14 Oct 2010
Earlier this year, I was invited to sit in on a theological gathering at Cambridge University. With few expectations about what I was to experience, I turned up on the first morning armed with a pen and paper, and a cup of fresh coffee. Over three intense days, I watched scholars from as far afield as Asia, North America, the Middle East and Russia pour over passages of scripture in small mixed faith groups. Although the academic surroundings were familiar to me, I was to be exposed to a form of shared study that I had never witnessed before.
The study group was taking part in a form of inter-faith discussion called Scriptural Reasoning (SR). It involves members of different religious traditions meeting together in small groups to discuss extracts from their sacred or authoritative texts together. Texts are selected by members of each faith, and questions are posed from right round the table as part of a shared effort to unravel meaning from these abundantly layered texts. A moderator keeps the discussion on track and introduces new topics.
As I was to learn, SR is a practice rich in possibilities. SR done well allows participants to explore their authoritative texts in new ways, to learn to explain them, and to better understand the practices of reading those texts by which their judgments are shaped. The aim is not to convert your co-participants or show how one faith is superior, but to come away both a more learned, confident, and articulate member of your faith tradition and a citizen more aware of the lived traditions of other faiths. As Mike Higton, academic director of the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme, has argued, this is a practice with a potential for ‘transformational impact’ where religious commitment and commitment to shared public discourse are often assumed to be opposed.
In SR there are no pacts, no signed statements of consensus at the end of a meeting, in fact in the meeting I witnessed there was virtually no tangible outcome bar short meditations the participants wrote in a closing exercise. Rather there is more understanding and a sense of stronger friendship. Through shared study, Scriptural Reasoners learn what Nick Adams has described as ‘collegiality’ – a kind of cooperative civility that can transform relationships and plausibly provide a bulwark against religious hostility.
Since 2009, Meedan has been working with the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme to explore ways to take these forms of scriptural study online so that the resulting dialogues can be more sustainable, more accessible and more polyglot. We have done lots of hard work, conducting countless consultations and research interviews, designing tools and building partnerships. But most importantly here, I want to think about the ways in which the approaches of SR could provide a lesson for other kinds of cross-cultural interaction.
I want to ask the question, what are the ingredients of a successful cross-cultural encounter? In SR there is something on the table – scripture – and a shared acknowledgement that the participants have broadly similar relationships to their respective scriptures (ie. These scriptures are sacred and need to be treated sensitively – although it is worth pointing out that SR participants do not assume that the meaning and function of these scriptures are equivalent across the different faiths). Everyone at the table also signs up to a broadly common approach to the discussion (ie. Scriptural Reasoning with a facilitator guiding the interaction). Beyond that, there is a recognition that there will be disagreement (conducted in a civil way).
Could these approaches – civility, shared interest, and a common approach to shared study – be applied to other forms of dialogue entirely? Could you, for example, bring citizens with extracts from their respective constitutions into dialogue? Could you have a set of baseball enthusiasts sit down with a set of football enthusiasts, and study sections of their rulebooks? Or what about exploring canonical histories of common events?
This brings me to news.meedan.net – Meedan’s attempt to re-think how we collaborate in ‘writing the first version of history’. If you have different linguistic and cultural communities sharing their narratives as events of common interest are happening, you can begin to build a tapestry of understanding. Searching for sources, annotating links and commentaries and engaging in conversations is a form of shared study that demands civility and sensitivity. We may never end up with agreement, but we may end up with better quality disagreement, collegiality and a sense of common understanding.