Oswald Chambers was a teacher. For years in his twenties, he taught at a Bible college in Dunoon, a small town in the western reaches of Scotland, where he’d landed after being forced, by lack of funds, to leave Edinburgh University. The move wasn’t an easy one. Oswald had long envisioned himself as a painter, and as a man of intellect among intellectual men—city men. He’d sworn to a friend that he’d never join the ministry (his father’s profession) “until God takes me by the scruff of the neck and throws me in.”
When he first got to Dunoon, it was with the intention of continuing on with his painting and intellectual endeavors; indeed, when it came time for him to teach his first class, he insisted on teaching philosophy to profoundly uninterested students, even rewriting a philosophy textbook to make it more appealing (it wasn’t). He just wanted so badly to make his students approach the Bible—and life—as he did: not only with his soul but with his mind.”If only,” he lamented, “Christians would think.”
Oswald eventually warmed to his situation, and in later years he managed to find his way back to a city (London, where he’d lived as a teenager). But he never lost this desire to make people “think.”
Today’s entry gives his definition of thinking: a rigorous, directed, difficult mental activity. To think, for Oswald, is to “suffer” and to “struggle” with a text or an idea. The verse Biddy places at the top of this entry, 2 Timothy 2:15, is apt (sometimes the verses she chose don’t seem to have much to do with the words that follow, but this one does):
Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
Oswald latched onto the concepts of “study,” “work,” and “division” (or “interpretation”) to emphasize the active nature of thinking. But why?
For many reasons. In his diaries and letters and across his sermons, he identifies some of the pitfalls Christians can fall into: they can blindly or passively accept what a preacher tells them; they can start to rehash old arguments or ideas, ones they’ve stolen from another Christian, rather than forming their own; they can even co-opt someone else’s religious experience. Oswald was keenly aware of—and rather put off by—humanity’s tendency to be swept away by religious sentiment or caught up in ecstatic experience. He wanted each individual Christian to build a solid foundation for his or her faith, one that included not just feeling and belief but reason.
Much of this had to do with Oswald’s historical context. It was a time of revival (the tail-end of the Third Great Awakening), which meant it was a time of mass, open-air meetings filled with the kind of rousing song and impassioned preaching that was intended to whip people up into an emotional frenzy; and it was also a time of rationalism and science, when Christians were striving to find new ways of “arguing” and “proving” the Bible. Finally, it was a time when various political ideologies were making inroads into Christianity—Oswald wanted to ensure that Christians’ faith was rooted in individual, personal, independent study, so that they might remain independent from these ideologies and groups.
Much more on this as we continue!