the obvious. So off we went, getting there in time for a hilarious introduction by Averil Cameron, Warden of Keble, who did a word-perfect impersonation of a sniffy schoolmarm who was afraid that her naughty charges might misbehave in front of a fairly indifferent visiting speaker. She admonished us to come regularly in the following weeks as well, and hoped Professor (Richard) Parish would not feel intimidated by having been preceded as Bampton Lecturer by distinguished scholars [one of these was my predecessor Dr Jalland, who used the opportunity to plug the Papacy].

We were very glad we went. Pascal's France seems similar to our own society; one in which an 'intellectual' 'elite' considers itself to have outgrown Christianity. He sounds not unlike the apologists of the twentieth century, Chesterton, for example, or Lewis, in that he had a Midas touch whereby he could transform what appeared to be arguments against Christianity (such as the unfairness of God blaming subsequent generations for Adam's transgression) into evidence in its favour. Like them, he was himself a convert from the ranks of the sneerers. He had a laudable dislike of Deism, regarding it as being as bad as Atheism. Indeed. It seems to me that the main problem with which 'Professor' Dawkins has presented us is not the points the poor fellow thinks he has scored, but the way in which he and his like give people the impression that the question is 'Does the God of the Deists Exist?' when, as we all know, whether to be a Christian or not has very little to do with that.

I hope that in future weeks we learn more about Pascal's conversion (what roles did emotion and intellect play?), and his relationship with Jansenism and with the culture of the Bourbon Court (a little bit on that this week, as we were introduced to Bossuet).

A very fine hour's entertainment. Deo volente, we'll go again next week ... come to think of it, it'll be a good day because there's another very important event in Oxford later that same evening.

1 comment:

rev'd up said...

The only thing to make it better would be pie, ice cream and joe!