03/03/2011 01:37 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Read My Sacred Texts as if They Were Your Own

This post was originally published on the State of Formation.

In an earlier post for State of Formation, I offered a reflection on the types of inter-religious encounters that, although often well intentioned, tend to be reductive and ultimately unhelpful in the development of inter-religious dialogue. This does not mean I have given up on the such dialogue, on the contrary I believe it is one of the most important endeavors of our time.

Many years ago I had a friend who thought Christian faith did not have much to do with other religions. For this friend, the main activity of Christians involved telling or demonstrating to the world, all the world, that the saving love of God was available to them through Jesus Christ. Recently, after many years, we met at a coffee shop to catch up and share life stories. My friend had moved on from working in a big successful main-line church and had become involved with international development projects.

After settling into our comfy cafe chairs, my friend said, "Kelly, you were right. Interfaith relationships are a matter of life and death. They really do matter."

There's a photo that illustrates this point perhaps better than any words written in a blog. In it, a chain made up of Christians protects Muslim protesters in the midst of prayer in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Life and death decisions. Muslims deciding to pray in the midst of protest -- a decisive sign of vulnerability and faith. And Christians, commanded by Jesus to "go and do likewise" as had done the Good Samaritan, protect the vulnerable by guarding them with their own bodies.

Likewise, Muslims protect Christians: "The fact that only a few weeks after the Alexandria attack, Egyptian Copts could hold public prayers in the streets of Cairo, in an overwhelmingly Muslim crowd of protesters, protected by ranks of volunteers from the Muslim Brotherhood at the entrances to the square, may indicate a shift in the atmosphere in Egypt."

What does it look like for those of us on this side of the world, not in the midst of revolution fraught with the possibly of dangerous religious strife, to make life and death decisions about inter-religious dialogue and relationships? What sort of risks should we take even if protecting each other with our bodies might not seem like an option here in the United States? One of many possible answers to these questions includes the practice of "Scriptural Reasoning" (SR).

Scriptural Reasoning was first established as a method for shared scriptural study among a small group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars of religion -- scholars of scripture, of the traditions of scriptural interpretation, of theology and of philosophy. These scholars have tended to work in small groups of about 20 members, meeting together several times and year and joining together both for study, discussion and for various writing projects.

Working out of universities and seminaries, scholars of Scriptural Reasoning have shared their methods of study with students and colleagues, with religious leaders in neighboring cities, and with members of local congregations and some peace groups. Through such contact, more public forms of scriptural reasoning study have appeared, including student study circles in the Abrahamic traditions, circles of religious leaders and teachers and circles of congregants. The SR scholars also established groups, like the Children of Abraham Institute, to foster grass-roots study circles among members of the Abrahamic traditions and communities.

Scriptural Reasoning requires at least three chairs, three scriptural texts and one table. The primary assumption in this context is that each tradition is particular. Instead of assuming similarities, the goal is simply to create a space of dialogue around what some might consider the highest sign of particularity between religious faiths -- scripture. Perhaps out of dialogue comes discoveries of analogous beliefs or understandings between traditions, but primarily what comes out of the interaction are relationships, new understanding of one another and of the particularity of our own particular traditions. This act of forming relationships, of debate and dialogue is in itself a sign of peace and love in practice. This of course does not replace all other forms of inter-religious dialogue. Instead it adds to the various initiatives at inter-religious dialogue an episodic (monthly, annual, etc.) and temporary (two hours, day-long, etc.) meeting space where those shaped by a tradition can open a temporary space of hospitable, respectful and mutual learning through dialogue.

This may seem pretty tame compared to guarding people with our bodies, but I believe sharing our sacred texts through respectful dialogue is more radical than one might first suppose. It requires entering a vulnerable space, in which all are open to listening to the other even if it means hearing your sacred text interpreted from the point of view of another faith tradition. This type of dialogue disrupts hegemonic tendencies; it allows for those who have been entrenched in their own tradition to see their sacred text from the point of view of another -- without insisting on one dogmatic interpretation of meaning.

For those of my fellow Christians out there who doubt the efficacy of a non-proselytizing form of scripture-sharing consider part of this excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew: "...if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?" Jesus pushes his disciples to love even their enemies and those that persecute them. I would say in our context, one in which Christians are more likely to persecute and less likely to be persecuted, we are called to radically know the other and invite the other tell us how they see us through their eyes. God commands: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Let us build up courage to protect each other with our bodies by doing what God commands and learning from what Egyptian protesters practice. Let us invite and accept the invitation to read each others' sacred texts together.

This type of dialogue, although simple in form, requires certified training in order to be termed "Scriptural Reasoning." If you are interested in holding a training session in your community or university, you may leave a note in the comments below or find information through the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning Forum.

A version of this post originally appeared on State of Formation, "a forum for up-and-coming religious thinkers to draw upon the learning that is occurring in their academic and community work, reflect on the pressing questions of a religiously pluralistic society, and challenge existing religious definitions."