For the first three weeks of July, emerging Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith leaders from around the world converged in an English country estate outside of Cambridge for the Cambridge Interfaith Programme (CIP) Summer School. Although we had many goals and activities, one of our main objectives was to receive training in the method of "scriptural reasoning" (SR) so that we could take it back home and apply it within our own communities. Before the program, I had limited exposure to the approach and was under the impression that SR was yet another way to explore similarities between religious traditions.
I soon discovered that SR provides much more than a tool for superficial engagement. Each weekday of our program, right after breakfast, we began with an hour and a half of SR in smaller groups. What does SR entail? In my group, we first learned about the need to learn to be gracious hosts of our own scriptures and to invite people from other traditions to engage our scriptures as respectful guests. At the very beginning of each SR session, one of the participants would offer a plain sense meaning of a passage, with its basic background and, if necessary, historical context. This person must be a host from the tradition of the text at hand. Being a host means that we must learn how to allow others to interpret our texts for themselves and to find meaning for themselves instead of imposing our interpretations onto our guests. Being a host means that we can offer background information, but allow our guests to explore the scriptures without dismissing their reflections.
In addition to being generous hosts, we must also be respectful guests, aware that we are entering into a scripture that is considered sacred by our hosts. One should be sensitive to the fact that Jews, Christians and Muslims have differing perspectives on the nature of interpretation and the sacredness of their scriptures. Nevertheless, it is important to engage with the scriptures and not hesitate to dive in. Jews and Christians usually have no problems engaging with each other's texts, but when it comes to the Quran, they tend to be more reluctant to get involved, mainly out of lack of familiarity and fear of offending their Muslim friends. With a little encouragement over several sessions that help people get to know each other better, they can begin to feel more comfortable in other people's texts and involve themselves in other scriptures more fully.
Our facilitators at CIP were graduates of and graduate students at the University of Virginia, the epicenter of SR, where it came to fruition under the guidance of Professor Peter Ochs. The other center of SR, started by Professor David Ford and others, is at the Faculty of Theology at the University of Cambridge. For nearly 20 years, participants in SR have been honing the method and guidelines and continue to meet on a regular basis at the American Academy of Religion and at the Scriptural Reasoning in the University annual conference. SR offers a method of interfaith engagement that is a work in progress. Each group of people meeting to practice SR needs to tweak and personalize the approach to fit their specific context. The facilitators' job is to ensure that participants are staying on task and sticking to the text, rather than veering off on interesting, but unrelated topics.
So why is SR different from other methods of interfaith engagement? I would say that it provides a stepping-stone for building deeper relationships and understanding between people of different traditions. Combined with other approaches, it can be an effective tool in bringing together groups of people over a period of time who can grow in trust and comfort. When they witness the diversity that lies within each tradition, it helps them overcome their perceptions that other traditions are monolithic. Based on my own experience, SR provides people of faith with insight into their own and others' scriptures. Watching Jews and Christians debate and disagree among themselves about their interpretations of their respective scriptures offered me insight into the nuances of people's approach to their own scriptures. They can also learn more about their own traditions and grow closer to their scriptures.
One important rule about SR is that we must acknowledge that we can only represent ourselves, and not all members of our religious tradition. In SR, we are allowed to speak from only the personal perspective, avoiding references to what "the tradition" says about specific passages. It seems unnatural at first, but after trying it out, it makes much more sense. We cannot claim authority for an entire tradition, and we must recognize that our own understanding of our tradition is tinted by our individual upbringing, environment, education and so on. SR can be particularly challenging for academics who usually speak from a scholarly perspective, but they can also learn a new way to deal with scriptures that differs from how they might study those texts in an academic context.
SR can be liberating, because it's about the participant and the text. SR's goal is not to encourage participants to derive legal rulings or ultimatums in their religious practices and beliefs, but to help people draw out personal meanings from their scriptures and to make the text their own. SR does not discredit the treasured legacy of exegetical literature, but allows participants to approach their scriptures from a different direction, one that emboldens them to seek out a direct relationship with the sacred scriptures. Before SR, I personally felt limited in my dealings with the Quran: Whenever I wanted to understand a passage, I would look up its exegesis in various classical Islamic sources and would compare them until I would find one that satisfied my inquisitiveness, and leave it at that.
With SR, I have felt more empowered within my own tradition. I could actually contemplate my personal interpretations of my sacred texts alongside the centuries of Islamic tradition. I found a way to claim it as my own and engage intimately with the Quran, giving it a more prominent place in my life.
SR can be a very effective interfaith method used on its own or in conjunction with other activities, such as interfaith community service projects and educational sessions. Rather than encourage people to focus on similarities, SR helps people learn how to live with differences and how to engage in civil disagreement. Although SR starts in a bubble where relatively open-minded people come together, each person involved in SR can share what they learn with friends and family. Slowly but surely, it has the potential to cause ripples in our society and to contribute to the development of a more pluralistic society that values difference.