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Research Fellowship Reflection: 2014 Oxford Foundation Fellow

Research fellowship J-Little-blogOxford Foundation Fellowship:
Reflection on Theology, Being, and Joy

by The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Little

The most appropriate term to describe my time at Oxford University is the French word “jouissance.” Jouissance comes from psychoanalytic theory and describes “ecstasy –intellectual, physical, and spiritual.” As a term to describe experience, it has undergone a few revisions in the usage of twenty- first century feminist thinkers, but it retains its excess of meaning. “Jouissance” is to the twenty-first century scholar what “Sublime” mean to the 18th century poet. Oxford University is jouissance bordering on the apophatic.

To participate in life at Oxford, to allow one’s self to be fully immersed in the social, intellectual and physical place that is Oxford leads one toward metaphors of art and music in order to not get mired in clichés. Certainly one can go to Oxford as a “tourist” to “consume” Oxford’s architecture and history, but this is, to use William Placher’s phrase, “the domestication of transcendence,” and to impose the self on an experience that could be kenotic in the best sense of that word.[1]

One afternoon, on a break from my research in the Radcliff Science Library Reading Room, I struck up a conversation with a table of undergraduates in the King’s Arms. They were fresh from exams, still robed and in subfusc and many, with glass in hand, attempting to pick silly string and glitter out of their hair. I asked how the exams had gone: “Decently,” the second year student replied. As I discussed life at Oxford with his table, I came to see that “not bad” and “decent” were strong expressions of success for students who are so thoroughly engaged in their work (and celebration) that “success” has a different sort of tenor than many of my undergraduate students express in the States. When asked about career goals or future plans, the answer was, more often than not, oriented to the near present rather than a six figure dream job: “I have a bit more reading to do.”

Research fellowship J Little Oxford

In the evenings, I attended Sung Evensong at Christ Church Cathedral. In that practice I rediscovered the embodied aspect of prayer and chanting the Psalms. It was renewing to be totally present in a worship experience rather than “facilitating” others’ worship. After Evensong, as I made my way through Tom Quad and back to the Radcliff reading room, I reflected again on the spiritual landscape of Oxford that is so much a part of the experience of research and study here: solvitur ambulando. Not only does one research in the Bodleian; also at the Summer Eights; over coffee with a tutor; in the evening chant of the psalms—emptying the self in being through place.

I went, specifically, to examine the Bodleian’s holdings of the papers of John Macquarrie, Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity (1970-1986) and to attempt to discover what the experience of Oxford contributes to existential theology. I found what I was looking for in those papers –an experience of thinking about God and being—enough material to write to write about for quite a while. And yet, my research would not be complete without having walked through Oxford; talking with its scholars; hearing its bells; worshiping in its Cathedrals; smelling its green grass and English roses.

I feel kinship with the scholars I met in Oxford; a permeating focus on intellectual, social and embodied study. It is my hope that I can bring that experience, at least in part, to my scholarship, teaching and ministry. I understand, in a new way, what Graduate Theological Foundation and its connection with Oxford University can mean for its students in the twenty-first century.

My work as a theologian has experienced a rebirth at Oxford. I am compelled to articulate existential theology in new ways and with new avenues for exploration.  John Macquarrie was described as “an existentialist without angst” and as a theologian who was a “holy and humble man of heart.”[2] After reading his papers and letters held by the Bodleian, worshiping in Christ Church Cathedral, walking in its gardens and talking with its scholars, the descriptions of John Macquarrie’s life and work seem profoundly apt recalling the image I began my reflection with: jouissance. There is sublime joy at Oxford that borders on the apophatic and surplus meaning that is the heart and humility of theology.


[1] Placher, William. The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking about God Went Wrong. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.

[2] Robert Morgan. “The Reverend John Macquarrie (obituary).” The Guardian. June 4, 2007. www.theguardian.com. Accessed June 10, 2014.

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Jennifer A. Little, PhD is the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Theology at Graduate Theological Foundation and a 2014 Oxford Foundation Fellow.

(Learn more about the GTF’s Oxford Foundation Fellowship, a research fellowship designed for academics and ministry professionals.)