Writings on CHAI Groups

Scriptural Reasoning in the University of Cambridge

Chad Pecknold
University of Cambridge

Sometime during the autumn of 2001 a small group of Christian theologians in the University of Cambridge gathered to think in, with and through the scriptures together. This was generated partly through a desire to relate better to the practices of scriptural reasoning they saw between Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Society for Scriptural Reasoning which met annually at the American Academy of Religion. It was decided that both Jews and Muslims had a distinctive advantage in the practice of scriptural reasoning because they were actively and regularly involved in text study within their own traditions (Jewish textual reasoning, and Muslim quranic reasoning). Since scriptural reasoning requires a deep, profound commitment to one's own tradition, we decided that Christians would be better equipped to engage inter-traditionally only if they were drawing similarly upon their own deepest resources as well. We formed, in response, the Society for Biblical Reasoning to help us think, as Christians in a post-critical age, 'with' or 'according to the scriptures.'

Our biblical reasoning group met for two hours every three weeks informally in the office of Professor David Ford who, along with Professor Dan Hardy, guided us to intensively engage the text. We always had at least four different English-language translations of the Bible, as well as the Greek New Testament, the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, and the Latin Vulgate. Our studies frequently dealt with short books of the Bible: Jonah, Ephesians, Song of Songs, Ruth, and 1 John. Recently we have chosen to take on selections from longer books and now we are on to Isaiah, spending three 2 hour meetings on the first 5 chapters alone. We refer to classic, historical-critical text scholars at times, but usually only when particular kinds of textual problems arose in our own interpretation. We tried to be led by the text, to what the text was saying to us, as a community of readers, on that given day. The conversations were rooted in the text, but never bound by the text. The text was always overflowing into our lives and engaging us in thinking more deeply about the most fundamental categories of human existence. We all sensed that these deep engagements with the text were not only good in themselves, but were somehow releasing energies in each of us-extending out into all of life. As a result, Cambridge has been able to make a much better contribution to the shared text study in the Society for Scriptural Reasoning, where we try and engage the scriptures as Christians, yet simultaneously in profound face to face engagement with Jews and Muslims, open to the socio-political possibilities of how such practices of shared text study might lead to peace and to all other sorts of extensions into life.

The Biblical Reasoning group was the basis, then, for Scriptural Reasoning in the University of Cambridge. It originally took hold mainly amongst Christian research students, who read the scriptures alongside Christian professors. Late in 2002, however, faculty members from various departments in the University, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, began meeting regularly to engage in similarly intensive text study. The days are still early for this group, but the participants of it, as well as participants from the biblical reasoning group, students and faculty alike, will converge in May 2003 in the University, to meet with other participants from around the world to share in this intensive engagement with the scriptures. This theoretical and practical work hints at the theopolitical significance, and thus gives rise to the grassroots work sponsored by CHAI.

Our work in Cambridge is only just beginning to hint at the programmatic features that could arise through CHAI. Most recently we have begin to consult with the Cambridge Interfaith Project, sharing insights from our scriptural reasoning, and certain members of our group have been consulted by church and government officials about the role of religion in public policy. The energies released from our shared practice of reading the scriptures together give us a hopeful and dynamic enthusiasm to encourage Jews, Christians and Muslims at all levels of life (from liturgical and intellectual leaders to the lay person) to engage in similar, shared practices. We think these practices embody peace, bear witness to peace, and teach peace to future generations. But we also think they are suggestive of even more programmatic possibilities for the world (for example, Israel/Palestine, terrorism, the shape of representative governments, and issues of peace and justice around the world). So we continue our work in Cambridge deeply aware of how timely and relevant scriptural reasoning in this university, and hopeful that such practices will increasingly arise at other universities too.

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