My main constructive point in this paper is that, whatever else it might mean, a Christian conception of God’s power and human flourishing that come together in “living in the Spirit” involves seeking wisdom and shaping life through reading and rereading Scripture. So it is appropriate to begin by discussing two biblical passages in which the power of God comes together with human flourishing.
First, what is theology and why does it matter today? Theology is not a term that all religious traditions use, but for now I am using it for the thinking that goes on within, between and beyond religious communities concerning their issues of meaning, truth and practice. There can be many dimensions of this, it can draw on various sources and fields of inquiry, and it can have many aims, but above all I am taking it to be about wisdom-seeking. Theology matters because, to put it at its lowest, not to be thoughtful, or to think and be foolish, can be disastrous for individuals and communities.
Chapter One of “Self and Salvation: Being Transformed” (CUP, 1999)
The first point to make about RE is that it should be the most exciting and important subject in the curriculum. Just think. Four to five billion of the world’s population are directly involved with the major religions and most of the rest are affected by them in various ways. Lives, communities and civilisations – past, present and future – are shaped by them. Yet the other side of their importance
is that many of the major conflicts in our world are linked to them. If we want a peaceful world we have to get the religions right, because they are here to stay. In a world where there is much ignorant faith, foolish faith and dangerous faith, can faith become more educated and intelligent, wiser and reconciling?
There is an emergent paradigm in which theology, which seeks to answer questions of meaning, truth, goodness and beauty that
arise within and between specific religious traditions, is taught and researched in an interactive, collegial relationship with religious studies, which seeks to answer questions about specific religious traditions through a range of disciplines, but not normally with a view to producing constructive or normative religious positions. The institutional integration of the two has so far in the twenty-first century lacked clear articulation and advocacy. (A version of this paper was published as Chapter 8 in David F. Ford, The Future of Christian Theology, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford 2011).
Introduction and Chapter One of “Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love” (CUP. 2007)
Our long term history therefore should encourage us to be sensitive to transformations in knowledge and in society and to be willing to respond to them by further reinvention. What about our present situation? I see a strong case for fresh reinvention. The core factors are intrinsic to the dynamism of knowledge and its use, and especially its relation to the people who discover it, teach it, learn it, interpret it, and apply it. I would suggest that this university, along with others, is being asked to meet four interconnected challenges simultaneously.
Scripture has been very important in your theological work, but your approach is different from those who treat the Bible as a rule book or a guidepost. You encourage people to enter its world and allow their imaginations to be fired by its structures, as they would in reading a novel. Is that a fair description?
I think that’s a partly adequate parallel. I wrote my dissertation on Karl Barth and biblical narrative, and I was very much influenced by Hans Frei and the Yale tradition of understanding scripture in terms of narrative. My own engagement with scripture began when I was a teenager. I read the New English Bible translation, and found there a freshness and a gripping power. If the church is to remain true to its calling and to respond to new situations adequately, it has to be fed with scripture and to inhabit scripture. If the whole imagination of the church is to be able to resist the very powerful forces that try to co-opt it or subvert it, then it has to have a scriptural imagination.
This historic statement gives the right keynote for relations between Muslims and Christians in the 21st century. It is what we have been missing since 9/11/2001. The most impressive list of signatories from all the main Muslim traditions and countries have made a clear and powerful proclamation of love for God and for all neighbours. The message is rich and deep, and it goes to the heart of Muslim faith as expressed in the Quran. It also goes to the heart of the teaching of Jesus in the New Testament.