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Cambridge Interfaith Programme


Making Deep Reasonings Public

Dr. Nicholas Adams
Senior Lecturer in Theology and Ethics
University of Edinburgh

[Chapter in The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning (Blackwell 2006)]


This essay makes six claims about the practice of scriptural reasoning. Scriptural reasoning does not try to ground its own possibility. It approaches metaphysics as an account of what is taken to be true, not as a means to demonstrate necessary truths. It relies on luck. It models a practice of learning traditions’ languages. It promotes friendship above consensus and agreement. It is a practice of making deep reasonings public. In summary, scriptural reasoning is reparative reasoning which addresses the acute needs of today’s society while seeming to refuse certain imperatives that often accompany the academy’s approach to those needs.

This essay will make six claims. These claims arise from reflection upon the practices of scriptural reasoning, in which members of different religious traditions meet together for study of their sacred texts. First, scriptural reasoning does not try to ground its own possibility. Its attempts at theory (such as this essay) are not attempts to explain how it is possible, but more modestly and usefully to describe its practices in an ordered way. Second, scriptural reasoning approaches metaphysics as an account of what is taken to be true, not as a means to demonstrate necessary truths. Third, scriptural reasoning relies on the luck of the moment. It is not minutely planned, executed and policed, but opens itself to surprising possibilities which are not prepared in advance. Fourth, scriptural reasoning models a practice of learning traditions’ languages. Fifth, scriptural reasoning values and promotes friendship above consensus and agreement. Sixth, scriptural reasoning is a practice of making deep reasonings public. I will conclude that scriptural reasoning is a kind of reparative reasoning which addresses some of the acute needs of today’s society while seeming to refuse certain imperatives that often accompany the academy’s approach to such needs.

First, the question of grounding. One of the goals of rationalist philosophy has been to explain the grounds of thinking; that is, not only to acknowledge that thinking has grounds but to specify those grounds and even to demonstrate that they are necessary. This goal is not restricted to thinking in any narrow sense, but extends to any enterprise including problems in moral theory. For example, one of the most pressing problems in contemporary moral discourse is how mutual understanding is possible between members of significantly different traditions. This question matters because without mutual understanding there can be no real conversation let alone argument, and without argument there can be no agreement. Agreements are necessary for the establishment of, and more importantly the legitimacy of, laws. The characteristic rationalist response to this problem has been to try to explain the grounds of understanding. This means not only acknowledging that understanding has grounds of some kind, but specifying them and grasping them fully by means of theory. The legacy of German Idealism makes itself felt strongly here in any speech about ‘reason’ or ‘rationality’. One can claim, for example, that there is a universal reason that underlies and unifies all the various forms or rationalities that different cultures express. The rationalist quest then becomes that of cataloguing these various forms and discovering the universal reason that underlies them. Alternatively one can claim that all reasoning is grounded in tradition. The rationalist quest then becomes that of cataloguing the various traditioned reasonings displayed by different cultures and discovering the ground of tradition that unifies them. The problem with these quests is that they fail. Despite enquiries by some of the most impressive minds of the last two hundred years, there is no convincing account of universal reason or a satisfactory ‘theory’ of traditioned reasoning. The characteristic response to these problems has been either to shift to a mode of enquiry that hypothesises about grounds, rather than discovering them (as one sees in the work of Jürgen Habermas) or to give up on the notion of grounds (as one sees in a good deal of postmodern anti-theory). Thinkers who give up on the notion of grounds tend to use concepts like ‘incommensurability’ when dealing with philosophical topics such as ‘forms of life’ (Wittgenstein) or ‘lifeworld’ (Husserl). It is possible to form sentences such as ‘our culture and your culture embody different forms of life, and these are incommensurable; therefore there can be no real argumentation between us’. Admittedly there are tangles involved in the use of a term like ‘incommensurable’, whose focal meaning is found in the philosophy of science, and ‘form of life’, whose focal meaning is found in discussions of language. But perhaps all that is intended in this kind of claim is the idea that different forms of life have different basic assumptions, and that proper argumentation requires shared basic assumptions at least at some level. These tangles become more severe if one moves away from a notion of basic assumptions, which sounds like a list of propositions, towards more nuanced accounts of rival narratives. One now might say that different cultures teach the art of judgement through different narratives and formations of identity, and that because we have no access to a master narrative that unifies these differences, members of traditions can only rehearse their own narratives in turn, perhaps listening charitably to each other, but never entering into argument. In such an account the public square or public sphere (or whichever geometrical shape one chooses) is a space where participants stand merely waiting their turn to speak, and having spoken, can do no more.

This is not the place to try to diagnose the intricate problems associated both with searches for a unifying reason nor post-modern contentments with successions of narratives. My own view is that because understanding between members of different cultures actually happens, there must be something that grounds this understanding. However, for the same reason that thinking cannot grasp the grounds of thinking, it is fruitless to try to specify this ground or conceptualise it in theory beyond the bare claim that there must be a ground of some kind. This is a lesson learned from the philosophies of Schelling and Schleiermacher as explained by the British philosopher Andrew Bowie, and for reasons of space these will not be rehearsed here.1 Such a line of argument can be developed to indicate an agreement both with the German Idealists who claim that there is a unity of reason, and with French thinkers like Foucault who claim that any attempt to specify this unity is indistinguishable from a ruse of domination, because to grasp the unity that underlies all diversity is to be able to ‘place’ all opponents and dissenters. Instead of attempting such diagnosis, I wish merely to draw attention to the empirical claim in this chain of reasoning: understanding between members of different traditions actually happens.

Scriptural reasoning is a practice which displays examples of such understanding. In the study of scriptural texts from three traditions (Jewish, Muslim, Christian) participants come to the table with different narratives, different philosophical practices, different presuppositions, and even different scriptures. In the course of study there are disagreements and agreements over a wide range of issues, from the plain sense of the text to the practical implications of certain interpretations. It is possible that this claim is false, and that what one actually has are only apparent arguments, and that in fact one has merely a succession of narratives which may or may not be consonant with each other on certain issues. Adjudicating this question is a difficult matter which will not be pursued here, but if it is seriously doubted that there is understanding and argument between members of different traditions in scriptural reasoning, this matter will need to be properly researched. For now I wish to claim, without defending the claim, that there is understanding and argument between participants in the context of scriptural reasoning.

Scriptural reasoning is a practice which can be theorised, not a theory which can be put into practice. More accurately, it is a variety of practices whose interrelations can be theorised to an extent, but not in any strong sense of fully explanatory theory. Those who practise scriptural reasoning tend to be aware of this, and of its philosophical implications. If one of the problems in (some) modern philosophy is the quest for, rather than the acknowledgement of, grounds then scriptural reasoning exemplifies an attempt to repair this problem. It is possible to describe scriptural reasoning in a way that is content to acknowledge that there must be a ‘unity of reason’ or a ‘ground of being’ or ‘condition for understanding’ without requiring the further step of specifying that unity, ground or condition, or attributing necessity to any philosophical findings. Scriptural reasoning is a practice which invites theoretical description, because it is so interesting, but however sophisticated such theoretical description becomes it will never amount to the ‘grounding’ of scriptural reasoning. Rather, one can be satisfied with the ‘fact’ of scriptural reasoning, and only subsequently attempt to make sense of it.

Before leaving this question, it is possible to indicate some rival claims that might be made about the practice. It might be claimed on the rationalist side that there are, in fact, certain specifiable grounds that render understanding possible. These include common philosophical apprenticeships, common traditional practices and common theological commitments. It is only these instances of ‘overlapping consensus’ which render understanding possible in scriptural reasoning, and without them it would fail. On the post-modern side it might be claimed that the claim of understanding is illusory, and is itself a ruse of domination. It suits (some) participants in scriptural reasoning to describe their discussions as occasions for understanding and argument, but this is in fact because misunderstandings and radical differences of view are routinely ignored. I take the view that anyone who believes they grasp the grounds of understanding is in error; this does not preclude the use of such an error as a ruse of domination, nor does it rule out tradition-specific speculations (as opposed to rationalist ‘graspings’) about what the ground might be.

Second, the question of metaphysics. In contemporary discussion there is some confusion about the meaning of ‘metaphysics’ or ‘the metaphysical’. On the one hand metaphysics concerns the nexus of background narratives and commitments that structure our knowing. This includes our sense of the order, or the whole, of things, as well as specific items of dogma. We can call this ‘taking-as-true’ metaphysics, and it is associated with concepts like Jacobi’s Fürwahrhalten, Peirce’s A-reasonings or Husserl’s lifeworld. On the other hand metaphysics is associated with a rationalist project of securing our knowing through intuition or demonstration of some kind. It is associated with claims that certain truths are ‘self-evident’ or some variant. In the light of the previous discussion, we might call this ‘grounding’ metaphysics, and it is associated with Descartes’ intuitions, Spinoza’s geometrical method or Fichte’s attempt to discover the necessary grounds of subjectivity. These two kinds of approach to metaphysics are distinguished in this little taxonomy, but it is quite common for particular chains of reasoning to mix them up. For example one might proclaim a commitment to ‘taking-as-true’ thinking, with a corresponding rejection of rationalist projects, while at the same time claiming authority for one’s own intuitions. Perhaps this arises because ‘grounding’ metaphysics often dithers between appealing to intuitions or demonstrations, as in Descartes’ Meditations where the thinker intuits the meaning of ‘God’, but seeks to demonstrate the existence of the thinking ‘I’. Descartes is in error because what he seemingly intuits is in fact an inherited part of his tradition, and what he seemingly demonstrates is in fact presupposed.

Scriptural reasoning practises an emphatic ‘taking-as-true’ metaphysics, and tries to cure itself of any tendencies towards ‘grounding’ metaphysics. It treats intuitions and demonstrations as useful and informative claims, but never as guarantees. What one takes as true is indeed metaphysical in the sense that it structures and informs one’s knowing: there is no getting around it. This does not make it a guarantee of the truth of one’s claims. To acknowledge that one takes something as true is to renounce guarantees or self-evidence. What, then, is the status of a ‘something’ that one takes to be true? There is room for argument over this. One can call it a ‘basic assumption’ or a ‘fundamental narrative’, as I did in the previous section. One can even call it an hypothesis. The latter is especially intriguing as it implies that it might be tested in various ways. Whatever the status one gives it, one cannot avoid taking things as true. Whether any particular something must unavoidably be taken to be true by everyone is an interesting question; what seems clear that some something must be taken to be true by someone if there are to be any claims, and any chains of reasoning, at all.

Scriptural reasoning is practised by members of different traditions, and that means that its participants take different things to be true. What, then, is the status of the other’s metaphysics? If one calls it a ‘basic assumption’ or a ‘fundamental narrative’ this works quite well. It is an act of courtesy to acknowledge another’s different takings-as-true, which are very likely incompatible with one’s own. If one calls it an hypothesis then interesting things happen, because such things are, at least in principle, open to being tested in various ways. One can test coherence or comprehensiveness. Even more strikingly, one can test implications: what kinds of practice seem to follow from such takings-as-true?

Treating takings-to-be-true as hypotheses may seem counter-intuitive. After all, basic beliefs are things that people live by and die for. It seems strange to suggest that someone might live by and die for an hypothesis. What is intended here, however, is a useful contrast between hypothesis and guarantee. There may be a better contrast for getting at the different kinds of status that takings-as-true hold. Many Christians would claim to live by faith, rather than by hypotheses or guarantees, and this suggests that the contrast between the latter two kinds of thing may need revising if it is to be of use in discussions involving members of religious traditions, at least those involving Christians. The main point here is twofold, and does not depend on such revision: for scriptural reasoning, another’s takings-as-true are openly acknowledged as different and one’s own intuitions or demonstrations are neither self-evident, nor do they count as guarantees. This means that members of different traditions may discuss and learn from each other’s chains of reasoning that follow from these takings-as-true, and without putting an end to dialogue in advance because one ‘knows’ that such discussion is futile. Admittedly, discussion of such chains of reasoning would be banal if they invariably went their different ways, with each tradition pursuing its own isolated arguments. One of the interesting features of scriptural reasoning are the surprising convergences and divergences that appear between and within traditions in response to the sacred texts being studied: they do not invariably go their separate ways. Although this ‘fact’ throws into doubt certain kinds of talk about incommensurability, we must leave this issue to one side. It may merit further research.

The kind of metaphysical model one holds arguably influences, strongly, the quality of argument and discussion between participants who have different takings-as-true. Treating intuitions and demonstrations as useful tools, but not as self-confirming guarantees, enables all kinds of surprising discovery which might otherwise seem ruled out in advance. It is now worth wondering a little about the kinds of surprise to which scriptural reasoning is open.

Third, the luck of the moment. A strong quest for grounding, which I have said is typical of some forms of modern philosophy, is sometimes intended to serve a model where theoretically secured results can be put into practice. In the case of scriptural reasoning, one can imagine that this might take the form of an attempt to discover the conditions for the practice and then to seek to establish and enforce these conditions in order to maximise the efficiency of its success. One would not even have to be committed to a strong quest for grounding for this to take place. One could have a more relaxed philosophical programme at the same time as a more urgent intent to commodify the practice. Here, one would merely need to notice which conditions for scriptural reasoning tend to yield the most effective results, through trial and error, and then establish and enforce these conditions in a way that successfully promotes the offered ‘product’. My second claim is that the rationalisation of scriptural reasoning has not followed this course. It is true that over time, it has become possible to notice which conditions for scriptural reasoning tend to promote the best practices. By best practices I mean the most fruitful discussions, the deepest and most generative engagements with the scriptural texts and the most profound occasions for learning from each other about participants’ traditions of reasoning. It is also true that there is a ‘Handbook of Scriptural Reasoning’ and even ‘rules’ of scriptural reasoning produced by members who have authority within the groups who practise scriptural reasoning. It might look as though the worries that scriptural reasoning conceals its practices of domination are groundless: it seems to display these dominations all too clearly!

Interestingly, scriptural reasoning does not exhibit the desire to control behaviours and commodify its practices. One of the features of scriptural reasoning that makes it interesting is the constant surprises that it holds, even for experienced participants. The most fruitful discussions and most generative interpretations of scripture are not necessarily those that occur when most attention has been paid to arranging the optimum conditions. Texts in a tradition which members of that same tradition might view as over-interpreted, or just plain obvious in their meaning, often generate extraordinarily rich discussions and elicit deep insights into more than one tradition. Perhaps it is to be expected that investigating what one takes to be obvious is likely to yield telling information about those for whom something is obvious, but it is nonetheless surprising how generative and not simply informative these investigations prove to be, and often for all those involved in discussion. By generative I mean practices which invite further discussion, and which yield further insights into the text and its possible range of uses to address practical problems. The important point is that the choice of text is not something that needs to be forced in order to promote success.

Choosing texts for scriptural reasoning is in fact something that is not as controlled as one might anticipate, and this is a useful illustration of scriptural reasoning’s general openness to luck. The choice of texts is often delegated to a small group, sometimes as small as two or three persons. Their task is to select two or three texts from each tradition, i.e. from Qur’an, Tanakh (usually Torah), New Testament, which broadly relate to a topic for investigation, such as hospitality, leadership, debt, prophecy and so on. Once these texts are selected, the selection may be discussed briefly with others to check that important texts have not been omitted from consideration. The selection may be revised. The final selection is then presented to the study group or groups. The process is relatively informal and it is rare for there to be strong disagreement about which texts should be studied. In a situation where there is a desire to dominate discussion, one would expect there to be strong bids for control over the selection of texts, given the ways in which such initial decisions might shape discussion. What one actually sees in scriptural reasoning is a willingness to take responsibility for ensuring that proper consideration of the available texts takes place in advance, but not a desire to forbid or insist on the discussion of certain texts. This is seen not only in the initial stages of choosing texts, which as I have said is relatively informal, but also in the actual study itself. It is open to any study group to decide which texts to study together, and for how long. It is thus possible for a group to devote a full 90 minute session to one short text of three or four lines, or to consider three or four texts which each extends to many verses. No one person or small elite determines in advance how this is to happen: all participants seem willing to see what will happen as the discussion unfolds.

Scriptural reasoning shows itself shaped more by luck than planning. There certainly is planning, but not the kind of planning that seeks control over outcomes. More precisely, the outcomes that planning serves are very general: the best practices I referred to earlier, such as deep and generative interpretations of texts which yield insights into texts, persons and traditions. A concrete example of what scriptural reasoning does not do may illuminate this further. It would be possible to plan a study session on land and dispossession, with a view to getting members of different traditions together in order to promote peace and mutual understanding between those whose traditions are currently making rival bids for occupancy of the same geographical spaces. It would be possible to choose the texts very carefully, perhaps ruling out the potentially most inflammatory texts. It would be possible to choose the groups very carefully, perhaps ensuring that particular, potentially inflammatory encounters were prevented. It would be possible to have the groups led by experienced and charismatic persons with a clear idea of the outcome of the study session, and who might guide discussion if it seemed to depart from the charted course. It would be possible to do all these things, but they would be wild and innovative departures from the normal practices of scriptural reasoning. There might be an occasion when it might be judged appropriate to restrict the range of possible outcomes in this way, but it would be very much against the spirit of openness to luck and surprises which scriptural reasoning exhibits. In some ways, the more anxious one might be about the possible outcomes of scriptural reasoning, the more insistent one might have to be that openness to luck and surprises is vital to scriptural reasoning. Choosing ‘dangerous’ texts is not to be undertaken lightly, and arranging groups in which there is a real possibility of enmity between participants surely needs to be given responsible prior consideration, but if it is anxiety that closes down possibilities in advance, then it is probably very bad scriptural reasoning.

This openness to luck is a possible candidate for a piece of shared theology: shared between all three traditions that currently engage in scriptural reasoning. More recent vocabularies of randomness and accompanying technologies of control, in relation to weather or crowd control, are at some remove from vocabularies of surprise and accompanying techniques of patience and hope. Surprises can be both welcome and unwelcome, and hopes can surely be disappointed. Randomness, on the other hand, is meaningless, whether it brings good things or ill; and control is not so much disappointed as successful or unsuccessful. To be open to luck in the study of scripture is to give up control in favour of patience and hope, and to view outcomes not as the result of random factors but as the endless flow of surprises made possible by... by what ever makes such surprises possible (texts? persons? relations? God?). How precisely one might specify this possibly shared theology is a question I do not propose to investigate here. It is enough, for the time being, to note that there is a shared openness to luck, and that this shapes the quality of discussion in scriptural reasoning. There is one final point to be made about openness to luck. To establish control in the face of anxiety is to indicate a desire to establish a priority of the past over the future. Anxiety codes the future negatively, as an uncontrollable realm of threat and possible disaster. Control codes the soon-to-be-past positively, as a realm of preparation and enforced security. The future is thus not encouraged truly to be the future, but is to some extent determined by the past, and becomes merely the continuation of what is already the case. The more this nexus of anxiety and control determines one’s practices, the more the past will be a site of enforcement and violence, and the more the future will be simply more of the past. Such a model presupposes a strong and narrow doctrine of efficient causality, where forces work upon objects, and the only variations are unforeseen or random intrusions into the operation of causality. Scriptural reasoning practises a different relation of the past and future, and a different model of causality. To be open to surprises is to deny that the past causes the future in a strong sense. To describe something as a surprise is precisely to deny a narrow conception of causality. In some ways surprises are descriptions of events that give the future priority over the past. It is not merely that ‘we did not see it coming’, but that there was nothing to see until it came. With respect to a politically sensitive practice like scriptural reasoning, where the histories of the three traditions have each other’s blood on their hands, and bones underfoot, this is a significant matter. If there are surprises then the past is allowed to be the past, but it cannot wholly cause the future. There may be surprises in the future that have not been prepared by events in the past but which occur as it were uncaused, unanticipated, unlooked-for. Friendship is made possible not only by repairing the past, if that is even possible, but by being open to the future. A past that is viewed from a perspective of surprising friendship is in some sense a different past from one viewed from enduring enmity. I do not wish in this context too hastily to make a connection between openness to surprises and eschatology, because the histories of eschatological vision in the three Abrahamic traditions are significantly different from one another. The openness to surprises in each of the traditions seems by contrast quite similar to one another. Historians rarely study the future. It seems to me that scriptural reasoning is, in a strange way, one of a number of religious practices which makes this study possible.

Fourth, the question of learning languages. Languages can mean all sorts of things in the context of scriptural reasoning. At the most obvious level, it means the original languages in which the texts were written and transmitted: Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, together with the languages of their commentaries, such as Latin. But it can also mean the patterns of usage, shapes of thinking, ways of describing and judging. One learns the languages of other traditions not with the goal of inhabiting them but in order to hear the deep reasonings in what others are saying. These deep reasonings concern things like kinship rules, eating practices, poetry, folk songs and the languages of elusive desire. The joy of learning another language is the discovery of these things, expressed in fascinatingly unfamiliar ways. Particular languages house histories of wisdom. For members of two different traditions to understand each other on a particular point, they might attempt converse in a third language that is native to neither. That will work, at least to a degree. But if they wish to understand each other’s histories of wisdom, they must learn the other’s language. Our children are sometimes, regrettably, taught in school that learning other languages is useful because they will be able to close a sale more rapidly if they speak the target language. Again, that will work. But we need to teach them that learning other languages makes possible the forming of friendships within which one learns each other’s histories of wisdom. We might also acknowledge the inherent beauty of learning languages: it is a good with its own integrity.

Scriptural reasoning is less about the transmission of information contained in texts and more about the establishment and deepening of relations between persons with respect to texts. Learning languages, in the thick sense outlined here, is a central part of that enterprise. No particular approach to learning these thick languages need claim a monopoly. What are needed are excellent models for learning languages. If one looks at the techniques employed in educational institutions, one sees quite proper concerns with grammar and literature and with spending time in the culture about which one is learning. In the case of the three Abrahamic religions, however, it is not enough to learn the grammar of a language and read its literature. It is not enough for students of Islam to learn Arabic and read the Qur’an, although these are necessary. In order to hear the deeper reasonings of Islamic life one needs to hear the interpretation of Qur’an. But even this is not yet relational: it would be sufficient to read a book of interpretation such as a commentary, or perhaps hear a lecture. In order to establish relations between persons with respect to texts, one needs practices which enable multiple interpretations, tested against one another, in contexts in which there is a flow of conversation and argumentation. But even this way of putting things gets things backward. I only make this claim because I am already familiar with scriptural reasoning, which in fact performs these practices, and it is probably unnecessary to abstract from this in order to articulate a need which scriptural reasoning seemingly just happens to address. Perhaps it is simpler just to make the claim that establishing relations between persons with respect to texts is a good model for learning languages: the nuts and bolts of grammars and texts and the thicker, deeper reasonings embodied in a language’s traditions. There may be any number of such good models. I wish to claim that scriptural reasoning is one of them.

To substantiate this claim, or at least make a start, it is worth drawing attention to some of the things that occur in scriptural reasoning study. The typical study is oriented to at least one text in each of the three Abrahamic traditions. There is also typically at least one person from each of the traditions. There are thus typically at least three texts and three persons engaged in study. If scriptural reasoning were a teaching environment one would expect the Jewish scholar to expound the Hebrew, the Christian to expound the Greek and the Muslim to expound the Arabic texts. It might be a question of proceeding person by person, text by text, perhaps with questions for clarification. But that is not quite what happens in scriptural reasoning. It is not necessary that a participant introduce her tradition’s text. It so happens that discussions have been found to be fruitful if she does, and this is surely not surprising, but it is nonetheless neither necessary nor insisted upon. Instead of the one-by-one procession of speakers, the group will choose to focus on one of the texts, and all participants will engage in its interpretation, generally beginning with the plain sense, and usually with an expert in the language clarifying points where translations are being used, which is almost always. (Few individual participants in scriptural reasoning have a deep triple mastery of Hebrew, Greek and Arabic.) Once the plain sense has been satisfactorily established, or its obscurities deemed to have been satisfactorily identified, understanding this to mean satisfactory for the time being, the discussion moves on to questions concerning how the text might be interpreted to address particular situations either in the past or in the present. In the case of the topic of debt, for example, the questions raised at the time the texts were produced are both different and similar to the questions one might raise today about the relation between misfortune, slavery and God’s will for God’s people. How one interprets prohibitions on charging interest, the status of strangers vis à vis family members, the permissible levels of destitution one may tolerate before taking remedial action and so forth have not ceased to be relevant in the twenty-first century. In interpretive discussions of this kind, the relations of expertise and intellectual authority are interestingly mixed. Some may have a deep knowledge of how a text has been interpreted, others may have a thorough grounding in the range of meanings associated with particular words and concepts, and others still may have a wide- ranging grasp of comparative economics. It is thus a most interesting kind of learning environment.

Scriptural reasoning is not merely an occasion for forms of expertise to be displayed, but an opportunity for relations to be formed and deepened.2 This kind of insight tends to be couched rather reluctantly in some educational climates. To speak of relations between teachers and pupils, lecturers and students, tends in many people’s minds to suggest first and foremost improper relations involving abuses of power and transgressions of social boundaries. This is a remarkable and damaging phenomenon. It is true that there are few betrayals more serious than breaches of trust and distortions of authority in education. Yet it is also true that the reason why these betrayals are serious is that these relations matter. In the university where I work in Scotland, it is increasingly normal for staff to direct students to specialised welfare provision, rather than for staff to take personal responsibility for a student’s welfare. This specialised welfare provision is made possible by skilled and dedicated staff, but the division of labour between ‘education’ and ‘welfare’ ensures that those who hold responsibility for welfare have no prior relationship with students in need, and no reason or occasion to continue any relationship established when the student is no longer in need. The split between education and welfare permits and testifies to a further split between information and relations. It is badly one-sided to say that today’s education is about information rather than relations, but it should be a source of worry that our class sizes are growing as institutions expand, at least in Britain. In the case of the study of religions this is a disaster. To study a different religious tradition is not merely the acquisition of information about that tradition, viewed as an object for inspection. Religions are ‘living traditions’ not only in the sense that they endure and change over time, but in the sense that they are embodied in communities of persons. To get to know a tradition is to get to know those who embody and transmit that tradition. The educational question is how to model best practice in these complex forms of getting to know – connaître and kennen rather than savoir and wissen. Scriptural reasoning offers an excellent model because of the ways its practices foster the formation and deepening of relations between persons with respect to texts. A split between information and relations makes little sense in scriptural reasoning, as one’s goal is the whole complex of operations involved in learning another’s deep languages of tradition, and not simply the acquisition of a commodity like information. Similarly, the best use of information in scriptural reasoning is its being directed to the purpose of deepening the study of the text: it is not instrumentalised beyond that.

Fifth, friendship rather than agreement. This talk of relations has tilted the discussion away from an impersonal description of learning toward the ways in which participants interact with each other. This raises further questions about what the goals of scriptural reasoning are. The aim of scriptural reasoning is to study texts as deeply and as wisely as possible. It is not the aim of scriptural reasoning to generate agreement between members of different traditions. This is somewhat surprising. Most forms of inter-religious dialogue place an appropriately high value on consensus and agreement. Very often the problem in the world which motivates a particular inter-religious dialogue requires consensus or agreement in order for the problem to be addressed satisfactorily. For example, it may be that one needs to decide what the content of the study of religions should be for thirteen year old pupils in schools. One might arrange a forum for inter- religious dialogue in order to come to an agreement about how best to decide this kind of question. Scriptural reasoning is not opposed to consensus and agreement but these are not its goal. Scriptural reasoning values friendship above consensus.

Friendship is a difficult category to use well in discussions of study. It is tempting to think of friendship as a private matter. Friends are those we welcome into our homes late at night, accompany on adventures (even minor adventures like shopping), invite to weddings. We do not necessarily study with our friends; we study with colleagues. Colleagues have the tact to leave our homes before it gets late, and we generally see them at funerals rather than weddings. With this kind of taxonomy it is very difficult to produce a good account of more public kinds of friendship, and it is significant that in the Christian tradition such discussions struggle badly with the narrowness of English and often seek to recover Greek distinctions between eros, philia and agape. A language closer to that of Quakers is perhaps needed to grasp more public and unsentimental forms and descriptions of friendship. Scriptural reasoning displays the characteristic of a society of friends, in the public sense. It fosters friendships of an unsentimental kind between participants, and if for some it has been accompanied by adventures, meeting late at night in people’s homes and going to weddings, this is not primarily because it has generated private friendships but because it has called into question the privacy of certain kinds of religious practices. The problem with friendship is in some ways the same as the problem with religious life in the contemporary world: both have come to be described as private matters.

The friendship promoted by the practices of scriptural reasoning is just as little private as the religious life those practices presuppose and knowledge of which they seek to deepen. This has implications for the role of consensus and agreement within scriptural reasoning. Because the goal of scriptural reasoning is the study of texts, which I have glossed as the formation and deepening of relations between persons with respect to texts, its success is not tied in any strong way to the generation of consensus or agreement. The ‘chevruta’ study sessions (and chevruta just means a group of friends) are often most fascinating, and sometimes hilarious, when disagreements persist. I do not mean the kinds of disagreement that rest on incompatible basic assumptions or rival narratives, although these are appropriately common too. I mean the deep disagreements that arise over how best to interpret a text in the context of the contemporary problems that motivate the study of that text. Two kinds of disagreement seem to me worthy of note. The first is when disagreements between members of the same tradition are voiced in the company of members of other traditions. There needs to be a significant level of trust between participants before it is safe for Muslims to voice their internal disagreements in the presence of their fellow Jews or Christians. ‘In house’ disagreements are normally shielded from public scrutiny except in times of crisis. Scriptural reasoning has as one of its goals the establishment of such trust. It is thus quite common for disagreements between members of the same tradition to erupt strongly during scriptural reasoning, and I take this to be both a sign of a kind of friendship between members of different traditions which is tacitly acknowledged, and a sign that agreement is not the motor of scriptural reasoning. The second is when disagreements between members of different traditions are voiced in an open and serious way. Disagreements between members of different traditions are the normal state of play in the public sphere: it is what one expects, given the different histories, languages and practices embodied in those traditions. It is, however, a rather different kind of disagreement that arises in scriptural reasoning, because these differences are not at the level of ‘cultural diversity’ but differences of interpretation over sacred texts. These kinds of disagreement are of different types. It is possible for a Christian to disagree with a Muslim over how to interpret a passage in the Qur’an, or for a Jew to disagree with a Christian over how to interpret a passage in the Torah, or for a Muslim to disagree with a Jew over how to interpret a passage in the New Testament. In the first case, the Christian is dealing with a text that is not authoritative for her, but which is authoritative for the Muslim. In the second case, the Jew is dealing the a text that is authoritative for both him and the Christian. In the third case, both the Muslim and the Jew are dealing with a text that is authoritative for neither. These different kinds of relation to authority generate different kinds and qualities of disagreement. One might suggest that the handling of disagreements is one of the important ways participants in scriptural reasoning establish and acknowledge friendships. In a context which aims at consensus, disagreement is a problem to be overcome. In a context which values friendship, disagreement is a gift to be treasured. Scriptural reasoning is a practice that sometimes treasures disagreement as a gift.

Sixth, making deep reasonings public. By deep reasonings I mean histories of interpretation of scripture and histories of their application to particular problems in particular times and places. Deep reasonings are not merely the grammars and vocabularies of a tradition, but the relatively settled patterns of their use transmitted from generation to generation. Scriptural reasoning models a practice of making deep reasonings public, by offering a forum, in which mutual learning of languages takes place, unpredictably, among friends, to which an open invitation is extended to those who are interested to participate. Not all scriptural reasoning is emphatically public in this way, but its main annual meetings at the American Academy of Religion, for example, are open to all. The deep reasonings of the three Abrahamic traditions are admittedly not secret: many mosques, synagogues and churches willingly admit guests, and most scholars of the religions are willing to publish their work in journals. At the same time, the quality of public debate between members of different traditions, and no doubt between members of the same tradition, is dangerously low. Many issues that are discussed publicly are ethical, and include familiar questions over the beginning and the end of life, the extent of desirable or legal medical intervention, and the conditions for the public recognition or permissibility of certain social- sexual behaviours. If the deep reasonings of the traditions are not secret, they seem not to be very public when they might most profitably be so. Debates on the radio or television over religious attitudes to reproductive technology tend to be insufficiently informative about both religious attitudes and the technological details, and it is sometimes a wonder that such debates are considered at all worthwhile. The reason for this is doubtless the gloomy estimation programme-makers have of the patience of their audiences, at least in part. It may also be attributable to the lack of faith certain parties have in the persuasiveness of their traditions’ deep reasonings. Because of the severe time constraints upon discussions made available through broadcast mass media such as television, other models are needed. Mass media tend not to make deep reasonings public; they tend to over-dramatise rival claims.

Given the religious difficulties surrounding foreign policy, school education and domestic and international law, it is surely a significant problem if the deep reasonings of religious traditions are not made public.3 Here, emphasis can be appropriately shifted back onto questions of consensus and agreement. It is not the goal of scriptural reasoning to arrive at consensus and agreement, but any process which does have such a goal must reckon with the deep reasonings in religious traditions. There are a number of difficult questions that for reasons of space cannot be pursued here. These include representation: who has the authority to speak for a tradition? They include judicial power: who has the authority to adjudicate disagreements within a tradition? They include the competence of the press: how well informed are religious correspondents? They include coercive power: can members of religious traditions be compelled to share their deep reasonings? Any serious discussion of the formation of consensus and agreement in the public sphere must address these questions satisfactorily. Our concern here is with an earlier stage: the mere possibility of making deep reasonings public.

Scriptural reasoning is a model for making deep reasonings public because it fosters discussion between members of different religious traditions with respect to their most important sacred texts. Precisely because it is not primarily oriented to particular agreements or outcomes that are clearly identified in advance of study, it offers a resource for discovering deep reasonings in ways that are not subject to severe pressures of time or other constraints imposed by mass media. Because of its chevruta approach to study, it is not reducible to the transmission of information by religious experts. Scriptural reasoning is probably not the most efficient means for conveying such information, or for generating agreement on important issues of the day. But that does not mean it serves no purpose with respect to these important purposes. Rather, it draws attention to the prior formation that may be required for things like transmitting information or coming to agreement. The practices of scriptural reasoning suggest that making deep reasonings public is not primarily a matter of transmitting information or reaching agreement. Making deep reasonings public may be a matter of being open to surprises, and fostering forms of collegial friendship, by deepening relations between persons with respect to sacred texts. This process cannot be rushed. That means that the urgency of contemporary questions, and the urgent need for consensus, should not be allowed to force the pace of making deep reasonings public. It is the attractiveness of study, not the threat of political disaster, that offers the most promising conditions for this time-consuming but urgently needed process.

What can one learn from these six claims? The promise of scriptural reasoning may lie in its willingness to refuse certain imperatives at the same time as serving them. It refuses the theoretical imperative to ground itself, at the same time as offering a reflective practice that generates useful ad-hoc forms of theory. It refuses the imperative to control outcomes, at the same time as seeking the ‘lucky’ conditions that yield precisely the outcomes that over-control both desires and prevents. It refuses a narrowly linguistic conception of language, at the same time as fostering practices of learning each other’s languages which more fully contextualise questions of grammar and vocabulary. It refuses the imperative to generate consensus and agreement, at the same time as hosting forms of study which allow friendships to be establish and deepened, and which are themselves the condition for consensus and agreement in the public sphere.

Scriptural reasoning is a ‘fact’: it actually happens. It can thus be investigated, and not only by its own participants. Theoretical claims about it can be formulated, and not only by its participants. Its status in the academy, however, is interestingly precarious and fragile. Its participants do not, as participants in scriptural reasoning, claim any special theological or textual expertise, and this renders them vulnerable in an academy for which expertise is the goal of study, and in an educational milieu for which information is the most highly prized commodity. If scriptural reasoning is not about expertise or information, strong arguments are needed to justify why anyone might bother with it. This essay has attempted to outline the kinds of argument that might address some of these concerns. The stress on relations and luck is not intended to belittle or underestimate the importance of expertise and information, but to serve them better. This is not because expertise and information are the final indirect goal of scriptural reasoning, but because expertise and information are themselves merely tools for addressing real problems in the world. The most obvious of these problems are the damaged histories and relations between members of the Abrahamic faiths. Scriptural reasoning is a reparative response to these problems.

The problems bequeathed by rationalist philosophy are severe: it is still common for public figures to appeal to a basic identity that underlies the differences between religious traditions, and it is equally common for those public figures to attempt to describe that basic identity, with the result that dissenting voices are viewed as an obstacle to peace, rather than as disconfirmation of the identity thesis. It is also common for public figures to claim that there is no identity at all, and that if there is to be any meaningful interaction between members of different religious traditions it must be on the basis of some allegedly non-religious commitment such as democracy or economic benefit. The problem with this is that democracy is not part of the deep reasonings of any of the Abrahamic faiths, and they each explicitly rule out economic benefit as any kind of highest good. Scriptural reasoning is interesting because it makes no attempt to prejudge the actual points of coincidence and divergence between the different traditions. Instead it remains content with the fact that understanding is possible, and submits to the luck of the moment. Scriptural reasoning can thus be seen as an attempt both to repair problems in philosophy and to model best practice in the mutual learning of the deep reasonings of traditions: in public. It is precarious to the extent that it does not try to control and secure its own success. But it is for precisely this reason, namely that it reproduces the basic theological orientation to divine providence found in each of the Abrahamic religions, that it may offer one of the most promising reparative approaches to the study of religions in the modern academy. Time will tell. If we’re lucky.



[1] See Andrew Bowie Schelling and Modern European Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1993) and From Romanticism to Critical Theory (London: Routledge, 1997).

[2] I owe this insight to Susannah Ticciati; it is elaborated in one of her unpublished short papers on scriptural reasoning.

[3] See Jeffrey Stout’s timely argument for this view in Democracy and Tradition (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004): pp. 1-15. I owe the phrase ‘making deep reasons public’ to Chad Pecknold; see his ‘Democracy and the Politics of the Word: Stout and Hauerwas on Democracy and Scripture,’ Scottish Journal of Theology 59(2):pp.1-12 (2006).

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