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Deep reasonings, no map: Inter-faith engagement as a core dynamic of Theology and Religious Studies

Edward Cadbury Lectures, University of Birmingham, 2013 - Religion Out of the Box: Dialogues with Academy, Society and Culture. Questions between religions - Deep reasonings, no map: Inter-faith engagement as a core dynamic of Theology and Religious Studies

David F. Ford Regius Professor of Divinity; Director, Cambridge Inter-faith Programme
University of Cambridge

Questions raised between the religions can be a lever for the transformation of the field of theology and religious studies and for the fulfilment of its responsibilities towards the academy, the religious communities and the wider society. This lecture approaches the UK paradigm of the field through the lens of a poem by Micheal O’Siadhail, recent developments in China, and the practice of Scriptural Reasoning, before responding briefly to earlier lectures in the series. The proposal is that inter-faith engagement, as seen in the case study of Scriptural Reasoning, is a core dynamic that both requires and integrates departments of theology and religious studies, and that the UK paradigm of the field is best suited to universities in twenty-first century plural societies. 

Introduction: Gratitude for Birmingham

 It is an honour and delight to be invited to deliver this Edward Cadbury lecture. I owe an immense amount to the University of Birmingham. I spent fifteen years here in my first academic post in the then Department of Theology, which is now, significantly for this lecture, the Department of Theology and Religion. It was a formative time, not least with regard to the topic of this lecture series – religion and dialogue in relation to academy, society and culture.

Both the university and the city were wonderful places not only to begin an academic career but also to become immersed in the complexities of contemporary urban life in a plural society. I lived in inner city Birmingham. For some years I was warden in a block of flats that had been renovated by a social housing association that contributed to a renewal of the area; for the most of the time I lived in a small house two doors away from a house mosque, amidst tower blocks that have now been demolished. Five years as a church warden in St Luke’s Bristol Street (now home to an independent congregation, St Luke’s having moved to a new building up Lea Bank), a church very much involved in its neigbourhood, was a further urban baptism, in everything from diversity of religion, ethnicity, culture, class, family patterns and education to the experience of poverty, crime and being part of a vibrant little Christian community. 

My Inter-faith Engagement – Birmingham and Beyond

With regard to the first part of my title, ‘Questions between religions’, those years were a time of radical interrogation and much debate. This happened through personal contacts in the inner city, through some involvement with an inner city comprehensive school as a governor, through serving on the boards of Selly Oak centres for Jewish-Christian and Christian-Muslim relations, through teaching for many years in the Centre for Black and White Christian Partnership, and above all through conversation, and frequently argument, with colleagues in the University and Selly Oak Colleges such as John Hick, Michael Goulder, Frances Young, Harry Stopes–Roe, Daniel Hardy, John Hull, Roger Hooker and Lesslie Newbigin.

Yet, strange to say, it was not any of that (except, perhaps, the text-based Christian-Hindu dialogue pioneered by Roger Hooker) which was to contribute most to my own slow arrival at the approach to inter-faith engagement that has come to mean most to me. Indeed, when I left Birmingham for Cambridge in 1991, inter-faith concerns were not high on my agenda. I recognised their importance, but had not been gripped by any of the constructive approaches I had seen. There had been a broad range of worthwhile activities – academic study, courses and discussion; practical collaborative initiatives; local awareness-raising exercises between faith communities; all sorts of interpersonal relationships; and more. But what seemed lacking was anything that enabled long-term engagement with people of other faiths in such a way as to enable each of us to go deeper into the faiths of others, deeper into our own, and deeper into commitment to the common good of society. In other words, given that for many who are fully involved in their religious community their faith is social and long-term, has inexhaustible depths, and has a horizon that embraces the whole world and is concerned for its welfare, it was frustrating not to find in inter-faith engagement approaches that could do justice to these dimensions of sociality, life-long commitment, depth of understanding and relationship, and the flourishing of our world.

What began to meet this lack grew out of an encounter with a small group of Jewish text scholars and philosophers in the early 1990s who had formed the Textual Reasoning group. This led to the development of a practice called Scriptural Reasoning in which Jews, Christians and Muslims meet to study and discuss together texts from the Tanakh, the Bible and the Qur’an. I will say more about this practice and its origins in a few minutes.

The UK Paradigm of Theology and Religious Studies

Something else had also not yet happened during that time here in Birmingham. I had greatly appreciated the Birmingham academic setting in which it was possible for me to be a Christian academic thinker and others to be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist or whatever. This was reinforced by contrast with two of the settings in which I had studied: the US, where there were deep divisions between theology, studied largely in confessionally-committed institutions, and religious studies, pursued in state and secular universities; and Germany, where most university study was in confessionally Christian faculties, with some ‘history of religions’ going on elsewhere. It was only through being landed unexpectedly on arrival in Cambridge with responsibility within a development programme in the Faculty of Divinity that I was forced to reflect more on the remarkable way in which the academic study of religions has evolved in this country. The default situation in the UK is now that of departments of ‘theology and religion’ or ‘theology and religious studies’ (the term I will use for the rest of this lecture), a development underlined by the change of name here in Birmingham and the more recent change of the Oxford faculty from ‘Theology’ to ‘Theology and Religion’.

I have come to appreciate this way of institutionalising the field more and more.  I have argued in several publications that for public universities in plural societies this is by far the best solution to a difficult problem.[1] In the UK this paradigm has slowly evolved over many decades. Its advantages include the following:

  • It allows for the religious and academic integrity of both academics and students to be respected and even enhanced.
  • It creates one of the few spaces where diverse participants in our complexly multi-religious and multi-secular society can engage intelligently and thoughtfully with each other and each other’s beliefs and practices.
  • It creates a space where there can be descriptive, critical and constructive engagement with particular traditions through a range of academic disciplines.
  • Its teaching, thinking and research can help resource the religious communities in society.
  • Its teaching, thinking and research can help resource the wider society through fuller understanding of a wide range of issues, and through spreading religious literacy in schools, the media, the civil service, healthcare, and all other spheres of life.

I define the field of theology and religious studies as the pursuit, through a range of academic disciplines, of questions of meaning, truth, practice, goodness and beauty raised by, between and about the religions. In this lecture I want to propose that it is the questions raised between the religions that have given, and continue to give, the vital impetus needed to develop the UK paradigm. Crudely put, theology primarily pursues questions raised by particular religions; religious studies primarily pursues questions raised about the religions; theology and religious studies flourishes best where, besides those two types of question, questions between the religions can be pursued in many ways (including encounters between those who themselves identify with different religions). 

Approach of this Lecture

It is not my aim in this lecture to explore the history that has led to the current UK paradigm. Suffice it to say that I regard the development of religious studies in this country, symbolised by Ninian Smart’s founding of the Lancaster University Department of Religious Studies, as an understandable and justifiable reaction to forms of confessional theological hegemony in many UK universities. But, with the waning of that hegemony, and the negotiation of a range of ‘theology and religious studies’ settlements, the interim, reactive character of religious studies by itself has become evident. Without a concern for whole particular traditions, including the possibility of asking and answering questions of truth and practice within and between them, religious studies tends to fragment into a variety of disciplines, each with a legitimate interest in religions, such as history, politics, literature, languages, sociology, classics, philosophy, regional studies, and so on. Again, Lancaster is symbolic, its religious studies department now having become part of a department of politics, philosophy and religion. One could see that as the end of an interim era, the healthy protest of ‘religious studies alone’ having succeeded in helping to transform the field into theology and religious studies. Now universities can choose between, on the one hand, distributing questions about religions across relevant disciplines, and, on the other, having a department of theology and religious studies in which there takes place a range of engagements - descriptive, analytical, explanatory, critical and constructive- with particular religious traditions in their integrity and in their interrelations with each other. Ideally, they choose to do both, and deal with aspects of religions in many departments and whole traditions in theology and religious studies. (Those of you who have attended earlier lectures in this series might note that this would lead to telling the overall story of the field rather differently from both Professor D’Costa and Professor Milbank)

What I want to do in the remainder of this lecture is: first, to reflect on the interplay of theology and religious studies with inter-faith engagement as exemplified by Scriptural Reasoning - the inter-faith practice I mentioned earlier in which Jews, Christians and Muslims read and discuss together their sacred texts.  I will do this by drawing on a poem by Micheal O’Siadhail and on recent developments in China. Second, I want to respond to some of the conceptions of the field expressed in earlier lectures in this series.

Jazz, Scriptural Reasoning, and Theology and Religious Studies

First, let me recite the poem ‘Session’ by Micheal O’Siadhail, taken from his collection Globe.[2] It takes a jazz session as an image of engagement across differences in our plural world.

Session

Deep, deep

The legends and contours of every line,

Tune womb

Of our stories of who begat whom,

And as phrases part or combine.

So fine

A line between what’s open and shut.

Proud horns

Above a shivering reed that mourns

What never made the cut.

Power’s glut

Of power knows always what’s true.

Somewhere

Against the grain, again the flair

Among a jazz’s daring few

Some new

Delight in playing face to face

Grace notes

For a line that steadies as it floats,

Without a theory or a base 

Shared space

Holding what we hold and not to fear

Those bars

Where our history clashes or jars

And in lines unsymmetrical to the ear

Still hear

Deep reasonings of a different lore.

No map

Of any middle ground or overlap

Yet listening as never before -

No more -

Just hunched jazzmen so engrossed

In each

Other’s chance outleap and reach

Of friendship at its utmost.

No host

And no one owns the chorus or break.

Guests all

At Madam Jazz’s beck and call.

For nothing but the music’s sake.

I will now comment on that, reading it midrashically, as relating to Scriptural Reasoning and to theology and religious studies. I might say that the relation to Scriptural Reasoning and the problems of religious and secular plurality is not just fanciful – the poet has taken part in Scriptural Reasoning in Dublin, and the ethos of his poetry in Globe and other works (especially his most recent collection, Tongues) is very much in line with the sort of approach to plurality proposed in this lecture.

Deep, deep…’ – the bane of some religious studies by itself is a sort of shallow objectivity, neutrality and distanced description, analysis and explanation. It is not that such techniques are to be excluded, but they cannot do full justice to the subject-matter of a particular religion that is self-involving (including heart, mind, imagination and will), world-involving (including politics, ethics, sciences, culture and the arts) and God-involving. Where the subject-matter itself challenges the student on many levels it is arbitrary to forbid the pursuit of relevant, deeper questions. Later in the poem the line ‘deep reasonings of a different lore’ connects explicitly with Scriptural Reasoning – the phrase ‘deep reasonings’ is used by Nicholas Adams of Edinburgh University in his perceptive comparison of Scriptural Reasoning with Habermas’ account of public discourse. By the phrase he means, he says, ‘the written record of arguments from the past … where communal identities are expressed at a profound level… Without deep reasonings, there are no religious traditions to speak of. Depth is not obscurity, however: the acknowledgement of depth is a recognition that it takes time to plumb.’[3] One might add that it also requires a certain depth in the student.

The poem goes on to articulate a historical, hermeneutical depth, in line with Adams, in terms of ‘stories of who begat whom’ and the ways these can generate fresh, jazz-like combinations in the ‘tune womb’. Such generativity, as religious and other traditions in our plural societies have opportunities to engage with each other in depth in ways, and on a scale, unprecedented in history, is a sign of hope for our world, amidst many counter-signs. There are few spaces where this is encouraged: good theology and religious studies departments are among them.

So fine

A line between what’s open and shut

might suggest the perennial challenge, both in the holding of religious faiths and in the study of them, of judging in particular cases how to be appropriately definite or open. We recognize the neat, closed, conclusive packages of meaning and truth that are offered by some versions of religion and by some academic accounts of it, the decisive indicatives or imperatives of a confident or defensive faith, and the neat analyses, descriptions or explanations of academic mastery. We also recognize the counterpoint of open questioning, of tentative, experimental hypothesizing or speculation, and of the desire always to make room for the semper maior, the ‘ever greater’ of ultimate transcendence. How are these unsettling interrogatives, adventurous subjunctives and longing, self-transcending optatives to be balanced with cut and dried indicatives and imperatives? A fine line indeed – and obviously there can be no general answer. The poem suggests that in matters of such depth and complexity any specific answer is likely to be more an art than a science, and, indeed, more like the disciplined, collaborative improvisation of a jazz group than the playing of a classical symphony. Jazz is a wonderful example of the non-competitiveness of precision and innovation, discipline and daring. The cost of such creativity is inevitably the exclusion of ‘what never made the cut’. I think of those departments that are reluctant to specialize in certain traditions and disciplines and become over-extended, incoherent or fragmented; and of the ongoing debate among Scriptural Reasoners about relating to texts other than the Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures.

            Then we come to the hermeneutics of suspicion:

Power’s glut

Of power knows always what’s true.

One thinks of Nietzsche or Marx - nearly everything in a religion can be construed as being about power relations; or of the many other analogously reductive explanations of religion in terms of superstition, projection, sexuality, gender relations, evolution and genetics, psychological needs, social dynamics, or the longing for comforting answers. All these are factors to be taken into account, and some academics – even some whole departments - will find one or more of them satisfying; but the field of theology and religious studies should not exclude those who do not subscribe to such reductions. Hence the need for the ‘somewhere’ of the next line - places where the debate between those accounts and others can go on, and where not only critical but also constructive, creative, collaborative contributions on the deep religious questions can be thought through, with the whole gamut of interrogatives, indicatives, imperatives, experimental subjunctives and daring, semper maior optatives in play.

Somewhere

Against the grain, again the flair

Among a jazz’s daring few

Some new

Delight in playing face to face…

I met such a daring few in the Textual Reasoning group meetings in the early 1990s on the fringe of the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting. They were young North American Jewish academics who were passionate about both the interpretation of their classic texts of Tanakh and Talmud and the philosophy and theology of modern thinkers such as Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig and Emmanuel Lévinas. They had extraordinarily intensive, lively sessions around texts, packed with learning, vigorous argument and humour. They were daring not only in relation to usual American Academy of Religion academic procedures and to the academic establishment in Jewish studies and Jewish philosophy but also in the way they brought religion, academy, society and culture into deep engagement with each other. They were fundamentally concerned about how to think through and live their Judaism in the aftermath of the Holocaust, while staying rooted in the classic Rabbinic tradition and also responding critically and constructively to Western modernity and contemporary society. Even then, long before O’Siadhail’s poem was written, it reminded me of good jazz: knowing a tradition and its disciplines very well, practising with the instruments of interpretation and argument, and being free to improvise in the interplay of a group for the sake of performance now.[4] And, crucially, these Textual Reasoners recognised that they needed to engage with those in other religious traditions who had analogous concerns. That was where a few Christians on the edge of the meetings came in. They, including myself, joined with several of the Textual Reasoners to form a new group, and soon afterwards Muslims joined too.

So Scriptural Reasoning, the practice of studying and discussing texts from the Tanakh, the Bible and the Qur’an in small groups, began, and it is now happening in many countries and in many settings beyond the academy.[5] The rest of O’Siadhail’s poem evokes many of its key features. It is ‘without a theory or a base’, not having a single theoretical rationale, but the practice has stimulated a variety of Jewish, Christian and Muslim philosophical, theological and hermeneutical accounts [6] This means there is

No map

Of any middle ground or overlap

Much inter-faith engagement assumes one has to find common ground, consensus, or at least some agreed framework. Scriptural Reasoning is led by the practice of reading and discussing together and does not presume such agreement – different participants may draw different ‘maps’ of what is happening. The emphasis is on ‘shared space’ where differences can be faced and discussed – what Professor Ben Quash has called improving the quality of our disagreements’.[7] So, as the poem says, this is a space for

Holding what we hold and not to fear

Those bars

Where our history clashes or jars

And in lines unsymmetrical to the ear

Still hear

Deep reasonings of a different lore.

            The secret of success is given later in that fifth stanza:

listening as never before.

The quality of our listening, both face to face and through our reading and rereading, is vital. But note too the ‘as never before’. As one studies alongside each other certain texts from the three scriptures one realises that it is quite possible that these particular texts are being read together for the first time ever. 

The poem now takes off into its last two stanzas.

No more -

Just hunched jazzmen so engrossed

In each

Other’s chance outleap and reach

Of friendship at its utmost.

That picture of intense group concentration and improvisation in response to each other recalls many moments during the past two decades of Scriptural Reasoning. And the leap into ‘friendship at its utmost’ also corresponds to a repeated experience. Note the mutual hospitality in the final stanza –

No host

And no one owns the chorus or break.

Guests all

At Madam Jazz’s beck and call –

Each is guest at each other’s scriptural table, and there is no single host; this mutual hospitality has been the ideal condition for enabling deep friendships.

Then there is the culminating line, perhaps most important of all:

For nothing but the music’s sake. 

In his essay, ‘For Its Own Sake, For God’s Sake: Wisdom and Delight in the University’,[8] Mike Higton discusses a Scriptural Reasoning session in which the phrase ‘Torah l’shma’ was understood in no less than fourteen ways. One divergence was between ‘Torah for its own sake’ and ‘Torah for God’s sake’, and he goes on to explore this tension in relation to university studies. It is, I think, essential that a university have a commitment to understanding, knowledge and truth as valuable in themselves and not just as instrumental towards some practical end. Yet it is also important for a plural university to recognise that for some, though not for others, academic truth-seeking will be grounded in the value of truth ‘for God’s sake’ – and, indeed, that this ‘for God’s sake’ will be construed very differently by various academics of various religions.

A department of theology and religious studies can be a place where a variety of ‘sakes’ motivate both students and academics, allowing for improved mutual understanding and disagreement. The most important thing is for each to be able to perform with integrity, and for new groups to be able to improvise so that the huge potential of this field in the twenty-first century might be realised. Within this multi-faceted potential I am suggesting that the most important single element is the quality of the engagement across and between religions. This is why Scriptural Reasoning can act as one key focus of reflection on how the field is institutionalised. And O’Siadhail’s poem can just as well act as a pointer towards some basic features of a department as towards inter-faith practice centred on reading texts: both should ideally allow for depth; for definiteness and openness in appropriate ways; for hermeneutics of retrieval as well as suspicion; for creative face to face groups; for varieties of theories, frameworks, bases or maps; for deep and continuing disagreements in shared spaces rather than an expectation of consensus on common ground; for a high level of attentive listening to each other, with the possibility of collegiality turning into friendship; for improvisation that draws on the depths of different traditions; and, above all, for pursuing the fascinating questions in our field for God’s sake and/or for their own sake.

Before becoming more prosaic again let me take a literary-critical interlude to comment a little further on O’Siadhail’s ‘Session’. Its form is jazz-like, both disciplined and daring, with regularities and unevennesses. Each stanza has the same form, but with very unequal line length. The second line rhymes with the last (line, combine; shut, cut) and the third with the fourth (womb, whom; horns, mourns). There are surprise bonds between stanzas: the last line rhymes with the first of the next (combine, fine; cut, glut); and the second line (line in stanza 1, shut in stanza 2) rhymes with the first line of the next (fine, glut). So the rhyme scheme is a constant a b c c b b d e e d d… and there are also some lovely half-rhymes and internal assonances and alliterations. The form is an icon of the musical meaning, as suggested explicitly at the end of stanza 5:

And in lines unsymmetrical to the ear…

And the intricacy of it all is a challenge to our attentive

listening as never before.

China: University Religious Studies and the Institute for Comparative Scripture and Inter-religious Dialogue      

I now take a more prosaic approach to the field by reflecting on some developments in China. I had done a lecture and seminar tour of China in 2000, but on a return visit in October 2012 I found a very changed situation. I do not want to generalise from a short visit, but the changes were at least signs of hope. In your handout you have the web address for my full report on the time there, http://www.interfaith.cam.ac.uk/en/resources/papers/sr-in-china, but for now I want to select just two elements of it relevant to this lecture.

First, there was the supportive official attitude towards religious studies in universities. Partly this was expressed by the Vice Minister of the State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA), Jiang Jianyong, in his ministry (a former palace, exquisitely restored), during an audience in which he strongly affirmed the importance both of university academic study of the religions and also of high quality seminary education (one of his staff who was present was about to spend two months in Fuller Theological Seminary in California). He also emphasized the number of inter-religious initiatives China had begun or taken part in, nationally and internationally, and he explained that Chinese religious organizations are trying to learn from the West how better to be involved in charitable and social service work of many sorts (there is, for example, an arrangement with Georgetown University for training Chinese religious leaders in this). He clearly understood that in the twenty-first century a world-class university needs to engage well academically with the religions, and his government has set about achieving this - and, as the academics told me, they have also, predictably, met some resistance from those who are anti-religious or do not see the point of taking religions so seriously.

But the most illuminating official comments came from Professor Zhuo Xinping. He is a scholar of Christianity (not himself a Christian), educated in Germany, who since 1998 has been Director of the Institute of World Religions, belonging to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Since 2001 he has also been Chair of the Chinese Association of Religious Studies, covering all the university departments that study religions. He and some others (including Professors Yang Huilin and Youzhuang Geng in Renmin University) have been key architects of the remarkable development of religious studies in Chinese universities in recent years – I was especially struck by this, since it has largely been achieved since my visit in 2000. In a lecture Professor Zhuo summed up the transformation: ‘Before the reform era, religion in China was characterized as a private affair, which should have no connection with the society. So the study of religion was mainly from an ideological perspective. Nobody paid special attention to the academic study of religion. But now, the academic study of religions in China plays a leading role.’ He described the new international context of ‘reforming China’, including ‘the rapid revitalization of religions in contemporary China’ which is being affected by globalization and makes world religions irreversibly and increasingly part of society. He saw this as ‘the beginning of open religions in an open society of China’ and named some of the dilemmas this is posing.[9] He also gave an account of the evolution of official attitudes from ‘religion as opium’ through ‘religion as culture’ to ‘religion as religion’, towards which there is still a deeply ambivalent attitude. On the whole, however, his view is that the academic study of the religions has moved from being a ‘dangerous discipline’ to a ‘promising discipline’.       

But what sort of study is it? That leads into the second point. I had been invited to China after accepting a position [10] on the Academic Committee of the new Institute of Comparative Scripture and Inter-religious Dialogue (ICS) in the Faculty of Philosophy and Religious Studies in Minzu University of China, Beijing.[11] Modelled on Scriptural Reasoning and Comparative Theology, this was set up in 2011 (in the words of the Institute brochure) ‘to conduct comparative research in the classical or scriptural traditions of the great world religions and to engage in inter-religious dialogue… The Institute not only focuses on a purely academic or scientific comparison of texts, but also allows for a study of one’s own scripture as authoritative Scripture in the context of one’s faith community as well as of other faith communities.’ 

It is, in fact, a Chinese improvisation on Scriptural Reasoning, innovating by combining it with Comparative Theology (which deals mainly with Christian and Hindu or Buddhist texts), expanding Scriptural Reasoning beyond Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures to include those of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism, and introducing it to new disciplinary settings, especially that of comparative literature.[12] As I sat doing six-text Scriptural Reasoning on topics such as suffering and human goodness, I was struck by one of the differences between these gatherings and the seminars I had attended in 2000: now, students and staff take it as normal that they can self-identify as Muslim, atheist, Christian, Tibetan Buddhist, or whatever. That was not the case before. It is now possible both to be fully academic and, with integrity and openness, to be religiously what one actually is.

In talking to Chinese academics I was struck by what is probably the main point for this lecture’s argument. A common Chinese perception of Scriptural Reasoning is that it can mediate between what I have been calling ‘theology’ and ‘religious studies’. This is because it requires the scholarly disciplines related to texts and contexts and yet also allows for discussion of contemporary issues of interpretation, truth and application. It has two further features that seem to suit at least some Chinese departments well: it is intrinsically hospitable to many traditions, enabling a plural collegiality; and it does not insist on coming to conclusions – it tends to operate in an interrogative and exploratory mode, and while individual participants may come to conclusions there is no pressure to do so, or any demand for agreement.[13]

Overall, in terms of the five advantages of the UK paradigm of theology and religious studies that I mentioned at the beginning of my lecture, Scriptural Reasoning exemplifies

  • The sustaining and enhancement of both academic and religious integrity;
  • The creation of a space for learning, teaching and conversation that is well suited to plural societies of the twenty-first century;
  • The creation of a space where different academic disciplines can engage both with a variety of whole religious traditions and with each other;
  • The resourcing of religious communities for going deeper into their own faiths, deeper into the faiths of others and deeper into commitment to the common good of our world;
  • The resourcing of other spheres of society in terms of the religious literacy so necessary to a peaceful plural world – I think, for example, of the Three Faiths Forum’s work in this country and the Middle East in adapting Scriptural Reasoning for use in both schools and among hospital staff.

Brief Responses to Some Previous Lectures

I would like to comment on other situations where I see signs of the DNA of theology and religious studies being introduced into very different institutional settings and societies. From my own experience I would especially note: Tel Aviv University’s new Centre for Religious and Interreligious Studies; the University of Toronto’s plans for its relationship with the Toronto School of Theology; and the achievement of the University of Virginia in developing over many years in a state institution a department of religion that can embrace particular traditions and their interactions, their theologies and, as the main American home of Scriptural Reasoning, their scriptures. But time forbids, and in conclusion I want briefly to make three comments (each of which deserves a lecture to itself) on previous lectures in this series.

The first concerns what Professor D’Costa called his utopian vision of rival universities, each shaped by a particular religion or worldview, with some recognizing the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and having a Thomist theology as queen of the sciences. I am not at present convinced by the genealogical narrative of universities and theology that he gives to support this,[14] with what I would consider its one-sided negative view of ‘the bankruptcy of modernity’, nor by his confidence in the ability of current Roman Catholic authorities to shape a contemporary university well, nor by the capacity of Thomist theology, as it has developed in the past century, to measure up to the task of being queen of the sciences as they are today. But even if I were to be convinced of these (and perhaps all I have done is to underline Professor D’Costa’s own description of his vision as utopian, because I agree completely with him that there should be freedom for diverse types of religious and secular universities to be developed) I would still suggest that our society urgently needs some places where its complex plurality can be represented in disciplined study and conversation within institutions that are not dominated by any single religion or worldview. Theology and religious studies departments are, at their best, examples of such a niche in our intellectual, cultural and religious ecosystem.

The second relates to Professor Milbank’s lecture. Again, I am not convinced by his narrative of the genealogy of universities and their relationship to modernity.[15] I welcome his ideal of the ‘well-read, civilized, reflective student’, his emphasis on the importance of the Bible, and aspects of his affirmation of diversity, especially the theological presence of many faiths in university departments. But he makes clear that, in the West at least, there should be an hegemony of Christian theology in those departments. I can conceive of many negotiated settlements in diverse departments and universities, some of which might be Milbankian; but, at least in the present situation in this country, and also in some others I have mentioned, I think there is a great deal to be said for spaces where there is an ethos in which there is not just one host, but rather a mutuality of everyone being both host and guest.

In addition, I strongly dissent from Professor Milbank’s extremely downbeat account of contemporary academic Christian theology, whose ‘death-knell in academia’ he claims ‘was sounded long ago’.[16] One of the most instructive things for me in Birmingham was working with others on the first edition of a textbook on Christian theology since 1918, The Modern Theologians. During its three editions it has been a continuing thirty-year educational exercise, teaching me something of what is going on in the proliferating theologies around the world among the two billion or so Christians, and in their engagements with societies, cultures, philosophies, sciences and religions. It has meant listening afresh to many traditional voices and for the first time to many new voices. One conclusion is clear: the past century has not only generated the greatest quantity of theology in any century of Christian history but it has also probably been the most fruitful and profound. And academic theology, not least in universities of many sorts, continues to play a full and very lively part in that.[17]        

The third and final comment I wish to make is simply to note how well Micheal O’Siadhail’s line about ‘listening as never before’ has been illustrated in these lectures, for example by Professor Lieu in her recovery in the early history of Christianity of the voices of Jews, heretics and women, and by Dr Siddiqui in his eloquent insistence on the Quranic command to read and recite and therefore to hear, to listen, to think – and, crucially, to hear afresh, to reread and to rethink. The challenge of listening well is the first and perhaps the greatest that faces any academic, and it may be that the most important contribution of the academy to societies and their cultures, including religious cultures, is the cultivation of disciplined, many-levelled attentiveness to what is often distant, strange, disturbing, mysterious and deep. It is my contention that such attentive listening to the depths of our own and each other’s traditions is the core dynamic in this fascinating field of theology and religious studies. 

Copyright David F. Ford 2013

[1] Theology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Shaping Theology: Engagements in a Religious and Secular World (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007); The Future of Christian Theology (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

[2] Micheal O’Siadhail, Globe (Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 2007) pp. 115-6.

[3] Nicholas Adams, Habermas and Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) pp. 241-2.

[4] See David F. Ford, ‘Responding to textual reasoning: What might Christians learn?’ in Peter Ochs and Nancy Levene (eds.), Textual Reasonings: Jewish Philosophy and Text Study at the End of the Twentieth Century (London: SCM, 2002) pp. 259-68.

[5] Further information about Scriptural Reasoning can be found at www.scripturalreasoning.org . See also the websites of the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme (www.interfaith.cam.ac.uk ) and the international Society for Scriptural Reasoning (www.scripturalreasoning.com), together with articles in the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning (etext.lib.virginia.edu/journals/ssr). Note that there are other websites bearing similar names which are not affiliated to Scriptural Reasoning movement described in this lecture. The sites listed here offer the best online resources for learning more about SR.

[6] See the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning (etext.lib.virginia.edu/journals/ssr) and for the best recent account, including perceptive reflection on the relation of practice to theory, Mike Higton and Rachel Muers, The Text in Play: Experiments in Reading Scripture (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012).

[7] See Ben Quash, ‘Deep Calls to Deep: The Practice of Scriptural Reasoning’, available at:

www.interfaith.cam.ac.uk/en/resources/papers/deep-calls-to-deep

[8] Mike Higton, ‘For Its Own Sake, For God’s Sake: Wisdom and Delight in the University’ in Tom Greggs, Rachel Muers and Simeon Zahl (eds), The Vocation of Theology Today: A Festschrift for David Ford (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013) pp. 289-302.

[9] How, for example, is ‘cultural nationalism’ to be related to Chinese Marxism? He noted unresolved issues and conflicts, but said that ‘the Chinese government is trying to divert from the classic Marxism in Europe to a ‘harmonious culture’ in Chinese society, that emphasizes diversity as the ultimate leading ideology. This new policy, on the one hand, creates space to open up and absorb new ideas from other cultures. On the other hand, it gives room for self-recognition and self-realization through Chinese cultural identity… In the dialogue between Chinese traditional culture and Marxism, or in the process of Sinicization of Marxism, we can find the subtle influence of religion.’ There is a tension between wanting to separate politics from religion and wanting to control the religions (e.g. through having a say in the appointment of religious leaders). There are also pressing questions of religious freedom and human rights, and what it means for religions to be under Chinese law.

[10] As an international adviser along with Professor Peter Ochs of the University of Virginia and Professor Francis Clooney SJ of Harvard.

[11] Minzu is the ‘University of the Nationalities/Ethnicities’ – the dozens of non-Han ethnic groups (numbered in tens of millions) recognized by the Chinese government – so its whole ethos is to do with diversity. Since many of the groups also are religious in distinctive ways, it seems well suited to a practice that tries to deepen relationships and understanding across deep differences.

[12] Scriptural Reasoning’s main institutional location is in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies in Minzu University, but another is in comparative literature, due largely to Professor Yang Huilin and Professor Youzhang Geng in Renmin University. They have seen that comparative literature is a natural home for Scriptural Reasoning. They are also introducing it to the international comparative literature academic community. In July 2013 in Paris Professor Yang Huilin will chair a day-long Round Table on Scriptural Reasoning at the International Association of Comparative Literature annual meeting.

[13] As I understand it, the two main ways until now of relating across religious traditions in Chinese departments of religious studies (often in fact heavily philosophical or sociological) have been through philosophy and the social sciences, both for many years largely Marxist, though now diversifying. A disadvantage of both is that they are external to the religions, and tend to interpret or explain them through ‘foreign’ categories – which may be illuminating, but are inadequate for enabling in-depth understanding of their particularity. Scriptural Reasoning allows each tradition to speak for itself; in addition it allows them to speak to each other, and also, through the hermeneutical process, to draw on philosophy, history, philology, psychology, sociology, etc., as appropriate – what Dr Aref Nayed once called the ‘internal libraries’ of those around the table. I am sure that in China, as in the Scriptural Reasoning I have known, there will be some tensions between philosophers or theologians and textual scholars or those in related historical or social scientific disciplines, and indeed some of those I studied with reported very different emphases among those doing Scriptural Reasoning. I suggested to them that the main thing is to go on giving priority to the practice of reading together, and then arguing about whatever issues arise, drawing on whichever philosophy or other discipline is considered by any participant to be relevant.

[14] The most convincing recent account in my opinion is in Mike Higton, A Theology of Higher Education (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). On the University of Berlin see Higton and also Hans W. Frei, Types of Christian Theology, ed. George Hunsinger and William C. Placher (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992). For my own discussions of these topics see references in note 1 above. (D’Costa’s account of my position relies disproportionately on my earliest, brief engagement with these issues in my 1992 inaugural lecture in Cambridge, ignoring later, fuller treatments.)

[15] Again, see Higton, A Theology of Higher Education and Frei, Types of Christian Theology.

[16] Milbank says: ‘Ever since Schleiermacher and in despite of his best earlier Romantic insights, the discipline has been divided and so slowly destroyed by a division between objectified research-based interests in history and philology on the one hand and sheerly professional interests in priestly or ministerial formation on the other. Just as it is not allowed that there might be a theological approach to history, or language or music or philosophy or even mathematics in general that could be determinative of those disciplines, so this perspective has been internalised and now for the most part there cannot be a theological approach to the Bible or to Church history and so forth. Actual theology in the traditional sense of participation in the mind of God under the light of faith as well as reason is allowed few academic positions, while it is itself often crudely divided between a philosophy of religion supposedly approaching God on the basis of an objective reason and a dogmatic theology that is either supposed to listen to the Biblical critics as if they were announcing foundational facts --  or else to base itself upon probable evidences of revelation or else again, sheerly given words, fideistically assented to.

What drops out here is the idea of faith as a complex fusion of evidence, reasoning, imaginative and affective experience, and those several fine modern theologians who have restored this sort of multi-referential integrity have either been outside the university context or have had to struggle against it.

In this way, given the gradual decline in power of the churches, the theological death-knell in academia was sounded long ago.’

[17] The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology since 1918, ed. David F. Ford with Rachel Muers, 3rd edition (Blackwell, Malden [MA] 2005)

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