Willie Young, Loyola College in Maryland
This issue of the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning takes as its focus the Biblical and Qur’anic narratives of Abraham and the visitors at Mamre. It is a story of seeing God in the flesh. As Elliot Wolfson describes below, Abraham sees God in his circumcision; he also sees God in the three visitors, in the promise of Isaac, and he even sees the foreign, sinful city of Sodom as included in God’s promise, interceding on its behalf and praying for justice. These visions of God are also receptions of God and others, and thus are at their root gestures of hospitality. Abraham is hospitable in receiving God in unexpected ways, as the promises of the spirit are embodied around him, even coursing into and transforming his and Sarah’s names (from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah).
Abraham receives the unexpected: what did he see in the three men, when he saw God? Did he see that his intercession on behalf of Sodom would lead to a rabbinic connection between circumcision and the responsibility for justice, both for one’s family and for all nations, as Elliot Wolfson describes below? Did he see that Christians would receive this story as a story of divine incarnation, a representation of the Trinity, or the virtues of hospitality, as Francis Watson discusses in his essay? Did he see that his act would found a Muslim practice of hospitality and a concern for justice impartial to genealogy, as a sign of one’s friendship with God, as Basit Koshul writes?  In receiving these visitors, did he see how the three traditions and communities gathered under the banner of the SSR would receive his act of hospitality?
From these three traditions, and in response to modernity, contemporary religious thought continues to find fecundity in Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality. How they would laugh to know they are still having children! Over against the limited hospitality of Kantian politics, or the restricted immigration policies of nation-states, or other restrictions of the duty to be hospitable, thinkers such as Massignon, Levinas, and Derrida turn to the story of Abraham (and Sarah) to rethink responsibility and obligation.  In a different context, Miroslav Volf turns to the theme of “embrace” as a gesture of hospitality that founds an alternative politics and pursues justice in the face of ethnic conflict, a theological reflection that clearly resonates with Abraham’s hospitality in Genesis 18 and 19.  Together, both the traditions of commentary and the contemporary approaches suggest that Genesis 18-19 is a generative passage, depicting a complex constellation of gestures of hospitality that is rich and polyvalent in significance.
This brief sketch outlines the place hospitality occupies in contemporary thought, which can help us to see the distinctiveness of the hospitality enacted within the Society for Scriptural Reasoning. In welcoming the three visitors, could Abraham have imagined that the three traditions that see him as their father, who have received his hospitality, would learn to be hospitable to one another? In reading scripture together, studying and writing together, the SSR is a new form of hospitality: not divorced from the particularities of the three traditions, but a mutual welcoming. Together, in their specificity and difference, these plural manifestations of hospitality unfold multiple dimensions of Abrahamic hospitality. As Kris Lindbeck writes in her concluding essay, the SSR enacts a response to the concern for repairing suffering, by bringing these communities together to practice hospitality toward one another. In the attention that they pay to particularity, the essays below enact this welcome of the three traditions in their differences, allowing the three communities to join together while disagreeing, and even in opposition to one another. The share identity of the society thus establishes a space within which participants can sustain disagreement. A “hospitality of scriptural reasoning,” then, consists in welcoming the particularities of the three traditions, while bringing them into conversation with and understanding of one another.
In his commentary, Brantley Craig suggests that the three visitors are, in fact, us. To build or play on that suggestion, perhaps it is when the three communities are together, welcoming one another, that one can see God in the flesh. In the act of receiving one another, even in the differences and particularities that estrange us, we receive Abraham’s hospitality anew, and give Abraham new children. Before these texts and before one another, we are both host and guest.
And Sarah? Would there be “Abrahamic” hospitality without her? Her reactions to the visitors in the biblical and Qur’anic narratives indicate the complex, embodied dimensions of hospitality. In his notes for a recent seminar, Derrida analyzes the place of laughter in hospitality: to welcome the other without laughing, without joy, would be inhospitable.  Sarah’s laughter at the announcement of Isaac, then, may be central to the Genesis 18-19 story, as a joyous welcoming of the other. Alternatively, one could argue that hospitality that happily expects the other, and thus bears no cost or expects no change on the part of the host, is inhospitable. The other who is welcomed may be hostile, or may bring news that is tragic or painful. In Surah 51 of the Qur’an, Abraham’s wife (not named in the English translation) cries at the news of an unexpected son; the welcome of the other is not simply joyous, as the opening of new worlds and relations involves danger and risk as well as hope. Hospitality, in these narratives, involves either laughter or crying, and in both cases it includes an embodied receptivity.
These complex or conflicting responses of Sarah represent the situation and task for scriptural reasoners today. A number of serious concerns surround contemporary scriptural reasoning: hostility after September 11 th , including the military actions in Afghanistan deterioration of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and the India-Pakistan conflict, to name just a few in the political realm. Any one of these would be enough to make one cry. However, even while writing in times of crisis, several commentators turned to humor (see Pecknold, Elkins, and Lindbeck’s discussion of their essays). To remember humor, and to hope for unexpected joy even in the midst of tragedy or crisis, may be necessary to remember Sarah’s role in Abrahamic hospitality. Crying, laughter, embodied hospitality: do our diverse, finite welcomes of the divine make space for welcoming one another, through which we may more fully welcome the divine into our midst? Such, it seems to me, is the wager of scriptural reasoning: the multiplicity of our embodied reactions, and the variety of our methods of reasoning and interpretation, together testify to the divine hospitality in which we live, move, and have our being.