Nikolaas Deketelaere is a Belgian student studying at Blackfriars this year, reading for a Master of Studies in Theology. He talks to us about his background, his studies, and where he is thinking of going next.
Tell us about your background and what you did before coming to Blackfriars
My background is primarily in philosophy and previously I have worked on issues ranging from animal rights to contemporary continental philosophy and phenomenology. I studied philosophy at the University of Leuven in Belgium and over the the course of my studies there, I became increasingly interested in how certain European thinkers have been using theological themes and language in their philosophical work. After completing my degree in philosophy, I felt I could do with a more extensive knowledge of theology, in order to continue my study of these authors.
Why did you choose Blackfriars for your further studies?
What attracted me to Blackfriars was the strong presence of philosophical and theological scholarship here: many of my fellow students are working on issues related to what I’m doing and can therefore provide a useful critical ear. Additionally, Blackfriars probably has the best philosophical-theological library in Oxford. The student body is also quite small, which allows for a relaxed social environment.
What sort of things does your study programme cover and what particular focus do you have?
The Master of Studies in Modern Theology offers quite a good grounding in modern intellectual history for any theologian or philosopher of religion. We discuss how religious topics have been dealt with since the eighteenth century, both by philosophers, ranging from Immanuel Kant to Michel Foucault, as well as theologians, starting with Karl Barth and up to contemporary contextual theologies. My own work in particular deals with questions of religious truth: what is the nature of revealed truth? If Christianity is in any way ‘true,’ does that mean that those of us who are not Christians are wrong? What is the relation between proclaiming the truth of certain articles of faith and being a Christian? In order to reflect on these issues, I draw on the work of contemporary French philosophers such as Jean-Luc Nancy and Jean-Luc Marion, as well as the nineteenth-century existentialism of the Danish philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Where do you think this will take you in your career?
I plan to further develop the work I am now doing for my Master’s into a doctoral project, either here or at a different university.
Blackfriars is not a typical Oxford institution—what do you think are its positives? Is there anything that has surprised you about studying here?
As I could not in all honesty call myself a Christian, and as my approach to theology is a distinctly secular one, it has been very interesting to see the Christian faith, the subject of my daily reading and writing, lived and practised, not only by the Dominicans, but also in a community of students. Indeed, whilst much of Belgian education is still being provided by Catholic institutions, few of the students who attend these institutions are practising Catholics; in that respect, coming here was an eye-opening experience. A student body like the one at Blackfriars provides a theology student like myself with a critical environment which constantly forces you to question and defend your ideas. I therefore believe it to be one of the most stimulating environments in which to do theology at Oxford.
Leaving aside your studies, what’s your favourite thing about Oxford?
What makes Oxford such a wonderful place is how the city, or certainly its buildings, almost embodies intellectual and cultural history: from Christ Church Hall where John Locke used to eat, Oscar Wilde’s room at Magdalen College, the church at Blackfriars which is said to have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s characters, to the very street I live on and which once housed Ludwig Wittgenstein. It is this sense of history which makes living and studying here so very exciting.
Thank you, Nikolaas, and good luck with your studies!