June 30, 2011 — In 1995, Peter Ochs, religious studies professor in the University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences, and two colleagues created scriptural reasoning, a practice that brings together Christians, Jews and Muslims for interfaith study and discussion of the sacred scriptures of all three traditions.
More than 25 years later, the practice, considered one of the most significant recent developments in interfaith dialogue, has reached many corners of the globe. It creates a space where the "deep reasonings" of each faith community can be made more public, Ochs said, counter to the general effect of mass media sound bites and news briefs that rarely, if ever, scratch below the surface of rhetoric and encourage overdramatizing of rival claims.
But scriptural reasoning cannot be taught through a simple "how-to" manual. Rather, it is learned through experience and brief apprenticeship, Ochs said during a three-day scriptural reasoning training session held this week at U.Va.
More than 30 people attended from around the country. Most were trained to be scriptural reasoning facilitators who are now ready to help start new scriptural reasoning groups.
Britain has a dozen such groups, North America 17. Cambridge University and U.Va. are home to two of the co-founders, Ochs and David Ford, Regius Professor of Divinity, and the schools remain the two centers for scriptural reasoning in the world.
Roughly 30 groups are currently active around the world, including at the University of Toronto; in Montreal; in Cape Town, South Africa; and in the Middle East. Next week Ochs will travel to Dubai to co-lead another scriptural reasoning training session.
Sessions involve Jews, Christians and Muslims gathering together to read passages from the Torah, Bible and Quran that address a single theme, such as forgiveness, repentance or sacrifice.
"Fire" was the general theme for this week's session. Selected scripture passages included the Exodus account of God speaking to Moses from a burning bush, a parable of Jesus noting that trees that do not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire, and an account of Allah casting utter darkness on a group after they had kindled a fire. Groups wrestled with the question of what fire symbolizes in such passages, and the differences and similarities with the symbol of light.
Participants read the passages aloud and often note or question any puzzling or surprising features, sometimes discussing a single word at length. They note grammatical constructions, changes in tone, or shifts in the narrative structure.
While participants may introduce personal observations or prior reflections, they are discouraged from offering "authoritative" explanations. Conversation always returns to the text.
Eschewing the notion that interfaith dialogue is inherently fragile, scriptural reasoning sessions often delve into the most controversial and sensitive topics addressed by scripture, such as the Jews as a chosen people, exile, original sin and the resurrection of Jesus.
Agreement, or even consensus, is not the aim. Participants often find some unexpected areas of agreement, but many deep differences remain. Scriptural reasoning "has within in its DNA the idea that we're not the same, and afterwards we're not going to be the same," said Rumee Ahmed, who earned his Ph.D. in religious studies in 2008 from the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and has practiced scriptural reasoning for 10 years, including in chaplaincy roles at Brown and Colgate universities.
"But in the session something special happens," he said. "You feel it at a very primal, visceral level. It's very hard to articulate what it is you're feeling. We create a bond together that might not last beyond the session, but that is special nonetheless."
"It's a commitment to grapple with the text and to be vulnerable with it," said Julie Merrow, a member of a scriptural reasoning group in Harrisonburg that brings together staff and students from Eastern Mennonite and James Madison universities.
Primarily what emerges are relationships, new understanding of another and of the particularity of one's own traditions, said participant Kelly Figueroa-Ray, a religious studies doctoral student who belongs to the United Methodist Church.
It's a unique way of getting to know other people, said Sam Brody, a 2005 U.Va. graduate who traveled from Chicago to participate in the conference. "It's a truly unusual form of interaction," he said. "The kinds of conversations that happen are more unexpected and surprise people because of how it's not like anything else you do."
Ochs and U.Va. have continued to lead the growth of scriptural reasoning in the world. It is taught in the Religious Studies Department's graduate program in Scripture, Interpretation and Practice, which has roughly 20 students. One of them, Emily Filler, was the lead organizer of this week's session. Many alumni are playing key roles in spreading scriptural reasoning to other universities and communities.
Charlottesville has three scriptural reasoning groups: one for undergraduate students, one primarily for graduate students, and one for community members and local religious leaders that meets roughly once a month for 90 minutes. New groups are added as demand arises. To join a group or learn more, contact Peter Ochs at firstname.lastname@example.org.