Review of David Ford, Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love, (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 412 pages.
Duke University Divinity School
The words wisdom, desire, and love in the title to David Ford’s 2007 book provide the signposts for much of what lies between its covers. The book covers a remarkable amount of territory; a good deal of Ford’s earlier work resurfaces as exegetical resources (1 Corinthians) or entire chapters (an explanation of the practice of Scriptural Reasoning). At first glance, the book struggles to be a coherent whole, and appears to be a series of essays united by similar themes. But this is deceiving. Indeed, Christian Wisdom is far more melodic than systematic, but a reader patient with its poetry and its multiplicity of themes will be rewarded by its rich reflections on Christian discipleship and discernment.
In Ford’s own words within the introduction, the book is organized around three key themes: first, the connection of Christian wisdom to “cries,” defined loosely as human speech arising from powerful emotions such as joy, wonder, confusion, and hope, and from desires for justice, provision, health, compassion, and so on. For Ford, “Christian wisdom is discerned within earshot of such cries, and is above all alert to the cries of Jesus.” The cries that interest Ford most are not those of joy but those of sorrow. The theme of “wisdom after trauma” is one to which he returns again and again, meditating on it from the perspective of Job, Jesus, the Holocaust victim, and even the modern university.
Second is the theme of loving God for God’s sake, drawn initially from the painful dilemma of Job to “love God for nothing.” Finally, Ford explores the relationship of faith to wisdom by dwelling on faith in five grammatical moods: indicative, imperative, interrogative, subjunctive, and optative. His plea that theology has too often been done in only one mood is an apt one. Ultimately, he concentrates on what he calls the optative of desire: the “mood” of being loved and desired. Appropriately, this is where the book closes, with reflections on the wisdom of a faith “evoked by the divine call and desire…[that] searches the heights and depths of our fragile existence, always learning and discerning, and never past being surprised.”
The first five chapters focus on scripture in a mode Ford names “scriptural-expressivist” (with an unspoken nod to George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine), defined as engaging with scripture “within earshot” of the cries of the world. Ford most ably demonstrates this intertwining of contemporary longings with biblical narrative through his interweaving of the story of Job with Michael O’Siadhail’s Holocaust poetry in the third and fourth chapters, which in many ways is where the richest themes of the book begin to surface most explicitly. The first chapter studies Jesus as the child of wisdom in Luke-Acts, a study that is reprised in Chapter 2 and again in Chapter 5. Ford widens the lens dramatically in his second chapter by seeking to define what “a wisdom interpretation of scripture is,” taking as its starting point the Prologue of John and concluding with a detailed interaction of the theses drawn up by the Princeton Center of Theological Inquiry’s Scripture Project (published in The Art of Reading Scripture) on theological reading of scripture.
In Chapter 2 Ford introduces another key theme: rereading Scripture in the Spirit, or the hermeneutics of Pentecost. Ford’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit and on life in the Spirit is one of the most noteworthy features of the book (see Chapter 6, where learning to live in the Spirit is described as “the encompassing activity of Christian discipleship after Pentecost”). Ford consciously interacts with postliberal theology (which he cautiously identifies as “postcritical,” with both evident sympathies and a bit of distancing). Partly due to postliberal theology’s significant debt to Karl Barth as well as to the ensuing work of Hans Frei on the identity of Jesus, it is has often been more christologically than pneumatologically focused. Ford fills in an important gap in this respect with this attention to the work of the Spirit.
Nonetheless, it is in the chapter on Job (Chapter 3) that we reach the heart of the book. Job’s story informs many of the ensuing chapters, especially in the immediately following essays on post-Holocaust wisdom and on Jesus’ relationship to wisdom (where Jesus is read as a type of Job), but also in the case studies of the final three chapters. Here, wisdom within the earshot of cries becomes wisdom within the earshot of anguished cries, and Ford seems to suggest that a theology that sits only within reach of more satisfied or triumphant cries is lacking something essential. In this way, Ford’s work serves as a corrective to any sort of triumphalist theology and perhaps more particularly to the tendencies of dominant Western theology, an implication that dovetails neatly with Stanley Hauerwas’ observations on the Constantinian missteps of Western Christianity.
The middle chapters (6 and 7) bridge between the text-centered reflections of the first half of the book and the case studies of the final three chapters. Ford ambitiously attempts a “sketch” of a wisdom interpretation of the entire Christian tradition through the lens of worshipping God as Trinity, executed with the help of Paul Ricoeur, Rowan Williams, and Sarah Coakley. Of all the essays in the book, this one in particular is a dizzying survey of a large body of material that even Ford admits is only a “representative taste.” Perhaps due to its primary conversation partners, and its emphasis on the need for both “tradition and innovation,” it seems especially indebted, but not limited, to an Anglican context. The next chapter continues the theme of life in the Spirit while simultaneously picking up an earlier thread: loving the God of wisdom for God’s sake, arguing that loving God in this manner means loving the people God loves, and being schooled into this love in a particular community (the church).
The final three essays are separate case studies on the seeking of wisdom in what might be called the interstices, or the spaces between: inter-faith, inter-disciplinary, and inter-personal wisdoms are explored by way of Scriptural Reasoning, the universities of Berlin and Cambridge, and L’Arche. The chapter on Scriptural Reasoning (a practice of reading scriptures together with Jews, Muslims, and Christians) is adapted from Ford’s essay in The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning and demonstrates his long involvement in and passion for that project. His reflections on Scriptural Reasoning highlights many factors close to Ford’s heart: the interplay of academic and religious contexts, the role of friendship in discernment, the importance of community, the ability of Christian theology to speak to the public sphere and to the “other,” and the abundance of meaning available in sacred texts.
Those invested in the interplay of religious and academic contexts will be especially drawn to the next chapter on “knowledge, formation and collegiality” in the university setting, where Ford, like Nicholas Wolterstorff and others, is intent on discovering what makes a university capable of surviving and flourishing in, as well as shaping, a “wider global intellectual and cultural environment in the twenty-first century.” Lastly, Ford explores the mission of L’Arche, a federation of approximately 130 communities around the world where people with mental disabilities live together with assistants who serve and care for them (although, in the L’Arche model, the servers and the served often blur together or switch roles altogether). Ford retraces threads of earlier discussions by thinking through the particular cries to which L’Arche attends, and he reprises the role of community one last time by reflecting on reading scripture with the saints who have disabilities.
Ford’s wide-ranging study of wisdom never offers one simple definition for what constitutes wisdom, but this is fitting for a book that attempts to weave together such a complex tapestry of themes: from desiring God for God’s own sake, to attending to the cries of the suffering, to being trained in virtue for a life shaped by the Spirit.