One of my fondest memories from my time as a graduate student in the 1990’s was sitting in Teddy Hall – St Edmund Hall – Middle Common Room talking with fellow students. Looking back on the conversations, I expect that I would disagree with some of what I said back then; and I expect that I would be proud of at least a small portion of what I said back then.
Inevitably, as a person gets older, their perspectives change to some extent: they learn new things, experience new things and thereby gain some insights, and hopefully become a little wiser. But, all the same, whatever the imperfections, my conversations in Teddy Hall MCR all those years ago were a precious part of my growing process, my wider education.
Here in Oxford we are very proud of our local saint, St John Henry Newman. For Newman, university life and education most certainly involved attending lectures, tutorials, and working hard, even very hard. But such was his concern that education should lead to an enlarging of heart and mind that he made some striking, even radical, claims.
In his famous work, Idea of a University, Newman even went so far as to write this:
“if I had to choose between a so-called University, which dispensed with residence and tutorial superintendence, and gave its degrees to any person who passed an examination… [and so was only interested in knowledge and skills], and a University which had no professors or examinations at all, but merely brought a number of young [people] together for three or four years, and then sent them away as the University of Oxford is said to have done some sixty years since, if I were asked which of these two methods were the better discipline of the intellect …. if I must determine which of the two courses was the more successful in training, moulding, enlarging the mind … I have no hesitation in giving preference to that University [with no professors or examinations at all, but which merely brings a number of young people together for three or four years].”
Personally, I would not go as far as Newman. But he makes a valuable point. At the very least, his words remind us that as well as lectures and tutorials and labs and libraries (all of which are of huge importance), there is a precious education to be gained through our interactions with one another: students with students, teachers with teachers, students with teachers, teachers with students, and not forgetting the invaluable contribution of other staff in whatever capacity.
For if we listen to others and allow ourselves to be listened to, and if we do this in a spirit of respect, humility, friendship; if we bring our skills, knowledge, and critical intelligence to our discussions, not as weapons but as instruments at the service of mutual enrichment and search for truth, then these can be grace-filled encounters that foster an enlargement of heart and of mind. We not only become better educated: we become better human beings.
Of course, we have just come out of some very heavy restrictions due to Covid, some of which still remain to some degree. I remember the Academic Mass last year, when the Catholic Chaplaincy here at The Old Palace was celebrating its centenary: many congratulations again!
It was a wonderful occasion; but, for good reason, the chairs were kept relatively far apart, numbers greatly limited, and face coverings definitely mandated. And, although technology mercifully allowed teaching to continue, the quality of interpersonal interaction, the sort of interaction Newman was so concerned about, was inevitably greatly impaired.
And in the face of this, I think Newman would say to us, that rather than get comfortable with distance and a narrow conception of education, we should learn to cherish our encounters with others all the more and not take them for granted.
Now, with all this in place about the great value of being able to share ideas with others and expand one’s heart and mind, let’s consider today’s Gospel reading about Bartimaeus.
Bartimaeus is a person excluded from the general conversation of life. His condition is worse than that of general social distancing due to necessity. He is isolated because of who he is and not out of concern for his well-being. He is put to one side and has to beg in order to survive.
And when he speaks, he is simply not listened to. He cries out, “Son of David, Jesus, have pity on me!”, presumably many times, in order to attract Jesus. But the response he receives from the bystanders is to be rebuked; basically told to shut up: he’s simply a noisy nuisance.
But Christ did not cast Bartimaeus away from the general conversation of life: he listened to Bartimaeus’ cry and he healed him. He lifted the cruel social isolation of Bartimaeus. Newman would certainly have approved!
But there is more going on in this Gospel passage. Rather conveniently, and very fitting for an Academic Mass, today’s Gospel text makes what could be understood as a pedagogical point.
You see, Bartimaeus is presented in an extremely positive light. We are told that he followed Jesus on the way: code for saying that Bartimaeus has become a disciple of Christ. So Bartimaeus is someone to be emulated.
But notice what he calls Jesus. And here the pedagogical point kicks in. He calls Jesus ‘Son of David’.
In the Gospel of Mark this title for Jesus has an ambiguous standing. On the one hand, Jesus is a Son of David: he was a Jew and a descendant of King David. But later in the Gospel of Mark, Mark 12:35-37 to be precise, Jesus explicitly takes issue with the title ‘Son of David’ as applied to him.
Jesus’s point is that while the title ‘Son of David’ is correct as far as it goes, it is also incomplete. And Christians would later see in this critique of the title ‘Son of David’ that Jesus was in effect pointing to his divinity, something that the title, ‘Son of David’, does not get across.
And the pedagogical point is this: Bartimaeus is someone to be emulated, and yet Bartimaeus’ knowledge and understanding is explicitly imperfect as shown by his calling Jesus ‘Son of David’.
In other words, a person’s knowledge and understanding does not need to be perfect in order to play a valuable and positive role in the conversation, for pretty much all good conversation involves at least some degree of growth, improvement, enrichment, and development. Conversation can get us to see things differently, to see things better, to mature and to change our minds when needed, to expand our perspectives, to enlarge our hearts and minds.
Of course, here in a Catholic Chaplaincy, it’s not only a matter of sharing ideas and perspectives with others. It is also a matter of supporting one another as you journey together in faith.
Your knowledge and understanding does not need to be perfect to play a valuable part in the conversation. Your every statement and claim do not need to be understood as the last word on the matter, your definitive judgment for all time. Inevitably, some of your views will alter and grow; some might grow stronger, some might quietly disappear, whilst others will shift a bit. And, believe me, this applies whether you are in your teens or in your nineties.
When it comes to how we see life, the universe, and everything, our views rarely remain wholly static: we might learn new things and shift our view on a particular matter, or maybe it’s more a question of nuance and balance.
But if you say what you say in a spirit of friendship and care and respect for truth and truly listening to the other, ready to take the better part and ready to grow, then, looking back in many years on your time at the Chaplaincy and at University, and your many conversations back in those days, if you engage in conversation in this way, you will probably have a great deal of which to be proud.
And if you bring that spirit to our wider world, including to this university in which many diverse views can be found; and if you listen and speak as a person of faith who is himself or herself seeking understanding (to use St Anselm’s famous phrase), then the general habits of good conversation can support a positive witness to Christ simply by showing that one can be a person of Christian conviction and possess critical intelligence that is also humble, showing respect to others, polite towards others, listening to others, and ready to take the better part. And one never knows how the Holy Spirit can take such encounters forward in God’s own time and in God’s own way, both for you and for them. Ultimately these matters are in God’s hands, not ours.
Such encounters involving all sorts of imperfections of understanding can be grace-filled moments, and perhaps even moments of growth of understanding not only for them, but maybe also for you too.
That is a lesson that St John Henry Newman and Bartimaeus would, I think, want to give us: two very different but wonderful role models as we start this academic year.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
 Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University, Discourse 6.9. Numerous editions.