Desiring God and Learning in Love
David Ford’s latest book weaves together several themes which have dominated his thought in recent years. The first of these consists in working through the consequences of a postmodern or relational theological anthropology as developed in his Self and Salvation: Being Transformed (Cambridge, 1999). The second explores the theory and practice of interpreting Scripture in both academic and interfaith contexts, as undertaken in, among others, his edited volume entitled The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning (Blackwell, 2006). The third seeks to recover the biblical wisdom tradition as a rich resource for systematic theology, thus continuing the work of his Reading Texts, Seeking Wisdom: Scripture and Theology (Cambridge, 2003). In the current volume Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University, unites these distinctive themes under a title which alludes playfully yet meaningfully to Jean LeClerq’s magisterial study of the readerly spirituality of medieval monastics, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God (Fordham, 1982). Ford’s evocation of LeClerq is most appropriate, for in this book he seeks to propose and model a readerly spirituality for our postmodern age. More particularly, Christian Wisdom aims to articulate and demonstrate a theologically faithful and yet genuinely open mode of scriptural engagement, and it generally succeeds in doing so.
Christian Wisdom may be divided into three large parts. The first offers an account and example of a wisdom approach to the interpretation of scripture. Chapters 1 and 2 announce and perform a revision of theology’s primary task. Through an exegesis of Luke-Acts, Ford argues that we ought to hear God speak through scripture in more than just the indicative mood, listening also for the imperative (commanding), the interrogative (questioning), the subjunctive (hoping), and the optative (desiring). Listening to scripture in this way opens us to the cries of God and to those of God’s world, its pain and its joy. At the same time, this diversity of divine speech acts refuses neat systematization and thereby forces us to listen carefully. Thus Christians should practice both a hermeneutic of reserve (in which we identify what is essential without overdetermining it) while also practicing a hermeneutic of ramification (in which we remain open to unexpected surprises of meaning). Under such a model, theology’s task becomes careful attending to and discerning of God’s voice, a voice which, owing to divine freedom, cannot be domesticated by our systematizing labors. What is required instead is a response, the response in action of the whole person and community to God’s voice. Chapters 3 and 4 apply this (anti)method to a reading of Job, in which Ford hears Job summoning us to love God for God’s sake and to attend to the cries of suffering others.
The second major section of the book revisits classical Christian loci in light of Ford’s emphasis on wisdom. Chapter 5 takes up Christology to focus on Christ’s “God-centered wisdom of desire” (159) as constitutive of his holiness, a holiness which today is best glimpsed in the “lives, practices and communities” of faithful Christians (187). Chapter 6 rethinks tradition in light of Christian wisdom. On this account, tradition is necessarily both conservative and progressive, passing on the faith of our mothers and fathers while innovating in light of what God is currently doing in the world. Here his key example is the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, as the bishops of Nicaea went beyond the bare text of scripture in order to be faithful to scripture’s God. Chapter 7 explores a wisdom ecclesiology in which the church becomes a school for the formation of desire and thus lives out the mandate to make disciples of all nations.
The final section of the book offers three “case studies” in theology-as-wisdom by exploring what such a theology might have to say to inter-faith dialogue, the contemporary academy, and people with disabilities. The chapter on inter-faith dialogue is easily the most controversial of the three. In it Ford describes and justifies the project of Scriptural Reasoning, a multi-year study group that has brought together Jews, Christians, and Muslims to discuss their common scriptures. Ford reports that these meetings seek to build friendships, not consensus, and these friendships are built upon the common desire for wisdom. Consequently, “each tradition allows itself to have its own wisdom questioned and transformed in engagement with others. This means recognizing them as analogous wisdoms with the potential of worthwhile interplay” (299; emphasis his). Chapter 9 argues that universities must become, among other things, more interdisciplinary and more collegial if they are to pursue wisdom and so retain a purpose that can propel them beyond current cultural and economic crises. Chapter 10 discusses the interpersonal wisdom embodied in the L’Arche communities founded by Jean Vanier, where able-bodied people live with, support, and learn from disabled people. A final chapter provides a meditative and poetic conclusion.
Ford is to be commended for his ambitious undertaking in this project. In recalling the church to its scripture and to a faithful listening for God’s voice, he helpfully (though implicitly) revives the spirit of Karl Barth for the church today. His success in retrieving a neglected tradition within scripture itself—the wisdom tradition (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs)—for the sake of rethinking scripture and theology is both brilliant and dutifully Protestant: Scriptura sancta est sui ipsius interpres [Holy Scripture is self-interpreting]. Moreover, this tradition, with its eclectic and nonsystematic borrowing from other ancient near-eastern wisdom traditions, provides Ford with a robust alternative to a more heavily dogmatic approach to scripture and theology. (Ford even exemplifies this approach in the book by providing provocative lists of maxims, theses, and questions rather than dogmatic statements.) This much I find not only wise but salutary. As Solomon and the Queen of Sheba traded proverbs and sayings, weighing them for both aptness and truth, so modern Jews and Muslims can discuss wisdom with Christians.
But can they discuss Wisdom? The key weakness in Ford’s program is its hinge chapter on Christology. It purports to offer a Wisdom Christology, but instead of locating that wisdom in the preincarnate Son through whom all things were made (as the tradition has heretofore), he locates it in the person of Jesus and in his “God-centered desire,” a minimal improvement upon the Christology of Schleiermacher and liberal Protestantism more generally. Jesus still is more exemplary than extraordinary, the perfection of human piety rather than the perfect God-man. While this move may make for easier conversation with Muslims and Jews, it does so by bringing Jesus down to the level of the prophets. As it happens, that is precisely the Christology held by Jews and Muslims, and it constitutes the ground of their rejection of our belief in the Holy Trinity. Ceding this point leaves Christians with little to bring to an inter-faith conversation that might not already be found in those other traditions. A more robust wisdom Christology, such as that of Sergius Bulgacov’s The Lamb of God (Eerdmans, 2008), would have saved Ford’s project from this unfortunate turn while retaining its exciting potential for renewing Christian theology and piety, the modern academy, and contemporary dialogue among the Abrahamic traditions.