Response to the Papers by Kepnes, Richardson and Umar

David Ford
Cambridge University

I am fascinated by the difference between Kepnes, on the one hand, and Richardson and Umar on the other, and by the connection between this difference and the character of Scriptural Reasoning.

Multiple Readings

Kepnes offers multiple readings of Adam, ‘the perfect figure for midrash’, drawing on rabbinic and contemporary sources. There is a rich series of interpretations: the ‘Let us?’ as addressed to humans, signifying a process of co-creation; male and female created in equality; the instrumental understanding of ‘image’ as a mold or form; the likeness as the power to comprehend and discern, or even more comprehensively as being open like God, free to change, develop, do new things; the likeness as lying outside the self in acts of relating to God and others that can be new moment by moment, a relating whose tendencies toward good and imperative to resist evil are to be informed by the heteronomous Torah; and the likeness as ‘a spark of diversity which makes us uniquely us’, even to the extent of suggesting that ‘every person is equal in complexity and unity to the creation of a whole world’.

Kepnes then tells us what the Adam of midrashic imagination is doing in Eden: ‘admiring the glory of creation, composing and reciting psalms, and contemplating the majesty of God’, resting, praying, studying Torah and performing mitsvot. Eve courageously meets the serpent and interprets the word of God, and uses her freedom to take a radical initiative.

The Point for Scriptural Reasoning

This set of readings culminates with reference to the specific community of Scriptural Reasoning ?- and it is noteworthy that Kepnes’ paper is the only one of the three that treats Scriptural Reasoning explicitly. SR is seen, analogously to oral torah among Jews, as ‘a kind of super-midrash’ requiring the courage of Eve and the piety of Adam. And the practical point for our AAR meeting of all those references to co-creation, equality, discernment, freedom to do new things, responsible action, and complex uniqueness is beautifully revealed: if scripture witnesses to that sort of humanity then there are radical consequences for how we understand scripture itself as we grapple with the splits and fissures in our societies and religions – ‘scripture does not want to fix the problem by itself. It wants us to live up to our potential by figuring out the solution ourselves.’ This is a scripture that corresponds to the humanity Kepnes finds in Adam and Eve. But it is unlikely that one set of human beings alone can live up to this, and getting the Abrahamic communities together in conversation about their scriptures and about the splits and fissures is at least a beginning.

The Contrast with Richardson and Umar

??????????? The key contrast with Richardson and Umar to which I want to draw attention will unfortunately ignore many of the fine things they say in order to make one main point, though I will also later find in them signs of convergence with Kepnes.

Richardson begins with two key texts, John 1:1-18 and Colossians 1:15-20, and, by way of a range of discussions of them and of elements in the traditions of interpretation, concludes with eight theses.

Umar does something similar in a more Abrahamic mode, beginning from Jewish, Christian and Islamic scriptures, moving on to focus on some key Islamic texts and concepts, and synthesising his understanding of common humanity shared by all three faiths around the idea of the Universal or Perfect or Primordial or pontifical Man, a concept that, he contends, has been especially decomposed and disfigured in the modern West.

So the movement in both is from scriptural texts to strongly unitary, cognitive affirmations in the indicative mood, presented as generally true conclusions.

Questions about the Contrast

Some of the questions that this contrast raises for me are:

  • What happens to multiple readings and varied traditions of interpretation in the approaches of Richardson and Umar?
  • Might there be different conceptions of scripture, text, meaning, and hermeneutics in Richardson and Umar over against Kepnes?
  • Might these different conceptions in turn be correlated (as made explicit by Kepnes) with differing ideas of humanity, especially human beings as responsible interpreters of scripture? Might there also be different ideas of God?
  • How do we assess the use of strongly unitary, cognitive affirmations of a doctrinal nature within each of the three faith traditions and in their conversations with each other?
  • What is the significance of the fact that Kepnes is oriented neither to a set of doctrinal theses nor to a synthetic general idea of humanity but to the practice of scriptural reasoning in the specific context of contemporary problems and divisions? What does he lose by failing to have a doctrinal or synthetic moment presented as ‘the meaning’ of the scriptural texts? What do Richardson and Umar lose by failing to relate their conclusions either to the solution of specific problems in contemporary history or to the practice of scriptural reasoning?

Signs of Convergence

??????????? The above simple contrast fails to do full justice to Richardson and Umar, and in fact there are signs of convergence between them and Kepnes, some of which will be noted now.

Blessing and the Holy Spirit

??????????? Richardson quotes richly from Patristic writers, in particular Gregory of Nyssa and Irenaeus. The quotation from Nyssa speaks of humanity as ‘a second blessed by participation in the Truly Blessed, having come to be in the likeness of that blessedness’ and, being ‘an image of the transcendent blessedness’, ‘is imprinted by the same goodness and beauty, when in itself it shows forth the characteristic qualities of that blessedness.’ If this image of superabundant blessing is linked with Kepnes’ reference to the blessing of Abraham through which all nations are to be blessed, then it might be possible to imagine that one form of the manifold richness of historical blessing flowing from Abraham is to be seen in the flowering of midrashic interpretation in which Kepnes revels and upon which he improvises.

This might be reinforced by Richardson’s second quotation from Irenaeus about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit perfecting humanity. The effects of the Holy Spirit might be seen in Richardson’s first key text, John 1:1-18 . If the author of the Fourth Gospel is (as we must assume) seeing himself among those who, as he writes, are being ‘led into all the truth’ by the Holy Spirit (John 16:13), then the Prologue to his Gospel might be an example of what being led into all the truth by the Holy Spirit might involve. Those eighteen verses are an extraordinary interweaving of references to his scriptures, above all to Genesis, the Wisdom literature and Exodus. But they are by no means simply quotations: they might best be seen as Christian midrash, daringly improvising on the very first verse of Genesis, and reconceiving God, creation and redemption in the light of Jesus Christ. As if that is not enough he also inspires a complex tradition of engagement between Christian theology and the best thinking beyond Christianity by using as his key term ‘logos’, which has profound resonances in both the Septuagint and Greek philosophy. If the Holy Spirit continues to lead into all the truth through such daring midrash and intellectual engagement then one challenge for Christian interpreters today is not only to say and synthesise what the Fourth Gospel and its later interpreters say but also to do something comparable today to what it did in its context. Might Kepnes’ account of the practice of scriptural reasoning be in line with this?

Opening Up to Infinite Possibility

Umar has similar signs of a superabundance that is hard to imagine being contained in any human synthesis and must therefore be continually open to new flowering of non-competitive, complementary or contrapuntal meanings. He stresses that the Qur’an works as ‘not a closing down, but an opening up’ and refers to 6:125: ‘Whomsoever God desires to guide, He expands his breast to Islam; whomsoever He desires to misguide, He makes his breast narrow, tight.’ He interprets this as opening up to ‘everything good, positive, praiseworthy, and lovable’. He further speaks of one aspect of Islam’s vision of human perfection being? ‘infinite possibility’ in line with the reality of God. There is much else in Umar’s fascinating paper that might point in this direction, but with regard to scriptural reasoning I will conclude with a comment on the importance of ‘possibility’ in our dialogues around our scriptures.

Conditions for the New Collegiality of Scriptural Reasoning

Might it be that at this stage in the encounter between Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptural reasoners the leading ‘moods’ (in the grammatical sense) should, besides the pervasive interrogative mood, be those most associated with possibility, the subjunctive, midrashic mood of ‘may be’ and ‘might be’ and the optative mood of longing and desire, ‘if only?’?? The other leading moods, the indicative and imperative, are of course of enduring importance, but there are risks of breakdown in dialogue if they become dominant at this stage. Each of our hermeneutical traditions has abundant resources for interrogative, subjunctive and optative engagements with each other.

It is hard to think of precedents in history for Jews, Muslims and Christians coming together year after year, in settings that are recognised as ‘mutual ground’, in order to share their scriptures and their traditions and theories of hermeneutics. The problems between the three have built up over centuries and are being accentuated in many contexts today. The magnitude of the task of peaceful conversation, centred on scriptures and leading into all the spheres to which the scriptures are relevant, is daunting; but it would not be surprising if it required a mutually respectful collegiality shaped by the desire for a peace that God desires and by an exploration that is prepared to be open to many possibilities and resist (in the name of God’s future) the temptation to premature closure.??????

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