Response to American Academy of Religion session on “Scripture and Democracy”

Nick Adams,
University of Edinburgh

I have two points. The first is that these papers are instructively not about democracy. The second is that they exemplify a practice of making their traditions’ deep reasonings public.

1: How these papers are not yet about democracy.

Randi Rashkover’s paper is about land and holdings, and she warns us that reasonings from Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 risk masking the crucial theme of land. The argument is not that one needs to pay attention to scriptures which treat the question of land. The argument is more radical: land is significant for worship, which means it is bound up with the very identity of Israel as a worshipping people. This is dangerous territory in a conversation between members of the three Abrahamic traditions. Almost, but not quite, irresponsible. What makes it not irresponsible? Professor Rashkover raises the possibility that it should be equally significant for Christians, who too easily forget the land. And not only Christians, but Muslims too. Professor Rashkover’s reasonings lead to a renewed attentiveness to scriptures in all three traditions that treat questions of holdings and what she calls their ‘doxological significance’: their centrality to worship and relation to God.

But it is not about democracy. Not yet. At this early stage of reasoning from scripture it is about holdings, and the ways in which land is shared. If we are led deeper into Leviticus by Professor Rashkover’s paper we will discover all sorts of things about strangers, orphans, slaves, debtors and all in relation to the land. This, many of us might think, is a good way to start thinking about the kinds of theme that will eventually be more explicitly about democracy.

Mohammad Azadpur’s paper is about unity and difference. It is about judging between peoples concerning ‘the Book’ (Sura two) and about confirming ‘the scripture that came before it’ in other traditions (Sura five). Professor Azadpur propels us deeper into the Qur’anic text to discover what kind of wisdom this is. What is the significance of the multiple messengers in verse 213 of Sura two? What are we to make of the fact that in this very passage, often seen as a sign of intolerance, Allah sent not merely warnings but glad tidings to other nations? If there was something, anything, to be glad about in these nations, then this is a strange sign of intolerance. In Sura five, what is the relation between law and scripture? Why is it an Open Way? Why is it a race? Is it the same kind of race as Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 9, or the ‘straining forward’ of Philippians 3? Here the Qur’an propels one not only deeper into itself, but invites all the traditions to investigate what their scriptures have to say about competition.

But it’s not about democracy. It’s about a race, perhaps competition, unity and difference. Again: this is a good way to start thinking about democracy, without knowing in advance what one should think.

Chad Pecknold’s paper reasons from Genesis with the help of Augustine. He draws attention to the relationship between freedom and humility and the ways in which this generates a certain understanding of politics. Of the three papers it is the most emphatic about reading scripture through the tradition of commentary. But it is also the paper that is least about democracy, in a way. It does not rush to ‘apply’ its insights in any hasty overcooked way. It reasons in an exemplary fashion from the texts, and we are drawn to reason further from the texts. Might an attentiveness to humility and freedom lead to reflections on democracy? Of course, but in the paper: not yet. There is a fascinating reserve here.

So: none of the papers is about democracy. And this is instructive for how we reason from scripture in contexts where crises are real. And the crisis over democracy is certainly real. Why is it such a slow process?

2. How these papers make their traditions’ deep reasonings public.

The traditions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — are not only forbiddingly complex, filling many libraries with their histories. They are diverse and are changing under our very noses. Getting to know each other’s traditions in the public sphere and in an intelligible way is a vital task. These papers exemplify a process of making deep reasonings public. It is a process. And it is only possible through attentive conversation. It seems very well served by attentiveness to scripture, and the reasoning-conversations that emerge. By reasoning from Leviticus, Suras two and five, and Genesis, in public, interesting relations are formed. There is a transmission of information too, of course. But the nature of the relations is explicitly part of the process, and that may be as significant as the information content. Making deep reasonings public is just as much about relations as it is about facts.

In one way this is quite an unusual format for AAR/SBL. There’s something slightly counter-intuitive about three papers whose job is not to invite discussion about themselves, but to propel participants deeper into their own traditions, in a forum in which they are invited to be more public about them than they normally are.

But in another way, this is the consummation of the format of AAR/SBL. It happens from time to time, in some sessions, that in the discussion after some papers, one dreads the question session after the papers have been delivered. Some questioners find it most difficult to ask questions about the papers, but instead wish to pose different questions, pointing to different avenues of exploration, often entirely ignoring the initial presentations.

And in scriptural reasoning that’s exactly what needs to happen. We have the texts from Leviticus, Genesis and Suras two and five before us. Precisely what our excellent papers invite us to do is join in with our reasoning from these texts, differently, and in ways that might well strongly contradict what our three generous speakers have claimed. In the AAR that can sometimes be evidence of compulsive egotism mingled with guilt. Here, it is evidence of the texts’ compelling attractiveness, mingled with joy at discovering each others’ traditions’ deep reasonings. We may not get to democracy, but the practice itself, if we do it well, seems to model something remarkably like it.

So here is a little question. Which should we prefer? To be given a ringing endorsement of democracy by powerful people whom you may not have elected, and to whom you cannot answer back? Or to be told — rather shown — that democracy is not easily reasoned from scriptures, yet in a forum where even the most timid and seemingly marginal voice is crucial, and which may utterly transform our imaginations about how these ancient texts may speak to us in our current political difficulties?

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