The Political Dimension and the Politics of Scriptural Reasoning

Basit B. Koshul
University of Virginia

As the responses to Ochs’ paper demonstrate, the discussion that the paper initiated was carried out in a setting where the participants were largely sympathetic to Scriptural Reasoning. But this sympathy did not preclude the possibility of clarification, explanation and even disagreement on the part of the participants. As Ochs himself noted in the opening paragraph of his paper, the paper was not meant to be a definitive statement on the rules of scriptural reasoning. It was meant to be a personal reflection on the issue that could serve as a catalyst for a larger conversation on the topic. The rules would emerge as a result of this conversation among the practitioners, rather than the personal reflections of an individual. Consequently, it was not surprising that the ensuing discussion produced affirmation of some points made by Ochs, further refinement of some others and disagreements with still others. What was surprising in the discussion was the level of self-reflection, self-analysis and self-criticism that the group displayed.

The discussion that took place in Boston was among a group of people attempting to gain a better self-understanding of themselves as practitioners of a particular mode of inquiry. Sheldon Wolin characterizes this type of intellectual activity as the “political dimension” of theory construction:

Theoretical founding has both a political dimension and a politics . The former is the constitutive activity of laying down basic and general principles which, when legitimated, become the presuppositions of practice, the ethos of practitioners. This definition is modeled upon the Aristotelian concept of “the political” as the master of science that legislates for the good of the whole that is, for the purpose of shaping the whole to the concept of the good relevant to it [39] .

Consciously understanding and systematically articulating the “basic and general principles” of a particular method of inquiry forms the “constitutive activity” of theory building. Wolin, following Aristotle, labels this activity as the “master of a science” because this activity attempts to link the “science” with the concept of “the good relevant to it”. It is only if the political dimension of theory building has been done adequately that a proposed theoretical system of inquiry can hope to make any progress at the stage of the politics of theory . It is at the level of politics that the new theory meets the world:

The point of engaging in the politics of theory is to demonstrate the superiority of one set of constitutive principles over another so that in the future these will be recognized as the basis of theoretical inquiry [40] .

In other words, solid grounding at the (political) level of self-analysis, self-clarification and self-criticism is an essential prerequisite for successful engagement at the level of engagement with other theories (or at the level of politics).

When making the distinction between the political dimension and the politics of theory construction, Wolin is referring to the dominant mode of methodological inquiry characteristic of the post-Enlightenment approach to theory building. To the degree that the Scriptural Reasoning project is a part of the post-Enlightenment period and self-consciously sees itself functioning as part and parcel of that tradition, Wolin’s description goes a long way in describing Scriptural Reasoning’s method of theory construction. But to the degree that Scriptural Reasoning sees a problematic in the post-Enlightenment tradition and advocates a repair of a problematic therein, the dichotomy of the political dimension/politics of theory construction does not fully describe the project of Scriptural Reasoning. Not only are the dynamics between the political dimension and the politics of Scriptural Reasoning somewhat different than those described by Wolin, the outcome of these dynamics is as much a “self-correction” on the part of the scriptural reasoners as it is redemption of modern reasoning.

This point was clearly illustrated by the content and the spirit of the discussion that took place in Boston. After introductory and welcoming remarks by Kurt Richardson and Dan Hardy, Ochs began the discussion by offering some personal reflections on what Scriptural Reasoning means to him. He intimated that, as an academician engaged in scholarly pursuits in the modern university, something just doesn’t “feel right” to him. His sense that something is not right in the academy is strengthened when he notes that there are others who share the same feeling. Upon closer study – an important part of which is dialog with those who share the same feeling – the source of the discomfort is identified in a particular method of reasoning that is characteristic of modern academic inquiry. This study/reflection reveals that modern academic inquiry is based on a mode of reasoning that is dichotomous in nature. For Ochs, the ultimate goal of Scriptural Reasoning is to correct the dichotomous logic underpinning modern academic inquiry, and repair the suffering that it causes. The source for this correction is to be located in the narrative of Scripture and this requires an identification of the logic underpinning this narrative that can serve as model to correct the dichotomous logic of the academy. But it is important to keep in mind that this process of identification is not to take place in self-referential terms – i.e. exclusively from within the scriptural narrative and the scriptural tradition. The attempt to uncover the “logic of scripture” is to take place with the help of the academic tools of inquiry of the modern university – tools that are not explicitly visible in either the scriptural narrative or the scriptural tradition. In other words, Scriptural Reasoning sees the academy as a “partner” in the attempt to repair the rupture that characterizes the academy. Once the logic of scripture has been identified with the help of the tools of inquiry of the academy, the scriptural logic is to be “lifted” from its scriptural milieu and grafted into academic mode of inquiry that is carried out in the university. Ochs posits that it is in this process that Scriptural Reasoning displays its redemptive capacities. In the process of displaying its redemptive qualities, Scriptural Reasoning simultaneously displays its self-corrective qualities. In consciously turning to the academy in order to equip itself with the tools that it needs to carry out its redemptive task, SR recognizes its own limitations and allows itself to be informed by that which is “non-scriptural”.

These initial reflections by Ochs gave way to a lively discussion among the attendees. At the risk of oversimplification, but in the interests of economy of discussion, comments made during the course of the discussion that followed Ochs’ opening remarks can be divided into three general categories:

  • A sense of wholeness regarding the conversation with the presence and active participation of the Muslim voice.
  • A conscious recognition that scripture contains problematic texts that can cause friction not only between communities but prove to be burdensome for the one who is actually reading the scripture.
  • This consciousness was coupled with a sense of maturity and trust among the participants and expressed itself in a desire to deal with the problematic texts.

A Three-Way Conversation

In his opening remarks, Kurt Richardson noted that the presence of a leading Muslim thinker at the previous year’s SSR meeting in Orlando, Florida was a milestone in the development of the SSR. On the one hand the presence of the Muslim voice provided the opportunity for the Jewish and Christian participants to become acquainted with the Muslim position through first-hand sources. Richardson stated that he had been particularly impressed by the fact that Muslims regard a personal relationship between the individual and God to be a central component of the religious life – this being something that usually does not come through in other discussions about Islam. On the other hand the presence of this voice made what was previously a two-party dialogue between Christians and Jews into a three-way conversation between Jews, Christians and Muslims. In a certain sense, the presence of the Muslim voice allowed for a completion of the Abrahamic triad. These sentiments, regarding the presence and participation of the Muslim voice in the work of the SSR, were echoed by Dan Hardy and Peter Ochs in the discussion that ensued. While the Muslim voice was a part of the program in the 1998 program in Orlando Florida, it became a part of the conversation in the 1999 meeting. The previous year Dr. Israr Ahmad presented a paper on Islamic mysticism as a part of the program. Even though the paper was very well received, it was somewhat removed from the actual discussion on the topic that was already in progress between Wolfson and Ford. In this year s meeting the Muslim voice was very much a part of the discussion with a paper being presented that was in direct conversation with Ochs’ SSR: The Rules for Scriptural Reasoning . This voice was in the form of my own paper titled The Semiotics of Ay’ah : An Introduction to Qur’anic Scriptural Reasoning.

After my very first reading of Ochs’ paper, I consciously tried to articulate a strong argument from the Qur’anic perspective that would offer the theoretical basis to establish a link between scriptural reasoning and modern academic inquiry. In my attempt, I had an invaluable resource in the work of the early 20 th century Muslim philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal. Building on Iqbal’s initial reflections, I focused on the semiotics of the word “ayah”. In the Qur’an this word is used to refer to the verses of the Qur’an and also to phenomena in the world of nature, the social and psychological domains and the unfolding of the historical process. The modern academy is a place that is dedicated to the study of the natural/physical sciences, the human sciences and history. Since the academy focuses its attention on a certain segment of phenomena that the Qur’an refers to as ayah, any reasoning that claims to be Qur’anic (or more generally scriptural) needs to take into account the study of the world of nature, the social and psychological domains and history that goes on in the academy. In making this explicit linkage between scripture and scientific inquiry I offered a Muslim perspective on the political dimension of Scriptural Reasoning s theory building efforts.

In my comments at the meeting, I did not so much focus on the semiotics of ayah as on the fact that the Muslims had much to learn from the Jewish and Christian participants in the Scriptural Reasoning project. This is due to the fact that out of the three traditions, the Islamic encounter with modernity is the most recent. As a result of this relatively novel encounter, the Muslims have only recently become aware of many issues that Jews and Christians have been dealing with for centuries. If the Muslims are to have any realistic chance of dealing with the challenges of modernity they will have to draw upon the Jewish and Christian experiences – and this requires that they be eager students of those who have already gone through the experience. Richardson noted that the novelty of the experience for the Muslims gives them the opportunity to be much more selective in incorporating elements of modern thought into their (developing) post-modern religious thought. But an informed decision in this regard can only be made if the Muslims are involved in an active and continuing conversation with Jews and Christians a conversation in which they view themselves as recipients as well as contributors.

Scripture and Suffering: A Reflexive Relationship

The development of the Jewish-Christian dialog into a three way Jewish-Christian-Muslim conversation puts greater demands on the participants to become better listeners. It is self-evident that one needs to be more attentive in a three party conversation than a two party dialog in order to keep abreast of the conversation. Elliot Wolfson offered an exegesis of God’s command to the angels that called for a “second” reading of the original command and highlighted the need for more attentive listening skills on part of the addressees. This “doubling” of reading is predicated on the fact that the reading was not adequately heard/understood the first time. Revelation is a response to the needs of a community that is suffering and the inability to understand it the first time around leaves the suffering in place, or even increases it. The second reading is another response to suffering, this time with more attentiveness on the part of the listeners. Wolfson went on to note that understanding scripture requires a hermeneutics of listening as much as a hermeneutics of understanding.

Steven Kepnes noted that scripture can cause suffering in a more direct and straightforward manner. There are certain troubling passages in scripture that can unsettle the individual reader and cause great friction between communities. Kepnes offered the “his blood be upon us” reference in Mathew as an example. The text can cause suffering not only on account of certain things that it says, but on account of certain things on which it remains silent. If a particular individual reading the sacred text senses that the text does not speak to her or those of her group, and this individual has deep reverence and love for the text, she will naturally feel hurt. This is one example of the way the text can cause pain not because of what it says but because when it remains silent. Picking up on Kepnes’ insight that scripture has the potential of causing suffering, the point was brought up in the ensuing discussion that the text itself is not yet perfected – it is a maculate object that needs to “repaired”. In order for the suffering that is caused by particular passages in Scripture to be repaired, one must strive to “repair” the text that is the cause of the suffering. This view of Scripture is based on the premise that the text is not a static being/entity whose fixedness has been determined for all time to come. There is certainly a “givenness” to the Scripture’s text, but this “givenness” does not preclude the possibility of dynamism and change in terms of the meaning of the text. The possibility of repairing the suffering caused by certain texts in Scripture is based on the premise that the meanings of the texts can be interpreted in a different manner—and this alternative reading leads to the alleviation of suffering.

It was in the response to these pointers that William Elkins offered his comments that linked the repairing of Scripture to resurrection. He noted that the repair of the text is possible when one realizes that a particular text cannot be limited to just one particular meaning. A particular text can lend itself to a plurality of meanings, some of which can be known at a particular time and place but all of which cannot possibly be pre-determined or pre-known. Out of the multiplicity of meanings that is possible, the most meaningful meaning will be determined in light of the questions/problems that the reader brings to the text. The questions/problems for their part will be determined by the mindset/environment of the reader independent of the text, and will constitute the “given” from the side of the reader as he/she approaches the text. The text itself is made up of particular words independent of the mindset/environment of the reader, accounting for its “givenness”. The meaning that the text will yield will take the givens from sides into account but will be ultimately determined by the ability of the reader to choose amongst a plurality of meanings that the text is able to yield. In other words, the text will yield its meaning as a result of an interaction with the concerns and environment of the reader. Elkins noted that an attempt to find meanings in specific passages that have been the cause of suffering in the past, is an example of a new reading that seeks to “transform” (or repair ) the text. Elkins used the imagery of resurrection to dramatize the redemptive and self-corrective dimensions of Scriptural Reasoning “resurrection” will be in a new body, but at this point in time it remains a mystery as to what the new body will look like.

Discussing Difference: A Sign of Trust, A Sign of Maturity

Perhaps the most poignant issue that came up during the discussion was the need to consciously and unflinchingly look at the particularities of the three traditions that set them apart from each other. Gottstien noted that while we are all gathered to engage in “scriptural reasoning”, we need to be cognizant of the fact that the word “scripture” may have a very different meaning for different participants. The Tanakh is “scripture” in a different sense than the Talmud, and both of them are very different from the Gospels. Taking the point even further, he noted that philosophical discourse might come under the rubric of “scripture” according to certain definitions. Consequently, we begin the practice of Scriptural Reasoning with very different understandings of “scripture” and this difference has to be acknowledged and addressed by the participants. In discussing the “rules of scriptural reasoning” the participants have to look at the different understandings of “scripture” in the different traditions and come to a common understanding of what is “scripture” in the particular setting of the practice of Scriptural Reasoning. In raising this point, Gottstien was echoing Green’s observation that we should not presuppose that scriptural reasoning is something that is held in common by Muslim, Christians and Jews. This is not due to the fact that these traditions do not take Scripture seriously or that they don’t reason about Scripture, as a matter of fact the opposite is the case. Precisely because of the fact that the opposite is the case, we need to look carefully at how each of three traditions understands the term “scripture” — different, and sometimes even radically different understandings of “scripture” will inevitably lead to different approaches to scriptural reasoning. An awareness and clarification of these differences is essential in a setting where three different traditions are discussing issues of common concern “so that we at least do not talk past one another by unintentionally using the same words in different ways.”

In light of the fact that the Gospels may not be considered “scripture” from a number of different perspectives, especially that of historical criticism, Kris Lindbeck noted that the practice of Scriptural Reasoning could help affirm the “scripture” in the Gospels. To the degree that there is an overlap between the ability of the words of the Gospels to change lives for the better and SR’s attempts to “witness to a truth which saves and heals” one has to acknowledge the fact that there is “scripture” in the Gospels. Laurie Zoloth’s comments drew attention to the fact that difference is not something that is only present among the parties that are engaged in Scriptural Reasoning. She noted that there is a “text behind the text” in Scripture and this layering of text evidences the fact that one finds “difference” in Scripture also. This observation by Zoloth provides great comfort, and a practical model, for the different voices engaged in Scriptural Reasoning because it allows them to actually witness that fact that Scripture has the ability to maintain its integrity in spite of (or maybe because of) the differences that it contains.

The expansion of the two-way dialog to a three-way conversation and the consciousness that Scripture contains a multiplicity of meaning express a celebration of difference in their own different ways. In quite strong terms Green noted that the health of the SR project is directly dependant on recognizing, working through, and ultimately maintaining this difference (in light of heightened understanding/appreciation of this difference). The spirit of the 1999 meeting was perhaps best captured by Kepnes’ passionate remark that as a group SR had become “mature enough, trusting enough” to focus “in the future on the most troubling texts” that produce anger and tension. The fact that the group itself felt confident enough and mature enough to discuss problematic texts was reflected by the choice of the topic for the 2000 meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. The topic at that meeting was “the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart.” Certain readings of the scriptural narrative suggest that God caused Pharaoh’s heart to be hardened and therefore incapable of receiving guidance/admonition from the words of Moses. This reading presents an ethical/philosophical dilemma indeed. The self-conscious and self-critical reflections that took place in Boston in 1999 led to immediate practical steps being taken the next year. Taken together, these steps practically demonstrated the self-confidence and maturation of the SSR as a whole and were watershed events in the political dimension of SSR’s theoretical founding.

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