Philosophy and Theology at Oxford University

I am an eighteen-year-old British person with an offer to study Philosophy and Theology at the University of Oxford. I have been trying to decide whether to take up the offer or one of the others. The deadline for replying to university offers is coming up pretty soon, and I’m pretty much decided that I am going to go to Oxford (dependent on my grades). There’s only one question left, which is: I’m slightly worried about my faith being challenged too much. The philosophy and theology departments, like with all secular universities in Britain, are to my knowledge quite secular, but at Oxford the tutorial system and rigorousness etc. mean that philosophical, theological and ethical positions that I take on the basis of my faith will be constantly challenged and scrutinised, in a way that is not quite the same at other universities.

This is good thing which, for the most part, I am attracted to, since it will help me to think seriously about my faith and defend it and understand and appreciate it more and more. I’ve also been feeling drawn to the Catholic Church for ages, and there is probably no better place to study early church history and thus help me with my discernment than Oxford. However, I do sometimes feel insecure in my faith and like I don’t feel that my faith would be strong enough to withstand all that questioning and challenging and testing. I’m very orthodox in my beliefs, but I sometimes feel insecure in my beliefs, and I’m often very scrupulous, and feel like I’m doing things, including praying, much more out of a sense of duty than a desire to do them, and that I mainly do good things/avoid wrong things in order to salve my conscience rather than because I really want to. I worry slightly that I would be led astray by self-deception due to finding the more permissive ethics etc. more appealing, or that I would eventually have to accept that God doesn’t exist and then be really depressed because there is no purpose or meaning to life.

In a sense, because Oxford will give me a more rigorous intellectual training than anywhere else, I’m more likely to get closer to the truth, so less likely to abandon my faith if it’s true. (Although, if that’s the case, you would expect Oxford graduates and really intelligent people in general to be closer in agreement with each other, showing that they’re closer to the truth, than others, and in fact the opposite is probably the case.) In addition, I’ll be studying the greatest Christian minds in history to counteract the secular tutors. I feel that I should just go, and the benefits of having a more refined, deeper and stronger faith outweigh the risk of falling away. I’d love to just make my choice and reply to the offer tonight. But this might itself be self-deception and I think it’s a really important question, so I would quite like some of your input before I finally make my decision. Thank you.

First of all congratulations on your offer to study at Oxford and even if you decide eventually not to take it up, I wish you every luck in forthcoming exams :smiley:

Secondly, as a recent-ish graduate of said university (Ancient and Modern History rather than Philosophy & Theology) - I can’t think of a better place to study, so I would absolutely accept the provisional offer. While many British universities are excellent (even Cambridge :stuck_out_tongue: ), especially perhaps some of the other places you are applying to (given that you applied to Oxford!), it’s undoubtedly a particularly fine and first class academic environment and on the whole the extra-curricular side of things (whatever your interests might be) will certainly be well catered for too.

Though, I’m sure you know all that already…

For what it’s worth, I started at Oxford in the autumn of 2007 a baptised-but-not-really-practicing Anglican and by the time I graduated in May 2011 I was a Roman Catholic, and perhaps it’s a similar journey you might make as well. Oxford - the university and the city - is absolutely a place where one can find your faith enhanced by study and worship.

While I can’t speak for every university city in the UK, it is certainly one that has among the most going for it in terms of religious provision. Each college (as I’m sure you know), with one or two exceptions, has its own chapel, and almost all their own chapel choir (which are of course Anglican foundations), and will have services (often said, but sung at least on Sunday evenings) throught the week, in term time. You describe yourself as Anglican, and whether you feel more comfortable in a “low” or “high” church environment there are some excellent, welcoming and just generally “alive” and faithful churches, with plenty of students you might want to go to on Sundays (PM me for recommendations lol). Similarly, the Catholic Chaplaincy is very active, and towards the north end of the city centre is Oxford Oratory (the church of St Aloysius), which again for what it’s worth is the place that prompted my own journey “up the Tiber”. There are a host of other denominations of course as well and many of these are well represented in the student body, and you will absolutely find very likeminded people, if you decided to take the offer (and the grades are happy ones!).

More generally, the whole point of university is to be challenged, to be forced to think for oneself a little more than at school. And Oxford is probably one of those places which will do so more than most. I see this as an entirely good thing.

It’s also worth saying a lot of the theologians (students, that is) that I knew were not practicing Christians, but merely very interested in theology as an academic subject. This doesn’t make them “bad” people to hang about with in terms of mounting challenges to ones own faith.

I’m probably digressing…

You won’t find tutors (even atheist ones, and there are some at least in the theology faculty!) putting their own agenda down your throat in terms of what you should personally believe. That’s not their job, and whatever you sometimes see here written about professors in American universities, such “activist” fellows are very very very few and far between at Oxford (and on the whole aren’t found in the philosophy and theology faculties). Their very purpose is to challenge you, but this doesn’t make them right (nor many of the Christian scholars for that matter :stuck_out_tongue: ). Especially in a subject like philosophy, the point is more to discuss the issue than arrive at The Truth (or A Truth). When you find yourself challenged in tutorials - it’s not an attack on you, but more a “devils advocate” position, a lot of the time - and even if it’s not, they are looking for a discussion and not “the right answer”. There are very few things that are entirely true and can be shown simply through force of argument - this is one thing above all that Oxford (scratch that - all universities) teach you. The fact people don’t agree (about God, or particle physics, or Shakespeare, or anything) is of itself (in my view, no one else on this thread jump down my neck please) a good thing. Dispute is how we work out the right answer, eventually.

Again - digressing…

University is also a place where lots of people (including me) make mistakes. This is part of growing up into an adult. And the same temptations of every hue will be present in every university, so if you’re worried about being led astray intellectually, in faith, in more earthly matters - so worried that it is the biggest thing you’re worried about - I would consider whether you really want to go to university at all. We all have to encounter such things, sometimes people struggle a bit, but we come out the other side stronger, so don’t be concerned about that is my advice. (No one should see that as a license to debauchery per se, just that learning how to cope with all kinds of temptations is a very big part of growing up!)

I’ve waffled a bit but as you say the acceptance deadline looms, I wanted to reply ASAP. Please feel free to PM me and I’m very very happy to talk about any of this further. (Also, which college are you hoping to go to ? :D)

Wish you every luck in your decision now (I ** wholeheartedly ** recommend you accept it!), and the rest of the year as well :slight_smile:

God bless you

Murmurs x

As someone who took a degree in philosophy at the University of California, I would’ve given an arm to study the discipline at Oxford. It’s one of those schools that just has so much potential and attention from the greats in the field. It’s a huge opportunity, if you’re into the discipline.

As for the challenge to your faith, I don’t think you’ve got much to worry about. Training in philosophy includes critical thinking of concepts and ideas. So you will encounter arguments that might not gel with your faith, but you’ll also encounter arguments that refute them. Moreover, you’ll encounter arguments that can bolster your faith too. I’ve never met a philosophy professor who truly cares what their students beliefs and intuitions are. What they care about is that their students can provide a thoughtful and critical argument for the defense of their ideas.

There is no bullet-proof argument in (academic) philosophy. Plenty of eminent professional philosophers’ projects go along the lines of “here is a problem, here is my solution to the problem, and here are the problems to my solution.” I’m fairly confidant that any faith-shattering arguments have their own problems to be exploited.

Also, there are plenty of areas in philosophy that aren’t going to touch on religious-sensitive topics. Philosophy of math, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, epistemology, and probably more I don’t recall even touching on what religion has to say.

Anyway those are my disjointed thoughts on the subject based on my experience taking an education in philosophy. It doesn’t have to be a death sentence for faith if you dig deep.

I also say take up the offer - PhilThe is an amazing course and would no doubt be very stimulating in an Oxford environment (I’m an Oxonian myself, having read music there in the not-so-distant past).

I understand what you’re saying about worrying that your faith will be challenged too much. I think the other posters are spot on in what they say. I think this opportunity is far too good to pass up for that one reason alone. Besides, imagine what it would be like if you did an Oxford degree in PhilThe and your faith came out still in tact, or - even better - stronger for it! How incredible would that be?! And it’s not me just gabbling rubbish - I have friends and acquaintances who went in religious and came out still religious :thumbsup:

Oxford is an excellent institution and should not be a threat to you. However I would look into Faculty of Theology and Religion, it has an excellent faculty. Dr. William E. Carroll is well known among Catholic Thomists. And the school is run by the Blackfriar Dominicans.


Is at least one of the other offers from an institution that is not as competitive as the University of Oxford?

If the answer is “Yes”, then I recommend that, before you make your decision, you read chapter three (“Caroline Sacks”) from the book David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. That chapter extends from page 63 to page 96.

I found a link to a seven-page excerpt here:

In that chapter, Malcolm Gladwell also mentions the work of John Conley and Ali Sina Onder.

Here is a link to some of their more recent research:

Conley, John P., and Ali Sina Onder. 2014. “The Research Productivity of New PhDs in Economics: The Surprisingly High Non-success of the Successful.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 28(3): 205-16.

I made an excerpt for you by cutting a lot out of the seven-page excerpt. Here it is:

While Sacks was still in high school, she took a course in multivariable calculus at the local community college and earned an A grade. She also got an A in every class she took in high school. The summer after her junior year in high school, her father took her on a tour of American universities. Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, won her heart. She applied to Brown, with the University of Maryland as her backup. A few months later, she got a letter in the mail. She received an offer of admission from Brown. She accepted the offer.

Did Caroline Sacks make the right choice? Most of us would say that she did. When she went on that tour with her father, she ranked the colleges she saw, from best to worst. Brown University was number one.

The trouble for Caroline Sacks began in the spring of her freshman year, when she enrolled in chemistry. She retook the course in the fall of her sophomore year. But she barely did any better. She got a low B. She was in shock. “I had never gotten a B in an academic context before,” she said.

The students in her class were competitive. “I had a lot of trouble even talking with people from those classes,” she went on. “They didn’t want to share their study habits with me. They didn’t want to talk about ways to better understand the stuff that we were learning, because that might give me a leg up.” In spring of her sophomore year, she enrolled in organic chemistry–and things only got worse.

One night she stayed up late, preparing for a review session in organic chemistry. She was miserable and angry. She didn’t want to be working on organic chemistry at three in the morning, when all of that work didn’t seem to be getting her anywhere. “I guess that was when I started thinking that maybe I shouldn’t pursue this any further,” she said. She’d had enough.

The tragic part was that Sacks loved science.

And it shouldn’t have mattered how Sacks did in organic chemistry, should it? She never wanted to be an organic chemist. It was just one course. Lots of people find organic chemistry difficult. It’s not uncommon for premed students to take organic chemistry over the summer at another college just to give themselves a full semester of practice. What’s more, Sacks was taking organic chemistry at an extraordinarily competitive and academically rigorous university. If you were to rank all the students in the world who are taking organic chemistry, Sacks would probably be in the 99th percentile.

But the problem was, Sacks wasn’t comparing herself to all the students in the world taking Organic Chemistry. She was comparing herself to her fellow students at Brown.

At the time she was applying to college, Caroline Sacks had no idea she was taking that kind of chance with the thing she loved. Now she does. At the end of our talk, I asked her what would have happened if she had chosen instead to go to the University of Maryland–to be, instead, a Big Fish in a Little Pond. She answered without hesitation: “I’d still be in science.”

I’ve just replied to my offers…
And I’ve made Oxford my firm choice!
Thanks, guys.

Murmurs, it wasn’t the thing I was most worried about. I hadn’t even thought of it much before; it was just the one thing that remained undecided. But I agree with everything you say, and of course I was being silly. Oxford is the best and most stretching environment for me. Thank you.


Yay! I too attended Oxford (Oriel College) as a postgraduate, and returned to the Catholic church via the Oxford Oratory. I wanted to add that it is not only an excellent place to deepen your faith by having it challenged by intellegent, earnest people whose views (whether materialist, Protestant, or Catholic) differ from your own, it’s also a fantastic environment for exploring the richness and diversity that exists within the Catholic church as well. You have Oratorians, Dominicans, Benedictines, Jesuits, and Franciscans all in close proximity, and it’s well worth visiting each just to experience how their charisms express the Catholic faith in different ways (Mass at the Oratory is very different from Mass at St. Benets or at the chaplaincy!) I believe there is an Ordinariate group there as well.

Also, for what it’s worth, I haven’t heard of many of the monks or friars being persuaded by the atheists in the university and leaving their orders; at Oxford, at least, the trend seems to be in the opposite direction (praise God)!

I converted at the Other Place while doing a very “secular” degree, so… :wink: And I third the amazingness that is the Oxford Oratory. I know several converts from lukewarm Christian or atheist to intelligent, well-informed, passionate Catholic through the Oratory. Love it there.

Well we all make mistakes :wink:

I third the amazingness that is the Oxford Oratory. I know several converts from lukewarm Christian or atheist to intelligent, well-informed, passionate Catholic through the Oratory. Love it there.

But in all seriousness, I do wonder sometimes how many ‘graduates’ of the Oxford Oratory there are round the country (or indeed the world)…

I’m lucky enough to have ended up living within stones-throwing distance of the Oratory in Birmingham and I’d extend the great admiration I have for the Oratory fathers to here, too (and from what I’ve seen, to London). I don’t think I have met two communities more devoted, articulate, and passionate.

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