Thursday, July 9, 2009

Scriptural Reasoning and Material Scripture: Some Initial Reflections

There is a story, probably apocryphal, that some years ago, soon after Walt Disney's death, two gentlemen from the Disney board of directors were standing on a bridge in the midst of the recently-completed Disneyland. Looking at the Magic Kingdom, one of them said, "Isn't it too bad Walt isn't alive to see this?"

The other, so the story goes, simply replied, "Oh, Walt saw all of this."

Proverbs 29:18 tells us that without a vision, the people perish. I think the vision referred to in that passage must necessarily be a grand vision, a vision inconceivable and invisible, perhaps, to those around the one seeing the vision. It is, I think, a vision that needs some explaining and convincing before others will come to see it and share it. Without overly secularizing the Proverb by the comparison, it seems Disney was an example of one who had precisely this sort of "strange vision." The majesty of such strange vision is such that great things arise from it; the tragedy of such vision, however, is that often the seer does not live to see its fruition.

You must trust me when I assure you Peter Ochs is a man of such grand vision, though his mind's eye is focused, not on the comfortable distractions of an amusement park, but on the tragic brokenness of our present world, and how it might be prayerfully and graciously repaired.

I have spent a week living in this vision, as a participant in a leadership training forum for the Society of Scriptural Reasoning, held at the University of Virginia. Over forty pastors, imams, laypersons, and scholars gathered in Charlottesville for the event, and I think it is safe to say none of us left at the end of the week having not been profoundly moved, both by the events themselves that transpired as well as the portent and possibilities the event held for the future of (inter)religious dialogue.

Here, in this post, I want both to outline briefly what is happening in Scriptural Reasoning (SR) itself, for readers unfamiliar with the practice, as well as delineate how I see the relationship of SR to Material Scripture unfolding in the future.

"The text is our only host"

SR is a pragmatic practice, which attempts to learn how to read the texts claimed by the various Abrahamic traditions as holy (e.g., the TaNaKH, the Qur'an, the New Testament, the Hadith and the Talmud) in non-ironic conversation with each other. SR is, in other words, the attempt to read together in the midst of the "thick differences" between the tradtitions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

These "thick differences" arise from the traditioned readings that result from formative and catechetic readings from within each tradition (referred to in SR as a "house of reading"). That is to say, Christians are taught by other Christians how to read "their" Scriptures, and though some of these Scriptures are shared with Jews and, in varying ways, Muslims, the traditions of reading and interpretation are not. Hence an essential aspect of the SR process is learning one's own identity as a traditioned reader--exploring the hermeneutic landscape of primary texts as well as commentaries of those texts within one's own tradition.

This is to say that, as a Catholic, the ethos of SR encourages me to read in the "thickness" of hermeneutic differences between my tradition and various Protestant interpretations of our common texts. Most of SR practice, in other words, is spent not participating in Scriptural Reasoning directly, but participating rather in what might be referred to as "Textual Reasoning" (in the case of Judaism), or "Biblical" or "Qur'anic" Reasoning, respectively. We learn to read closely and contentiously with those of our own tradition prior to the practice of Scriptural Reasoning.

Having done this preparatory work within our own Houses, however, we participate in SR through the metaphorical construction of a "Tent of Meeting." The image of the Tent is a shared theme of all three Abrahamic traditions, and was chosen both for its temporary nature and the tradition of hospitality that surrounds the image in all three traditions. Unlike the House, the Tent is a non-permanent structure erected on the way to somewhere else. The Tent is not where we live forever, but it is where we meet on the journey, and, in meeting, we welcome others who are also away from their permanent homes.

Charlottesville last week was such a Tent. In SR the phrase is sometimes used that "the text is our only host," and for this meeting we were hosted by Exodus 34, in addition to some passages from Hebrews 3 of the New Testament and Sura 28 of the Qur'an. In both plenary meetings and smaller groups, we read these texts slowly and closely, discovering in them and among them new movements of the Spirit in their interpretation and imaginings.

One of the key aspects of SR is to honor the traditions and demands of one's particular House of reading, while inviting, for the sake of hospitality, the suspension of the hermeneutic limitations normally in place as a result of one's commitments. This is a dangerous process, of course. SR welcomes readers to see these texts afresh, and apart from the normal guardrails that restrict the free-play of associations. At various moments each of the members of my group resisted some aspect of the readings offered around the table. Ultimately, however, this venturing from the safety of our tradtioned readings allowed each of us to return to those readings with a fresh set of eyes and new insights.

It is here that the vision of Peter Ochs, and the others who first began these hopeful and pragmatic explorations of reading together some fifteen years ago, finds its full flowering. SR neither demands nor invites participants to syncretistically abandon their identities in favor of some homogenized comportment. Far from desiring to reduce participants to some idealized "essence" behind each of the traditions, SR instead takes these irreconcilable differences as its starting point.

From there, SR attempts the practice of "reading together across differences." In a variety of reflections, Ochs has often referred to this practice in the language of the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, the "healing of the world." While I cannot speak to the breadth of its success, I can attest to our week long meeting as a confirmation of the ethos that funds this vision: Jews, Muslims and Christians were able to meet and read together, without trying to convert each other. We were heartfelt and honest in our different readings, while remaining hospitable and open to each other.

I know it will sound like the opening to a corny joke, but as a result of this past week, I feel it might be possible, someday, to say, "A Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim were standing peacably together on a bridge..."

...and, God willing, in that day to come, one might turn and say to the other two, and remark, "Oh, Peter saw all of this."

Without saying too much more about the process itself (interested readers are encouraged to explore the excellent introduction to SR by David Ford in the volume, The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning), I would like to turn now to an exploration of the interrelationship between SR and Material Scripture.

Scriptural Reasoning and Material Scripture

In many respects, Material Scripture can be viewed as an alternative form of textual criticism. Like textual criticism, Material Scripture asks questions about the origins of the physical object of Scripture under analysis, and seeks understanding of the construction and ideological context of the artifact of a given Bible.

In contrast, SR and Material Scripture should not be regarded as alternatives to each other. In fact, SR and Material Scripture occupy separate, though tangential, fields of inquiry. For example, in the SR training of this past week, a list of recommended guidelines for our practice during the week was offered on the first day. The second of these guidelines suggested that questions of translation and how we "got" the particular English text in front of us, should be suspended for the purposes of the SR reading.

There are good reasons for such a guideline. First, this guideline reduces the power dynamic that might arise from an "expert" reading of the text (i.e., someone adept in the "original" language imposing a masterful reading over all possible interpretations). Second, if the text is to be the host, then the agreement that the particular English version in front of the readers will serve this function allows for us to have, as it were, a "shared tent" for our reading. The suspension of text-critical questions during SR is, ultimately, a gesture of hospitality.

In this sense, Material Scripture and SR begin, respectively, where the other has chosen to remain silent. This is to say, if a participant in SR were to transgress the guideline mentioned above, they would essentially cease the practice of SR and begin a practice of Material Scripture. Material Scripture is fueled, moreover, by an ideological suspicion that is intentionally suppressed during the practice of SR. In agreeing to simply share a translation in a common tongue, SR evinces a trust of the text which is absent from the practice of Material Scripture.

In reflecting on this, however, it is also possible that one might regard Material Scripture as an extension of the "thick reading" of the text, as found in SR, to include the very physical structures of the material shape of the given Scripture itself. Hence the differing physical sctructures of various imprints of Scripture might be seen as material "encodings" of traditions, which can be read alongside each other in their irreducible particularities. In a similar manner to SR's refusal of syncretism, Material Scripture eschews the reduction of these physically differentiated imprints of Scripture to some purified or homogenized idea of "Scripture." Material Scripture, moreover, resists the notion that this reified "Scripture" in any way serves as the norm to the actual physical instantiations of Scripture we observe. In this sense, Material Scripture has a similar pragmatic basis to Scriptural Reasoning, in practice.

The development of the idea of Material Scripture arose, itself, out of a deep conversation with Scriptural Reasoning. The ethical preoccupation of SR is shared in the cultural materialist roots of Material Scripture, as practiced in this blog and my other writings. Cultural Materialism, as articulated in Scott Wilson's book of the same name, understands itself as a profoundly ethical practice, in that "before it has anything to do with the real, materialism is first an inherently moral, even theological concept... The mutual reinforcement of the moral and the material is implied by the double meaning available to the term 'good'" [37].

Later, Wilson ties this ethical preoccupation to the same sort of brokenness addressed by Ochs and the repair of tikkun olam, through a quotation from the cultural materialist par excellence, Walter Benjamin:
"For without exception the cultural treasures he [the historical materialist] surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization [Scripture included] which is not the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another" [141].

In its hospitality to the other, SR is rightly criticized for being inhospitable to the traditions of barbarism that inhere deep in each of our traditions. In a similar fashion, Material Scripture desires to be inhospitable to the cultures of silence that surround the physical transmission and construction of our present imprints of Scripture, with regard to the suppression of "the other" in the physical structuring of the text.

In this manner, it is my hope that Material Scripture and SR can be regarded as complementary practices with a similar ethical core.

Final reflections, for now

I will admit I found it difficult, at certain moments during the week, to suspend my desire to push to Material Scriptural questions in the midst of SR practice. I found it hard, in other words, to suspend my questions about where this given English text came from, and why this particular translation was chosen in preference to other available options.

At the same time, I was able to recognize how the introduction of specifically Material Scriptural questions would derail the practice of SR in its moment of openness and hospitality. It would, in other words, abrogate the maintenance of trust essential to SR practice. As such, I see the deep value of agreeing, in a limited space and time of study, to suspend the suspicion of the origin of a given text before us, for the sake of reasoning together.

That being said, as SR continues to develop into its third decade and beyond, it may find some value in a turn to the deeper questions posed by practices like Material Scripture, as a means of engaging in an ethically-preoccupied textualist criticism. As SR continues to engage the increasingly "difficult" texts of our various traditions, it is my hope that Material Scripture may prove of increasing utility to the practice.

1 comment:

Jason said...

Thanks for this cogent and helpful introduction to Material Scripture and Scriptural Reasoning. I am intrigued by both and hope you get some good conversation started as a result of your post.