David Ford and Peter Ochs: Community that’s not monochrome

The founders of Scriptural Reasoning, a forum for interreligious conversation, talk about the fruits of friendship, conflict and drama.

Scriptural Reasoning is a communal practice of reading sacred texts that began in 1994 as a scholarly endeavor and has grown into an international network of groups. Small groups are divided as evenly as possible among people of different faiths -- primarily Muslims, Christians and Jews. Participants examine a small snippet of one scripture together, usually on a common theme, such as family, justice, law or forgiveness. Each member brings her or his own “internal library” to the conversation -- and so can draw on his or her community’s tradition of interpretation of that text. Yet each member has equal “right” to interpret the other’s text.

David Ford

Peter Ochs

Peter Ochs, the Edgar Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, co-founded Scriptural Reasoning with David Ford, the Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University. Both professors are at the top of their fields and have published hundreds of articles and dozens of books. Yet their goal is to have a greater impact. They think Scriptural Reasoning can provide a model for interreligious conversation outside academia and recently unveiled the 1000 Cities Project, in which they hope to make the practice more available to the community outside academia.

Faith & Leadership’s Jason Byassee talked with Ochs and Ford in June while attending Scriptural Reasoning University, a gathering of Scriptural Reasoning practitioners in Cambridge.

Q: David, you've said that religious leaders need to be people who offer “wise blessing.” What do you mean by that?

Ford: We need some categories for leadership that aren't just about power. Leadership is about power, but we need some categories that are more naturally theological. “Blessing” is a helpful one for me. In my experience, good leadership is discerning what needs to be blessed, who needs to be blessed, when that needs to happen, what the content of a blessing is. Most importantly, whether something is to be blessed, because that is a discernment about the flourishing of a whole organization.

Q: One of goals of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity is to help cultivate “thriving communities that bear witness to the reign of God.” How do you know a community is thriving?

Ochs: In the United States, we're accustomed to both speaking (of) community but also fearing it. Fearing a community means that if it's thriving we're thoroughly thrust into a particular finite group and it's either/or. You’re either in that group or not. Scriptural Reasoning learns through communities that generate forms of relationship, which are rooted in each other and text and God, not just themselves.

“Thriving” means to be generative: a community that can reproduce itself and include others who are not the same.

Ford: Another question is how to be in the present and creatively retrieve the past wisely. There is so much amnesia about the past, and also wrong or dangerous use of the past. The discernment about just what in the past needs to be retrieved and how and where and when is terribly important.

A category that I see as increasingly important is that of drama. We want community that's not monochrome. We want there to be a genuine, free engagement between different groups of people. That's what I see as dramatic engagement.

So often, people withdraw into a lyric subjectivity where they want what they can get out of a community or are only concerned with themselves in the community. Or the other extreme is the epic community where there is some overarching goal of the purpose of this community which people just have to fit into and there's no room for that dramatic interaction.

That middle ground of the drama of community is how I judge whether a community is flourishing. Drama is not always completely peaceful. It can be quite conflictual, yet if there is genuine drama then it's a flourishing community.

Q: Who is one leader you wanted to emulate?

Ochs: Daniel Hardy, of blessed memory, was a leader among leaders in generating Scriptural Reasoning. He had a capacity to listen and generate. Dan was able to be moved by the light he saw in others. To see that opened me to a different form of leadership. It is leadership as shepherding in a sense; drawing out and following what one learns from the others in the group. For Dan and for both of us, study is a religious experience. It's an experience of God's light, which appeared to him and around the others to whom he was speaking. That light is an attraction, so that God is attracted to others and we're attracted to others and by being attracted to others we're attracted to God. That energy is what makes for a flourishing community.

Ford: I think of Jean Vanier, the founder of the L'Arche communities for people with severe learning disabilities. I’ve known him for many years and taken part in L'Arche communities.

[Editor’s note: In February 2020, L'Arche International announced the findings of an investigation into the role of founder Jean Vanier and the Rev. Thomas Philippe, who Vanier considered his “spiritual father.” Vanier died in 2019 and Philippe in 1993.

In a statement, the organization said, “The inquiry received credible and consistent testimonies from six adult women without disabilities, covering the period from 1970 to 2005. The women each report that Jean Vanier initiated sexual relations with them, usually in the context of spiritual accompaniment…. The relationships were found to be manipulative and emotionally abusive, and had a significant negative impact on their personal lives and subsequent relationships.

“The inquiry made no suggestion that Jean Vanier had inappropriate relationships with people with intellectual disabilities.”]

One of my conceptions of wisdom is that it's the discernment of cries. There are all sorts of cries: of suffering, of joy, of wonder and so forth. A lot of our wisdom is to be found in the discernment of what a cry is about and how to respond to it. Vanier heard the cry of people with disability, especially those stuck in appalling institutions over 40 years ago. He brought some of them to live with him and then out of that the worldwide network of the L'Arche communities grew. His form of leadership was one of being utterly involved with what the community is about, deeply prayerful, and deeply scriptural.

One of the things which is critical for every institution is the issue of succession. Who takes over after the founder is gone? I have been intrigued at how Jean Vanier has a theology of succession that's really rooted in John's Gospel. Jesus, in the farewell discourse in John's gospel, is looking beyond himself and saying you will do greater things than me (John 14:12). The Spirit will lead you into all the truth and will help you to do greater things. That’s a theology of succession where things don't go downhill after the founder. They go up. Vanier has actually succeeded in having successors to him who are utterly dedicated to L’Arche. As with Jesus, there are many of them, not just one.

Q: David, I'm interested in your work about the university. Tell me about it.

Ford: My engagement with the university began through an invitation to give a lecture on the future of Cambridge University. There aren't any books on the future of Cambridge University. So I went around talking to people in Cambridge. It was one of the most fascinating set of conversations I had ever had. I realized that academics aren't very good at writing about their own institutions. But they have very strong views and a huge amount of wisdom.

One of the most surprising things was how the genetic code that was laid down in the Middle Ages are still the main ones for universities today. They were, and are, three-fold: The love of knowledge for its own sake, the formation of people in virtues and the usefulness of knowledge.

One might say that the usefulness one has inappropriately the upper hand in many universities nowadays. But all three are still operative. The values which underlie them were worked out in the Middle Ages quite profoundly. And they still have to be thought through and engaged with, and negotiated afresh in all sorts of new settings.

Universities are some of the most creative institutions of our century. The leaders in nearly every area of life are involved in or trained there. So we just must pay high quality attention to them.

Q: At Leadership Education we speak of “traditioned innovation,” in which we try to hold together things that are normally pulled apart.

Ochs: The whole modern notion that there was a Renaissance and only then was there any creativity is a deception. If one thinks of leadership in a religious context, then it's all the opposite. The only creative one is the Creator. And that Creator speaks to us through texts, and to turn to them as a resource we have to read back through the transmission histories of those texts to discover creativity. Creativity only lives in tradition because God does. That's all.

Q: It seems like an oxymoron to speak of an institution as creative. Yet innovation is what the university is there for, right?

Ford: Absolutely. There's no necessary tension between tradition and innovation at their best. The deeper you go in to the roots of the creativity of the past, the more you should be stimulated to be as creative in the present, which doesn't always mean duplicating the past. It can mean innovating.

Obviously one should never idealize universities, but there is a huge opportunity for institutional creativity. Religions should be part of that. They are newly a part of the public sphere. The university has so often been highly secularized, but it needs to be a religious and secular environment.

Q: Peter, you've been keen to see that your graduate students graduate with some knowledge of how to run an organization. Why?

Ochs: Learning is an embodied thing. Folks are drawn intellectually, philosophically, and textually, to be sure, but scholars are not complete as faculty until they can become social leaders and servants: set up chairs, edit papers, raise money.

That's not only because learning should be practical. It will also draw out of them capacities to make academic judgments that are more intellectually acute and are more textually meaningful.

Q: Scriptural Reasoning is moving very intentionally into the public sphere. How you imagine that working?

Ochs: Turning to the light means for one hearing the cries of others. To hear them is not merely an academic practice. It's a practice that began to discover itself in an academic environment but ultimately those who perform it best are non-academics. To perform it best is to be most trained in listening to the cries where they are, and they're always in a particular setting, in everyday lives and families and communities. The role of academics in this is simply to help coax and open up patterns of reading that we've tested so that chaplains, ministers, leaders, judges, policemen who may practice this will show us what it really means.

Ford: One of the other areas that's been most interesting to watch develop is in schools with students able to read scriptures alongside each other and have dialogue. It's a very fruitful form of religious education that gets beyond objectifying any of the religions and draws them into a drama of their engagement with each other.

The Three Faith Forum in [the U.K.] has done quite a bit on that. They offer what they call “tools for trialogue.”

I use the word collegiality for this. It's a way of bringing people together that's not oriented to one practical end but wants an ongoing conversation. Because these scriptures are so full of abundant meaning, they can sustain endless conversation. You always can come back for more -- there are always more fascinating things with which to engage. I haven’t actually seen an ability to sustain long-term collegiality between the faiths. It happens within the faiths through worship, study and so on, but between the faiths I haven't seen it happening in any way as effective as in gathering around their scriptures.

Ochs: In the United States there's an association called IMPACT. In Charlottesville, Va., the IMPACT group draws synagogue, mosque, ashram and many churches together. They meet citywide and examine where the cries are most heard in the city this year. The group convenes interdenominationally, debates these issues and then votes each year which issue should be brought before the town government. So it's an interreligious activity of social change. This summer our Scriptural Reasoning group is meeting with ministerial leaders of the IMPACT group because they're looking for spiritual nourishment.

We feel that our two activities could be mutually cooperative; the one providing a study method for the leaders of that group and that group reminding us why we're studying.

Q: What role does friendship play in creating communities?

Ford: You can't plan friendships. They happen, gloriously, and you have to seize the moment and go with them. Scriptural Reasoning has generated more than a usual number of friendships across different traditions and within those traditions, as well.

In major developments which cross boundaries, like the Christian ecumenical movement or interfaith engagement, unless there are strong friendships somewhere in the ecosystem, the innovation won't flourish in the way it should. The pressures are so intense on movements like this that one must have the durability that really faithful friendship gives. One must be able utterly to rely on people who, in our case, are Muslim or Jewish or fellow Christians, to be with you in going on with this, whatever the pressures.

Ochs: That kind of friendship has enabled us to cross barriers of study which would otherwise have blown apart our capacity to relate to one another. If Muslim, Christian and Jew, for example, want to openly share with each other texts in which each other seems to be condemned, it's only the depth of trust among groups of three that will enable them not to stop at the point of confrontation. It’s not because we trust the texts at that moment, but because we trust each other. Friendship has enabled us to cross barriers of theological awe, fright, gaps and fear that we otherwise couldn't. By “friend” we mean friends with friends of God, relationships of virtue and of service to God, service to tradition.