God and Tony Blair

The  course explores the extent and causes of religious resurgence, the situations in which religion has proven an oppressive force and when it has been positive, and, according to the syllabus, "the conditions under which robust religious allegiances can constructively be employed in the pluralistic environments of an increasingly interconnected world." Blair's foundation developed the course in concert with the Divinity School, which has been working hard in recent years on Muslim-Christian reconciliation; and the School of Management, which brought a case-study approach that grounds the discussions in real events, such as the work religious groups did to bring about debt relief for African nations. (The course, offered jointly by the two schools, is open to their students and to graduate and college students.)

Blair's approach to teaching is primarily to pose questions: why do people still have such strong religious faith? How do we remove ignorance that breeds the fear that in turn breeds conflict? How do we ensure that faiths act in pursuit of critical goals in the world today? In his first class, he wondered aloud whether faith can reshape the competition for resources that globalization brings. If globalization is value-free, he said, "the danger is that it is essentially a competitive process decided by power, so those people who have the power will get the resources. Is it possible for religious faith to be a part -- not an exclusive part -- of providing a value system that brings notions of equity and justice and fairness into this otherwise strong but often impersonal process of globalization?"

Rather than pacing or orating, Blair tends to sit behind his desk, often looking down at the floor as he speaks. He's routinely self-deprecating. Qadhi, who is working toward a PhD in Islamic studies, asked Blair his first question -- one of the hardest questions in interfaith work: "How can we make people genuinely love and care about one another when they believe that [a] person who is outside their faith tradition is outside of God's grace?"

"That's a great question," Blair said. "Um, I wish I knew the answer."

Everyone laughed.

Blair went on to say that the class should explore the nature of exclusionary faith. He suggested that he wants to use polling to study the degree to which such beliefs are truly exclusionary, as well as "whether there are areas in which you can start to see some way that people can come together. My own view is that people actually can find a way through that -- if they want to."


Blair says he hopes the course will yield a template for similar courses at other institutions, and he has made a three-year teaching commitment to Yale. (Yale pays $200,000 per annum, through the Howland Fellowship, for Blair to teach 5 of the 13 sessions of the class; the money goes directly to the Faith Foundation, a Yale spokeswoman said.) For some, the arrangement begs the question, don't discussions about good and evil come free at a place like Yale?

"It seems like an incredible waste of Yale's money to pay Blair to say something this anodyne," says Peter Mandler, a fellow in modern British history at Gonville and Caius College at the University of Cambridge. "Obviously, Yale thinks it's very good publicity to attract great men. There is a level of celebrity culture at universities, too." (Many universities in fact pursued Blair after he resigned. Yale may have had an inside track because Blair's son, Euan, completed a master's in international relations here in 2008.)

But some of Blair's students say his earnestness and occasional fumbling have made him more approachable, and they seem to have few qualms about challenging him. "I think it's important that he is teaching this way," says Kraja. "It makes us feel like we have something to contribute."

The son of a Tory who was a "militant atheist," Blair began to explore Christianity while at Oxford in the early 1970s, during late-night nicotine-fueled group talks led by a charismatic Australian Anglican priest and student in his 30s named Peter Thompson. Blair became an Anglican in 1974. In her memoir, his wife, Cherie Blair, writes that long discussions about God and the purpose of life brought her and Blair together, and that "religion was more important to him than anyone I had ever met outside the priesthood."

Blair reads the Koran regularly and the Bible every night. One of his favorite Bible passages is the parable of the faithful servant in the Gospel of Luke, the story of the man who works hard for his master -- God -- even while He is away. One verse reads: "From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded."