By Arnold, Kenneth
Cross Currents , Vol. 52, No. 1
James Ishmael Ford is the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Newton (Massachusetts). He is also the resident teacher (sensei) for the Henry David Thoreau Zen Sangha and Spring Hill Sangha (Somerville, Massachusetts), which together form the Zen Community of Boston. I interviewed him during a visit to a potential location for extended retreats for the community: a Swedenborgian center located on Cape Cod Bay in Duxbury, Massachusetts. We talked as we drove and during lunch. The combination of religious traditions -- Episcopalian interviewer of Buddhist Unitarian on a visit to a Swedenborgian retreat center -- was quintessential Cross-Currents. Add to that mix the fact that the interviewer is also one of Ford's Zen students and the possibilities for subtext increase geometrically
Kenneth Arnold: Can we start with a little background on your own beginnings in terms of your spiritual tradition?
James Ishmael Ford: I was born in Oakland, California, in 1948 and raised in a family that was essentially fundamentalist Baptist. The center of our family was my maternal grandmother, Bolene Bernard, and she was a spirit-filled woman who guided us toward whatever churches we would attend and determined how long we would stay in them. She was deeply important in my life. I think probably the first thing that I got from her as a perspective on spirituality was that in our community there was an absolute rift between Christians and Catholics. In fact, I recall seeing a film at church one Sunday afternoon that showed how Catholics of course were not Christians and there was inevitably going to be a conflict with them. There was also some connection the film explored between Catholicism and Communism and, I'm sure, international banking. But Grandmother said that Catholics could be saved. And that small proto- universalism was a wedge for me in my own spiritual quest, that I did not have to be completely constrai ned by the rather deeply defined faith of origin. When I was sixteen I began to have serious doubts and by the time I was seventeen I decided I was an atheist.
KA: That went quickly.
JIF: Yeah, it was quick. It was not that unusual for my family. The women and children were religious and the men were drunks.
KA: So you jettisoned not only Southern Baptist but Christianity as a whole.
JIF: Right. Although I find it interesting that I chose atheism instead of agnosticism, agnosticism being the reasonable response to the information that we have accessible to us.
KA: In fact, you not only rejected Christianity but all theistic traditions.
JIF: I think what I did was I made an impassioned assertion from which to begin. Not long after I was reading the British expatriate crowd, particularly Aldous Huxley. I loved his novels of manners and read most of them. And through him I discovered Gerald Herd and Christopher Isherwood. Through it all I kept coming back to Vedanta and Ramakrishna and that kind of high end nineteenth and twentieth-century Hinduism.
KA: Did you follow that in some way?
JIF: I read in it. I was raised in the Bay Area where there was a Vedanta Society Center in Berkeley and I attended worship services there once. I found most of those in attendance were elderly women, probably primarily Theosophists, or at least they came to Vedanta by way of that. This is retrospective analysis. At eighteen or nineteen all I knew was they were not doing what I was interested in. The swami was extraordinarily boring and the service was only slightly different from protestant form. They had pews. I quickly lost interest in practical pursuit of Vedanta and began looking around at other options.
KA: It's interesting that having declared yourself an atheist you were still looking at options or for some kind of spiritual tradition.
JIF: Yes, I was always a religious fanatic, always deeply involved in one way or the other. …