Scriptural Reasoning as a Desert Practice: Learning to Read in Uncharted Territory

Jim Fodor,
St. Bonaventure University


Scriptural Reasoning might be described as a kind of desert practice. Most directly, of course, desert names a territory, a geographical region; but it also serves as a trope, a symbolic space suggesting, on the one hand, unfamiliarity, risk, danger, absence, loss and, on the other, the unexpectedness of encounter, the surprise of revelation, the promise of renewal and transformation. Just as deserts are hazardous places of pilgrimage, meeting, and testing, they are likewise regions that occasion opportunities for repair, strengthening, fresh beginnings, hope. The role of desert and wilderness is pervasive in the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This oscillation between place and space that is desert opens up promising avenues for exploration, a few of which I would like to explore in this essay.

By making productive the ambiguity intrinsic to the desert/wilderness trope, by turning it into something of a dialectic, I will take up the charge given to me by the editors of this journal “to consider and reflect on the possible fruits of the practice of scriptural reasoning as a biblical hermeneutics and therefore as a legitimate part of the conversation within contemporary academic biblical scholarship.” My aim, then, is to outline how the desert/wilderness motif might facilitate a mutually productive interchange between Scriptural Reasoning and more traditional academic methods of engaging scripture that draw primarily upon modern methodologies of history, philology and, more recently, literary criticism and the social sciences. In order to be fruitful, however, this engagement cannot proceed as a direct, face-to-face conversation, for dyadic encounters tend all too often to court stalemates—devolving frequently into disputes over who should control a contested piece of academic turf. What is needed if the conversation is to bear fruit is a “third” party in order that the engagement might be a mediated interchange-but not in a way that the “third” simply serves as a catalyst, facilitating the interaction but never really taking part itself. No, mediated interchange of the kind envisioned here must be genuine in a way that the “third” also plays a substantive and integral part, where it too is open and makes itself vulnerable to being corrected, enlarged and extended along with the other two. Here I will argue that the natural sciences and the spiritual traditions of the Abrahamic faiths constitute a vital “third” to what potentially might become a mutually corrective and generative encounter between Scriptural Reasoning and contemporary academic biblical scholarship.

My thesis is this: because Scriptural Reasoning has in a relatively short span of time successfully developed a practice of taking up several “reading regimes” at once, it holds out a promising model for enabling conversations across several disciplines or traditions of inquiry. However, because Scriptural Reasoning has not yet fully thematized all the reading regimes implicit in its own purview, it too stands in need of supplementation through conversations with, among other modes of inquiry, the natural sciences. Likewise, Scriptural Reasoning stands in need of supplementation “from within,” so to speak; i.e., a retrieval internal to the Abrahamic traditions, of spiritual attitudes, virtues, dispositions and habits as exhibited, for example, in the lives of the desert fathers. This “double supplementation”-comprising both the spiritual and the scientific-holds out a promising prospect for re-conceiving and re-aligning, in complementary and beneficial ways, the relation between the academic study of scripture and Scriptural Reasoning. One possible by-product might also involve a re-thinking of the present cleavage within the university; namely the arts/sciences divide.

Wilderness and the “Placement” of Reading

The first prong of the “double supplementation” comes via the desert fathers and mothers; in particular, the spiritual disciplines, dispositions and modes of attention they cultivated in the wilderness. Here I draw on the work of Belden Lane, Douglas Burton-Christie, and others. What this desert tradition of spirituality offers to Scriptural Reasoning and present-day academic biblical scholarship alike is the challenge to extend the range and variety of our cherished reading regimes-especially as those are currently conceived and ordered within the Arts/Humanities. A desert spirituality stretches and disrupts these received modes of reading in three primary ways. It does so, first, by pressing the indispensable role of physical “place” in reading, encouraging both Scriptural Reasoning and academic biblical scholarship to give more sustained attention to the materiality of territory, geography, physical place in their own reading practices. It does so, second, by spurring interest in how the “placement” or “positioning” of reading calls for a more expansive, robust understanding, one that does justice to the socially-embedded aspects of reading vis-à-vis its physical location and varied forms of material embodiment. A desert spirituality stretches received modes of reading, third, by focusing on reading’s “placement” not in its sheer physicality or spatial location as such but with regard to how tradition-specific virtues, attitudes and dispositions are acquired and transmitted across generations.

The second prong of the “double supplementation” comes via the natural sciences insofar as they offer modes of inquiry concomitant with practices of attentiveness and collegiality that often go unrecognized or, if recognized, remaining under-developed in the humanities. Indeed, by re-thinking received academic divisions within the modern university between arts and sciences, which are relatively recent historical developments, the possibilities for strengthening and extending the mutually reinforcing reasonings, dispositions, habits and modes of inquiry promoted by academic investigation are greatly enhanced. Here I take a page from the work of David Ford on the role of Scriptural Reasoning in the modern university. [1] Situating “reading” within its wider historical, institutional trajectories and forms of life, then, is one promising way of reconceiving the mutually productive possibilities of interdisciplinary engagement within the arts/humanities and the sciences. This is far too vast an investigation to be taken up within the confines of this essay. My present aim is much more modest; namely, to show how the intersections and overlappings among various reading regimes can be set into productive relation if one explores family relationships among key core values that inform the university. The magnitude and depth of the cross-fertilization between key academic values is in large part a function of the extent to which multiple overlappings linking various reading regimes can be identified and unthematized. Indeed, a good part of the problem is the result of a highly attenuated understanding of reading that prevails in the academy; namely, reading narrowly delimited to the practice of decoding linguistic signs on a page. As long as this kind of construal remains normative, the reciprocal interactions and deepening mutualities here considered will simply not happen. More robust, precise and full-bodied accounts of reading regimes-both within and without the academy, but also across set academic and disciplinary divisions-are required. “Reading for comprehension” must be complemented and corrected within a wider “creational semiotics” – i.e., a capacity to read and interpret non-linguistic as well as linguistic signs and events that are spatially related and socially embodied. Understanding reading as fully integral to specific life forms, the materials aspects of whose physical locations are far from incidental to rendering their intelligibility transparent, also helps reinforce and accentuate the vital connections between reading practices and their correlative virtues.

Section One

“The Tent of Meeting”: A Site of Mutually Situated Readings
During its early formative years, Scriptural Reasoning devoted much time to thinking through the ways in which the multiple “belongings” of its practitioners overlapped and interacted. We tried to name, as accurately as we could, the peculiar “spheres” we inhabited in order to identify the several purposes for crossing from one sphere to another, and to articulate the specific conditions (occasions, purposes, motivations) that made these boundary-crossings happen. We also noted the rhythms and regularity of these movements and gave consideration to the relative lengths of time spent in each sphere. A typology of sorts was developed that more or less captured the ways in which practitioners of Scriptural Reasoning “are simultaneously members of a synagogue, church or mosque (“houses”), of a university (“campus”), and of a scriptural reasoning group (“tent”).” [2] This last category—the “tent” – which is a shorthand for “the tent of meeting” – alludes, on the one hand, to Moses’ place of meeting with God in the wilderness (Exod. 18) and, on the other, to Abraham’s place of meeting with the three visitors by the oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18:1-16), also textually placed as a desert encounter. Hence, encountering the divine and hosting the other mark important features of Scriptural Reasoning’s distinctive mode of reading and engagement. However, for Scriptural Reasoning, “the tent of meeting” is not primarily conceived in reference to a geographical locale. Rather, “the tent of meeting” serves as a trope for the kind of institutional space created whenever Jews, Christians and Muslims gather to read, study and discuss their scriptures together. [3] It follows that if reading consists of specific forms of life – i.e., embodied practices ensconced within particular social relations – then those groups of readers so related necessarily find themselves physically and geographically at some particular place. More later on this dialectic between “space” and “place.” Scriptural Reasoners discovered that a distinctive, if not the singularly defining feature of this “space” dubbed “the tent of meeting” was the way in which it engaged its practitioners in a three-way movement of hospitality that none of them had quite encountered before-either in their religious “houses” (synagogue, church or mosque) or on their “campuses.” [4]

“The tent of meeting” became a space where no one person or group of persons from the three gathered traditions could ever claim to be in charge or authorized to make definitive pronouncements on what these texts meant, even texts of their own tradition. In other words, participating in the hospitality of the tent left everyone relatively unsettled and displaced in several important ways. One of the chief reasons for this unsettlement derived from the fact that all those who gathered found themselves to some extent “reading out of place” with respect to the received, normative reading regimes of their respective “houses” and, perhaps to a lesser extent, “campuses.” This is not to say that “reading out of place” in the tent is only possible upon condition that everyone willfully and consciously leaves behind what they have learned and practiced vis-à-vis reading scripture in these other two “spheres” or “spaces.” No one, in other words, was under the illusion that what was being attempted here was to read the scriptures de novo , as it were, and from a place called “nowhere.” Quite the contrary, far from leaving behind long-established reading skills and discipline-specific knowledges acquired in their respective “houses” and “campuses,” Scriptural reasoners were encouraged to bring to bear their “house” and “campus” reading skills and knowledge to deploy them precisely in these inter-religious encounters but with a clear mandate to make explicit the scriptural logic that animated and impelled their readings of scripture in this new “space.”

Given this common, shared task, the experience of Scriptural Reasoners became less focused on what divided them and more on what together they were jointly pursuing. Indeed, the common project of articulating a scriptural logic helps explain why the experiment in reading scriptures together in “the tent of meeting” was not as disturbing as initially anticipated. Moreover, the lack of dissonance may also have been a function of the way analogous reading practices across “houses” or “campuses” (more specifically, “seminars”) had already been at work preparing the soil for shared experiences and common expectations among Jewish, Christian and Muslim practitioners. The overlappings, it turned out, were indeed numerous, complex and subtle – mitigating to a large extent several sharp discontinuities and obvious differences. Furthermore, the peculiar three-way mode of hospitality practiced in “the tent of meeting” tended to stress common causes and shared responsibilities. Because each tradition is engaged in a mutual hosting of the other two on territory not exactly its own, the goal strangely enough became less about reaching consensus on scriptures’ meaning and more about establishing and maintaining friendships through and because of these scripture texts. Finally, the fact that practitioners of Scriptural Reasoning were drawn together out of a shared conviction that each of the three scriptures has the God of Moses, Jesus and Mohammed as its Ultimate Subject/Object, perhaps explains why similarities rather than differences tended to predominate.

While there may be some justifiable reticence to call the ground on which “the tent of meeting” rests sacred or holy, what is clear in terms of the threefold typology of “tent,” “house,” and “campus” is that the space where reading transpires is anything but neutral. The shared ground of “the tent of meeting” is a powerful space. It is a space that allows for a strengthening of the bonds of relation among the practitioners of Scriptural Reasoning, the melding of hopes, the re-tuning of aspirations, and the mutual disclosure and collective sharpening of shared concerns. The very intensity and extensity (i.e., the release and dispersal) of energies therein experienced also keeps Scriptural reasoners alert and continually open to surprise, to wonder, sometimes to astonishment and its companion joy. Indeed, the experience of reading scripture together in the liminal space called “the tent of meeting” is not only initially but persistently destabilizing and unsettling. All of which is to say that learning what it means to read – in this way , in this place , with these readers , and with a view to one Ultimate Subject/Object – means to eschew domestication of textual meaning and to refuse final circumscription.

Section Two

Reading as a Range of Analogous Practices
Another significant development emerging from these “tent of meeting” encounters, where members of the three Abrahamic traditions were mutually present and open to each others’ readings, is a dawning recognition of just how deeply and pervasively embodied our reading regimes are. This recognition challenges the highly attenuated understandings of what it means to read that tend to predominate in modern western cultures and its institutions of learning, the university being but one example. [5]

A widespread understanding-one that continues to drive educational theory and shape language acquisition curricula from grade school to college-is that reading focally has to do with the cognitive harvesting of information obtained by visually scanning linguistic signs on a printed page, a screen or some other media. While clearly a part of what reading entails, this overly mentalistic and surprisingly myopic and ahistorical account of reading has the unwelcome effect of stripping reading of virtually all of its embodied dimensions and socially embedded characteristics because supposedly occurring within the “mind” (which here stands for the private, interior life of the individual reader). [6] The stress on the “interiorization” of reading renders it more or less invisible and thus in a fundamental way inaccessible, immune from analysis and assessment except in terms of outward behaviors (“products”) thought to be detachable from the event or activity of reading as such. In other words, while the “effects” of reading are generally considered demonstrable and open to analysis and measurement (i.e., “learning outcomes”), reading itself is deemed mysterious and intractably unavailable-or, whatever of it lends itself to description, is reserved to the explanatory categories provided by biology and neuroscience. [7]

Scriptural Reasoning urges a much more thoroughgoing account of reading than that advanced by this dominant, albeit attenuated, view – and for two reasons. First, reading is integral to and indispensable for the distinctive practices of reading and studying scriptures together that constitutes the hallmark of Scriptural Reasoning. To be sure, reading for practitioners of Scriptural Reasoning also includes the visual scanning of marks on a page (of scripture) for cognitive gain, but that is clearly only one dimension and arguably in certain circumstances not even the most important. Second, a central theological conviction grounding the practice of Scriptural Reasoning/reading, a conviction common to all three Abrahamic faiths, is that God’s utterance is the means by which all things come into being and continue to be sustained in being. Indeed, precisely because the logos (the rational principle) of God’s utterance manifests itself in the physical universe, in scripture and in ourselves as readers, it follows that the ability to discern (to apprehend or “read”) but also appropriately to embody these manifold, complex sign-relations should become Scriptural Reasoning’s overarching hermeneutic. Delineating the theological basis for language as a privileged sign-relation cannot detain us here. [8] Suffice it to point out, however, that these sign-relations are material through and through, and that the very materiality of the readers themselves is inextricably and unavoidably part of those relations. How the materiality of these sign relations relate to reading and to reasoning is the subject of what follows.

I would like to begin with a brief survey of the grammar of what it means “to read” as a helpful reminder of just how dense, complex and variegated these material sign relations are. And it is part of Scriptural Reasoning’s task to explicate something of that density and richness-which means giving attention to the “place” as much as to the “space” of reading.

The English verb “to read” exhibits a remarkably wide semantic/somatic range. Each of its uses brings to light a different facet of the manifold sign-relations by which we are constituted and through which we are sustained in being. [9] Generally speaking, “to read” encompasses four broad usages: (1) “to consider, interpret, discern;” (2) “to guess, make out, or tell by conjecture;” (3) “to take for something;” and (4) “to count, reckon, estimate.” A few concrete examples helps flesh out something of the immense range and variety of “readings” that constitute our lives. Beginning from the most familiar use associated with texts and their appropriation, reading means “to scan or study writing silently or (esp. in early use) by oneself or for one’s own benefit.” However, from this one should not assume that “to read” is necessarily a silent or sub-vocal activity; it may also have the sense of uttering or giving voice to a written text. In these uses the bodily performative dimension is clearly underscored. An example might be that of a minister whose habit is to read sermons, instead of preaching extempore or from memory. Still, within an ecclesiatical context, reading may also refer to a particular liturgical role (i.e., reader), one who reads a scripture “lesson.” “Reading” may also be used here and elsewhere with reference to musical rather than linguistic signs, that is, to reading musical notes in order to deliver a vocal or instrumental performance. [10]

Reading also conveys numerous pedagogical associations. “To read,” for instance, may refer to a course of study formally undertaken within a discipline. For instance, a student at a British university might be said to “read history.” [11] Correlatively, a person within that university who teaches pupils might hold the position of “Reader in History,” signifying thereby a lecturer of the highest grade below the rank of professor. These uses show the close connections between “reading” and “study” of a discipline within a shared form of life. Within this shared life-form a common operative skill might be evidenced: namely, the ability to attach “a certain meaning or interpretation to (a text); to take in a particular way.” [12]

There are as well practices of discernment associated with non-linguistic signs, and to those we frequently apply various tropes of reading. We talk, for example, of “reading into” an event or action a meaning beyond what is most immediately depicted “on the surface.” We also speak of “reading another’s mind” by interpreting facial expressions. Numerous other actions and activities similiarly “count” or go under the description of reading. [13] For present considerations-and especially given the interest in the desert fathers and how “place” is integral to their reading practices-let me conclude this brief overview by offering a few observations about the reading of natural signs. In addition to the examples of reading practices delineated above, there is a wide range of practice which entails discernment of meanings in signs of nature or meteriological events. One thinks, for example, of the ability of expert sailors (prior to the advent of sophisticated weather forecasting and communications) who were able to “read” the sky in order to predict the weather. Other examples of reading natural, non-linguistic signs tend to be affiliated with specific crafts or the apprenticed skills typical of journeymen artisans – the woodworker who learns to “read” the grain of the wood he is shaping with a plane; the weaver who learns to “read” the design in order to reproduce it on a loom; the boatman who steers his craft dextrously down river avoiding the rocks in the rapids. [14] The list could be extended at quite some length. [15]

By drawing attention to the highly differentiated grammar of reading, what quickly becomes apparent is that we cannot adequately grasp what reading is without taking into account the many and diverse ways that it is physically embodied and socially embedded. Indeed, acquiring an ability “to read” never occurs apart from or outside a particular form of life within which there have developed, over time, established ways-and, consequently, standards and measures-of judging, refining and transmitting to others the very skills that define and constitute these cases of reading as distinctively different. Hence, to read well means simply the ability to demonstrate a level of proficiency in negotiating a certain set of sign relations – the determination of which presupposes a community of readers and a tradition of reading. When three traditions of reading-Jewish, Christian and Muslim-come together, the conditions are ripe for a “tent of meeting” to occur. What makes this meeting qualitatively different from other forms of inter-religious dialogue concerns the kind of space established. One facet of that intellectual space involves the modern/post-modern academy, and in particular how the practice of Scriptural Reasoning as a biblical hermeneutics might offer an avenue for fruitful conversation within contemporary academic biblical scholarship. However, as I stated at the outset, the conversation between Scriptural Reasoning and academic biblical scholarship is most productively pursued when engaging and welcoming a third party, the natural sciences – which have their own history of reading and indeed a set of established reading regimes and practices. The natural sciences have something substantive and distinctive to offer to this interchange.

Section Three

Learning to Read “Out of Place”: Toward a Creational Semiotics
In the first section of this essay, I provided a brief account of Scriptural Reasoning’s threefold typology of “tent,” “house,” and “campus.” I singled out for especial comment the first of these types because of its figurative function – i.e., the way it designates an institutional space created by Jews, Christians and Muslims gathering to read, study and discuss their scriptures together. To be sure, this “tent of meeting” concentrates more on the social and institutional nature of the interaction (mutual hosting) than on specific physical features or geographical location. But there is nothing in principle that would exclude such a consideration. In fact, my argument is that precisely these factors too need to become more self-reflectively part of Scriptural Reasoning’s ambit. The actual place or setting where these “tent” gatherings have happened vary widely and can, in principle, occur almost anywhere. Nevertheless, in light of the foregoing overview and analysis of the grammar of reading, the “where” of meeting (the actual physical place but also the embodied character of readers and their reading practices) must be given due consideration. Without in any way diminishing or retracting what was claimed earlier about Scriptural Reasoning’s “tent of meeting” constituting a distinctive intellectual space, it also must be affirmed that insofar as intellectual engagement is necessarily embodied, questions of “place” cannot be inconsequential or trivial. Indeed, one way to illuminate the intimate relation of place and space vis-à-vis reading practices is to consider how the desert fathers and mothers inculcated reading skills as part of their regimen of spiritual exercises. It is my contention that the desert fathers and mothers have something vital to contribute to Scriptural Reasoning’s self-understanding inasmuch as the spiritual reading practices of these early Christians are to a large extent unintelligible apart from the physical locale within which they come to expression and in accordance with which they are exercised, understood and appreciated.

A stimulating article by Belden Lane helps make explicit some of the crucial connections between place and the embodiment of virtuous practices of spiritual reading. [16] I follow Lane’s lead here if only to press practitioners of Scriptural Reasoning to take up this ecological/geographical dimension in a more self-conscious, sustained way, with a view to articulating more fully Scriptural Reasoning’s distinctive life-forms, the material conditions constitutive of its own reading practices. [17] This comparative analysis has two important ramifications: first, it shows how reading scriptures in “the tent of meeting” is indissociably tied to, comprises a vital aspect of, a larger creational semiotics. Second, it shows that while place is not necessarily a limiting condition when it comes to being formed in the virtues integral to Scriptural Reasoning, neither is place entirely incidental or dispensable. Refracting these practices through the lens of the desert fathers and mothers, then, leads to a better appreciation of the key virtues operative in this intellectual space dubbed “the tent of meeting.”

In “Backpacking with the Saints: The Risk-Taking Character of Wilderness Reading,” Lane reflects on his experience of venturing into the Missouri Ozarks on a solo backpacking expedition. [18] In addition to bringing along the normal necessary provisions (food, tent, sleeping bag, compass, etc.), Lane also stuffs into his backpack some reading material – “a copy of one of the spiritual classics.” [19] Here, in the Ozark wilderness, what impresses itself upon him most profoundly are the various ways in which “reading becomes a far more participative, and hazardous, activity” than he is usually accustomed to “in the safety of [his] office back home.” [20] What makes his reading experiences so unsettling and charged with disclosive potential is the stark contrast between reading these same texts in his usual, familiar places, “within the safety and containment of city walls,” and his experiences of reading them “in the wild.” [21] Taking his books out into the wilderness where he encounters a deep silence and solitude has for Lane the effect of putting him on edge. Cut off from the safe assurances of the familiar, exposed to the dangers and risks of the wilderness, Lane’s experience of reading is altogether heightened, his attentiveness is sharpened, his imagination stirred, his senses more fully alive, his intimation of the profound interdependence of all living things greatly enhanced. [22] By imitating the experience of the saints-the desert fathers-Lane finds that he is able to cultivate some of the “wilderness virtues which enliven the process of hearing, interpreting, and practicing what one reads.” [23] Indeed, he discovers the profound sense in which “we read with our bodies as much as we do with our minds” and that there is “a complex inter-subjectivity” that “becomes an inextricable dimension of wilderness reading as our bodies relate to the pulsating life-world around us.” [24]

In addition to – or, perhaps more accurately, another aspect of – the experience of reading in a place of exposed vulnerability is the company one keeps. Lane’s community of readers in the Ozark wilderness is comprised of “white-tailed deer in the brush, red-tailed hawks overhead, even the rock itself.” Reference to the land, the physical terrain and topography – e.g., creek beds “lined with Precambrian granite and pink rhyolite, rocks over a billion and a half years old” – invokes, of course, the long tradition, within Christianity at least, of learning to discern God’s presence both in the book of nature and in the book of scripture. As Lane puts it, “[t]he unpredictable land becomes an accompanying text, read alongside the bound volume I carry with me.” “In wilderness, one learns to read the saints through the eyes of nature and the book of nature through the eyes of the saints.” [25] It is this experience of dual or stereoscopic reading in a state of solitude that is key for Lane.

The “new immediacy” to the reading experienced on the trail is, of course, not due exclusively to the harshness of the natural landscape or to the fact that one is physically by oneself, without other human company. [26] Rather, the “new immediacy” is the result of a deepened sense of “reading with” that takes place on two levels: “reading with the grain of the universe,” on the one hand, and “reading with the saints” (i.e., the long history of commentary on scripture within the tradition), on the other. Moreover, one is at the same time emulating, at least to some extent, the very forms of life of the desert fathers, and hence cultivating concomitantly their attendant virtues. It is the conscious imitation of the desert fathers that make possible a “spiritual” reading of these texts. The acquisition of virtues specific to wilderness reading – virtues like haplotes (simplicity and non-attachment, the deliberate abandonment of unimportant things) or agrupnia (the discipline of wakefulness, careful attentiveness to everything around and within oneself) or aphobia (a fearlessness in the face of all threats) [27] – is never an automatic result of back-country experience by itself. As Lane puts it, “We have to disavow any geographical determinism that would privilege wilderness encounters as uniquely and inherently holy. I offer ‘backpacking with the saints’ as simply a metaphor of risk-taking in reading, not claiming an experience in the wild as the only way of discovering such risk.” [28] Although living in an actual wilderness or desert may yield a transformed life in many ways, the kind of reading practices found amongst the desert mystics will not emerge for contemporary readers unless and until that experience of exposed vulnerability is interfused and combined with two other elements: participation in a life of virtue and schooling in the habits of religious reading bequeathed to one by a community of readers. For Lane, such transformed life “can (and often does) emerge from a practice of sustained reading that involves the studied example of the saints, an imaginative interchange with the natural terrain, and a sustained habitus of concentrated practice.” [29]

Lane’s insightful reflections on what might be termed an entire “ecology of reading” -i.e., one that underscores the indissociable relations among persons, places and practices of reading—has much to commend it. These valuable reminders concerning what might be called “the surround” – i.e., the circumambient environs that are at once the context and the subject matter of reading – are by no means secondary or incidental in understanding what is happening in Scriptural Reasoning, in biblical studies as an academic discipline, or for that matter within any other academic discipline of the university. It is all too easy to forget that the material conditions, the physical location, the habitat where reading takes place, is much more than an indifferent setting, a neutral backdrop that simply “contains” something called the reading process but which itself is not integral to or an inherent feature of that process. This assumption needs to be resisted and challenged in the ways that Lane effectively points out. [30]

In addition, what is noteworthy about Lane’s account is not only the contrast between two distinct places of reading (“home” and “wilderness”), but also the rhythm, the timing and the regularity with which he moves between them. The frequency of border crossings are crucial to the kind of hermeneutic implicit in Lane’s practice. The rhythm of reading in solitude, in unfamiliar and hazardous places, alternating with the more familiar and comfortable experience of reading at “home,” tracks an analogous movement in Scriptural Reasoning between “tent,” “house” and “campus.” But Lane’s pattern cannot directly be mapped onto the Scriptural Reasoning model in any simple one-to-one correlation. Nor indeed can Lane’s “desert-fathers-inspired” pattern of reading be transposed onto the pattern of reading regimes endemic to contemporary academic biblical scholarship. Significant differences remain among all three, points where there is an uneasy rubbing and resistance, but also areas where there are opportunities for fertile cross-pollination, reciprocally beneficial intercourse and exchange.

Enlarging the Conversation: Contributions from the Natural Sciences
One of these potentially fruitful crossovers involves Scriptural Reasoning’s focus on inter-faith collegiality intrinsic to reading/reasoning together. The movement between distinct intellectual and institutional spaces enlivens and deepens commitments on many levels, but it also unsettles ingrained habits, challenges long-held assumptions and promotes new styles of relating. As promising as Scriptural Reasoning is, however, extending its mode of engagement only to include contemporary academic biblical scholarship without at the same time engaging other methods of inquiry and reading regimes represented in the academy, runs the risk of artificially delimiting dialogue with the all-too-predictable result that received modes of relating simply become entrenched rather than constructively re-imagined. In short, without expanding the conversation from two to three, the prospect of Scriptural Reasoning’s true potential is curtailed significantly if not cut short altogether. Initiatives that restrict the conversation partners to scriptural reasoners and academic biblical scholars alone will too readily end up either languishing in the shallow, brackish waters of unproductive debate or regressing into yet one further internecine tussle over who gets to control a predefined area of academic turf. By expanding the circle of conversation, one not only forestalls these possibilities but also, and more importantly, moves the discussion forward in a fruitful manner. Indeed, a key aspect of what makes the conversation generative is the setting into play of a larger set of overlapping reading regimes that cuts across the broad institutional divide known as Arts and Sciences.

Here is where David Ford’s work on the negotiating potential of Scriptural Reasoning as a mode of mutual hosting within a negotiable university becomes especially salient. [31] I would like to extend Ford’s analysis, however, by taking up some of the ways in which variegated but familially-related reading regimes – if properly identified, described, analyzed and evaluated – could potentially open up new territory heretofore left uncharted. On the whole, these possibilities lie fallow – to switch from a cartographical to a horticultural metaphor – because of the relatively unquestioned acceptance of inherited institutional divisions that tend to cordon off different kinds of knowledge rather than bringing them into fruitful, reciprocally generative conversation. Too frequently the modern university perpetuates – albeit in most cases inadvertently rather than intentionally – unproductive modes of exchange because too beholden to (in part because largely forgetful of) the ways in which established disciplinary and institutional divisions in the academy are the result of historically contingent developments and are by no means “natural.”

One of the key challenges Ford identifies in “the quest for a wisdom appropriate to universities today,” is the need to develop strategies that will build deep affinities and mutual reinforcements among key core values that have their roots in the medieval university, values which continue to inform, albeit in modified ways, the present-day university. [32] The seven core values Ford identifies are: “rational investigation of the world; ethical values of modesty, reverence, and self-criticism; respect for the dignity and freedom of the individual; rigorous public argument appealing to demonstrated knowledge and rules of evidence; the recognition of the pursuit of knowledge as a public good irreducible to economic interest; the need for continual self-criticism in the course of improving our knowledge; and the value of equality and solidarity.” [33] Crucial to these strategies, according to Ford, is “disciplined, patient attention to the natural and social world,” but also to “[t]he creation and sustaining of physical and social settings where [key core values] actually flourish.” [34] What calls out for more patient and systematic articulation, however, is the way in which Ford’s key core values are exemplified across a wide range of reading regimes that do not neatly fall on one side or the other of the Arts/Sciences bifurcation. In fact, the disciplinary settlements of universities that reflect a stark curricular separation are of very recent vintage. [35] C. P. Snow’s famous 1959 Rede Lecture in Cambridge, “The Two Cultures,” perhaps best epitomizes the way in which the institutional gulf between Arts and Sciences tends to manifest itself more as a dichotomy than as a series of overlapping affinities or analogous practices. Snow’s characterization of how intellectual life in Western society was increasingly being split into two polar groups – natural scientists and literary intellectuals – then sparked off a heated exchange with F. R. Leavis. But the fact that that debate has continued for several decades afterwards, and well beyond the confines of Cambridge, is evidence of having struck a very deep chord indeed. But what is often overlooked here is that the Arts and Science demarcation is by no means a universal, timeless one. [36]

In the fifty years since Snow delivered his Rede Lecture, the relationship between the sciences and the humanities has been transformed in rather complex ways. For example, “large groups of scholars in the humanities have moved closer to science. Archaeology and art history have become increasingly dependent on physical and chemical investigations of artifacts, and computerized textual analysis has had a profound influence on linguistics.” [37] But emerging alongside these new forms of cooperation, hybrid disciplines (e.g., bioinfomatics and bioengineering) and re-alignments of institutional boundaries is a better appreciation of the centrality of particular epistemic virtues and values that transcend the Humanities/Science divide. [38] Take, for example, the epistemic virtues of rigor, certainty, objectivity, measurability, predictability and explanatory power – all of which have typically been ascribed to “the sciences.” As historians and philosophers of science have long appreciated, not to mention laboratory technicians and scientists working “on the ground,” these widely shared values are by no means “trans-temporal even within a single discipline like physics. In fact, [these epistemic virtues] are not even universal at any given time – botany, string theory, biophysics, and inorganic chemistry in 2008 are not necessarily committed to the same virtues. Instead of pursuing a doomed search for a bright line of demarcation that would pick out all and only ‘science,’ we might do better to think of these scientific values and virtues as forming a family (in the Wittgensteinian sense).” [39] In short, modes of inquiry are “joined by piecewise-shared epistemic virtues,” which means that the sciences and the humanities cannot rightly be conceived of as two separate, “sharply and eternally isolated form[s] of practice.” [40]

Rather than pursuing the futile question, “What are the delineating features that mark off the sciences from the humanities?” a more fruitful path would be to ask “How do the forms of adequate argumentation lay out at particular times and places?” [41] By identifying and describing how “clusters” or “families” of epistemic virtues differentially work together, at certain times and with respect to specific problems or issues, a greater appreciation and understanding can be gained for how modes of human inquiry are materially embedded in social and cultural life-forms, structures and institutions. That is to say, explicating for each major mode or method of inquiry “a practice-based set of conditions of intelligibility” effectively accentuates a certain set of epistemic virtues as distinctive – not in a way that allows or even encourages us to identify them as belonging especially to the prerogative of scientists over against scholars in the arts and humanities, or vice versa, but more in a way that enables us to understand more fully how these virtues and values enter our reasonings through more prosaic practices, habits, dispositions and ways of being. These distinguishable but interconnected forms of life, moreover, intersect and overlap in ways that are “partially shared between scientific knowledge and the wider worlds of learning, culture, politics, and material culture.” Hence, other epistemic virtues and values “alongside objectivity, mathematization, and prediction – such as beauty, relevance, referentiality, reflectability, logic, counter-intuitivity, simplicity,…[etc.]” also find their rightful place and appropriate means of expression within and among them. [42]

This broad range of epistemic values and virtues that animates and informs human inquiry might be parsed more fruitfully than the current Arts/Sciences divide allows in terms of distinctive yet partially-overlapping sets of reading practices. At least, this has been the argument of this essay. What Ford, Harman, Galison and Blair have argued in terms of “core values” or “epistemic virtues,” I have advanced in terms of “reading regimes.” The peculiar style of reading developed by Scriptural Reasoning is sufficiently similar too, yet also importantly different from, those displayed by the desert fathers (and their late-modern imitators, such as Belden Lane); but also different from those exhibited by contemporary biblical scholars in the academy, which are yet again different from the reading regimes of, say, scientists involved in DNA-based computation. But the virtues and values cultivated through their respective life-forms and embodied in their differentiated reading practices are mutually productive in a number of ways. Let me conclude by describing, at least provisionally and in the most general of outlines, what those relations might look like.

Toward a Conclusion: Multiple Overlappings – Values, Spiritualities, Reading Habits
Scriptural Reasoning’s contribution to contemporary biblical studies is promising to the extent that it displaces the still-too-dominant paradigm of the lone, individual scholar as the idealized form of reading and writing what has come to be identified as the domain of Arts/Humanities. In its place, Scriptural Reasoning introduces an enriched, highly collaborative and collegial model of reading, research and writing across but also within several institutional spaces (“campus,” “house” and “tent”). Likewise, if the contribution to Scriptural Reasoning by the desert fathers’ tradition (as so fruitfully retrieved by Belden Lane and others) is to emphasize the indispensability of “apprenticeship and formation in place” in reading practices, to articulate the ways physical location and material relations shape not only how one reads but what one reads, and as a result who one becomes, then this would vitally help to inflect and nuance more richly the sense in which the different institutional spaces identified as “tent,” “house,” and “campus” are always and inescapably “grounded” in the material world. In other words, by its reminders of how reading practices can never be finally or fully divorced from the natural world, an understanding of the social-political or cultural features of reading is enriched and deepened significantly.

This focus on the materiality and physicality of signs and their relations also directly feeds into and at the same time refashions the virtues of attentiveness thought to be crucial to the three-way hosting displayed in “the tent of meeting.” But again it would be important to remember – by virtue of engaging the various reading regimes of scientists who exercise analogous epistemic virtues (e.g., patient attention to observing, classifying, describing, analyzing and explaining the natural world – say, Belden Lane’s creek beds “lined with Precambrian granite and pink rhyolite, rocks over a billion and a half years old”) – that scientific modes of inquiry exhibit qualities of reading not all that removed from those exercised within Scriptural Reasoning or within academic modes of textual/biblical scholarship. Conversely, the sense of risk, adventure and vulnerability that comes from “reading out of control” that is Lane’s experience, following the practice of the desert fathers “reading in the wild,” mirrors but at the same time extends the sense of “reading out of control” that attends the mutual hosting experienced in the “tent of meeting.” The cultivating of distinctively cenobitic virtues specific to wilderness reading – virtues such as haplotes (simplicity and non-attachment,) or agrupnia (the discipline of wakefulness, careful attentiveness to everything around and within oneself) or aphobia (a fearlessness in the face of all threats) may not correlate in every respect either with contemporary reading practices characteristic of the humanities or with modes of inquiry distinctive to the natural sciences. But there are clear and definite analogous links here – in particular, apprenticeship and Bildung (formation) that are inextricably part of acquiring the appropriate habits, dispositions, attitudes and ways of being that make for a good text scholar or a good scientist. Consider, for example, the strong affinity between the virtue of agrupnia , as found among the desert fathers, and the prized value of “objectivity” among well-trained scientists – where objectivity designates “a view of the world given through a kind of will to will-lessness, a maximal exertion of self-restraint so that our own will to aestheticize, improve, or confirm a theory not interfere with a kind of purified receptivity.” [43]

Contemporary academic biblical scholarship’s contribution both to Scriptural Reasoning and to spiritual traditions of reading (exemplified, for example, by the desert fathers) is to insist on the indispensable importance of establishing the literal or “plain sense” of scripture. This is a welcome reminder that symbolic or figurative or tropological readings cannot be credible if they lose sight of – or indeed take flight from – the very material conditions that comprise the signifying relations interfusing the text, its readers, and the natural world. An exclusively allegorical approach to reading, where the natural order serves simply as a backdrop, would be disallowed on this account precisely because, although making a gesture toward the natural order, it does not finally take the material world as fully integral to the practices of reading. Consequently, a certain “inwardness” attends this reading practice, one which downplays and discounts the material, overtakes and ultimately eclipses its necessary “outwardness.” Attention to the physical places (as well as institutional spaces) of reading variously demarcated by the terms “campus,” “house,” and “tent” might well be another way – a distinctively Scriptural Reasoning way – of reinvigorating what it means to read the scripture texts literally. [44] What is salutary about this redirection to place, to the physical and material universe, is that it reminds us just how much of our world remains in fact a wilderness, a desert.

In these and other ways, then, Scriptural Reasoning might suitably be described as a desert practice. For, in a very profound and important sense, the “tent of meeting” that is Scriptural Reasoning’s distinctive hermeneutic of readerly engagement is an actual topography as well as a useful rhetorical figure or trope. That we are actually desert dwellers may strike many as a rather austere and disheartening way to characterize our existence. But as I have tried to point out in this essay, the wilderness is for “the tent of meeting” a very privileged and appropriate place – full of surprise, risk, and danger but also powerfully and potentially fecund. It is a place where we may not always dwell, but it is clearly where we currently sojourn. Paul Ricoeur once notably expressed his deep longing and hope for the creative renewal of language in terms of being called again “beyond the desert of criticism.” [45] Scriptural Reasoning similarly express its own deep longing, but it sees itself as a response to a call which, because in conversation with the tradition of the desert fathers, points to a different but equally indispensable dimension of “wilderness” -understood not as a mode or method of criticism characteristic of modernity but as a sign of the indispensable importance of physical place through which we are forced to confront our manifold embodiments, to recognize our key core values and virtues, and to acknowledge the fact that it is only by virtue of the overlapping, interweaving set of reading regimes running through the arts and the sciences that we are knit together in a multiply-connected web that increasingly binds together our lives, our knowledge and our hope. The core values and key epistemic virtues of Scriptural Reasoning therefore are desert-inspired; that is, they exhibit themselves in reading practices that both lead to but also through and beyond the wilderness to what is finally and fully our true dwelling: the garden of God.


[1] David F. Ford, Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), especially chapter 9: “An Interdisciplinary Wisdom: Knowledge, Formation and Collegiality in the Negotiable University,” pp. 304-349.

[2] In what follows I am largely indebted to David Ford. See his work, “An Interfaith Wisdom: Scriptural Reasoning between Jews, Christians and Muslims,” Modern Theology 26.3 (July, 2006), pp. 7-13. For a more extensive description and discussion of these three “spaces,” see Ford, Christian Wisdom , pp. 282-293.

[3] It is important to note that “space” is not equivalent to or even reducible to “place.” The former indicates, at least on my use, a kind of social interaction and intellectual mode of engagement whereas the latter a region measured according to specific geographical coordinates.

[4] Some thought it important that “campus” be further differentiated according to separate academic guilds or “home” disciplines within the university. The suggestion was that these could be named “seminars” to point up the heterogeneity of the contemporary university.

[5] Part of the evolution of Scriptural Reasoning involves an ongoing practice of re-naming. Initially the group grew out of a gathering of Jewish philosophers and text scholars (textual reasoners) who later included several Christians, at which a first re-naming occurred. That group identified themselves as the Society of Scriptural Reasoning. Later a number of Muslim scholars and philosophers were welcomed. Very quickly the group became involved in a number of ventures in the dissemination and transmission of this new way of reading. Partly in order to retain its initial focus and to differentiate several related ventures that now fell under the umbrella term Scriptural Reasoning, the group re-named itself the Scriptural Reasoning Theory Group. More recently, the group has re-named itself the Scriptural Reasoning University group, underscoring its specific focus on and mission within the university. For a good account of the precursors to and the early history of Scriptural Reasoning, see Peter Ochs and Nancy Levine, eds., Textual Reasonings (London: SCM Press, 2002). For a more extensive account of recent developments, see David F. Ford, “An Interfaith Wisdom: Scriptural Reasoning between Jews, Christians and Muslims” in The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning (2006) and chapter 8 in Christian Wisdom (2007).

[6] There is a genuine and legitimate sense in which it is proper to speak of the “interiority” of reading. But this is best articulated not in a Cartesian vein, with its tendency toward a mind/body dichotomy, but rather according to the shifting reading regimes (including spacing between words, punctuation, and other page layout formats, etc.) that evolved, attended and accompanied – rather than were efficient causes of – changes in reading practices. See Paul Saenger, Space Between Words . For a more concise account, see Paul Saenger, “Reading in the Later Middle Ages,” in A History of Reading in the West , edited by Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier, translated by Lydia G. Cochrane, (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), pp. 120-148.

[7] See, for example, Usha Goswami, “The Basic Processes in Reading: Insights from Neuroscience,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Literacy , edited by David R. Olson and Nancy Torrance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), pp. 134-152. An accessible account that draws upon the findings of the neuroscience of reading for educational application is David A. Sousa, How the Brain Learns to Read (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2005).

[8] For a Christian description of the integral relation between words/signs and creation, see George Pattison, A Short Course in Christian Doctrine (London: SCM Press, 2005), esp. Chapter Four: “The Sacrament of Creation,” pp. 50-73.

[9] For what follows I am reliant on the definitions provided in the Oxford English Dictionary under “read” and “reading.” Presumably, a similarly expansive semantic range is also found with regard to the equivalents of “read” and “reading” in languages other than English, although the ways in which they might be compared and assessed is better left to linguists.

[10] By metaphorical attribution, one might say of a superb violinist, “She makes her violin sing!”

[11] Hence, “to read up on” something means “to learn or become informed about something through a course of reading; to become knowledgeable or expert on a subject by reading” or “to study (a subject, topic, etc.) intensively and systematically; to familiarize oneself with (the contents of a book, a written text, etc.).”

[12] Thus the expression “to read and write” has the general sense of being formally educated to some degree, i.e., “to be generally literate; to have the basic skills of literacy.”

[13] Conceivably, one might object to this rather open-ended account of reading. After all, extending indefinitely the activities that “count” as genuine instances of reading seems to imply that anything and everything can fit the bill. No, that is clearly not true. Taking a bath or smoking a pipe or lighting a fire are not appropriately described as instances of reading. The point is that while reading in principle admits of indefinite extension, for practical purposes it is rather limited and circumscribed-not because each instance of reading shares with every one instance a common “core” or “essence” but because reading practices are set within, intrinsic to, specific forms of life from which their intelligibility is derived and according to which the accuracy of the reading is judged. So, for example, in the British-based Reading Experience Database (RED) project, the following stipulative definition of reading is given: “We are aware that “reading” can mean many things, from reading a book aloud or silently, to the critical “reading” of a text (including dramatic and cinematic texts) in an academic sense, or (metaphorically) “reading” a face, a social situation, or the symbolic value of a text. But in the interests of clarity and manageability we have had to exclude certain of these “reading experiences” as outside our remit. For our purposes, a “reading experience” means a recorded engagement with a written or printed text – beyond the mere fact of possession.” See

[14] One of the more memorable accounts involving boatman comes from the pen of Henry David Thoreau who, with his traveling companions, made an expedition up the west branch of the Penobscot River in Maine in 1846. “There were six of us, including the two boatman. With our packs heaped up near the bows, and ourselves disposed as baggage to trim the boat, with instructions not to move in case we should strike a rock, more than so many barrels of pork, we pushed out into the first rapid, a slight specimen of the stream we had to navigate. With Uncle George in the stern, and Tom in the bows, each using a spruce pole about twelve feet long, pointed with iron, and poling on the same side, we shot up the rapids like a salmon, the water rushing and roaring around, so that only a practiced eye could distinguish a safe course, or tell what was deep water and what rocks, …” See Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods , arranged with notes by Dudley C. Lunt, (New York: Bramwell House, 1950), pp. 216-238; p. 235. See also David G. Keller, “Reading Living Water: The Integral Place of Contemplative Prayer in Christian Transformation,” Sewanee Theological Journal Vol. 53 No. 3 (2007), pp. 409-426; at pp. 421-422: “Early in my ordained ministry I lived for twelve years among the Athabaskan Indians of the Yukon River Valley of Alaska. The primary means of travel were dog sleds and small, open boats with outboard engines. A village elder, who had been a river boat captain, taught me to ‘read’ the water to avoid snags and to stay in the main current. ‘Pay attention to what you see. Don’t just skim the surface. Shortcuts are not always the best way.’ Contemplative prayer is like that. It is reading the ‘living water’ of life.”

[15] Sports provides a wide venue where embodied, skill-based instances of reading are plentiful. One example comes from American football, where it is often said of a good quarterback that he knows how “to read” the defense of the opposing team. Similarly, reading as a skill acquired and honed through repeated practice is exemplified, for instance, in the field of biology, where “to read” might mean the ability “[t]o interpret or extract genetic information from (a particular nucleic acid sequence), esp. during the process of genetic transcription or translation.” Other less obvious but equally skill-related (and thus embodied) forms of reading include “To take a measurement, reading, indication, etc., from (an instrument, dial, scale, etc.).” One is thus said to read the face of a watch or read a thermometer or read the amount of liquid in a beaker.

[16] Belden C. Lane, “Backpacking with the Saints: The Risk-Taking Character of Wilderness Reading,” Spiritus , Vol. 8 (2008), pp. 23-43.

[17] Some hint of this is provided in Oliver Davies, “Reading the Burning Bush: Voice, World and Holiness,” in The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp. 95-104.

[18] David Jaspers recounts similar experiences in his remarkable book, The Sacred Desert: Religion, Literature, Art, and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), pp. v-vi. Like Lane’s solo trek in the Missouri Ozarks, Jaspers sets out on a venture: a solitary retreat in the Texas desert. (He also mentions a visit to the sacred Indian lands of South Dakota, living for a time in the desert landscapes of North India, and several excursions into the Negev region south of Beer Sheva-although in these latter accounts there is no mention of his going alone or living alone in the desert.) Aside from location, there are other important differences and emphases. Jaspers’ focus is more on developing an overall theological/religious aesthetic, encompassing relations between theology and literature, film, the visual arts and music, and in that sense less exclusively concentrated on reading written or printed texts-although reading texts are by no means unimportant to Jaspers’ work. He contends that the desert is both an actual, physical place (p. xvii) as well as-and perhaps even more importantly-an imaginary site; it is “inside us and our imaginations, a no place, a utopia” (p. xviii) inasmuch as the desert has become “text”-or, better yet, an entire textual community stretching from the “ancient literature of the fourth and fifth centuries of the Christian era” (p. xvi) up to the present. Jaspers contends further that the desert “speaks a universal language” and that it “gives rise to a universal community” of sorts (pp. xvi, xvii). While Jaspers’ last two claims require considerably more evidence and argument than he has offered to be convincing, what is indeed germane to the present study is his emphasis on the way in which the desert very often represents “a place of wandering, a place to be crossed, a place to enter into , the desert is also a place of meeting, a meeting point” (p. xviii). Wilderness and desert, in other words, are often tropes for the liminal. As Jaspers notes, deserts are “places” in which we can stay neither easily nor for any significant length of time (pp. xvi, vi). Wilderness connotes a way of passing beyond the familiar world of stable meanings and into a domain of danger, openness and risk. (cf. Lane, “Backpacking with the Saints,” pp. 23, 27, 28, 29, 36, 40). The desert, in this figurative sense, functions akin to limit-experiences. Both Jaspers and Lane (and others) employ the image in these ways.
But what is notably absent from Jaspers’ account, unlike Lane’s, is any careful attention to how the religious experience of desert helps cultivate commensurate virtues – i.e., shapes the excellences of attention, courage, and simplicity. To be fair, in his later work, The Sacred Body: Asceticism in Religion, Literature, Art and Culture (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), Jaspers does begin to broach these considerations by means of the ascetic disciplines of the desert fathers and mothers.

[19] Lane names three such classics that have accompanied him on separate wilderness expeditions: John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress ; Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence ; and Julian of Norwich’s Showings of Divine Love . To be sure, Lane is not the first (and most probably not the last) to follow such a practice. Francis Petrarch comes readily to mind as an important predecessor: stowing away in his knapsack a compact little volume of St. Augustine’s Confessions to take with him on his alpine ascent, Petrarch recounts a similar experience of “wilderness reading” (whether real or entirely literary is a matter of scholarly debate). It is interesting to note that Augustine also did some of his reading out of doors-albeit in a garden and not in a desert place. But it was St. Anthony (an important desert father) who inspired Augustine to take his reading outside. So Petrarch’s reading is stirred by a tradition of “desert” reading, but also mediated through the tradition of classical Rome. Inspired by his re-reading of Livy’s History of Rome , wherein he “happened upon the place where Philip of Macedon…ascended Mount Haemus in Thessaly, from whose summit he was able, it was said, to see two seas, the Adriatic and the Euxine,” Petrarch decides to climb Mt. Ventosum, a mountain in the vicinity of his own home in southern France. Convincing his younger brother to accompany him, Petrarch successfully ascends the mountain, from whose summit he is able to “see with the utmost clearness, off to the right, the mountains of the region of Lyons, and to the left the bay of Marseilles….” Majestic and captivating as this panoramic view is, it presents more importantly an occasion for Petrarch to ponder “the insufficiency of our mortal vision.” That is, he begins to divide his thoughts, “now turning my attention to some terrestrial object that lay before me, now raising my soul, as I had done my body, to higher planes.” See Francis Petrarch, “The Ascent of Mount Ventoux,” Francesco Petrarca: The First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters (Berkeley, CA: Putnam, 1898). Like Augustine, Petrarch is led away from the outward universe inward and upward on a spiritual ascent to the divine. Augustine’s words in the Confessions are his guide: “And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and at the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.” While there is a sense in which this three-fold movement (outward, inward, upward) has become characteristic of the Christian spiritual tradition in the west, it is nevertheless accompanied by an important check on any Gnostic tendencies that wish to leave behind, discount or devalue the material world. Guarding against such a tendency might be one of Scriptural Reasoning’s contributions in a spiritually and intellectually appropriate “conservancy” of all of reading’s many dimensions.

[20] Lane, “Backpacking with the Saints,” p. 23.

[21] Ibid., pp. 27 and 24. “[S]hocking encounters with familiar texts in out-of-the-way places” is how Lane describes them (p. 25). Lane also points out that reconsidering the history of the saints reminds us that “reading is often more than a solitary, indoor affair, pursued in the shelter of monasteries and libraries” (p. 25).

[22] Ibid., pp. 27, 24, 40.

[23] Ibid., p. 28.

[24] Ibid., p. 38. Quoting David Abram, Lane speaks of how much more vivid is his collaborative interaction with the phenomenal world when reading in the wild: “Reading there is a ‘reading with.’ The ‘improvised duet’ that goes on between my body and ‘the fluid, breathing landscape it inhabits’ molds my perception of the text.” (p. 38)

[25] Ibid., pp. 23, 29.

[26] The kind of solitude or aloneness requisite to this kind of wilderness reading is rather different from that typically associated with modern reading practices whereby the reader longs to be “alone with the text” in rather individualistic, ego-centric ways. Cf. Jonathan Franzen, “The Reader in Exile,” in How to Be Alone (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2007), pp. 164-178.

[27] Lane introduces these three central virtues specific to the desert fathers and mothers in “Backpacking with the Saints,” p. 28.

[28] Ibid., p. 29. To be sure, Lane rightly eschews the kind of “simplistic geographical determinism” that Ernest Renan advanced in his History of the People of Israel (1887), epitomized in Renan’s claim: “the desert is monotheistic.” See Jacques Le Goff, “The Wilderness in the Medieval West” in The Medieval Imagination (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988), pp. 47-59. Yet by distancing himself from what is clearly an erroneous and reductive position, Lane may also be in danger of leaving aside too hastily the materiality and physical qualities of the desert altogether. For example, Lane notes in several places how his use of wilderness reading is “simply metaphorical.” “My concern in this essay is to use wilderness reading as a way of talking about the risk and relinquishment to which we expose ourselves in reading classic texts anywhere. Spiritual reading is always a dangerous exercise, threatening to overthrow our previous ways of looking at the world. Sometimes the place of the reading adds even more to the vulnerability we encounter through the text itself.” (Lane, “Backpacking with the Saints,” p. 23; see also p. 26) Yet at the same time Lane takes pains to point out how various saints engaged in reading practices in rather “offbeat” ways. St. Cuthbert, for example, “was accustomed to reading the psalms each morning while standing waist deep in the crashing surf.” And “St. Seraphim immersed himself in reading the Philokalia each day in the dense and hostile forest, the taiga, of nineteenth-century Russia beyond his monastery at Sarov.” And St. Francis, too, “near the end of his life, read the story of Christ’s passion not only from the pages of the gospels, but from the huge, split rocks atop the cliffs on Mt. La Verna. It was revealed to him that these crevices had been opened on Good Friday afternoon when the rocks on Calvary were also rent. The awareness came to him, not accidentally, as he experienced the opening of wounds in his body through the gift of the stigmata. The mountainous terrain and his body’s interaction with it became active participants in his reading of the text.” (Ibid., pp. 24, 25)
There is a kind of odd tension here. On the one hand, Lane claims that the qualitatively transformative dimension of “wilderness reading” can happen virtually anywhere; “[i]t might even happen close to home” (Ibid., p. 24), which means that one does not necessarily have to trek off into the desert in order to experience the profound sense of risk and relinquishment in reading these classic, religious texts. And yet, on the other hand, it seems that certain encounters with a harsh, threatening physical environment are inseparably linked to a profound alteration of the reading and interpretation of these texts. As Lane puts it, “[i]f the place of one’s reading offers a distinct entry into the text, then a wild and forbidding place multiplies even further its excess of meaning.” (Ibid., p. 26) For Lane, then, the desert affords “a deeper entry” into the text (Ibid., p. 31), which comes fairly close to a kind of geological determinism he earlier renounced.
What accounts for this uneasy tension in Lane’s account, it seems, is that he operates with the assumption that reading names a single, univocal experience. But as I have illustrated in section two of this essay with a brief overview of the grammar of reading, there is no single, definitive, focal sense of reading against which all other contenders must be measured concerning the degree to which they participate in reading’s so-called “essence.” Rather, reading is a set of analogous practices related to one another in terms of family resemblances and negotiated, discerned and made sense of as distinct forms of life. Thus, although I am deeply sympathetic to Lane’s concern to draw attention to the indispensable importance of place in reading, he unfortunately trips himself up by continuing to speak-mistakenly and unhelpfully-of “the reading process generally” or “the act of reading itself” (Ibid., pp. 26, 23). Clearly, “wilderness reading” is more than “a way of talking,”more than a “simple metaphor.” It is also a doing, a way of living, a form of life – which is but another way of speaking of distinctive practices of reading.

[29] Ibid., p. 29.

[30] In addition to this important essay, “Backpacking with the Saints,” one might also usefully consult two books by Belden C. Lane, Landscapes of the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2001) and The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). For other similarly helpful works on the importance of place for theological reflection, both in regard to the desert fathers and to religious reflection more generally, see Douglas Burton-Christie, Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); Andrew Louth, The Wilderness of God (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1991); David Jasper, The Sacred Desert: Religion, Literature, Art, and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004); Philip Sheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred (London: SCM Press, 2001); and Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1993). See also Wilderness: Essays in Honour of Frances Young , edited by R. S. Sugirtharajah, (London: T & T Clark International, 2005).

[31] David F. Ford, “An Interdisciplinary Wisdom: Knowledge, Formation and Collegiality in the Negotiable University,” in Christian Wisdom , pp. 304-349. In identifying the crucial challenges and priorities facing theology in the twenty-first century, Ford singles out “theology and the sciences (including the social sciences, and with a special concern for environmental science, economics and social anthropology).” “On the sciences, theology has so far been very underdeveloped – nearly all of us are trained in the arts and humanities. They are so formative for our culture and civilization that this may well be the most serious gap of all.” See David F. Ford, “Where is Wise Theological Creativity to be Found? Thoughts on 25 Years of Modern Theology and the Twenty-First Century Prospect,” Modern Theology Vol. 26 No. 1 (January, 2010), pp. 69-77; p. 74.

[32] See Ford, Christian Wisdom , pp. 315, note 25 and 317.

[33] Ford, Christian Wisdom , p. 307.

[34] Ford, Christian Wisdom , pp. 317, 314.

[35] Ann Blair offers a fascinating historical overview of the way in which “humanities” and “sciences” are categories that came to be delineated between the seventeenth and eighteenth century in Europe, whereas other divides-such as “theoretical” versus “practical,” “divine” versus “secular,” or ” divinitie ” versus ” humanitie “-obtained before them. Her thesis is not that we should now do away with all such divisions. Rather, her point is that these former fault lines made possible in the medieval era the separate spaces and trajectories of philosophy and theology, which in turn crucially shaped the prevailing disciplinary structures of knowledge, especially in the great seats of learning of the time: the universities. See Ann Blair, “Disciplinary Distinctions before the ‘Two Cultures’,” The European Legacy , Vol. 13 No. 5 (2008), pp. 577-588.

[36] Ann Blair argues that although many people bemoan the negative impact of disciplinary divisions, they are nonetheless necessary and not to be jettisoned. For, despite the tensions and obstacles they often present to interdisciplinarity, they can also foster crucial benefits, one of which is “‘cognitive pluralism’ or an awareness of the possibility of approaching a question from multiple points of view” (“Disciplinary Distinctions before the ‘Two Cultures’,” p. 578). However, when interdisciplinary advances have been made, they have largely come about because of a recognition that “the distinction between the ‘two cultures’ does not apply universally across space or time.” (Ibid., p. 577) According to Blair, one way to appreciate the culturally contingent nature of the predominantly Anglo-American notion of the “two cultures” – manifested institutionally within the modern university in the split between the Arts and the Sciences – comes through “looking back to pre- and early modern European contexts, when neither the ‘sciences’ nor the ‘humanities’ were extant as categories.” (Ibid., p. 578) Blair’s contention is that “The distinctions we make between disciplines are subject to change over time even though in any given context institutional structures and intellectual arguments are often used to portray those distinctions as fundamental or inherent in the nature of things. Although they are malleable, disciplinary distinctions are not arbitrary-they develop from the assumptions, practices, and understandings that are part of the fabric of intellectual and social life of that time and place.”
Indeed, a number of historians have argued that the “binary economy” of science versus the humanities and arts needs to be properly historicized if any deeper meaning is to be gleaned from such divisions. As Oren Harman and Peter L. Galison argue, “The divide between the humanities and the sciences – in the German-speaking world between the Geisteswissenschanften and the Naturwissenschaften – …feels ancient [even though it] is mostly recent.” The “precondition for this divide is…the establishment of the research university in the mid- to late-nineteenth century.” “[I]t was in the mid-late nineteenth century when, in Germany, in England, and in France, one begins to see the creation of scientific curricula, taught widely, and meshed at the upper end of instruction with research.” By the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, new relations between industry and academic chemists, physicists and mathematicians, began to form, with the resulting distinction between pure and applied research, between pure and applied mathematics, physics and chemistry. However, according to Harman and Galison, even at this time the split between the humanities and the sciences was largely incipient. “That changed decisively in World War II” where university-based mathematicians, physicists and chemists came into sharp conflict with their counterparts who were situated in government-sponsored facilities and research centers (e.g. the Manhattan Project and the Radar Project).” The massive growth of scientific culture after World War II, in other words, generated a great deal of friction “with older academic elites from classics, history, and literature” with the result that the two-culture debate was transformed from “a provisional spat to a more profound split.” See Oren Harman and Peter L. Galison, “Epistemic Virtues and Leibnizian Dreams: On the Shifting Boundaries between Science, Humanities and Faith,” The European Legacy , Vol. 13 No. 5 (2008), pp. 551-575; pp. 553, 554.

[37] Sven Ove Hansson, “Philosophy and the Two Cultures,” Theoria Vol. 75 No. 4 (December, 2009), pp. 249-251; p. 249. Similarly, Oren Harman: “…the disciplinary boundaries between science and humanities are becoming more blurred with the invention of psycholinguistics and chemical archaeology and a dozen other hybrids.” Yet at the same time, Harman recognizes that “in the process of defining and justifying itself, science had provided a language that began to permeate the humanities in important, transformative ways.” For example, “[l]inguistics, sociology, history, political theory, archaeology, even the study of the Bible-all were marked by their encounter with the ‘culture’ of science.” But what Harman does not adequately address is the difference between these developments and “the ‘scientistic’ attitude.” Oren Harman and Peter L. Galison, “Epistemic Virtues and Leibnizian Dreams: On the Shifting Boundaries between Science, Humanities and Faith,” The European Legacy , Vol. 13 No. 5 (2008), pp. 551-575; pp. 570, 561.

[38] In what follows, I rely on the historical analysis of Oren Harman and Peter L. Galison.

[39] Harman and Galison, “Epistemic Virtues and Leibnizian Dreams,” p. 563. As Peter L. Galison puts it, “What we need is not a better demarcation criterion between the sciences and the humanities, but a historical epistemology of learning.” Ibid., p. 564.

[40] Ibid., p. 564.

[41] Ibid., p. 564.

[42] Ibid., pp. 571, 565.

[43] Ibid., p. 564.

[44] One might re-describe this in overtly theological and Christian terms as a facet of Scriptural Reasoning’s “sacramentality” of reading, whereby God’s presence is clearly discerned in the material and social relations that comprise the world even though God’s presence is not identical with or finally reducible to them. Because the Ultimate Subject/Object of reading, the God of Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, is not in the end circumscribable by the sign relations that encompass the material world, does not in itself give permission to readers to ignore, discount or circumvent the material world.

[45] Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil , translated by Emerson Buchanan, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1969), p. 349.