Tonight (15th March), Professor David Ford gave a public lecture at Swansea University on “The Future of Christian Theology”. Here is the vote of thanks I gave.
In a shop in JFK, returning from visiting my mum last October, I bought a book by a guy named Nicholas Carr called The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Read, Think and Remember. The book addresses the question: What can the science of neuroplasticity – which studies the capacity of the brain to change and adapt – what can it tell us about the effects that internet use is having on the way our minds work? Answer: “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” (Which might explain that sermon you heard last Sunday!)
I thought of this disturbing observation – and its alarming implications – as I anticipated tonight’s lecture. I’ve been intellectually stalking Professor Ford for 25 years (not least due to a mutual infatuation with Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer), and I suspected that a leitmotif of his work – the theme of wisdom – might feature in his reflections on “The Future of Christian Theology”. As the hegemony of IT becomes more and more pervasive – and with it our reading, thinking, and learning more “cursory”, “distracted”, and “superficial”, what hope for wisdom? For the pilgrimage of wisdom requires attentiveness and concentration, time and patience, breadth and depth, yet these are precisely the intellectual virtues that are under threat. So I take what Professor Ford has shared with us tonight with a quite prophetic urgency. It resonates with me in three ways.
First, we live in an age characterised by what has been called “presentism”, and what knowledge we have of the past is largely distorted by either nostalgia or pragmatism. Professor Ford calls the church to listen to the dead, to have conversations with “the communion of saints”. As William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It is not even past.”
Second, we live in an age characterised by bewildering complexity and seemingly insoluble problems that tempt Christians, in a mistaken attempt at self-preservation, to circle the wagons. Professor Ford calls the church to a daring, confident, unapologetic engagement with the world, yet not to defend our own space, but rather, in conversation with other cultures and faiths – especially Judaism and Islam – and with the secular too, to explore and repair our broken, weeping world, making friends and finding blessing in unexpected places.
And third, we live in an age characterised by cacophony and cliché, and I’m not just talking tabloid culture, I’m talking Christian culture too, which can range from the underwhelmingly banal to outright guff and humbug. Moreover, it’s not just what we say, it’s the way we say it – it’s our tone – which can range from the whinging, to the sanctimonious, to – the last fortnight – the hectoring and hysterical, none of it pretty. Professor Ford calls the church to rigorous, courteous, interrogative, imaginative, yet accessible, thought and expression. And joyful – above all, joyful. You can see the affinity with Barth!
Finally, however, I suspect that Professor Ford might agree with Bonhoeffer that there are times when the church must recognise that its words have lost their power, that it must wait and pray for an over-whelming that will inspire new ways to speak of God – as the poet and close friend of Professor Ford, Micheal O’Siadhail, puts it: for a “trip of surprises. / Gratuitous, beyond our fathom, both binding and freeing, / this love re-invades us, shifts the boundaries of our being.”
But for now, a poor prosaic thank-you to Professor Ford will have to do, for his timely, important, and probing yet hopeful lecture. There’s another Ford in the news today: it’s the 40th birthday of the Francis Ford Coppola classic The Godfather. We’re all glad that Nigel made this model Ford an offer he couldn’t refuse.