The Role of Scripture in Interreligious Dialogue

Anglican Theologian Addresses John Paul II Dialogue Center

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By Andrea Kirk Assaf

ROME, APRIL 12, 2011 ( The imperative of interreligious dialogue in modern, multicultural societies was a recurring theme during the pontificate of John Paul II. The crucial role of dialogue in civil society may be taken for granted now, but how that dialogue takes place is still a matter under debate.

Scriptural Reasoning is a method of interreligious dialogue that is growing in popularity and spreading beyond academic institutions.

Scriptural Reasoning gathers people of different religious traditions to read and discuss sections of their sacred texts. The intended outcome is not consensus, but deeper understanding.

One of the founders of this method, Professor David Ford, an Anglican theologian and Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, recently presented the approach in a lecture at the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.

The annual event, sponsored by the Russell Berrie Foundation of New Jersey, also featured Rabbi Jack Bemporad as the moderator of questions and discussions. Rabbi Bemporad is the founder of the U.S.-based Center for Interreligious Understanding and a professor of interreligious studies at the Angelicum, and is himself immersed in the diplomatic world of interreligious dialogue.

In 1993, under the pontificate of John Paul II, Bemporad helped secure full diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel, in partnership with Cardinal Johannes Wilebrands and Cardinal Edward Cassidy.

Uses of Scriptural Reasoning

Diplomacy is just one of many applications for interfaith dialogue. As for the method of Scriptural Reasoning in interfaith dialogue, while it was originally created by and for scholars in an academic setting, Scriptural Reasoning is now being practiced between and in houses of worship, schools, and in international gatherings among different religious communities, mainly from the Abrahamic traditions.

In this way, its goals coincide with the aim of the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue, to “build bridges between Catholic, Jewish, and other religious traditions by providing the next generation of religious leaders with a comprehensive understanding of and dedication to inter-faith issues.”

The current fellow of the center’s two-year graduate fellowship, Father Celestine Ezemadubom, offered a testimonial at the conference from his own perspective as a fellow and a priest working in this field.

How would a priest like Father Ezemadubom engage in Scriptural Reasoning? An intimate group of participants host one another in rotating houses of worship or a university to engage in reading and discussing each other’s sacred texts, particularly in relation to contemporary issues, be they larger moral questions or local practical concerns. The group agrees to certain fundamental principles, such as openness and honesty, in order to encourage a constructive dialogue and the growth of wisdom and friendship, but not to achieve consensus nor even agreement, necessarily.

From theory to practice

Ford described how the methodology developed from real-life interactions between believers of different faiths. Ford was born into an Anglican family in Dublin, where the Church of Ireland was a 3% religious minority in a vastly Catholic majority. After studying theology at Cambridge and Yale, he took a teaching post in the multicultural city of Birmingham, where he observed how the many attempts at dialogue remained largely ineffective.

Ford went on to discover a more personal, and therefore more practical, approach when he discovered the Textual Reasoning of Jewish theologian Peter Ochs of the American Academy of Religion. Och’s group, as described by Ford, of “young Jewish contemporary philosophers and text scholars (Tanakh and Talmud) engaged in hectic, argumentative discussion (with much humor thrown in) of classic texts and works by modern thinkers.”

From this, Scriptural Reasoning developed, wherein Jews, Christians, and Muslims — who often knew each other both professionally and personally — met to read and discuss the Tanakh, Bible and Quran together in a spirited yet friendly atmosphere.

These encounters left a lasting impression on Ford: “To study Tanakh and Quran for hour after hour with Jews and Muslims who know and live their traditions; to be able to question, argue and differ deeply but with respect; to see the Bible through their eyes and questions, and to try to articulate my Christian faith in response; to explore contemporary and practical implications of texts in all three scriptures (ethics, daily living, philosophy, politics, economics, etc.),” transformed Ford’s understanding of the potential of interfaith dialogue to overcome stereotypes and forge friendships.

Ford returned to the United Kingdom armed with ideas and experiences and founded, along with colleagues, the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme to “encourage wiser faith and wiser secular understanding.”

By 2007, Scriptural Reasoning had attracted the attention and acceptance of most religious leaders in British society. Two Muslim imams in the city of London, which is home to a considerably large Muslim population, issued fatwas, opinions that are published by Islamic legal authorities, which cleared the way for Muslim participation and opened the use of mosques for the group’s meetings.

The personal experience of interfaith dialogue deeply influenced the professional path Ford adopted, a route he recommends all believers walk to counter the problems of our day: “I have become increasingly convinced that the early 21st century is a kairos for interfaith engagement, especially among the Abrahamic faiths, and that there will be serious consequences if this opportunity is missed.”

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