Between the Lines: A Conversation with David F. Ford – Part 2

We recently had the chance to talk with David F. Ford about his book The Drama of Living: Becoming Wise in the Spirit.

David F. Ford (PhD, University of Cambridge) is Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, where he has taught for more than twenty years, and director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Program. He is also a Fellow of Selwyn College and the author or editor of more than fifteen books, including The Shape of Living. Ford is one of the founders of Scriptural Reasoning and has been extensively involved in generating new modes of engagement for inter-faith relations in the post-9/11 world.

Part 1 of this interview is available here.

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What is “Scriptural Reasoning,” and what is its potential impact on religion and society?

Scriptural Reasoning is a practice in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims (and now sometimes those from other traditions too) come together in study and conversation around their scriptures. It has been one of the best surprises of my life since I got involved in its beginnings about twenty years ago.

I had spent fifteen years living in multireligious Birmingham, Britain’s second city, but was never gripped by what I found there in interfaith relations, worthy though much of it was. It was only through Scriptural Reasoning that I realized what was missing: a practice that enables people from very different faiths to engage with each other long term in a way that lets them be fully people of faith in their own traditions. These scriptures are wonderfully rich and deep, have been interpreted for centuries, and now continue to be important around the world. You never come to the end of their meaning and implications. In The Drama of Living I tell the story of Scriptural Reasoning and some of the exciting developments that have been happening around the world in Europe, America, China, and elsewhere. I describe it as a wisdom-seeking practice that at its best (especially when done year after year) leads to a multiple deepening. It can draw us deeper into our own faith, deeper into understanding the faiths of others, deeper into commitment together to the common good of our world, deeper into community—and often friendship—with those of other faiths, and deeper into the disagreements as well as the agreements between us.

That last point is important: it is not likely that, for example, Jews or Muslims will be able to agree with the message of the Gospel of John on Jesus as the full self-expression and self-giving of God, but it is good to be able to explore what is meant by that and other disputed teachings. We speak in Scriptural Reasoning of “improving the quality of our disagreements”—which, when you think about it, is desirable in many other relationships too, including engagements with fellow Christians and with our spouses, children, friends, enemies, and colleagues.

As regards the potential impact of Scriptural Reasoning on religion and society, I think it is immense. Professor Peter Ochs, the Jewish professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia who has been central to Scriptural Reasoning since it began, speaks of “hearth-to-hearth” engagement. Scriptures are at the center of each of our communities, they are places of warmth (and dangerous fire!) where we gather to understand what is most important to us. In Scriptural Reasoning something of this warmth can be shared across traditions, while yet respecting the differences. Peter has been working to find ways of applying this in situations of tension and conflict, as have the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme and the new center of reconciliation near Carlyle in the North of England, Rose Castle. The director of Rose Castle, Sarah Snyder, has been at the forefront of introducing Scriptural Reasoning to the USA, the Middle East, and local communities around the UK. I have had fascinating times doing it not only in the UK but also in China, the USA, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, Jordan, Israel, and Oman, and have just received an invitation to do it in the leading Muslim University of Al Azhar in Egypt.

The most recent major initiative that partly owes its inspiration to Scriptural Reasoning is the Global Covenant of Religions, which seeks to bring together the religions at the international, regional, and local levels in order to resist religion-related violence and encourage peacemaking, better quality education, and respect for religious minorities. It is only a beginning, but watch this space!

 

What is the importance of “face-to-face” engagement, and how does it change how we interact with others? What does it mean for how we interpret texts?

The Drama of Living holds that the primary perspective on human life is the face-to-face. It is important to have broad frameworks, big concepts, and attempted overviews, and also to pay attention to each person’s interior life, but in the drama of living the central dynamics are face-to-face. This is, I think, common sense—you just have to note how the most popular television programs and films make this central. Likewise most of the Bible is stories about people engaging face-to-face. Even in apparently big impersonal organizations, corporations, and governments you usually find face-to-face relationships are vital at every level from the board or cabinet at the top to the local teams and offices. And of course it is the primary perspective of love.

I think there are two main implications for interpreting texts.

First, it is important to realize that most of them had their origins in face-to-face dramas of living, with conflicts, debates, special interests, and complex issues. Their context matters, even when we do not know much about it. So there can be no simple application today of, for instance, the Gospel of John, and John is very good at recognizing this—it is why he uses that important little word “as” so much, as discussed already. For example, when the risen Jesus says to the disciples as he breathes the Holy Spirit into them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (20:21), that encourages not only reflection on the drama of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in order to understand his mission from the Father, but also reflection on the ongoing drama in the past and today in order to improvise appropriately in the ongoing drama of the twenty-first century.

Second, the priority of the face-to-face applies to our process of interpretation. Central to our efforts to go deeper into the meaning of the Gospel should be intensive conversation with others about the text. One of the formative things for me in reading John was six months during which two New Testament scholars, Richard Hays and Richard Bauckham, met with me for twenty-one three-hour sessions, one on each chapter of John. I am also deeply grateful to other groups, in many academic settings, in various churches, and in Scriptural Reasoning, for fruitful explorations of this inexhaustibly rich text.

One conclusion that is constantly reinforced through such conversation and argument is that the text is endlessly generative of fresh meaning. A key text in John is the promise that the Holy Spirit “will guide you into all the truth” (16:13), and I think that happens most reliably through the discipline of conversation with others and through attending to the wisdom gathered over many centuries in communities of worship, study, and practice. We need to remember that, through writings and traditions, we are always in the presence of the unseen faces of those in previous generations who have been part of this conversation.

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Next week Dr. Ford will discuss L’Arche communities, as well as why rereading is so fundamental for learning.

For more information on Dr. Ford’s new book, The Drama of Living, click here.