Introduction (1)

Rachel Muers,
University of Exeter, UK

What is the place of religion, and more specifically of religious reasonings, in the contemporary public sphere? What does it mean to read scriptural texts — to read texts as scripture — in a democracy? The impression is sometimes given that such reading is best conducted behind closed doors, and the reasonings associated with it kept firmly behind those doors — so that the readers, when they go out to take their part as citizens in a public sphere, can take their conclusions with them but have to leave their reasoning processes and fundamental assumptions behind in the privacy of their own religious houses. A widespread dissatisfaction with this influential model of how religious traditions and plural democracies relate to each other has given rise to lively discussions in recent years, not least at annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion.

This issue of the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning, based around a session of the Scriptural Reasoning Group at the American Academy of Religion in Philadelphia in November 2005, offers contributions to these discussions from the perspective of scriptural reasoners — in other words, of people who, at least occasionally, are accustomed to venturing from their religious houses bringing their texts, their reading and reasoning processes, and their theological commitments with them. The suggestion here, put most succinctly in Nicholas Adams’ response to the three main articles, is that the process of scriptural reasoning has something to offer to contemporary reflections on democracy — both on democracy in general and on the place of religious reasonings in a democracy.

Randi Rashkover ‘s paper, with the responses to it by Ben Quash and Willie Young , focuses on an inter-reading of Leviticus 25 with its citations and inversions in Isaiah and in Luke’s Gospel. Rashkover undertakes this inter-reading, not only to establish the basis for Jewish and Christian contributions to public discussion of a specific and very pressing issue — that of land-holding and land ownership — but also to suggest to Jews and Christians the “ground” on which they can and should stand to make their contributions to such public discussion. We are, as Young puts it, in a sense “landed” in (perhaps also, landed with?) our own traditions. The texts on land provide a focus for thinking about what it means to take up space in the world as religious communities, unable to avoid making commitments on the material questions with which political discussions deal, but inheriting ways of dealing with these questions that do not necessarily reduce to the terms in which secular debates are couched. As Young suggests on the question of environmental ethics and respect for the land, these religious approaches can themselves help to change the terms of secular debates.

Chad Pecknold and Martin Kavka consider, through a reading of Augustine’s ‘City of God’ and through it of texts from Genesis and Philippians, what can be said from the religious traditions about the nature of political unity, and how this would relate to the intense contemporary discussions of the role of religion in the public sphere. Pecknold articulates an understanding of the City of God as always embedded in, and exercising political responsibility within and for, the particular ‘earthly city’ — this for the sake of bearing witness adequately to the unity of God, and to call the earthly city away from false hypostasisations of its own unity. The challenge, as Kavka points out, is then to articulate how an approach to political life rooted in a particular religious tradition can genuinely make space for the multiplicity of political — and scriptural — reasonings. Once again these papers point us back to particular, ‘unco-ordinated’ (as Kavka puts it) activities that place alongside each other multiple attempts to embody unity — to bear witness in political life to the transcendent unity of God.

Mohammad Azadpur ‘s paper (soon to be followed, d.v., by responses from other scholars) puts forward recognition as a central feature — perhaps, a central virtue — of a political life adequate to the challenge of religious diversity. He finds, in Islamic texts and traditions, deep roots for the virtue of mutual recognition — deeper, he suggests, than in recent attempts, for example by Jeffrey Stout, to reform liberalism from within Western sources. Azadpur draws an Islamic approach to ‘tolerance’ from a close reading of two Qur’anic texts, affirming on the one hand the relatedness of all peoples before God and on the other hand the revelations given by God to various historical communities. As Adams notes, the paper in its form (close reading of Qur’anic texts) as well as in its content prompts a comparable attention to other particular traditions; can this approach to “recognition” itself be recognised therein?

This journal issue is offered, then, not as a completed contribution to the debate about religion and democracy (if it can fairly be said to be one debate), but more as a set of pointers towards ways of practicing religious reflection that can inform and perhaps transform democratic life.

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© 2006, Society for Scriptural Reasoning