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.
August 4, 2009 | To hear an excerpt of this interview with Peter Ochs and David Ford, click the play button on the audio player at the lower right of this screen.
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.
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.