Stranger in a Strange Land

“Stranger in a Strange Land”

Michael oliver

 

As a newly appointed Departmental Lecturer in Modern Theology, I am extremely excited to be a part of this prestigious institution and esteemed faculty. At the same time, as a U.S. American, my journey and transition to Oxford has been quite an experience thus far. In addition to becoming accustomed to a strange and new place, culture, and country—and away from that which is familiar and comforting—my orientation to the unique way of doing things at Oxford has been, at times, overwhelming, disorienting, and even discomforting.

While seasoned veterans of Oxford continually remind me that this is typical for new and foreign faculty members like myself, my hunch is that this experience is not entirely unique to just that group of people. The University of Oxford has a mystique, a presence, an awe-inspiring spirit. Although coming over as a foreigner, an immigrant, and new faculty member might enhance the intensity of such an experience, I think any visitor, student, faculty or staff member who comes to Oxford experiences this at some level. And I think that is intentional. As Professor Graham Ward, Chair of the Faculty of Theology and Religion, repeatedly tells incoming students at Induction: “This place is meant to make you feel small.” The edifices, the architecture, the intelligence, Christ Church, the Bodleian, etc.—simply put the majesty and magnificence of Oxford—can be overwhelming, disorienting, and even discomforting. One cannot help but stand in awe in its midst, and, perhaps wonder: what am I doing here? Am I supposed to be here?

Although the strangeness can be unsettling at times, there is one aspect of such an experience that I believe is quite beneficial, especially for the task of theological engagement.

Theologically speaking, such an experience helps one appreciate one’s place and space in the midst of majesty and magnificence. It elicits wonder and awe. To the extent that the study of theology and religion is—or should be—about wonder, joy, drama, mystery, even fear and trembling, Oxford offers a pertinent and relevant atmosphere for engaging theological and religious themes, traditions, texts, experiences, and issues that should overwhelm us. Perhaps a theology that is underwhelming, too familiar or comfortable, is in fact quite dangerous, and so what better place to engage in the task of theological study than in a setting that continually unsettles?

The experience of being a stranger in a strange land—especially an immigrant, literally or figuratively—can also be ethically or socially constructive. It is my conviction that it might be good for some of us to step into that kind of an experience, to inhabit that perspective, for the purpose of helping one know what it feels like to be a stranger, a foreigner, an immigrant, an Other, different. How might that help some of us see things a bit differently, step outside of our comfort zone, try to inhabit a different perspective—or at the very least, gain a sharper focus on one’s own perspective, and how it has been shading (i.e. coloring, gendering, straightening) our experiences, ideas, and approaches to social issues? Perhaps engaging ethical and social issues merely from a place of comfort or familiarity is also dangerous, and so what better place to do so than in a setting that continually unsettles?

Both theologically and ethically, I am convinced that a touch of uncomfortability—at least for me—can be productive and constructive. Perhaps it’s a matter of making the familiar strange or even of becoming aware of one’s own strangeness. In which case, I feel very fortunate to be a stranger in a strange land.