Credit: Stephanie Septembre

 

Between belief and practice

– Stephanie Septembre –

Michaelmas Term, 2017

 

In the past few years, my spiritual life has been a tug of war between belief and practice. I was raised in a conservative Christian community that emphasized a believer’s responsibility to serve both those at home and abroad. As an undergraduate student at Walla Walla University, I became involved with a project to bring electricity to a rural Andean village in Peru, and it inspired me to pursue a career in international development. However, while my upbringing drove me to a life of service, I came to question much of what I had been raised believing. The practical application of my church’s beliefs made sense to me, but its theology often placed intellect at odds with faith. Unable to reconcile the two, I abandoned even trying.

When deciding to come to Oxford, I was presented with the choice between two programs. I chose SCIO because I knew it was a faith-based program and wanted to see if Christianity could really hold its ground at a secular institution like Oxford. I wanted to know if it was possible for Christians to harmonize their faith with serious scholarship. For my primary and secondary tutorials, I enrolled in Religions and Mythology of the Ancient Near East and Approaches to History, courses which complemented my anthropological and international interests. With my primary tutorial, I was especially keen to understand the perspective of ancient Mesopotamians and Canaanites, the “villains” of the Old Testament. Would historical and archaeological evidence complement or contradict traditional accounts? As I engaged with the readings and my professor, who was not religious, I was forced to rethink certain things but not in a way that excluded faith. I realized even the best and brightest professors were not unbiased or knew much about topics outside of their field, and for every argument I heard that posed a challenge to a faith-based worldview, there was a counterargument to match.

I had no road-to-Damascus enlightening. I approached as a skeptic and left as one. There were, however, an accumulation of small events that gradually shifted my perspective. Upon leaving Oxford, I spent a second semester abroad in Beirut, Lebanon, learning Arabic and volunteering with Syrian refugees. That summer, I completed an internship in Peru, piloting a women’s literacy and computer literacy class. During my semester with SCIO, I attended seminars and made as many connections as I could to the international development world, not without reward: I was published in the International Relations Society journal, and a contact I made assisted a young friend of mine to continue her post-secondary education in Belize. However, it made me painfully aware of the disconnect between those analyzing poverty and those actually living in it. I’ve had the opposite experience with my faith. I saw at Oxford, through the words and actions of SCIO staff and fellow students, that faith and intellect can coincide. In the months that followed, the ideas that were planted at Oxford made more sense, and I began to see how an intellectual faith informs practical application – it even pushes me to continue in the work that I do.

There are still many, many things I don’t understand. However, after Oxford, I find myself better equipped to tackle my questions and less afraid to be challenged by others. Perhaps the greatest gift I received at Oxford was a community of people who have – at one point or another – shared in my wonderings and still have faith. It’s encouraged me to believe that I will too.

Stephanie, MT17