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Wisdom of difference

· Christians, Jews and Muslims and the practice of ‘Scriptural Reasoning’ in an interview with Anglican theologian David Ford ·

Dialogue between religions should focus on “improving the quality of our disagreements” rather than on merely reaching agreement in specific issues, if it is to have any kind of role in the future of this complex and ever changing world. This holds true for dialogue among Christians as well, which cannot be fully realized except in relation to other faiths. Prof. David F. Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge since 1991, understands the sensitive environment of interreligious and ecumenical activity. As an Anglican born in Dublin, he has seen first hand the delicate relations among Christians and has learned that “respect and friendship are born more easily in diversity”. From Jewish scholars he borrowed a method of reasoning on Sacred Scripture, Textual Reasoning , and applied it to dialogue among Christians and between Christians and believers of other faiths. Scriptural Reasoning developed from this. It is a method of comparing sacred texts in interreligious groups which has met with instant success throughout the world, not only among academics. On 5 April at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas in Rome, Ford presented the Pope John Paul II Honorary Lecture, which is organised every year by the Russell Berrie Foundation in collaboration with the “John Paul II Center for Interrligious Dialogue”. The following is an interview with Prof. Ford given to L’Osservatore Romano in anticipation of the lecture.

Professor Ford, what does Scriptural Reasoning mean exactly?

Scriptural Reasoning involves members of different religious traditions meeting in small groups to read and discuss extracts from their sacred texts together. It is a form of mutual hospitality, with each being host to his or her own scripture and guest to the scriptures of others. The intended outcome of the process is not consensus, but deeper understanding.

What caused you to develop this new method for inter-faith reasoning?

It didn’t emerge as the result of a conscious plan, but out of happenstance and friendship. My father-in-law Dan Hardy and I were invited to sit in on the sessions of a group called Textual Reasoning at annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion. They were Jewish text scholars (Tanakh and Talmud) and philosophers, and had extraordinarily lively discussions in small groups around classic Jewish texts and works by modern Jewish philosophers. Some of them joined with us to begin Scriptural Reasoning, and soon afterwards we were joined by some Muslims. In retrospect I can see that it was fulfilling a need that I had felt during my 15 years in the very multi-faith city of Birmingham but had not been met by the forms of inter-faith relations I had known there.

How is it different from the more traditional method of dialogue?

I think its distinctiveness lies in a combination of several things: it allows the faiths of the participants to be central; it is more about deeper understanding than about agreeing together; it is long term, because these are inexhaustible texts, we can go on reading and rereading them endlessly, and so long term relationships and often friendships can be formed around them; and it is not just a means to an end – at heart reading our scriptures is done for God’s sake. So Scriptural Reasoning [sr] can generate ‘partnerships of difference’ in which matters of faith can be explored and understanding deepened for the sake of God and God’s good purposes. I would sum it up by saying that SR meets better than any other inter-faith practice I know my main criteria for good inter-faith engagement: it enables participants to go deeper into the faiths of others while also going deeper into their own faith and deeper into understanding and collaborating in the service of the common good.

At what level is Scriptural Reasoning intended to operate?

It began as an academic practice amongst established scholars; it quickly spread to their doctoral students and then to other students. It is now practiced at all sorts of different levels: there are a variety of versions of the process that are aimed at school children, at local citizens’ groups, at chaplains, at religious leaders, as well as the continuation of the original scholarly groups.

How much is Scriptural Reasoning influenced by the economic and political situations in the societies concerned? For example, among Arabic and Asian Muslims?

We have seen SR flourishing in very different social locations in the UK and the US; it is also doing well in Israel and the Palestinian territories (especially in hospital settings among staff); but in the Middle East and Asia it has happened so far largely at conferences or as a ‘one-off’ event. Later this year there will be the first Middle East SR summer school in Dubai, drawing students from several Arab countries, and we have a group of Omani students coming to a summer school in Cambridge. SR requires literacy, but it does not require that participants are university-educated. Mainly, it relies on love for and engagement with scriptures, and that is found in all sorts of different social and economic contexts.

How has this new method been received in the Muslim world?

There are many Muslim participants, of various kinds and nationalities, and several leading Muslims have given it their blessing. There are, of course, varied ways of interpreting the Qur’an, and there is not one Islamic approach to or relationship to Scriptures. For some, the Qur’an on its own is the thing — analogous, perhaps, to some Protestants. For others, reception of the Qur’an is always mediated by an authoritative tradition of commentary — analogous, perhaps, to some Catholics. Differences between participants from the 'same' tradition are often as deep and as telling as differences between traditions.

Can you describe a few of things that have come out of this endeavour already?

There have been many conversations among Jews, Christians and Muslims; many friendships; academic courses, books, articles, web materials and a journal; educational resources for schools; contributions to the process emerging from the 2007 Muslim letter to Christian leaders A Common Word Between Us and You (www.acommonword.com); study sessions at international inter-faith conferences; conference sessions at the American Academy of Religion; the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme, which I direct, would not have begun without SR; and a great deal else.

In your opinion, what is the critical issue when considering inter-faith dialogue and inter-faith understanding?

Overall the core issue is whether we can go deeper into our own and others’ faiths and also into the common good. Specific issues vary from context to context. The inter-faith relations we in the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme are interested in are not the relations between one religion regarded as a simple monolith and another regarded as a simple monolith, but hugely complex and various local engagements and encounters between traditions, each of which is itself a complex and evolving mix. The best way to discover the critical issues is to delve into particular local contexts with participants in those contexts, and to see what comes up, what is at stake. SR is, in effect, one diagnostic tool for doing just that — as well as a tool for exploring those issues once they have been identified.

Will issues in ethics be an obstacle?

No — this is a method aimed at allowing for disagreement — indeed you could say that one of its main tasks is improving the quality of our disagreements. It is often most illuminating to discuss ethical issues through the lens of scriptures — one of the most fruitful series of sessions I have participated in was on wealth, poverty and debt, which generated a vast variety of readings.

Is it better to focus on what believers in different faiths have in common or what divides them?

It is of course welcome to find things on which there is agreement or convergence, but I have learned to be wary of claims to find a great deal of common ground. It often breaks up under pressure. I have learned to value Scriptural Reasoning as a way of exploring differences without any pressure to resolve them. Strange to say, respect and friendship can happen without agreement. So I prefer to talk of ‘mutual’ or ‘shared’ rather than ‘common’ ground.

As ecumenical relations: hundreds of former Anglicans are entering into the Roman Catholic Church in Holy Week this year. What is the feeling inside the Anglican Community and what is your own about that? And more generally about the effect “Anglicanorum Coetibus” will have on Anglican-Catholic relations?

This is one further event in a history of transfers from the Anglican to the Roman Catholic Church and vice versa. On the core issue of women priests and bishops I do not see any valid theological objection to them and consider their presence in the Anglican Church as a good thing. As regards Anglican-Catholic relations, I do not see this having much effect on the generally good relations worldwide. But I do long for more contexts in which I as an Anglican can go deeper into matters of faith with Catholics, and I now find this most frequently in inter-faith situations. It is strange but true that studying the Bible with Muslims and Jews can be a great help to relations among Christians. An exciting possibility has recently opened up by the initiative of some Benedictine sisters who are exploring the potential of lectio divina in Scriptural Reasoning.

How do you see the future of the Anglican Communion, considering the differences we find between traditionalist and liberal Anglicans?

I do not think the issues that are so contentious in the Anglican Communion ought to be church-dividing, and I know many places where they are not. There are many Anglicans such as myself who would identify neither with the ‘traditionalist’ nor the ‘liberal’ label I like the phrase used by my ‘postliberal’ teacher, Hans Frei: ‘generous orthodoxy’. I hope we might be able to learn a ‘wisdom of difference’ appropriate to our tradition, just as I find Scriptural Reasoning at its best enables a wisdom of difference appropriate to Jews, Christians and Muslims.

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