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Leaving the disagreements on the table

27 January 2017

Scriptural reasoning avoids the trap of pretending that all religious traditions are the same, says Ben Quash


Probing: Professor David Ford takes part in a scriptural-reasoning session

Probing: Professor David Ford takes part in a scriptural-reasoning session

THE question how best to engage in interfaith relations has been thrown into sharp focus in recent weeks, after reports that a passage from the Qur’an was read during an Epi­phany eucharist at St Mary’s Cath­edral, Glasgow (News, 13 January).

The episode raised an over­arching question: how do Christians develop friendships with people of other faiths, which are characterised by mutual respect and understand­ing, while at the same time holding unequivocally to their religious convictions?

Many participants in interfaith conversations, from many different religious backgrounds, often fall into the same trap: they assume that, in the end, all religious tradi­tions point the same way, and that the more enlightened strains of those traditions have supposedly developed the sophistication (or the humility) to see it.

As Stephen Prothero wrote in his book God is Not One (HarperOne, 2010), this is a “lovely sentiment”. It is also, however, a sort of wishful thinking motivated by moral repug­nance at the “exclusivist missionary view that only you and your kind will make it to heaven or Paradise”, and by a desire to end religiously motivated violence.

But we cannot afford to stay curled up in such comforting fic­tions, Prothero says; it is “time we climbed out of the rabbit hole and back to reality”. Pretending that the great religions “make up one big, happy family” makes the world a more dangerous place by blinding us to their deep differences and disagreements.


NEARLY 20 years before the publication of Prothero’s book, a small group of scholars in the United States and the UK — originally Jews and Christians, joined soon afterwards by Muslims — began to design their own map for escaping the rabbit hole.

Aware that the universalising claims of the “all-religions-are-the-same” school were, like all universal claims, basically concepts or projec­tions, they developed an alternative approach by beginning with prac­tice.

The practice was centred on the study of scriptural texts from the different traditions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, in small groups, incorporating members of all three traditions. Its nearest model as a practice was the rabbinic practice of chevrutah. In a time of joint study across or around a table, the texts are read aloud, pored over, sifted, probed, and challenged. In this process, the people reading the texts together also find that they are being sifted, probed, and challenged.

Ideas are proposed and tested in relation to the texts, and are argued for and against by the participants. Risks are taken as interpretations are offered. Shared norms some­times emerge and sometimes do not. But, in both cases, the partici­pants are exposed to a greater awareness of their own presupposi­tions. Everyone simultaneously plays the part of teacher and learner. The texts are a sort of “host” for the overall dialogue.

This was the origin of the prac­tice that is now widely known as scriptural reasoning (SR), and, 25 years later, it is being practised all over the world. The Rose Castle Foundation, which is now being established in the former home of the Bishops of Carlisle (News, 28 October), will become the hub of SR activity in the UK, taking over some of the pioneering work that has been accomplished by the Cam­bridge Inter-faith Programme.

As well as in the US and the UK, SR groups have convened (and in many cases meet regularly) in Ireland, Australia, Sweden, South Africa, China, Egypt, Germany, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Kenya, and Indonesia. Other religious traditions, including Hinduism and Confucianism, have come to the SR “table” when oppor­tunities have arisen.

SR has extended well beyond the parameters of academia: it has been developed for use in police forces, schools, prisons, and businesses. SR sessions have been profiled on the major US television network PBS; SR practice has informed some of the more innovative social thought of the so-called “Blue Labour” movement of Lord Glasman; and SR now plays a key part in the Senior Faith Leadership Programme run from St George’s, Windsor.

Perhaps most remarkably, SR has been pioneered in the health-care sector in Israel, where, in three hospitals, SR seminars are now a mandatory part of medical and nursing studies. Arab-Israeli Chris­tians and Muslims meet and study texts together with Jews, in a way that connects repair of the individ­ual body with repair of the social body: repair of the relations whose metaphorical health or ill-health can literally wound, maim, and kill people.


THE power of SR is partly that it meets Prothero’s challenge to face facts. Like Prothero, SR practition­ers are opposed to the fiction that the differences between religious traditions are all fundamentally inessential (because “essentially they all agree”). But precisely because it is a practice, SR goes further in its response to the truth of religious difference than to say “learn more about each other”.

It models an activity in which religionists of different beliefs and traditions collaborate in fostering reparative relationships with each other and the wider world, without having to water down their distinct­ive convictions. They do it in a mode that is, in different ways, “native” to each of them, because it is centred on the prayerful reading of texts that are variously held to be revealed by God. They undertake the activity coram Deo, before the face of God.

Having begun as a practice, and not a theory, participants in SR have nevertheless reflected over time on what they have learned from doing it. Some profoundly important the­oretical insights have emerged.

One of the key problems that SR exposes as needing urgent repair is a philosophical one, and is encoun­tered at a level beneath the one that Prothero diagnoses. It is the binary logic that governs most modern Western thinking — and not only its thinking about religion.

According to this dominant logic, there can be no mediation between x and not-x. You cannot like and not-like something at the same time (although we have all probably had just such mixed reactions on occasion). Something cannot be true and not-true at the same time.

In the realm of textual inter­pretation, this modern logic prefers Ferdinand de Saussure’s exclusive focus on (1) sign and (2) signified to C. S. Peirce’s indefinitely extendable interest in (1) sign, (2) referent, and (3) context of interpretation. In the latter’s terms, an interpretation that this refers to that is always under­taken by someone (or several some­ones) at a point in history, and for some reason.

This is a three-value (or poten­tially, multi-value) way of reasoning towards truth, not a two-value way. For a two-value (binary) logic, religious interpretations that differ are assumed to be contradictory; for a three-value logic, they might well be incommensurable, but in a way that does not need to be absolutised or eternalised. Instead, the differ­ences can be “left on the table” as a site of encounter and exchange.

This approach does not need to be relativistic inasmuch as its users can unequivocally affirm the abso­lute authority of their scriptures as divine revelation. (This has been crucial for SR’s ability to draw not only liberal, but also conservative religionists into the practice.)

But it is not the same thing to say that a body of scripture has absolute revealed authority, as it is to say that every interpretation of it has been monovalently prescribed in advance, in and with the given authoritative text. Good interpreta­tions need to be searched for, and found again and again in each new context. Surprising friends may emerge as we search; some of these friends may be not our co-religionists, but those of other faith traditions.

Hence the image of the idea of “hearth-to-hearth” encounter advanced by one of SR’s founders, the Jewish scholar Peter Ochs. Modern logics tend to insist that the only solutions to religious difference are to assimilate or to eliminate. The “all-religions-are-the-same” school (the assimilationists) has as its mirror image the intolerance of the New Atheists (eliminationists). Mean­while, religious extremists who cannot abide any alternative to their one true path embody an all-too-modern logic, too, in which incommensurables are mistaken for contradictories.

SR does not want everyone under the same roof. Its practitioners do not want to “kill” those who dis­agree with them, nor “marry” them (becoming “one” with them). They do want to befriend them, and, in practice, they have learned that it can be done. The world needs such friendships urgently.


The Revd Dr Ben Quash is Pro­fessor of Christianity and the Arts at King’s College, London. www.scripturalreasoning.org www.rosecastle.foundation www.interfaith.cam.ac.uk

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