Interfaith dialogue with a difference
A worker with the project Interfaith Glasgow describes how differences as well as commonalities between traditions can be explored openly and respectfully by sharing sacred texts.
It’s pretty broadly accepted these days that developing mutual understanding and positive relations between people of different religions is a good idea. A common criticism of interfaith dialogue, however, is that it often amounts to little more than a superficial exchange of generalities between well-intentioned, like-minded people.
It is true that interfaith dialogue is usually focused on common ground. There is a lot of talk about ‘shared values,’ with people from different traditions agreeing that they each share a concern to protect the environment and the vulnerable in society, for example. Given the popular perception that religious communities are all at loggerheads with one and other, and, indeed, that religion is the cause of more harm than good in society, such conversations are clearly needed. What’s more, discussing things we share can be much more conducive to building the trust, connections and relationships that we so badly need in our multi-faith, multi-cultural societies. Discussing differences can be divisive and dialogue can quickly turn to hostile debate. If the first conversation a Muslim and a Christian have together is over the nature of Jesus, for example, it may well be their last conversation. As someone whose job it is to bring people from different faith and belief backgrounds together, I’ve learned how important it is to make a good start.
But it is also true that if all our conversations are focused around commonalities, we may never properly appreciate just what it is that our neighbours believe and do that that is different from our own tradition or worldview. In which case, can we really say that we understand them?
Scriptural Reasoning is a method of interfaith dialogue that aims to facilitate a deeper dialogue where the differences as well as commonalities between traditions can be explored openly and respectfully. Although it was developed in academic circles around the American Academy of Religion in the mid-nineteen-nineties, it has in recent years been taken up by local groups in the UK and the US and its popularity is increasing.
Scriptural Reasoning brings together people for whom scripture plays an important role in their lives in the close reading of their sacred texts. It feels similar to a Bible study group or a university seminar, the major difference being that a Scriptural Reasoning group includes people from different faith communities, usually Jews, Christians and Muslims. A small group will meet regularly, perhaps monthly, each time discussing short extracts from each of their scriptures selected on a particular theme, such as hospitality, fasting, or modesty. Each text is introduced by a member of that particular tradition who gives an insight into its context and traditional meanings, but all the participants then engage in its interpretation. The meeting is structured so that an equal amount of time is spent on each text. The aim is not for participants to agree on what the texts are saying but to grow in their understanding of each other.
In the UK the success of Scriptural Reasoning is being driven by the Cambridge Inter Faith Programme. They have brought the practice to a wide variety of settings, running dialogues in prisons and with teenagers, with international religious leaders and in local community settings. They have a dedicated website (www.scripturalreasoning.org) with resources describing the practice and ‘text bundles’ with suggested texts from the Jewish Christian and Muslim scriptures on a variety of themes and staff who support groups in getting started.
The Cambridge Inter Faith Programme describes the aim of Scriptural Reasoning as ‘Not consensus but understanding and friendship’. Participants may not accept one another’s texts as scripture, nor agree with each other’s reading of them. It is a process where participants spend time with people of other religions, each sharing something they care deeply about – these texts that are central to their lives. This doesn’t generally lead to agreement, but often they have found that it does lead to friendship.
I work for a project called Interfaith Glasgow where people from different faith and belief backgrounds come together for friendship building, dialogue and co-operation. We try to offer different kinds of events, activities and types of dialogue to bring people together around something that interests or concerns them in recognition that not everybody wants to engage with others for the same reason. So we’re always on the look-out for different ideas, what has worked in other places and what we think might appeal to people we haven’t yet managed to engage.
We invited Sarah Snyder from the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme to come and introduce the practice to a group of 19 curious Glaswegians from Muslim, Jewish and Christian backgrounds. Most had never heard of Scriptural Reasoning before, but many had been involved in other kinds of interfaith dialogue previously. The response to the practice was overwhelmingly positive. Some felt it wasn’t too different from what they had experienced before. One person commented that the quality of the dialogue is always dependent on the people involved. However for others this was clearly a preferable format, allowing for, as one participant put it, a ‘more purposeful, much richer’ dialogue. The difference, I think, is that while an in-depth conversation is certainly possible within a looser, commonalities- based dialogue, Scriptural Reasoning demands it.
When participants are limited to talking about short extracts of scripture, they really have little option but to dig deep. They tend to feel challenged, in a positive way, by questions from their dialogue partners that cause them to think about their own tradition afresh. They also learn about how their dialogue partners engage with scripture. They might come to appreciate, for example, how important the Hadith are to Muslims reading the Qur’an, as well as the various commentaries which relate the context in the life of the Prophet Muhammad within which those particular verses were revealed. Such learning is particularly important given the number of people today who have read (or heard about) parts of the Qur’an and, on the basis of a number of isolated passages, deduced that Islam must be a violent religion. A prominent Christian leader in Northern Ireland, Pastor James McConnell, has recently made the news because of his vehement and public denunciation of Muslims as ‘not to be trusted’ on the grounds that they are ‘controlled’ by Shari’a law. If Christians with such a negative view of Muslims and vice-versa could be convinced to engage in Scriptural Reasoning with each other, there would be real potential for a change of perspective.
Perhaps McConnell’s views are so entrenched that he could never be convinced to engage in interfaith dialogue. But Scriptural Reasoning seems to be quite unique among methods of interfaith dialogue in its ability to attract people from quite conservative, traditional, religious backgrounds. It allows them to feel safe in a space where there is no expectation for them to find common ground with the others in the room, to agree, or to regard them as anything other than plain wrong in matters of theology. Respect can develop out of the recognition that your dialogue partners are just as committed to their tradition as you are and that their tradition is no less complex, rational and perhaps even compelling. The success of Scriptural Reasoning demonstrates that beliefs don’t need to be shared in order for friendships to develop, and that is surely a reassuring thought, given that religious divisions aren’t going to away any time soon.
In Glasgow our first introduction has led to a desire to set up a regular group, perhaps two. So far those involved are Christians, Muslims and Jews. But in other places the practice has been expanded to other groups. A group in Birmingham has involved Sikhs, for example, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have been engaged in the US. It remains to be seen what will emerge in Glasgow. We’re pleased to have hit on something that is getting people excited and we hope many more will get involved.
Magdalen is in the final stages of completing her PhD in Inter-religious Studies at the University of Glasgow. She works as Development Officer for Interfaith Glasgow, which is a project of Interfaith Scotland.