In Memory of Basil Mitchell

Basil was the antithesis of a modern celebrity. He was all substance and no spin. That was the reason for his success and our sorrow at his passing. He was a man of many achievements, and some great ones. The academic world will remember him for having re-established religion as a serious philosophical subject in Oxford, and in particular for having brought into existence the Final Honour School of Philosophy and Theology. It was a difficult task, because many Oxford philosophers were not only unbelievers, but contemptuous of theology as metaphysical and therefore meaningless. But Basil beavered away through various committees, and in due course came to the crucial hurdle at the meeting of the Philosophy Subfaculty. Basil was a talented actor without being a showman. He could sense his audience, and address them in the way appropriate to the occasion. And, although transparently honest, he was a consummate politician. His formula for success was ``Always use the weakest argument that will win the day''. So he began, in a gentle, soft voice, discussing possible difficulties in examining the new School: ``. . . and if the examiners in PPP could undertake the additional burden of reading an extra twelve scripts in the History of Philosophy . . ''. He came to an end. There was silence. Everyone was asleep. The proposal was carried, nem. con.

Basil's public labours succeeded, because all those who had to do with him held him in high regard for his integrity and sensititivity, which he showed in the face-to-face encounters, that constituted the most important part of his service to others. He did not just talk: he listened. He entered into the mind of the person he was talking to, and not just telling him what he himself thought, but beginning from where his listener actually was, and embarkingt with him on a journey of exploration, leading to clarification of the question and resolution of the problem. At the end of the discussion the listener did not know what Basil had originally thought, but did now know what they together thought: a real probelm for a real person had been properly thrashed out.

After he became Nolloth Profesor, Basil had a large number of graduates, and used to run a seminar for their benefit. He would coax out of a questioner, who had made an incoherent and ill-informed intervention, a well-articulated problem, which he would then discuss and make into a useful contribution to the general debate. Everyone was enlightened, and the questioner, instead of feeling snubbed, was shown a way of organizing his thoughts better, and was given the sense that he really had something worthwhile to say. Everyone was enlightened. Basil is remembered with affection and gratitude by many of his graduate pupils, often from overseas, who under his supervision were able to do original work and make a significant contribution to the intelligent understanding of religion in the intellectual climate of today.

Basil's willingness to undertake necessary but dull chores led him to be elected by Keble as their Proctor in 1956, and made him eminently papabile for the headship of an Oxford College---or another institution that once approached him. Certainly, he and Margy would have made a marvellous combination. She for a long time had been not only feeding undergraduates from Keble, and then graduates, and sometimes their wives, but making them feel at home at their house in Wootton. Together they exemplified and furthered the ideal of an academic society that was not only an intellectual institution but a family. Nevertheless, I was glad that Basil was not sucked into an administrative post. Although it would have been a well-deserved honour, it would have taken him away from the thing which he did best, and which only he could do---thinking creatively about how to articulate our intimations of divinity in a way intelligible to the modern age.

Basil was a Christian. He worshipped God in spirit and in truth. The great business of his life was to fathom that truth, and communicate it to others. We mourn his passing, but give thanks that we were privileged to have among us and to know and love one who was a chosen vessel of God's grace and a light of the world in our generation.


At his funeral his daughter, Clare Richards, read this remembrance of her father:

Reading from Dad’s letter

A day or two after our daughter Harriet died, at a month old, I asked Dad a very simple question – “where has she gone?” If felt that he, if anyone, might have an answer. As was typical of Dad, he thought deeply before answering and then said “well, I’m not sure, but I am sure she is in God’s care”.
A couple of days later Hugh and I received a long letter – again this was a wonderful practice of Dad’s. When he had something thoughtful or considered to say he would write it down in a letter. He had an extraordinary ability to express his thoughts on paper and in a very personal way.
I would like to quote from his letter because in considering where Harriet might have gone after her death, I think his words might also shed some light on where he believed he might be now.

Dearest Clare and Hugh
Like you I have been struggling with the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead and what it could mean for Harriet. As usual I find that Austin Farrer (the Theologian, and a colleague at Keble) is the best interpreter….
“And so there are two worlds: our universe, the place of God’s natural creatures; and Christ’s heaven, the place of God’s glorified creatures. In either world God is everywhere present by his power and his grace; but more fully in this other world where the hearts of the redeemed offer no obstacles to his invisible action… If we do not call that other world ‘heaven’ then what are we to call it?”
Austin goes on later:
“There is no way from here into heaven, while this life lasts, but all heaven adopts us. And so faith strikes boldly at the heart of heaven and starts with a Christ that makes us his… we just have to remember that we are in his world, known, yes, and loved through and through - and then to form our prayers as an extension of his thought”. Austin’s words might have been a commentary on St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians 13 ‘‘for now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as I am known''. The puzzles which perplex us arise from this inevitably partial knowledge….?

He goes on:
Yesterday, as we walked round the Meadow, John Lucas reminded me of another feature of St Paul’s teaching: compared with what we shall be in the fullness of eternal life we are all immensely imperfect with so many of our potentialities unrealised. Hence St Paul says: ‘‘Behold I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye… for this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality.''
The redeemed will be themselves, more fully and completely themselves, and therefore recognisably themselves. So we may be confident that we will meet again. But we cannot conceive what that meeting will be like, or what we shall be like when that meeting takes place – except that it will be in the love and sight of God.