The Rules for Scriptural Reasoning: Editor’s Introduction

Basit B. Koshul, University of Virginia

“Know Thyself” : an almost universally known maxim that is also almost universally known to be the most difficult to practice. It has been a defining characteristic of philosophical discourse that aims to produce a narrative about the universe and everything in it. But as Nietzsche has observed, the one subject that is most often missing from a particular philosophy s conceptual universe is the “self” that is articulating the discourse. In other words philosophical discourse has largely failed to live up to its own maxim. A discourse that is “conscious” about the world around it but not more than semi-conscious of its own self offends not only the subject that it is attempting to explicate but more importantly it transgresses against its own self. If the knowledge of the universe does not lead to better self-understanding, what profit a man that he gain an understanding of the entire world but remain ignorant about the self.

For Nietzsche, the failure to attain/display adequate self-knowledge is a failing not only of philosophical discourse but also of religious discourse. But Nietzsche was not the first to notice this failing; this failing had been noticed by individuals working within the philosophical and religious traditions long before. Having noticed the failing, those who noticed them set about trying to correct the shortcomings. In comparing the philosophical attempt at attaining self-understanding and the religious attempt one notices not so much a different methodology but different points of emphasis within a generally similar approach. The philosophic attempt seeks to identify a particular measure, ratio, logos or rule that defines itself and its understanding of the world. This criterion is identified through the disciplined exercise of reason. The religious attempt also seeks to identify a criterion for understanding but in light of reflection that is done in concert with a particular practice (or upon a particular practice.) For the philosophic approach self-knowledge is attained by disciplined reflection on the workings of reason. The religious approach requires a practical context, in which and on which reflection is to be carried out. While the abstract activity of reflection is common to both the philosophic and religious approaches, the religious approach requires an explicit concrete, practical context in which the activity of reflection is taking place. While the practical, concrete context remains largely implicit in the philosophic attempt, it is made explicit in the religious attempt.

After four years of meeting and discussing “other” subjects, the 1999 meeting of the SSR centered around the “self” that had been discussing “other” subjects in the previous years. The meetings of the previous four years provided the practical context in which (or upon which) reflection was to be done. This meeting was an attempt to not only make explicit the rules that had been implicitly guiding the practice of scriptural reasoning in the past but also to discuss the underlying reasons for engaging in this practice. The questions of: What is scriptural reasoning? How is it different from and/or similar to other forms of reasoning? What is the need for this particular mode of reasoning in the presence of numerous other available options? This discussion was carried out by those engaged in the practice and in the presence of those sympathetic to the practice (or at least neutral or mildly curious about it). The center of the discussion was a paper written by Peter Ochs, titled: “SSR: The Rules for Scriptural Reasoning.” The paper begins with these words:

Shalom. After four years of shared scriptural interpretation at our annual gatherings, we decided this year to stop what we do, for a moment, and reflect on how we seem to be doing it. “Naaseh v nishmah” , the angels say when God commands: “we do first, and then we seek understanding.” So, the Rabbinic sages in b. Talmud Shabbat describe the precedence of action over reflection in what we might call one functional epistemology of scriptural reasoning 1.

Upon hearing the command of God the angels reply: “we do first, and then we seek understanding.” Scriptural Reasoning takes this mode of “reasoning” as a model to be emulated as it seeks to attain understanding, whether that understanding is an understanding of the self or otherwise. In other words the “self” of Scriptural Reasoning does not seek to attain self-awareness strictly as a result of a conversation with itself or reflections on itself. Rather the presence of an “other” is required from the very beginning and the conversation with the “other” is as much (if not more than) a part of the process of maturing self-awareness as a critical reflection on the “self”. The practice of “doing first” requires an engagement with the other prior to self-reflection. And this initial encounter with the “other”, to a large degree, determines the manner in which the subsequent self-reflection will be carried out. Consequently, for Scriptural Reasoning, engagement with and understanding of the other is an essential part of the emergent self-understanding. The fact that the “other” is taken into account from the initial stages of the inquiry is related to the final goal of this mode of reasoning redeeming that which has been identified as being shattered, wounded, broken. Only a consciousness that has attained self-awareness as a result of a conversation with an “other” can be genuinely empathetic to the pain, concerns (and joys and triumphs) of the other. A consciousness that becomes aware of itself as a result of a conversation with itself is unlikely to fully appreciate the significance and individuality of the other. And in the manner of the Cartesian cogito such a consciousness can do nothing more than offer abstract prescriptions that do not so much as redeem as negate the other. In contrast, “[m]emebers of the SSR acknowledge, that they are themselves both instruments of modern intelligence and exponents of the scriptural reasoning that can redeem that intelligence” 2. This point is better understood by looking Ochs proposed methodology of doing Scriptural Reasoning.

Addressing his colleagues in the SSR project, Ochs notes that his own reflections are not “an attempt to speak for any of you, but rather an attempt to illustrate one of several ways we might go about reflecting on our rules for conducting scriptural reasoning” 3 . These personal reflections can be divided roughly into two parts. The first consists of a “reflection” from the perspective of the Scriptural Reasoner that uncovers and describes the interrupted dialectic of modernist reasoning and the “unrepaired suffering that underlies it”. In uncovering the interrupted dialectic of modernity, Scriptural Reasoning engages modern reasoning on its own grounds and in its own terms:

The pragmatic rule of SR is to locate the truths of modernity in the success or failure of our capacity to read the reasonings of modernity themselves as symptoms of the specific conditions that underlie them and therefore as signals to us to locate and repair these conditions 4.

In the second part of his reflections, Ochs describes the manner in which Scriptural Reasoning becomes “Redemptive Reasoning” that “leads from the interruption of modern reasoning to its repair” 5. In its attempt to repair the unrepaired suffering that underlies modernist reasoning, Scriptural Reasoning offers the possibility of helping religion rediscover itself. Speaking of the results of a redemptive recovery of modernist reasoning Ochs notes:

SR will itself be both a resurrection of previous scriptural religions and means of articulating the rule of such resurrection as a rule for reading scripture today. It will also be a rule for rereading the interrupted traditions of the modern religion whose death gives rise to the tragedy and new hope that animates scriptural reasoning; that is the death of modern Christianity, Judaism, and Islam meaning the deaths of both the radically modernist and anti-modernist poles of these religions’ modern form 6.

Looking at who is critiquing whom and who is correcting whom, the lines between the healer and the healed become somewhat blurred. For Ochs, Scriptural Reasoning uncovers the interrupted dialectic of modernity by an analysis of modernist reasoning, using the tools of modern reasoning. In attempting to repair this interrupted dialectic, Scriptural Reasoning becomes conscious of latent resources within itself that it had not consciously recognized before, thus heightening its own self-understanding. It brings the newly discovered resources to bear in its attempt to repair the interrupted dialectic of modernity. And in the process of repairing the rupture in this manner, Scriptural Reasoning benefits “religion” as much as it benefits “modernity”. In thus repairing the rupture, Scriptural Reasoning demonstrates in practice the theoretical assertion that it is simultaneously the exercise/manifestation of modern intelligence and also a mode of reasoning that can redeem that intelligence.

Taking these personal reflections by Ochs as the starting point, the discussion in the SSR group developed in a number of directions some of them expected and others quite novel. The expected directions add greater depth to Ochs analysis by affirming and/or challenging different aspects of his presentation. Generally speaking the responses by Dan Hardy, Garrett Green, William Elkins, Kurt Richardson and David Ford fall into the category of adding depth to Ochs presentation. The unexpected directions add greater breadth to Ochs presentation by expanding the parameters of his discussion into areas/issues that he himself did not cover. The responses by Robert Gibbs, James Buckley, Kris Lindbeck and myself fall into this category. These responses, which were in effect a conversation with Ochs reflection, in turn gave birth to another conversation at the annual gathering of the SSR in concert with the annual AAR meeting in Boston. This conversation was itself a reflection of the fact that the practitioners of SR are consciously engaged in the attempt to better know themselves.

1. Ochs, P. SSR: The Rules for Scriptural Reasoning, p. 1.?

2. Ibid, p. 2.?

3. Ibid. p. 2.?

4. Ibid.?

5. Ibid, p. 5.?

6. Ibid, p. 7.?

© 2002, Society for Scriptural Reasoning