On March 30th-31st, 2014, the University of Virginia hosted the first annual graduate conference in Scripture, Interpretation, and Practice on the theme of “Public Scripture: Reading Out of Context.[1] The organizers of this conference (Ashleigh Elser, Rebecca Epstein-Levi, and Mark Randall James) would like to thank Jacob Goodson and the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning for enabling us to present a selection of papers from this conference to the Scriptural Reasoning community and to the broader public.

In choosing the theme of “Public Scripture,” we wanted to call attention to the fact that scriptures do not operate only within traditional spaces according to community-specific rules. They also operate in public and inter-traditional spaces—by way of literary allusions, political rhetoric, interfaith dialogue, billboards, proselytizing efforts, or threats of violence. We invited participants to analyze these public uses of scripture and to examine what they reveal about the limits and possibilities of religious reasoning. Given the breakdown of public discourse in our time, this issue is more urgent now than ever, and we hope that the papers presented here can contribute in some small way to its healing.

The conference was the fruit of Scriptural Reasoning (SR) on a number of levels. First, the theme of “Public Scripture” was inspired by the surprising sort of “public” discourse that emerges when members of different religious traditions gather to study their scriptures together in the context of SR. As Mike Higton and Rachel Muers remind us, SR does not emerge as “the outworking of a prior theory of public discourse.” To understand the “public” discourse that nevertheless emerges, one must therefore “[look] at what in fact happens” through careful empirical study of SR as a practice.[2] In organizing this conference, we wanted to identify other possibilities for public reasoning with scripture by inviting scholars to look empirically at what in fact happens in other analogous cases.

Second, the conference was hosted by and patterned after UVA’s program in Scripture, Interpretation, and Practice (SIP), a child of the philosopher Peter Ochs and a sibling of Scriptural Reasoning. SIP and SR share both specific text-study practices and much of the same philosophical DNA. The SIP program fosters a holistic way of studying the scriptural religions appropriate to their character as living communities rooted in scripture. Scriptural communities tend to treat as unities what modern academic disciplines all too often tear apart: history and theology, eating and ethics, commentary and philosophy. In the contemporary academic environment, to study these different activities together requires taking an interdisciplinary approach that might fruitfully be compared to the kind of critical inquiry characteristic of the ancient wisdom traditions. Like SR (and the better part of the wisdom tradition), SIP also assumes that wisdom is best fostered across difference. Here it is true that “Wounds from a friend can be trusted.”[3] SIP fosters a community of trusted others, from whom that criticism necessary for wisdom can be welcomed as trustworthy, even when it is painful. We might also learn from this proverb that we may trust friends to share their own wounds, as signs of the problems that face our different but overlapping communities, and to whose healing SIP’s academic work is ultimately directed.  Because in SIP one’s trusted friends are as often as not members of other religions, the critical and reparative wisdom that emerges has a specifically interfaith character. SIP is “public scripture” in action.

More concretely, the organizers sought to actualize the spirit of Scriptural Reasoning at our conference by integrating SR-style text study into the program. We hoped to unleash the power of scripture to “occasion much thinking,”[4] to spark conversation and generate new insights—even in the public context of an academic conference. To this end, between presenting the papers published here, conference participants also examined short biblical and Qur’anic texts about Noah and the flood. These selections were inspired in part by a cultural event of public scripture—the release of the midrashic film Noah—and by the imminent threat of climate change to which this film bears oblique witness. Our text study culminated in Laurie Zoloth’s powerful and prophetic keynote address, a preview of her 2014 AAR Presidential Address. Drawing on these flood narratives, Zoloth argued that in the face of global crises like climate change, which are larger than any single religious tradition, one thing scripture can and must do in public is interrupt conventional discourse by provoking repentance and urgent action.

The papers we present here address the question of public scripture through suggestive theoretical analyses and careful empirical case studies. In part 1, “Public Scripture and Language,” our contributors examine the relationship between scriptural language and the other non-scriptural discourses into relation with which scriptural language comes when it is used beyond the bounds of one tradition. These papers suggest that scriptural language has its own distinctive character that both enables and complicates its “public” use. The papers in part 2, “Public Scripture: Case Studies,” offer opportunities to think empirically about what happens when scripture crosses traditional boundaries into “public” space, whether in Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons, the Occupy Wall Street protests, Locke’s political philosophy, or the antebellum debate about slavery.

Paul Gleason’s essay, “From Jürgen Habermas to George Lindbeck: On Translating Religious Concepts into Secular Terms,” develops a post-liberal critique of Habermas’ proposal to translate scriptural language into secular terms. Habermas argues that modern liberal democracies are vulnerable to forces such as capitalism that undermine solidarity and moral formation. Identifying religious communities as vital sources of this solidarity, he proposes a program of translating the “moral intuitions” expressed in scriptural language into more universal terms that extend their power to build solidarity into the broader public. Drawing on George Lindbeck, Gleason argues that religious language is not so easily separated from the practices of those particular communities that use it. This does not mean that translation is impossible, but its success may depend more on the existence or creation of analogous social practices within those communities between which translation is being attempted.

In her essay “Hasdai Crescas: Grounds for Assertions about God and the Philosophical Use of Scripture,” Miri Fenton offers a rereading of Wittgenstein’s distinction between religious assertions that operate within a religious “form of life” and philosophical assertions in ordinary language. Wittgenstein is often read as establishing two mutually exclusive kinds of discourse, but Fenton argues that the two may be complementary in the context of scriptural exegesis as a mediating practice. Fenton demonstrates how this occurs through a reading of the medieval Jewish philosopher Hasdai Crescas, whose exegetical reflections combine scriptural and philosophical language.

In his essay “Averroes on the Relationship between Philosophy and Scripture,” Nauman Faizi raises similar questions about the medieval Islamic philosopher Averroes. Unlike Crescas, Averroes draws a sharper distinction between philosophy and scripture, which turns on the mode of reasoning each discourse employs. If (Aristotelian) philosophy offers demonstrative arguments in technical language for an elite community of theoretical reasoners, scripture uses dialectical and rhetorical arguments in addition to demonstration, and it uses symbolic language available to the whole believing community. Although philosophy is a privileged form of discourse for Averroes, Faizi shows that this privilege operates only in relation to the specific problems of theoretical philosophy. In the practical contexts of ordinary life, scriptural discourse is both legitimate and sufficient.

Turning to the empirical case studies in part 2, Thomas Dixon’s “Breaking the Backbone of Oppressive Power: Martin Luther King, Jr., the State, and the Wrath of God,” offers an analysis of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s use of key scriptural texts that deal with theme of God’s judgment. He shows how King enacts words of scripture in a way that shows sensitivity both to their textual context and to the political injustices against which he fought. King is able to speak the language of scripture in this public way, Dixon shows, because the scriptures themselves constantly speak about God’s concern for nations and politics outside the bounds of the Christian community.

In “Occupy the Jubilee: Scripture and the 99%,” Nathan Herschberger examines the scriptural theme of jubilee as used in the Occupy Wall Street protests, in light of Yoder’s hermeneutics. Yoder insists that Christian readers of scripture be open to the insights of outsiders in order to read their own scriptures well. Herschberger shows how Occupy protesters were not only inspired by the theme of jubilee but also sought to enact jubilee through grassroots debt forgiveness programs. Though most of these protesters were outside the church, they opened up new and concrete possibilities for reading these key Biblical texts. “Scripture,” he says, “has been occupied.”

In his “Monarchical Sovereignty and Christology in John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government and The Reasonableness of Christianity,”  Will Love shows how the logic of natural law and the reasoned assent of the governed operates not only in Locke’s account of finite political sovereignty but also in his theological account of Christ’s sovereignty. For Locke, the kingdom of God under Christ accords with natural reason itself. This naturalization of reason has consequences for the use of scripture to which Love points: a rational “indifferency” that simply suspends judgment when faced with difficult texts. In Locke’s case, scripture becomes “public” only by reducing its voice to the clear language of natural reason.

In “Scripture in the Public Forum: The Fuller-Wayland Letters and the Debate over Domestic Slavery,” Kristopher Roberts offers an account of a very public scriptural debate between two Christian ministers in 1844-5 about the morality of slavery that took place in the pages of the Christian Reflector. Roberts praises the civil tone and rhetoric of their public debate, which became increasingly rare as the Baptist Church (in 1845) and then the Union itself (in 1861) broke up over the question of slavery. For Roberts, it was these ministers’ common allegiance to scripture that enabled such civility, despite the divisive moral issues at stake. An ongoing commitment to engage in civil scriptural reasoning, he suggests, is necessary for Christians to identify and correct moral failures.

We would also point our readers to Emily Filler’s essay, “Does God Hate Shrimp? When Biblical Citation Goes Awry,” which she presented at our conference and subsequently published in Religion and Politics. Filler offers a critique of what she calls the “argument by shrimp,” a rhetorical strategy used by progressive critics of opponents of gay marriage. If homosexuality is an abomination because the Bible says so, the argument goes, then so must eating shrimp be. Filler points out that by assuming that a prohibition against shrimp is self-evidently ludicrous, this argument inadvertently functions as mockery of Jews and Jewish law. Although this argument can sometimes be rhetorically effective in the context of American political debate, Filler recommends that progressives abandon it.

Together these essays develop a range of powerful meditations on the problems and possibilities of using scripture outside of one’s own religious community. We hope that these essays provoke readers into richer forms of reflection about the way that scripture is and should be deployed in the public spaces between traditions.


[1] This conference would not have been possible without the hard work of Rachel Butrum, the support of SIP student president Kelly Figueroa-Ray, or the financial assistance of the UVA Jewish Studies program, the Project on Lived Theology, the Society for Scriptural Reasoning, the Virginia Center for the Study of Religion, the Institute for Practical Ethics and Public Life, the UVA Office for Diversity and Equality, and the Institute for Humanities and Global Cultures.
[2] Mike Higton and Rachel Muers, The Text in Play (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2012): 114.
[3] Proverbs 27:6.
[4] As Kant says of aesthetic objects in his Critique of Judgment 5:314.