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Broader, Deeper, Further: Engaging with Religions in the Twenty-first Century . The 2014 Bevir Lecture, Eton College

The 2014 Bevir Lecture, Eton College

Broader, Deeper, Further: Engaging with Religions in the Twenty-first Century

David F. Ford

Regius Professor of Divinity

Director, Cambridge Inter-faith Programme

University of Cambridge

 

 

Introduction

               The religions are, for better or for worse, part of our twenty-first century world. This lecture asks: how might we best engage with them? I suggest that this question deserves to be addressed both by those who identify with any particular religious tradition and by those who do not, and it has implications not only for individuals but also across all the main areas of contemporary corporate life – family, education, culture and the media, politics, medicine, law, the economy, security, and international relations. 

 

The Religions in the Early Twenty-first Century

               It may be hard for those now at school to realize how surprising the current prominence of religion in the public sphere is. My post-Second World War generation was born into a culture where most educated people assumed that religion was dying out, that Western modernity inevitably brought with it secularization (especially the confining of religion to the private sphere), and that all this was a good thing, to be supported by anyone in favour of enlightenment, science, and a better world. Some people still believe all that, or some of it, and there are arguments to be had about each point.

But those assumptions can no longer be taken for granted.  Religion does not seem to be dying out; most of the major religions, especially the missionary faiths of Christianity and Islam, are growing in numbers in most parts of the world; and both within and beyond the traditional religious communities there have been many lively new developments that have proved attractive to hundreds of millions of people.[1] 

As regards modernity, there are some populations for whom it has been true that there is a one-way linear development from traditional religion to secular modernity; but it has also been increasingly recognized that there are multiple modernities, some more publicly religious than others, with a variety of ways of being simultaneously religious and modern. In recent decades religions have been constantly in the news because of their public impact – mostly, of course, bad news, but that is also true of family life, sex, money, and other things that mean a lot to people. It is exactly the things that matter most that cause most conflict, and what the past thirty or so years have shown is that religion does matter a good deal to a majority of the world’s population.  It was largely the assumption that it was disappearing that allowed many sophisticated twentieth- century people to ignore the fact that four to five billion of the world’s population were still involved with it.

But the judgement that it would be a good thing if religions were to die out can be distinguished from any statistical facts. Indeed, the statistics and public prominence can easily make religion’s detractors feel like an embattled righteous minority themselves, struggling against a tide of superstition, dogmatism, prejudice, indoctrination, intolerance, incitement to violence, and other nasty things. The problem with the position of such detractors is not that these terrible religious pathologies do not exist, but that aiming to get rid of religions may not be the best response to them.  One way of eliminating any disease is of course to kill the patient. But it is possible for good things to go wrong; in fact, as the Latin proverb has it, corruptio optimi pessima – the corruption of the best can be the worst. 

One of the fundamental insights that I have come to, firstly with regard to my own tradition – I am a Christian – is that there are certainly pathologies and problems but that each tradition also has within itself resources for healing and solving them. Drawing on and applying these resources is one of the great tasks facing those within each tradition.

Further, out of the experience of over twenty years of inter-faith engagement I would say that those resources can often be enhanced and supplemented by learning from other traditions that are coping with analogous issues.

And this goes beyond the religious traditions. Our society is not simply religious or simply secular, it is complexly and simultaneously multi-religious and ‘multi-secular’, with many hybrids. The secular traditions, philosophies and ideologies too have their pathologies and their resources for healing and transformation. In a plural society and world such as ours there is large scope for division and conflict among all these traditions and communities, but there is also scope – and acute need – for conversation and dialogue, mutual learning, reconciliation, collaboration and long-term alliances. 

How to meet this urgent need is one of the most important and fascinating challenges of the twenty-first century, and I hope that many of you here this evening will try to contribute to doing so. This lecture is about three vital dimensions to the task, summed up in my title as an engagement that goes broader, deeper and further. I will deal with each in turn before concluding with a text on jazz.

 

Broader – The Need for Religious Literacy     

               The first dimension, I would sum up as the need for a broad religious literacy. The problem-centred way of putting this is that in a plural world, in which the religions are directly involved in many tensions, divisions and conflicts, it is dangerous to have societies in which, with regard to the religions, there is ignorance, misunderstanding, prejudice, stereotyping, distortion, and misrepresentation of many sorts, all reinforced by a lamentable quality of public conversation about religion.

The required response to the problem is multi-faceted: it involves schools, universities, media, and every major sphere of life where religion is relevant – which is every major sphere of life. This is a massive task in which pioneering work is being done in this country. I think, for example, of the Faiths and Civil Society Unit in Goldsmiths, University of London, led by Professor Adam Dinham.[2] There, the Religious Literacy Leadership Programme has engaged with vice-chancellors, administrators, human resources staff, chaplains and others in over a hundred universities. Goldsmiths are now extending this to religious literacy in the media, in the civil service and in business. They are also joining with others, including religious leaders, the former Home Secretary Charles Clarke, the Coexist Foundation, and the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme, in contributing to the work of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission chaired by Baroness Onora O’Neill, as it looks at how best to carry out its responsibilities with regard to the religions. There are many other initiatives in this expanding field, ranging from efforts to improve the quality of religious education in schools, or to raise the awareness of healthcare professionals about religious matters connected with their work, to programmes covering many spheres such as the Three Faiths Forum’s imaginative projects in politics, education, the arts and culture. I myself am at present involved through the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme with representatives of the Coexist Foundation, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the City of London Corporation and the Inner Temple (an ancient society of lawyers and judges) in exploring the feasibility of a new London centre, one of whose principal commitments would be to religious literacy. We are convinced that in the world as it is today religious literacy is not a luxury, it is a necessity.  If we are to have religious freedom, healthy democracy and a plural society all together, then we need broad public understanding that includes religious literacy.

But religion is not just a problem. It is one of the strongest motivators of billions of people; it is a key to understanding a good deal of the past and the present; it leads us into fascinating questions of meaning, truth, beauty, goodness and how to live well; and it shapes visions, ideals, acts of compassion, vocations of dedicated service, works of art, music and architecture, and the values and beliefs that individuals, families and whole communities live by. Religious literacy is about appreciating all that too. Not to appreciate it is to miss out on something that is not only hugely important but also enriching and gripping. It is the combination of all this richness with all the problems that leads us beyond religious literacy into something more: what I am calling the summons to go deeper. 

 

Deeper – Coping with Abundant Meaning, Long-term Disagreement and the Potential for Collegiality

               For me, conversion to the desirability and feasibility of going deeper into religious traditions other than my own came in the early 1990s through sitting on the fringe of meetings of a group of Jewish text scholars and philosophers who were developing a practice called ‘Textual Reasoning’. I was gripped by the intensity of their arguments, by the scope of their learning and scholarship, and by the sheer energy, humour and liveliness of their interactions. They were also bringing together two key elements that I, as a Christian, was also trying to combine: rereading today, as intelligently and wisely as possible, the classic texts in their own tradition – in their case the Tanakh, the Talmud and the classics of Rabbinic Judaism; and coming to terms, both critically and constructively, with Western modernity and its challenges – the many transformations in philosophy, religion, culture, science, technology, politics, economics, and so on that have happened in the past few hundred years.

The Textual Reasoners were also open to learning how other religious traditions were coping with similar challenges. So some of us Christians on the fringe began to develop with some of them, and soon with Muslims as well, the practice of Scriptural Reasoning. In this practice, passages from the Tanakh, the Bible and the Qur’an are studied and discussed alongside each other in small groups. These rich, complex texts, with their abundant, many-levelled meanings, generate never-ending discussion. The practice has now spread to many academic and non-academic settings in and beyond the US and UK, and also to other faiths beyond the Abrahamic (notably in China), and there is a growing literature on it – some references are given in your handout.[3] But for now the main lesson I want to draw from it is one that I have also seen exemplified in several other ways in inter-faith engagement over the years. It is the desirability and fruitfulness of multiple deepening in at least five ways.

  1. First, there is deepening in one’s own tradition, whichever it is. One’s own core texts open up in new ways through this sort of intensive conversation.
  2. Second, there is deepening understanding of the other traditions, as people who know them well interpret them and respond to questions and comments from within and beyond their community.
  3. Third, there is deepening engagement with the world we inhabit together and are responsible towards. Jews, Christians and Muslims trust in the God who is concerned for the whole world and for compassion, justice and truth within it, and other religious and non-religious traditions have analogous concerns.
  4. Fourth, there is deepening appreciation of areas both of agreement and disagreement. The latter can be especially important: improving the quality of long-term disagreements is essential to living together. No one seriously expects Jews, Christians and Muslims, let alone those of other faiths and none, to come to a consensus any time soon on a wide range of disputed questions; but it matters greatly how they understand and live with their disagreements. Reading and discussing each other’s texts in depth helps that happen better.
  5. Fifth, there is the deepening of the relationships and community of those who are engaged in that fourfold deepening – what one might call their collegiality. 

Let me just riff on that last one a little. Perhaps the deepest form of collegiality is long-term friendship. The more I have learned of deep divisions (whether religious, cultural, political, or of other sorts) being overcome successfully, the more I am struck by the fact that usually, somewhere in the human ecology of the transformation, are to be found daring friendships. So I would challenge all of you here this evening to be open to making friendships with those from whom you are most sharply divided, whether religiously or in other ways. Will you risk crossing boundaries and seeking deep relationships of mutual understanding and trust with those who are not ‘one of us’? 

Strange to say, such multiple deepening is often most challenging in relation to one’s own tradition. I have been discovering that afresh recently. Having spent much time in the past twenty years in the practice of Scriptural Reasoning and other forms of inter-faith engagement, such as the education of Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders, I am finding that my present main writing project is the most demanding I have ever attempted. It is a commentary on what is perhaps the most influential single theological text in my own Christian tradition, the Gospel of John, together with a companion work on its key themes and what they might mean for today. One of those themes is ‘The Jews and Other Others’, dealing with how John can be read in relation to Jews and Muslims today. Earlier this month I heard one of the past pupils of this school, the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, give a probing and courageous exposition of one of the most controversial passages in John’s Gospel, Chapter 8, at a symposium with Christian, Jewish and Muslim participants. We need both such courageous wrestling with our own tradition and conversations with those who can question us most deeply. 

 

Further – A Vision for Environmental Responsibility, Peacebuilding and Leadership

               If we bring together the broadening and the deepening just discussed, it is clear there is a great deal more to be done if engagement with religions in the twenty-first century is to meet its challenges. This comes under my third heading of ‘further’. What vision can we glimpse of a more fruitful, better-quality engagement with religions in the future?

               Some elements should by now be obvious. Of course there should be better religious literacy in every sphere of society, with fuller understanding of the religions accompanied by the cultivation of intelligent, perceptively critical respect for them and their contributions to our world. Of course religious education (or religious studies) needs to be taken far more seriously by schools and everyone else – this school’s thorough cultivation of it is a model for all.  In universities too, the creative hybrid field of Theology and Religious Studies, one of this country’s important contributions to the global academy, deserves support and expansion.[4]  It is not only one of the most exciting and fascinating fields anyone can study at university – besides theology, it draws you into philosophy, ethics, history, classics, languages, the arts, social sciences, psychology, law, the natural sciences, and more. It also lets you pursue some of the most important questions of meaning, value, truth and practice that you can raise, many with personal implications; and, in addition, it educates you in some of the most profoundly formative forces in our world. (And for those of you undecided about what to study at university it is worth remembering that, besides religious education and philosophy, almost any other academic subject on the school curriculum can prepare you for it – two of my favourite younger professors of Theology in this country today were trained as mathematicians.)

All that and more should be obvious. But in the rest of this lecture I want to do two things. First, I will select just three areas of inter-faith engagement for some brief comment. Then, finally, I will try to identify, with the help of a poem I find intensely inspiring, the spirit in which I hope you might be involved in your engagement with the religions.

The first area is the religions in relation to the environment. I am supervising a part-time doctoral dissertation by a mature student who is spending the rest of his time working for the international Christian conservation agency, A Rocha.[5] His research question is: Why and how should wild nature be conserved? Guiding research is often a wonderful educational experience for the supervisor, and in this case it has been an eye-opener for me. I was already convinced of the immense importance of environmental and conservation issues for the future of our planet, and of the need for fundamental thinking and practical action by religious as well as other communities in order deal with them. What I had not quite taken in was that it is increasingly clear that the difference between the occurrence or not of many disastrous outcomes is likely to be made by the religions that involve the majority of the world’s population. In one region after another they are key players. The various ways of addressing the issues – whether scientific, technological, secular, political, economic, deep ecological, pagan, utilitarian, and so on – are not likely to be sufficient to motivate and shape changes in perceptions, values, policies and habits of living without the collaboration of those who are formed, inspired and mobilized by the religions.  Of course, the religions have been part of the problem, but they also have the resources to respond creatively to it. It is up to your generation to help them to do so, to seek the deep wisdom needed to find a way forward, and to form the religious and secular alliances that alone can measure up to the task.

The second area is that of peacemaking, peacebuilding, reconciliation, mediation, arbitration and conflict resolution or transformation or stabilization. A large number of the conflicts in our world have a religious dimension, and this leads some to write off religion. It leads others to mobilize the resources of the religious traditions for peace. I have been deeply impressed how many such initiatives there are at present. Here in this country Justin Welby has made reconciliation, both within and beyond the church, one of the leading aims of his time as Archbishop of Canterbury, and already has appointed Canon David Porter as his Director of Reconciliation and gathered funding to provide him with a task force. Pope Francis has a similar passion. And there are Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist leaders who are active in comparable ways.[6]

It was moving to see the initiative taken last September by King Abdullah of Jordan and his representative Prince Ghazi in gathering Christian leaders from the Middle East and beyond in Amman to confer with Muslim leaders about how to respond to the crisis facing Christian communities in places such as Syria, Iraq and Egypt. And Prince Ghazi was the moving spirit behind what has probably been the single most important initiative by Muslims towards Christians, the letter ‘A Common Word Between Us and You’ on the theme of love of God and love of neighbour, sent by 138 Muslim scholars and leaders from over fifty countries to all Christian leaders in October 2007. If you have not read this remarkable document, and many of the equally remarkable responses to it, do go to www.acommonword.com and read them.

Even in the US State Department things have been changing. It has gone generally unremarked that, in the year before she left the State Department, Hilary Clinton set up there a substantial new unit, the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations. Its deputy head is Jerry White, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for his contribution to the campaign against landmines that Princess Diana was associated with. He with others (including Shaun Casey, a seriously able theologian, who is the special adviser on religion to Hilary Clinton’s successor, John Kerry) have been making sure not only that the religious dimension of conflicts is done justice to but also that the religions play a full part in helping to bring stability and peace. It has been good to see the insights of Scriptural Reasoning being drawn upon in this.

The third area is leadership. Some of the most encouraging inter-faith experiences that I have had have come through two leadership courses that the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme has been involved with in recent years. One is an international Summer School in Cambridge for young Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders from many countries, including some with severe conflicts.[7] The other is a national course for senior Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders in this country.[8] What I have seen is, I trust, a sign of hope for the rest of this century: younger and older leaders, many with very little prior experience of leaders of other communities, engaging in depth with each other in residential settings, learning Scriptural Reasoning, leadership skills, how to handle social media and mass media, and how to go about peacemaking and conflict mediation. Most of them emerge with new skills and understanding, with a new network of colleagues and sometimes friends, with a well-thought-through rationale for their own faith’s involvement in inter-faith relations and peacemaking, with a determination to do the hard institutional and organizational work needed to achieve that involvement, and, perhaps most important of all, with a commitment to keep involvement in inter-faith matters as a regular part of their overcrowded diaries.

Many of you are likely to become leaders in a range of spheres. I hope that the religious dimension of those spheres will be something that figures in your thought, policy and practice.

 

‘Listening as never before…’: Micheal O’Siadhail’s Session

Now I want to read a poem with you. It is by someone I see as one of the finest living poets, Micheal O’Siadhail. There has been a new surge of interest in his work since the recent publication of his Collected Poems,[9] which shows the extraordinary range, depth and craftsmanship of his thirteen collections. This poem is called ‘Session’.

It is dense with meaning relevant to our theme this evening. It has the multiple deepening of its opening; the womb-like generativity of scriptures; and a sensitivity to differences, complex boundaries, openness and closure. It names the temptation to suspicion or cynicism, that sees everything in terms of power relations rather than allowing for truth and grace for their own sake, and the daring needed to break through this suspicion. It recognises the impossibility of an overview of our plural world – we are given no overall theory, no single base or foundation, no comprehensive map; and it summons us to face up to our historic differences and divisions, and to improve the quality of our disagreements by going deeper together. It also has the delight of the face-to-face, of friendship, and of allowing ourselves to be attracted with others by a music that draws us all into its hospitable sound.

The poet suggests all that – to me - by describing a jazz session. I think it also evokes one of the most fruitful analogies between good jazz and religion at its best: the combination of a good melody – or text – that has come from the past together with creative improvisation on it in the present. The past never repeats itself exactly, but it gives us some great tunes to extemporize on, to harmonise, to take up into new medleys, performances, situations and relationships. Our century needs us all to try to hear and appreciate the rhythms, melodies, shared creativity and virtuoso improvisations that are at the heart of the religions that have shaped the lives of communities over centuries and continue to do so today. We can be rightly critical of some performances, but we need to listen for what it is that has gripped so many people so deeply, and why it is that so many people at least as intelligent as ourselves (and as scientifically literate, as philosophically acute, as culturally sophisticated as ourselves) have made very different fundamental commitments to ourselves.

I want to draw your attention especially to two rhyming lines in the sixth stanza: ‘Deep reasonings of a different lore… Yet listening as never before…’ In the poem that quality of listening as never before refers to the alertness of good jazz players to what others in the group are playing, their ability to respond instantaneously to the beginning of a fresh improvisation, to

 

each

Other’s chance outleap,

and join in, developing it further. This is the outcome not just of long hours mastering melody and instruments – trumpet, saxophone, double bass, clarinet, the human voice - but also of long hours practising together. Yet what about Deep reasonings of a different lore? Deep reasonings is not jazz language; in fact, it is a phrase Dr Nicholas Adams of the University of Edinburgh uses in his writings on Scriptural Reasoning,[10] a practice which Micheal O’Siadhail has taken part in in Dublin. 

So this poem has deliberate resonances with inter-faith engagement. It can, I hope, act as an invitation into the mutual hosting of multi-faith engagement, a hospitality to which listening as never before is vital. You may find, as I have, that it can lead to friendship at its utmost. And you may even find that the spirit of that final line, for nothing but the music’s sake, is the most important thing of all. Jews have a Hebrew phrase, l’shma, meaning something like ‘for its own sake’. But it literally means ‘for the Name’, which is a way of saying ‘for God’s sake’. For those of us who love God, however we identify God, that is, I believe, the last word on engagement with our own and other faiths: ultimately, we do it because we believe it pleases God. We do it for God’s sake.

Now in conclusion let us hear the whole poem:  

 

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. 



[1] Pentecostalism (now estimated to embrace between 300 and 400 million people, and still expanding) is the most obvious example. 

[2] See: http://www.gold.ac.uk/faithsunit and http://religiousliteracyhe.org

[3] See http://www.scripturalreasoning.org and http://www.interfaith.cam.ac.uk/en/sr for an introduction to the basics of the practice. See also: The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning at http://jsr.lib.virginia.edu; David F. Ford and C.C. Pecknold (eds), The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006); Mike Higton and Rachel Muers, The Text in Play: Experiments in Reading Scripture (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012); David F. Ford and Frances Clemson (eds), Interreligious Reading After Vatican II: Scriptural Reasoning, Comparative Theology and Receptive Ecumenism (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2013). On Scriptural Reasoning in China see http://www.interfaith.cam.ac.uk/en/resources/papers/sr-in-china

[4]  David F. Ford, The Future of Christian Theology (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2011), especially chapter 8, ‘New Theology and Religious Studies: Shaping, Teaching, and Funding a Field’; David F. Ford, Theology: A Very Short Introduction, 2nd edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[6] In the academy too there is growing engagement in this area. One of our recent surprises in the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme has been the extent of Cambridge University activity related to this. In the course of drawing together those interested in a University-wide applied research project on Religion, Violence and Peacemaking, we discovered a large number of relevant projects already happening in the Department of Politics and International Studies, the Centre for Governance and Human Rights, the Centre of African Studies, the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, and the Centre for Urban Conflicts Research in the Department of Architecture.   

[7] http://www.interfaith.cam.ac.uk/en/education/summerschool

[8] http://www.interfaith.cam.ac.uk/en/education/cclp

[9] Micheal O’Siadhail, Collected Poems (Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 2013). For more on him and his work - including speeches by the former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese at the Dublin launch of the Collected Poems, and by Sir Bernard Rix at its London launch - see http://osiadhail.com

[10] Nicholas Adams, Habermas and Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), especially chapter 11.

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