08/05/2010 09:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Scriptural Reasoning: A Student Movement for Interfaith Understanding

Scriptural Reasoning, a technique developed at Cambridge University and the University of Virginia, is known as much for its peer-reviewed journal as for its august participants. But it is on the verge of going mainstream, shaking up the way we understand each other's scriptures and taking root on college campuses around the country.

Approximately twenty Scriptural Reasoning (SR) groups exist across North America and the United Kingdom. But that number is likely to balloon as college chaplains take SR to their campuses. Two leading scholars of SR, Peter Ochs, Edgar Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies at the University of Virginia, and Homayra Ziad, Assistant Professor of Religion at Trinity College, brought the technique to the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Chaplains (NACUC) this past spring, where it was warmly received. Their goal was to share the methods of SR to ignite a movement among chaplains and, ultimately, colleges and universities.

Now, with the school year approaching, a number of chaplains have followed up with plans to start SR groups on their campuses as a way to enhance inter-religious engagement more broadly. Paul Sorrentino, Director of Religious Life at Amherst College and organizer of this year's NACUC conference, plans to do just that, noting, "I believe it is both respectful of the texts and of the people of different faiths who study them."

But what exactly is SR? According to a recent article by Peter Ochs and Homayra Ziad,

Scriptural Reasoning is the communal reading of sacred scriptures in small groups -- opening our sacred texts to others for conversation from the heart, and modeling a fellowship that sees difference as rich and illuminating. As a process, SR is relationship, through the medium of sacred texts.

Unlike other ways to study Scripture, SR tries to downplay the use of formal commentaries from a given tradition in order to give all participants, irrespective of religion, an even footing in discussions.

SR gatherings often take place around a given theme -- whether the notion of study, hospitality, or the Divine -- and a text from each tradition is carefully selected to illustrate that theme. Sessions are often informal, likely to take place around a coffee table or in a community center. Ziad and Ochs emphasize the simplicity of arranging an SR group:

The elements of SR practice are simple. Minimally, there is a table and three chairs. On the table are small translated excerpts from the three Abrahamic scriptural canons: Tanakh, New Testament, and the Qur'an. After some introduction to the scriptural passages and their plain sense, participants read the passages aloud and then question one another about puzzling or surprising features of each verse, sometimes each word in a verse. They note grammatical constructions, changes in tone, or shifts in the narrative structure. While participants may bring in observations from other textual or extra-textual sources, conversation is always brought back to the texts at hand. The texts are the anchor.

If the participants belong to any of the three scriptural traditions of reading and worship, each invites members of the other two traditions to read each canon as it were "their own." While a facilitator is present to help discussion move along, no one acts as an authority on the meanings of any of the canons, and no one assumes knowledge of how people from another tradition, or from their home tradition(s), will interpret a particular passage. At the same time, participants are welcome to speak explicitly from a faith perspective, while recognizing that theirs is only one of many interpretations of the passage in question. No one speaks too much or too little, but all share their wonderments and ideas about what a passage may mean, and each listens to the other. No sincere lines of reading and discussion are excluded

SR probably sounds easy enough, but why, you might ask, would any college student want to participate in a group rather than, say, attend a sports event, hang out with friends, go to a party, or -- heaven forbid -- do their homework?

As a recent college graduate, I think that the answer may be straightforward: students yearn for a place to openly discuss their beliefs. At largely secular campuses, many are hungry to talk about their religious or philosophical outlooks and can at times feel stymied. SR provides a means of self-exploration. It is as potent a tool for introspection as it is for inter-religious engagement.

Scriptural Reasoning may have started off in the intimate circles of great scholars, but it is on the cusp of becoming a dynamic force for study and interchange about Scripture on campus.