Interview: David Ford

Read more of Bob Abernethy’s interview about scriptural reasoning with David Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity and director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme at the University of Cambridge:

Q: Let’s begin with a very simple definition of what it is that you have found so valuable in scriptural reasoning.

A: Scriptural reasoning is when Jews, Muslims, and Christians and sometimes others get together around a table and study their scriptures together. They have conversations around their scriptures — the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Tanakh — and they come together in the attitude that each is a host in relation to their own scripture, and a guest in relation to the others. In other words, there’s a form of mutual hospitality that happens in this. And another thing that we find extremely important has been that they each come together before God, and therefore they’re doing it fundamentally for God’s sake.

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David Ford

Q: And what is the result?

A: We’ve been doing it now for ten to 12 years, and during that time what we found is that we’ve begun to form a long-term community, if you like, of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who engage with each other regularly, who begin to trust each other across their difficulties, certainly to respect each other, and yet do not come to a consensus about many things. In fact, what we found is that scriptural reasoning is a very good way of airing difference, often very, very deep differences, between the traditions. We study our texts. We insist that the differences are rooted in discussion of our texts and how our particular communities have interpreted those texts down the centuries and around the world today. And, of course, each of our own communities also have deep differences within themselves.

Q: You may not solve a problem or work your way through a particular difference, but you come away with a new attitude toward the other person?

A: One of our basic wisdom saying, I suppose you could call it, in doing scripture reasoning is we’re not aiming at consensus so much as a friendship. In other words that as we engage more and more deeply with the texts of the others and our own texts, what tends to happen is that we understand each other’s texts more. We often see much more clearly where the differences lie, but we emerge from that with an understanding, a mutuality, and often friendship across those boundaries, even though the key issues of truth are not resolved.

Q: What are the principal differences between Christianity and Islam?

A: One could go on a long listing the theological differences, and one would begin with God, the Trinity, and so forth, their response to Jesus, who figures in both traditions, but understood very differently as regards divinity and crucifixion and so forth. But I just stop there because the scriptural reasoning approach to this is not to list theological differences and then discuss them. Our approach to it is to take texts, to try to understand how each tradition has come to their understanding of whatever it is that divides us, and then to speak from where we are about those differences. Now, in other words, we don’t tend to just headline all those major differences, but we engage in this conversation around text. And often what we find as we do that is that we reach into all sorts of different dimensions of Islam and Judaism and Christianity that we’ve begun with by headlining that issue. And it is far more moving and it leads to a deeper community…We don’t tend to start by focusing on the differences and then conceptualizing further about them, because what we find that often leads to traditionally is to a usual list of suspects as regards what divides these communities. We are more interested in engaging in these terribly rich texts, which are often not done justice to by just taking out these big theological differences, and as we engage with these rich texts we find we get a much richer understanding of each other and also of ourselves. I mean, the really remarkable thing, of course, that we find is that the deeper you go into engagement with the other, the deeper you need to go into engagement with your own tradition. And the ignorance that you discover about your own tradition is at least as great as the ignorance about the other.

Q: What do you make of the very common way many approach trying to learn something about another religion — by seeking common ground? How effective is that?

A: Well, we’re rather suspicious of that. We’re not against it, of course. If you can find common ground — great. But in our experience, if you start off by seeking common ground, you tend to get a lowest common denominator from each of the traditions. You abstract something fairly thin that’s not absolutely central to them, and you say, “This is where we can come together.” And then at the first sign of trouble, there’s an earthquake and the common ground dissolves. Now what we say as an alternative to seeking common ground in that form is to go deeply into the particular traditions of each, and try to find there ways of reaching towards things that have analogies in each tradition. In other words, that are similarities without being identities. You don’t claim identity, because these traditions are obviously so deeply different in the way in which they have developed and are practiced in the world today. But if you engage with the scriptures, you make sure that you’re on very different texts, that in relation to those texts you can never forget how different you are. And of course that can be more so in relation to Jews and Christians who share a common text. If you look at the different ways they interpret that text, then you see how deep the differences are there.

Q: There are enormous differences in the world between cultures and societies and religions, and a great need for solving the problems that exist between different religions. To what extent do you think what you and other scholars are doing with scriptural reasoning can have very real consequences in this world that is so divided and so violent?

A: I think the practical consequence of scriptural reasoning should be seen on two different levels, the shorter term and the longer term. And the longer term I think in many ways is the most important. But, of course, one also wants to have shorter term impact. On the longer term, these traditions have been engaged with each other for hundreds and hundreds of years. The differences between them have taken hundreds of years to form. And they will probably, if the world lasts, go on for hundreds more years being deeply different from each other and having to inhabit a common world. That means that it’s very like the environmental problem, you know, the ecological issues in our world. They are long term, and what happens in particular niches of the environment can be very, very important long term. And you might say that what we are trying to do is introduce a healthy niche into the environment of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and their relations to the rest of the world which enables something that hasn’t been there before. There has never been a location where Jews, Christians, and Muslims can engage year after year after year, and often in educational settings, but not just that, and really engage with each other about their core identities and how they understand reality and how they act in reality. Now that’s something that scriptural reasoning at its best can do, and so that’s why we’re trying to embed it in educational institutions like Cambridge University, where we educate century after century. And we hope that it really matters, the quality of education that goes on there. But the short term is also very important. And as we see it, that because scriptures are so central to the identity, to the worship, to the ethics, to the daily spirituality of people of these three traditions, to gather ordinary people, not just scholars, around their texts and let them get a sense of what these texts mean to each other, and to host each other in this mutual hospitality around them that enables a form of community that doesn’t happen in other ways. And it’s not aimed, as I say, at arriving at a consensus on any of the issues at the end of it. What it’s aimed at is arriving at a new sort of respect, understanding, and trust on the basis there can be collaboration, and so forth. But you don’t pretend that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all agree on something.

Q: And what about the opportunities for doing that, specifically between Christians and Muslims. Are they there? Can some of the terrible problems we have and the suspicions of each other be resolved or made less dangerous by this kind of discussion?

A: I hope it can be helpful in many different practical situations. Anything regarding scriptures in any of the three traditions is also dangerous. But you can see that these scriptures can go terribly wrong. They can be interpreted in all sorts of very harmful ways, and facing those difficulties in our texts — each of us has real difficulties in our own texts — is part of what scriptural reasoning tries to do. In other words, it tries to reduce optimism that there is some easy way forward on these things. But what we hope is that there is genuine practical outcome from this. Not in the immediate — we don’t claim to solve the Middle Eastern problem, but then nobody else has so far either. But to enable a quality of understanding and engagement and to continually return to the core identities of each, but to do that, it seems to me, can resource members of each of the communities to attack the problems in their own communities as well as between them and in the rest of society. And, as I say, it’s always at its best, because anything, really — just it’s always a matter of the corruption of the best is the worst. Nothing goes wrong worse than religion, except perhaps sex and money. But the fact is that in our world we have to take the risks, it seems to me, to engage across these boundaries. But, as you say, the divisions at present in our world, between Christians and Muslims especially, are so acute and so dangerous for the future of our whole world.

Q: Can you see this changing the way countries do diplomacy? Do you see a need for it in the way nations do diplomacy?

A: I think, yes, there is a place for it in that realm, as in every realm. All you have to think is whether the scriptures of each of the traditions have any relevance to the public sphere. And, of course, each of the three traditions, Jews, Christians, Muslims all say definitely yes. These are texts that should have implications there. Therefore those who are taking part in, those with responsibility for trying to handle the disputes and the possibilities in the international sphere should be able to form their understandings better by engaging with each other, or having that in the background when they engage in those practical problems. There won’t be simple linear solutions coming out of those scriptures in most cases. But to form a mind like this — in particular I think it is important that whole realm of religion is taken very seriously as a major motivating and shaping force in our world. I think we are emerging from a 20th century which was basically a secular century in its public ideology. You know, communism, fascism, and capitalism were the main headline issues there. Towards the end of that century we came into a situation where we were recognizing that the reality of our world is not just secular, but religious and secular. There are 45 billion people in the world who are involved directly in the major world religions. And I think politicians in particular have just begun to wake up to the fact that the religious are powerful. They shape perceptions. And if you leave out the religious element and just reduce it to the social, the economic, and so forth in the public sphere, then you have missed out on something that really does affect people’s actions and how whole societies react. I hosted in June of this year a conference in London on Islam and Muslims in today’s world with the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme, and Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, the Grand Mufti of Egypt and so forth spoke at that. And for me one the most interesting outcomes of that conference was precisely the fact that the political class in Britain — and the leader of the opposition, David Cameron, also spoke at it, and Prince Charles sent us a message by video — were so eager to take part in an international conference with people from over 30 countries on Islam in today’s world. Now that said to me that we have entered a new age of the religious and secular world, and I would add the interfaith and secular world, and the politicians, diplomatists in all areas of public life — they have to reckon that this is now something that has to be taken seriously. And there are inadequate ways of taking it seriously and more adequate ways. And I think unless one deeply understands the core identities of each of the traditions, and scriptures are essential to that, then you do not have the right starting point for engaging with religion in the public sphere.