04/02/2011 09:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2011

A Journey into Interfaith Engagement

I have become increasingly convinced that the early 21st century is a kairos for interfaith engagement, especially among the Abrahamic faiths, and that there will be serious consequences if this opportunity is missed. Allow me to say something of the journey that has brought me to this conviction.

As a theologian, the university setting brought me along an important transformative path that ultimately led me with others to found the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme (CIP). But before transformation comes formation. For me, that included being brought up as an Anglican in the Church of Ireland in Dublin (a 3 percent religious minority), playing a great deal of sport, being gripped by questions of life and death after my father died when I was 12 and studying classics at Trinity College Dublin where I was active in politics, debate and journalism. I completed my studies and was heading toward a business career that was interrupted (permanently, as it turned out) to accept a scholarship to Cambridge to study Theology. I was to go onto Yale for my masters and back to Cambridge for my doctorate.

The next stage on the journey was my first teaching post in the Theology Department of the University of Birmingham. I went to Birmingham rather sceptical but almost at once fell in love with the city. The years there were not just packed with teaching, but were marked by an immersion in a remarkable inner city Anglican parish -- multi-ethnic, multi-faith, with church schools, youth groups, home groups and a second-hand shop. We helped renovate a large swathe of decrepit buildings in the parish; and developed relationships with Pentecostal and black-led churches.

Inseparable from the many multi-faith experiences in Birmingham were theological involvements. At the epicentre was Daniel Hardy, my closest colleague in the Theology Department, 18 years my senior. Dan was widely read not only in theology and philosophy but in the natural and social sciences, literature. A profound, independent thinker. It was a theological springtime -- we set aside several hours every Thursday morning just to talk together. Those conversations went everywhere, freely exploring, critiquing, speculating, arguing, imagining, deliberating and coming to verdicts and decisions. To be able to think freely and hard about God and before God; to experiment intellectually and imaginatively together, alert to many disciplines, practices and spheres of life, relating all to God; to contemplate the unavoidable and intractable dark mystery of evil. To take leaps but also have time to dwell on some particular thought, thinker, period, text or problem for as long as we wanted.

I further broadened my theological horizon in preparation of a text book, The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology in the Twentieth Century. I came to appreciate the amazing variety and productivity of theologians of that century -- the global scope, number of relevant disciplines and media, the particularity of Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal voices and significant new ones: women, black Americans and Africans, lower caste Indians, lay Roman Catholics, Latin American farmers and workers, and many more.

Moving away from the multi-faith environment of Birmingham, I returned to Cambridge in 1991. It was a drastic change and a very different intellectual ecology. In this new environment, what became clear was the need to align the fields of theology and religious studies to build a university department for the future. It is a small niche in our intellectual and educational landscape but desperately needed for the sort of high quality study, thought and debate essential to encourage wiser faith and wiser secular understanding.

Contemplating the idea of a "new theology and religious studies" while on sabbatical at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, my most transformative experience was to come. Dan Hardy (who by this time was both my father-in-law and the Director of the Princeton Center) introduced me to the Jewish philosopher and theologian Peter Ochs. We sat in on meetings of a group called Textual Reasoning, co-founded by Peter at the American Academy of Religion. We were riveted by what we saw: young Jewish contemporary philosophers and text scholars (Tanakh and Talmud) engaged in hectic, argumentative discussion (with much humour thrown in) of classic texts and works by modern thinkers. Soon some of the group joined with us Christians and subsequently Muslims (led by Basit Koshul); the focus was on reading Tanakh, Bible and Quran together. What we came to call "Scriptural Reasoning" was forged over the years through the intensity of three-way engagements with much argument and much laughter.

To study Tanakh and Quran for hour after hour with Jews and Muslims who know and live their traditions; to be able to question, argue and differ deeply but with respect; to see the Bible through their eyes and questions, and to try to articulate my Christian faith in response; to explore contemporary and practical implications of texts in all three scriptures (ethics, daily living, philosophy, politics, economics...) Scriptural Reasoning has transformed my understanding of both Judaism and Islam and led to much rethinking of Christianity. This is not about becoming clearer regarding any of the faiths -- I was much clearer about Judaism and Islam before getting to know so many Jews and Muslims. To plunge into a sea of Talmud or Hadith while trying to interpret a scriptural text is often more bewildering than clarifying, and to hear Jews or Muslims arguing among themselves subverts many text book generalisations.

The same suspicion of neat, clear religious packages has also grown in relation to my own Christian tradition. This transformation is about seeking wise faith. I increasingly see the search for wise faith in any of the traditions needing to beware of the common dominance of clear assertions and imperatives, which are confidently emphasized to the downplaying of questioning, exploring and, above all, desiring more and more of God's infinite and uncontainable blessing, wisdom and love.

In particular, Scriptural Reasoning forges deep friendships with fellow-readers with whom we have considerable theological differences. All this has amounted to a fulfilment of what I was only partly aware of longing for while in Birmingham: long term interfaith collegiality that can lead deeper into my own faith, deeper into the faith of others and deeper into commitment to the wider common good.

Like the ecumenical movement at its best, the global interfaith challenge we face requires institutional creativity, conversation, collaboration and thorough theological work and education, locally, nationally and internationally. The thinking required for all this has, I think, hardly got going. As a catalyst for this I have not found anything as helpful as Scriptural Reasoning.

Professor David Ford is the Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, England, one of the oldest and most prominent professorships in the UK, founded in 1540 by Henry VIII. This Anglican theologian will deliver a keynote Lecture at the Angelicum Pontifical University in Rome on April 5, sponsored by the US-based Berrie Foundation, which promotes Jewish culture and interfaith work. His lecture will address Scriptural Reasoning as a means to inter-faith engagement.