For the first three weeks of July, emerging Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith leaders from around the world converged in an English country estate outside of Cambridge for the Cambridge Interfaith Programme (CIP) Summer School. Although we had many goals and activities, one of our main objectives was to receive training in the method of "scriptural reasoning" (SR) so that we could take it back home and apply it within our own communities. Before the program, I had limited exposure to the approach and was under the impression that SR was yet another way to explore similarities between religious traditions.
I soon discovered that SR provides much more than a tool for superficial engagement. Each weekday of our program, right after breakfast, we began with an hour and a half of SR in smaller groups. What does SR entail? In my group, we first learned about the need to learn to be gracious hosts of our own scriptures and to invite people from other traditions to engage our scriptures as respectful guests. At the very beginning of each SR session, one of the participants would offer a plain sense meaning of a passage, with its basic background and, if necessary, historical context. This person must be a host from the tradition of the text at hand. Being a host means that we must learn how to allow others to interpret our texts for themselves and to find meaning for themselves instead of imposing our interpretations onto our guests. Being a host means that we can offer background information, but allow our guests to explore the scriptures without dismissing their reflections.
In addition to being generous hosts, we must also be respectful guests, aware that we are entering into a scripture that is considered sacred by our hosts. One should be sensitive to the fact that Jews, Christians and Muslims have differing perspectives on the nature of interpretation and the sacredness of their scriptures. Nevertheless, it is important to engage with the scriptures and not hesitate to dive in. Jews and Christians usually have no problems engaging with each other's texts, but when it comes to the Quran, they tend to be more reluctant to get involved, mainly out of lack of familiarity and fear of offending their Muslim friends. With a little encouragement over several sessions that help people get to know each other better, they can begin to feel more comfortable in other people's texts and involve themselves in other scriptures more fully.
So why is SR different from other methods of interfaith engagement? I would say that it provides a stepping-stone for building deeper relationships and understanding between people of different traditions. Combined with other approaches, it can be an effective tool in bringing together groups of people over a period of time who can grow in trust and comfort. When they witness the diversity that lies within each tradition, it helps them overcome their perceptions that other traditions are monolithic. Based on my own experience, SR provides people of faith with insight into their own and others' scriptures. Watching Jews and Christians debate and disagree among themselves about their interpretations of their respective scriptures offered me insight into the nuances of people's approach to their own scriptures. They can also learn more about their own traditions and grow closer to their scriptures.