The Possibilities of a Faith Council

Samuel Wells,
Duke University

The Duke Context

I came to Duke University in August 2005 to be Dean of the Chapel. Duke is historically a Methodist university and its divinity school is United Methodist-affiliated. Its chapel has however always been interdenominational, and over its first 75 years only two of its five deans have been United Methodists. Duke Chapel plays a number of separate but overlapping roles. It is a magnificent gothic basilica, built to house major events in the life of the university and its members. As an institution it convenes religious life on campus. It is an interdenominational church with a very large Sunday morning attendance and a tradition of fine music, preaching and liturgy. And it is a source of influence on the local community and on the American church more broadly.

Duke University is set in Durham, North Carolina, a city teeming with Baptist churches, independent expressions, storefront start-ups, and varieties of mainline experience, together with a handful of crowded Catholic churches and a similar number of faithful Jewish congregations. It is a global research university in the American South. Therein lies its spiritual dynamism; therein also lies its religious complexity. Being in the American South means there are countless ways of being a Protestant, but very few ways of being racially integrated. It means democracy and market forces have seamlessly blended with the separation of church and state. It means the real division among the churches is not about Bible or ethics but about whether your pastor has been to seminary or not. Being a global research university means that for a great many of the people at Duke what brought them to Durham was its academic excellence rather than its sociological context. It is never quite clear whether the social setting of the university is integral, irritating, or irrelevant to its purpose. In any case there is an underlying tension between, on the one hand, the ethos of a contemporary research university with its emphasis on natural and social science assumptions along with its celebration of many forms of cultural diversity, and, on the other hand, the historic Southern legacy of mainline Protestant and more recently evangelical hegemony.

What drew me to Duke was the opportunity to be a preacher and pastor for a chapel with a regular Sunday attendance of a thousand people, to be on the faculty of an outstanding divinity school, to write in the exhilarating context of a vibrant university, and through leading such a visible institution to have some small but nonetheless enviable role to play in shaping the American religious (and to a lesser extent social) imagination for the generation to come. In short, it was an invitation to make the Chapel an institution that embodied the theological stance for which Duke Divinity School has become famous. When people said “This church that Duke Divinity professors talk about – it doesn’t really exist, does it?”, I had the chance to stand in the middle of Duke’s gothic West Campus, point to the Chapel and say, “It does here.”

What I did not fully appreciate was that I would be responsible not just for Christian witness to the campus, but for the ministry of other faiths as well. It was not that no one had told me: it was that I did not really understand what they were saying. All my previous ministry experience had been in the United Kingdom, where other faiths are broadly content to be represented by Christians in the House of Lords, but nowhere else. Leaving aside my philosophical puzzlement at the coherence of a notion called “religious life,” I was amazed that non-Christians did not seem to feel humiliated that their spokesperson at the table of university authority and the gatekeeper of their interactions was the person that ran the Chapel.

But that was before I realized that the unwritten understanding of members of the religious life staff (those campus ministers funded by recognized denominational, para-church or other religious bodies) was that it was best for all of us to operate, particularly when gathered with one another, as if we were liberal Protestants really. The point is not that the campus ministers regarded themselves as liberal Protestants – most quite obviously did not – but that liberal Protestantism had long been treated as the default neutral territory for religious life to occupy on a campus such as this. That is to say, we all took faith to be an articulation of inner dispositions and feelings, we all knew it was best to be sheepish (at least publicly) about making converts, we all put a lot of energy into service projects, and none of us constituted any significant ideological challenge to the campus or national political status quo. When I expressed my bewilderment at being a representative of “religion” in general, there was anxiety that I had no time or place for non-Christian traditions of faith. I responded that I had no desire to underwrite a definition of religion that rendered us all irrelevant.

What I meant was that I did not believe my own faith, Christianity, was a manifestation of a broader genus known as “religion.” My relationship with members of other faiths was not dependent on us all agreeing there was some kind of more fundamental subsoil from which we all derived, some kind of spiritual or philosophical nutrients. Incarnational Christianity, for example, seemed to me to be making almost diametrically opposite claims about the body, suffering, and death to claims and understandings upheld by most forms of Buddhism: to suggest that these faith traditions were two diverse manifestations of a fundamentally unitary phenomenon seemed to me to be bending those traditions out of recognizable shape for some purpose that was not designed to serve either – a purpose that was often taken to be harmless or affirming but of which I was suspicious. I was not trying in an aggressive or imperialistic manner to say “I’m right – you’re wrong.” I was just pointing out that there was no philosophically coherent way in which we could both be right and that pretending otherwise only underwrote a culture in which it was widely assumed that neither of us were seriously interested in truth in the first place. Hence my fear that a definition of religion would render us all irrelevant – because it would expose us all as half-baked forms of self-help and therapy.

Yet I came to realize that the term “religion” meant different things to different members of the staff. For the non-Christian members, it was a pragmatic way of ensuring they would have their practical needs attended to and in some cases met. To me, with the institutional privilege of being confident that my practical needs would invariably be met, it seemed a capitulation to an assumption that the university dealt with the important things (the mind and the body) while the religious life staff dealt with the unimportant things (the soul – if it even existed). The extraordinary number of groups (upwards of 25) was presented to me as a sign of strength and dynamism, whereas, given that three-quarters of these were varieties of Protestantism, it seemed at first sight to me a vivid demonstration of Christian disunity and thus an institutional undermining of Christian truth claims.

I initially concentrated my energies on finding constructive ways for the Christians to work together. This was a failure for two reasons. The first was that where I saw ecumenical opportunity, even responsibility, my colleagues saw power differentials. I was Gulliver with the big budget asking the Lilliputians to fit in around me. My attempt to hold a joint Easter vigil with the Catholics was a notable failure. In the end there came a message from a cardinal in Rome insisting it could not be done. The second was that non-Christian campus ministers interpreted the move as at best indifference, at worst hostility, towards them. I came to realize that to some of my colleagues the term “religion” was a democratizing claim. If there were 25 different groups then there was no reason to single out the Jews for negative attention, or any validity in questioning the role of the Buddhists simply because they had relatively few adherents. If the Christians started muscling together, Jews and others were going to start getting nervous.

Reconfiguring the Room

One of my frustrations was that when the 35 religious life staff members representing the 25 groups met together, something inhibited us from talking about anything besides administrative necessities and campus dynamics. It was not a lack of insight, commitment, intelligence, or human generosity – I was deeply moved the evening the Campus Crusade representative took the Buddhist chaplain an evening meal after the latter had hurt her back badly. I came to perceive that what was needed was time, permission, and a reconfiguration of the room. When most people in the room are Southern Protestants, it becomes easy to assume that that is the normal thing to be, and the role of the convener is simply to keep the subject away from homosexuality and capital punishment. We needed to create a room that reflected the global, not the local, faith ecology. Only then would we be able to talk about things that mattered. And we had to recall that we had things that mattered to talk about – and that if we could find a way of talking about them that evinced energy and life, mutual respect and personal discovery, deepening faith and relational warmth, we would have not only something to treasure for ourselves but a way of encountering difference to offer to the campus and beyond.

But first of all I needed a change of heart. I needed to stop regarding my responsibility for non-Christian faiths as a bewildering and philosophically indefensible burden and start seeing it as wonderful and enjoyable opportunity. I went back to my roots – to my many years of parish ministry as a Church of England priest. To be a parish priest in the Church of England is to be given the “cure (i.e. care) of souls” of every resident of the geographical parish or neighbourhood – not just those who attend worship at the parish church. In a multicultural and multifaith society, I interpreted this as a longing for every person in the parish to be fully alive, and an eagerness to see each person flourish in a way that was at the same time a blessing to others. I began to approach my ministry to the Duke campus in the same spirit, and thus to see the flourishing of other faiths not as irrelevant or threatening to the health of Christianity, but as stimulating and complementary to it.

With my colleague Craig Kocher, Director of Religious Life, I spent nine months writing a report that tried to take stock of faith at Duke, to understand where it was coming from and to propose where it most appropriately might be headed. It took me nine months to get my head around the diversity of groups and the different issues involved: it really was conceptually one of the biggest administrative challenges I have ever faced. The report began as an attempt to find a way of fitting 25 groups into a physical space not originally designed for any of them – or for anything else: the basement of the Chapel, little more than a warren of storage and boiler rooms interlaced with organ pipes. But it ended as a proposal to shift the religious imagination from varieties of Protestantism to a council of world faiths.

The Three Chapter Story

The report outlined and throughout assumed a narrative of what it called the three chapter story of religion on the American college campus. The prologue of this story was a time before 1900, when colleges and universities were founded, shaped and dominated by the major Christian traditions. History really begins in chapter one , which broadly covers the first half of the twentieth century – a time when faculties in many of the church-related colleges wrested control of those institutions away from the ecclesial hierarchies. Chapter one names the period when the churches traded their theological identity in order to retain their institutional influence. It is remembered as a period when the stranglehold of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant control was tightened and the common interest among the dominant churches, institutions and social groups was overwhelming. Chapter two refers to the period of significant social change in the third quarter of the last century. The way the story is remembered, excluded groups, notably African Americans and women, beat down the door of segregation and restricted access. White Anglo Saxon males stopped being seen as the source of all good and started being fingered as the cause of all evil. Chapter two is remembered as a revolt against privilege and hierarchy of any kind, and a statement of a profound confidence in the untrammelled will of the individual when given free expression.

American colleges and universities now find themselves in chapter three. On the one hand are those who identify strongly with the spirit of chapter two. On the other hand are those who lament all that they feel was lost in the passing of chapter one. Chapter three does not describe the whole of the American higher education scene today, for there are places where chapters two and one – and even the prologue – are still visible, significant or even dominant aspects of the narrative. In the introduction to my book Speaking the Truth (Nashville: Abingdon 2008), I describe the ways I have tried to shape Duke Chapel as what I call a “chapter three institution.”

The significance of the three chapter story for religious life at Duke includes the following observations. (1) This narrative, the architecture of West Campus, and the ethos of both conservative and progressive Christians in America all contribute to the widespread default assumption that Christianity at Duke in general and Duke Chapel in particular is committed to restoring chapter one. (2) A widespread assumption is that the only alternative to chapter one is chapter two, i.e. a religious pluralism that appears to have no place in the public sphere. (3) Many people at and around Duke and other universities have had no experience of or exposure to any form of Christianity that was not deeply invested in chapter one. Thus any attempt on the part of Duke Chapel to show that it is committed to chapter three is liable to be misunderstood in many quarters. (A similar issue arises for the Divinity School. Duke Divinity School is internationally famous for its aspirations to articulate chapter three but is distrusted in some parts of the university because it is assumed by many that it longs for or even embodies chapter one.) (4) The structure of Religious Life at Duke up until 2007 reflected a blend of chapters one and two. The assumption was broadly that Duke Chapel would look after chapter one and give the campus ministries space to live in chapter two – that is, pursue an agenda of religious diversity and social justice. This structure needed adjusting if it was to flourish in chapter three.

The report said bluntly that chapter one is doomed and Duke Chapel does not mourn its passing – hard as this was for many people (Christians, those of other faiths, and those of no faith, on and off campus) to understand. But it was also important to say that chapter two was also past or passing. Chapter one was good for higher education in that it gave it purpose and coherence, but it impoverished higher education in that it excluded the majority of the population from any serious engagement with its endeavors and benefits. Chapter two was good for higher education in that it brought into the conversation many who should have been integral to it all along, but its legacy was an ambivalence about institutional development and an inarticulacy about final purposes. Chapter one and chapter two meanwhile share a tendency to make the church invisible because they make it subservient to other causes such as the dominance of social elites, America, or the movement for social justice. Thus I perceived the task for Duke Chapel was first to make it clear that there is a chapter three, that we were in it, like it or not, that we should like it because it was good for the University, good for Christianity and good for other faith traditions, and that it need not be and should not seek to be threatening or oppressive to those of no faith; and second to model and embody what leadership of Religious Life meant in chapter three and to communicate that vision to all who have an interest or a role in its future.

The articulation of this story and this vision won over those who had taken my initial diffidence about exercising interreligious leadership as a sign of indifference, superiority, or hostility. I had learned that unless I actively sought to display chapter three I would be assumed to represent and pine for chapter one. I needed to give a clear indication of the constructive implications of chapter three and that turned out to be an explicit and sustained advocacy for a university-funded Muslim chaplain. This advocacy succeeded not only in releasing funding and bringing about an outstanding appointment, but in convincing others that I was serious about the interfaith agenda – that I saw active, dynamic interfaith conversations as strengthening Christianity in particular and no doubt religious life in general.

The other key recommendation of the report was the creation of a faith council, made up largely of current members of the Religious Life staff but configured to meet the global, rather than the local, religious ecology. The council first met in July 2007 with the following membership: one Jew, one (African American) Muslim, one evangelical and one mainline Protestant, one Catholic, one Buddhist, one interfaith representative (as a liaison with the corresponding undergraduate group), plus the Director of Religious Life and me. Since then the group has added one Hindu, a second (Turkish Sunni) Muslim, and a coordinator who happens to come from the Radical Reformation Protestant tradition. All members came by personal invitation, except in the case of the evangelical and mainline Protestants. The evangelical campus ministers and their mainline counterparts were respectively invited to meet in conclave and each group selected a representative from among their number.

The Historical and Social Context

What was the purpose of such a council? I sought to set this question on a broad canvas. This is the language I used to describe the possibility of a faith council to its potential members.

Religion in America

There are two broad strands in American religious history, which run parallel to each other like two rails on a railroad track. One is the desire for America to be a uniquely Christian country. One irony of American history is the way so many people came to these shores having fled persecution in seventeenth century Europe – only to reproduce here the kinds of social constraints they had escaped at home. Somehow the desire to establish America as a place of unique virtue and unique piety has frequently turned into a form of administrative or legislative coercion that has ended up giving Christianity a bad name.

The second strand is the desire for America to be a uniquely free country, where religion could not be controlled by the state, and therefore a thousand flowers could bloom. This seems to be the aspiration of the 1787 Constitution, particularly its First Amendment. For many, it was assumed that “religion” meant Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity – but the logic means that any movement, with or without deep and global historical roots, calling itself a religion, had free access to the market square. For a great many, perhaps most, immigrants to America, the greatest aspiration was to be allowed to practice their faith in peace. These conditions have fostered a remarkable religious diversity in America, but have not furnished many constructive models of how these faiths might relate to one another.

Religious Life at Duke

Religious Life at Duke inherits these two aspects of American history and culture. The architecture of Duke’s West Campus seems to follow the logic of the first strand, while the ethos of the university seems to assume the culture of the second. The fact that the 25 different religious life ministries at Duke are convened under the authority of Duke Chapel may look like an embodiment of the first strand, but the freedom with which each is permitted to operate emerges out of the assumptions of the second.

My aspiration for Religious Life at Duke is that it should not be confined by the limitations of each of these strands. Taking what’s best in the first, it should recognize its location in a research university and relish conversation about meaning and truth. Taking what’s best in the second, it should accept that such a conversation must always have an open outcome, that diversity is a source of enrichment, that being surrounded by people different from oneself deepens one’s experience of one’s own tradition as well as offering wisdom from theirs.

The Significance of a Faith Council

Religious Life in a community like Duke University is always practiced in the context of twin misperceptions. One misperception is that religion is irrelevant. In a secular world, the only valid roles for religion seem to be as a form of therapy, as a motivational force for personal restraint or social improvement, or as a guarantee of quasi-ethnic loyalty. It is thus hard to imagine criteria by which any one religion might be more worthy of endorsement than any other. Another misperception is that religion is inherently dangerous. Since the European wars of religion 400 years ago the opinion has become widespread that if you leave people of faith alone together for any length of time they’ll kill each other. Contemporary religious practice gives a disturbing degree of validity to such misperceptions.

In such a context religious leaders must take active steps to show that they are pursuing truth and meaning in such a way that may often be unsettling but will never be violent. While the Faith Council may accrue some administrative responsibilities, I don’t see it as primarily a decision-making body. I see it as an environment in which people can sit down together with texts and practices and stories that are central to one another’s sense of purpose and meaning and truth. As I look around the university, this country, and indeed the world, this is a conversation I don’t see happening very much. I see traditions studying their own texts, which is well and good. I see leaders being brought together to show solidarity in the face of crisis, which is certainly better than nothing and sometimes requires great courage. And I see a request from some quarters for interfaith worship, something that seems hard to understand if one doesn’t know enough of other traditions to know whether they all mean the same thing by a word such as “worship.”

I am not aware that such a conversation is happening very much on university campuses. There are broadly four models at work: (1) A Religious Life staff that is considerably smaller than that at Duke, with no institutional attempt to break out of the Protestant stranglehold; (2) An interfaith council that restricts its deliberations to administrative issues; (3) An undergraduate interfaith project (4) A sprawling Religious Life staff as at Duke that is healthy in terms of facilitating relationships but is too large to be a decision-making body and unwieldy as a forum for genuine dialogue. Meanwhile in other institutions the only model I am aware of that may inspire our Faith Council is the Scriptural Reasoning Network associated particularly with Peter Ochs at the University of Virginia and David Ford at the University of Cambridge: but this is limited to the Abrahamic faiths. So our Faith Council promises to be quite a new departure.

If the Faith Council can over time come to model how different people from very different traditions may come together to talk about truth in a way that enriches each one of them, it will truly be a gift to this university and a blessing to a great many of its members.

Initially I imagined the Duke Faith Council would be a significant administrative body, with appropriate decision-making and implementation powers, including many of those hitherto carried out by the Director of Religious Life. But few people seemed to like the idea of handing over the role of an individual to a committee. And the more I reflected the more I gained confidence that the real work of the faith council was to reflect deeply on the heart of one another’s traditions of faith, especially as reflected in sacred texts and their interpretations. So from its beginning the council has spent 90 minutes at each meeting doing exactly that, preceded by 30 minutes of social food sharing and 30 minutes of business items.

I first became aware of Scriptural Reasoning when I was invited to attend some sessions of an international group meeting in Cambridge in 2003. Initially I saw the process in human terms: here are a bunch of academics looking for an outlet for their devotional commitments within a context that respected academic training and the diversity of a university who yet wanted to harness the dynamics of friendship and the creative tension of religious difference. It felt like looking in on a gathering of an extended family – for better and for worse. However when I reflected on the experience later, I realized that I had never been in a room with people of other faiths where the particularity of our faith differences was so valued and honoured and enjoyed. What had elsewhere been seen as a problem was here relished and cherished and explored and made into the subject of deliberate creative play. Scriptural Reasoning seemed to offer a way of enriching faiths through their interaction, rather than diminishing each to avoid causing offence. And at the same time there was the feeling of liberation one gets in a relationship where finally you are finding permission to talk about the things that really matter between you.

The Aims and Objectives of the Duke Faith Council

Quickly a document emerged that described the Faith Council’s purpose and modus operandi . It went as follows.


The purpose of the Faith Council at Duke is to foster and model profound conversations across faith traditions in order to deepen participants’ practice of their own faith, understanding of other faiths, and relationships across religious and cultural divides, and to facilitate such conversations within the university and beyond.


A. To meet together

  1. To meet at least eight times per year in the context of sharing food.
  2. To consider in the course of a year significant topical and perennial global and campus issues such as human rights, war, immigration, alcohol, sexuality, the natural environment, poverty and so on.
  3. To adopt a spirit of humility and good humor, seeking not to elide particularities but to anticipate reasoned disagreement, and to exhibit a general willingness to be deepened by one’s growing understanding of one’s own tradition as well as others’.

B. To foster models of engagement in the midst of diversity and disagreement

  1. To make available the methods and spirit of the conversations to other members of the university – including the (largely undergraduate) interfaith dialogue project, the Religious Life Staff, and other groups on campus concerned with conversations across social and cultural divides, through newsletters, joint events and sponsored programming.
  2. To network with similar initiatives on other university campuses and in the Triangle region [the region between the cities of Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh].
  3. To organize and subsidize student interfaith pilgrimages to places of religious diversity and significance around the world.

C. To offer a program of significant public events

  1. To plan and to deliver a program of major interfaith events, considering both issues emerging from within religious traditions and international issues on which faith, ethnicity and culture have a significant bearing.
  2. To support in appropriate ways programming that dovetails with the aims of the Faith Council.

D. To offer inter-religious leadership

  1. To share with the Dean of the Chapel and the Director of Religious Life in exercising leadership of Religious Life at Duke – to plan and deliver programs, join in discernment over administrative policies, and respond to issues and emergencies.
  2. To be sensitive to constituencies not directly represented on the Faith Council and to promote and publicize their events and interests wherever possible.

I am happy to say that, over its first two years of existence, the Duke Faith Council has remained focused on its aim and addressed all ten of its objectives. It may be helpful to elaborate a little on that self-congratulatory statement.

The idea of the Faith Council so excited a very generous donor that it elicited sufficient funding to enable the hiring of a half-time coordinator, the financing of the now annual major interfaith dialogue event, the subsidizing of the annual interfaith student pilgrimage, and a number of smaller items such as the provision of food at meetings and the offering of honoraria to members of the council who are not on the university payroll. These enhancements have made a crucial difference. Indeed, without the commitment of this donor the Faith Council would have been nothing like as active and dynamic as it has been. It has meant that Faith Council events and gatherings are not just another item on the calendar, a duty to fulfil alongside competing deadlines, commitments and responsibilities. Because the lunch is tasty, the visiting speakers well known, the visibility high, and the honorarium significant, the participants step up by being highly focused, happy to take on extra responsibilities, and prepared to represent the council to other bodies. The council quickly established four sub-committees – a curriculum committee to decide what happens in meetings, a programming committee to plan the annual event and promote smaller opportunities, a trips committee to plan pilgrimages, and a standing committee to handle matters of strategy, networking and finance.

Meeting the Aims and Objectives

The council’s aim, as stated above, speaks of three stages of activity and three motivations for those activities. The three stages of activity are as follows. There is the fostering of profound conversations. This means creating a culture where such conversations are valued. One might think that it went without saying that a research university was already such a culture. But most campus ministers think of themselves as practitioners and explicitly not as academics. And few academics talk in a sustained way with one another, in particular with those outside their field with whom they disagree. Sitting and talking seriously for 90 minutes uninterrupted about God and truth and revelation with a dozen non-like-minded people is simply outside almost everybody’s experience. Fostering profound conversations is therefore no idle pastime, and needs permission, patience, encouragement, practice, reward, and reassurance. The next stage is modelling. These conversations simply have to happen, and as participants become more used to them the group develops its own habits, methods and rules. Gradually we realized together that this was a kind of interaction we were not being exposed to elsewhere, even within our own traditions, and in many cases never had been exposed to elsewhere. Just to have met and done this together a number of times may not seem amazing, but was something to be celebrated, and was already potentially a model to others, as the invitation to write this article indicates. And the third stage is facilitating such conversations within the university and beyond. The key point here is that the participants need to regard these conversations as primarily an end in themselves, and only secondarily as a means to an end. If others want to participate or imitate, it is because they are curious and perhaps a little jealous that these people seem to be having such an enriching experience. Nonetheless the group needs to avoid being shy about what it has already learned in its first two years of meeting and be prepared to nudge, cajole, encourage, and provoke others to establish similar kinds of groups and lines of interaction. Conversations have already begun about starting a similar group for clergy in Durham to that which meets on campus, for example.

The three motivations for such activity, according to the council’s aim, are “to deepen participants’ practice of their own faith, understanding of other faiths, and relationships across religious and cultural divides.” The sequence is deliberate. The first motivation should be to deepen participants’ practice of their own faith. Perceiving resonances and dissonances with Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism gives me a better understanding of what the claims and demands of my own faith are, and what their significance is in relation to those who not only do not accept those claims and demands but accept other ones. At the very least it makes me a better witness to people of other faiths to know better how my words and actions are likely to be received. The second motivation concerns understanding. Originally I had imagined the Faith Council would have a good deal of business to discuss. The fourth group of objectives noted above recognizes this intention. But it was only when we gave ourselves permission to stay close to the educational heart of the university that we began to have the space to listen deeply to each other’s differences and complexities. And the third motivation is to make relationships. While the relationships have proved very useful – for example when there have been Muslim-Jewish tensions over events in Gaza – again the relationships are primarily an end in themselves rather than a means to an end.

Turning to the objectives, the first group of objectives are simply about meeting together as a council. Over the first two years we have discussed a range of topics. These have included marriage, food, the state, violence, science, dress, ethics, and the non-human creation. We gave over whole meetings to specific issues such as the Muslim document A Common Word Between Us and You and the fallout from the widespread distribution of the DVD Obsession, which likened Islamic terrorism to Nazi genocide. When our Hindu representative came onto the council, a year after the council started, we paused for a couple of sessions so that the rest of the members could gain an understanding of the breadth of Hinduism and where our new member fit within that breadth. The council has managed to meet around ten times a year. These meetings have been different from religious life staff meetings because we discuss texts; but different also from scriptural reasoning sessions because they have not been limited to Abrahamic texts and participants. When Peter Ochs visited the council towards the end of its first year he spoke of three kinds of reasoning. Textual reasoning sees the text as the face of a tradition and seeks to enter that tradition through the text. Comparative textual reasoning is similar but works on the often unspoken assumption that one tradition at a time is inviting the others in and that that tradition governs the discussion until the next tradition is visited. Scriptural Reasoning requires an introduction from an expert on each text but derives its primary spark from staying in the present tense and enjoying the truth that emerges from the juxtaposition of and difference between the texts. It requires more of a “suspended withholding of belief” that for a given period strives to treat all the texts on the table as revelation. In these terms the faith council began with textual reasoning but with the influx of new members has increasingly been doing comparative textual reasoning.

Why is this? In retrospect I realize I gave mixed messages to the council at its inception. I had always been keen to push the members toward more of a Scriptural Reasoning approach. But I found it hard to explain this approach in the abstract. And initially the intention was that the council would also have a significant administrative role. Once the council had taken shape it was clear to me I should not chair it (it has so far been chaired by the rabbi), and I have tried not to exercise disproportionate influence over curriculum content and approach. Having non-Abrahamic members in the room diversified the notion of “scripture” somewhat. For all these reasons it has seemed best to let the group find its own most appropriate level of discourse. After all, it has never been an experiment in Scriptural Reasoning, but rather an attempt by the 12 members to listen deeply to their own and one another’s traditions and sources of revelation.

In relation to the second group of objectives, much has already been said above. The most significant element here has been the instigation of interfaith pilgrimages, the first of which was to Jerusalem and the second of which is about to depart (as I write) to Turkey. These have around 12-15 undergraduate participants and 4-5 leaders. There was already, before the inception of the Faith Council, an undergraduate interfaith dialogue project. Members of this project have made up the majority of the pilgrims. The Jerusalem pilgrimage had a profound effect on the participants, who came from Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Baha’i, Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Several integrated their energies into subsequent curricular initiatives. The surfacing of significant disagreements and the emergence of a level of respect that went beyond tolerance but stayed well short of agreement was a major aspect of the pilgrimage.

In relation to the third group of objectives, we are about to host our third major inter-religious dialogue event. The first concerned peace in Israel/Palestine, the second was entitled “What can Faiths Learn from One Another?”, and the third will be a dialogue across five major faith traditions on the ecological crisis. These have been extraordinarily well attended, with upwards of 300 present. In addition there have been panel discussions on issues such as “What is spirituality?” and “May we ever be called to kill?” which have also attracted a lot of interest from across faith traditions.


What have we learned over these first two years? I shall simply name three insights in relation to process, and leave the enrichment of the content (our discoveries about our own and others’ faiths) unspoken.

The most important features of the dialogue – its concentration on texts, its emphasis on highlighting difference and disagreement, its reluctance to be hastily drawn into joint projects or social action – have been the most demanding. They have needed regular permission, encouragement, reaffirmation, reiteration. Each is countercultural to the way religious life has been convened at Duke and elsewhere. It has taken time for participants to regard a meeting where there were no decisions to be made, no actions to be implemented, and no agenda to be completed as “work.” And so it has proved harder work than most work, because we are not used to it. The most engaging way of doing so has been over a special meal, such as a Shabbat meal at the rabbi’s house. Here texts come alive in the context of ritual and conviviality.

The goodwill and trust ensuing from the Chapel (as institution) seeming to disperse power and advocate on behalf of causes from which it derived no direct benefit has gone way beyond expectations. The Faith Council and the Muslim chaplain have become visible signs of a different era in which Christianity (particularly in its mainline Protestant form) is not clinging to hegemony for as long as it can, but relishing its place within a lively conversation. In this era generosity and patient attention are the qualities most likely to elicit respect. The image of the Chapel is gradually becoming that of a body of people enjoying being transformed by conversations, encounters and relationships.

The depth of the commitment required and the intimacy of the groupings entailed carries one major risk: that the process may come to be associated with exclusion rather than openness, with closed doors and private meetings rather than camaraderie and welcome. It is hard to know how to avoid this danger. I cannot say we have entirely steered clear of it.

I trust this account is a hopeful rendering of what has thus far been an engaging and demanding, but nonetheless enjoyable and hugely encouraging process. I am blessed to have generous, big-hearted and enthusiastic colleagues. And I look forward to the many more fruits these encounters may bring.