William Elkins and Willie Young

“I am a man: I hold that nothing human is alien to me.”

“Peace be to you and peace be to your house, and peace be to all that you have.” — I Samuel 25:6

In a multicultural context this ancient bit of Roman philosophy is not as useful as it once was. If we take it as a rule for reasoning, expecting the same rather than the strange, we will miss the many different ways humans are human. This is particularly true when one vital difference between human beings is the different ways we are formed in the image of God. In fact, even when we share the same traditions, e.g. the Abrahamic traditions, at times we will be at a loss to understand what a particular issue is and why it is as important as it is. We have much to learn from each other. We have much to learn about each other. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fail. But as important as our work is academically, our successes and failures have deep implications for the possibilities of peace between our houses. This is what makes the difficulties we have understanding each other so potentially tragic. It is at this point that charity must guide our interpretations.

It may be, however, that the real wisdom in “nothing human is alien to me” is in its comedy. The drama in how we get to know what we know of each other may be more comic than anything else. Even our best interpretations often miss the point and we find ourselves hopelessly lost in translation. Here our only hope is in a faith that our mistakes and failures are part of a divine comedy: that every difference fits within God’s joyful “good, very good” when God appraised the creation.

But what can we say about what we know about God’s revelations to the Children of Abraham when one aspect of our traditions is that God’s ways are not our ways. One response is to recognize that in any narrative history of how we know God, we are not the heroes. There is something going on which is a mystery of the Spirit. We must acknowledge the difficulties we have in knowing God’s ways for ourselves and, most importantly, for each other. We should, however, continue to try to explicate and interpret our ways to each other because we no longer have a choice. God’s ways is not our ways. We can say it is too difficult, too painful, with too little success in a time of international religious conflict, but, we cannot give up because God would not permit us to give up on each other.

For example, in the gospel of Mark, it is possible to read Jesus’ despair at the difficulties of the task of teaching the disciples the ways of God’s kingdom.The essay of Mike Higton provides the exegetical details of the impossible necessity that marks the drama of this gospel. It is traditionally noted that Markan exegesis is divided between the failure of the disciples and the ultimate success, in the world beyond the gospel, of Jesus’ mission to make ordinary men faithful to the call/teaching of God. The difficulty in the story is that Jesus was a man and that nothing human (ignorance, vanity and violence) was alien to him (friends or enemies were not exempt); however, “being human” and all that implies is not what the gospel is about. Mark’s gospel is “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”This gospel is something more than a lesson plan for instruction of the disciples. The gospel is about what it requires from us and from God if we’re ever going to learn anything at all. This is the cross. But it is also a work of divine mystery, in all its tragedy and comedy, the essence of which is the resurrection. The gospel of Mark is the story of how the cross and the resurrection teach us about how God’s ways are not our ways but are for Christians, a way of life.

But this is just one way of interpreting the ways we are human, particularly when what is human is the result of the ways God is involved in our lives. As Vincent Cornell writes, Qur’anic learning requires an awareness of the multiple dimensions through which one learns of God?scholarship, practice, and worship foremost among them. The emphasis on “remembrance,” as an internalization of divine truth, demands a humility of scholars, in recognizing that learning with one’s mind is as much a limit as a path for learning the ways of God. Moreover, Cornell’s essay emphasizes the diverse sources one must consider in learning and teaching; learning attends to both the Qur’an and the book of the world.

In light of Cornell’s discussion, the significance of scriptural reasoning as an intercommunal form of learning emerges. Practicing scriptural reasoning recognizes that our learning has not been fully informed by the book of the world, or an openness of our hearts. This is, one could say, a problem of both the academy and of religious learning, as neither has attended adequately to the diverse forms of learning of these traditions. Learning, and understanding, how others read and hear both their own and our scriptures, intensifies the relationship between the books of scripture and the world. [1]

It is along these lines that Steve Kepnes raises important questions regarding the reading of Deuteronomy 6. The reading of this text has been liturgically shaped; one is to obey the infinite command to keep the words of the Shema always before one’s mind, through a range of daily practices and liturgical reflection. Liturgy and reasoning, then, go hand in hand, in a way the academy may often ignore. At the same time, he recognizes that the command’s infinity calls for engaging with how others read this, and to consider the impact of the command in the broader world. Formation in liturgy leads toward hearing the Shema’s resonances in other communities, linking “learning” and “doing.”

If scriptural reasoning thus shapes how we learn and study, then it may also change how we understand the relationship between scripture and teaching. Kathy Ehrensperger’s essay, while not directly a part of the teaching and learning discussion, exemplifies how scriptural reasoning may re-vision our understandings of scriptural and traditional texts. Her argument that Paul’s work is more fully understood through the paradigm of scriptural reasoning?as learning in the language of scripture, and teaching others scripturally?builds on and yet transforms the standard views of Paul’s “uses” of scripture in contemporary biblical studies. It thus points us toward how scriptural reasoning may change how we teach and learn, in and with the academy. It also suggests how such study may continue to develop our teaching of the scriptures and tradition, through the deepened engagement that scriptural reasoning makes possible. More deeply, perhaps this re-visioning of Paul suggests that if “nothing human is alien” to us, it is only because our humanity, and ways of relating to other humans and God, are deeper and more complex than we ever know on our own, and the journey into this shared strangeness is where peaceableness may be learned.

Note: We would like to thank Irish Biblical Studies for permitting us to reprint Kathy Ehrensperger’s essay. It originally appeared in IBS 26: 1 (2004).

[1] Along these lines, see also Mike Higton’s essay, “Can the University and the Church Save Each Other?” Cross Currents 55:2 (2005): 172-83.