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Matthias Müller {*}

Interreligious Encounter as Spiritual Exercises

What Does the Method of Scriptural Reasoning Mean?


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 6/2009, P. 294-298
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    How can partners of whom everyone claims absolute truth meet each other in the inter-religious dialogue? In the United States the method "Scriptural Reasoning" has become established. It was originally developed by Jewish theologians for the conversation between them but is now jointly practised by Jews, Christians and Muslims.


The coexistence of religions is a key to peaceful coexistence. In a multireligious world the discussion with other faiths is also an essential moment of self-ascertainment. But it still remains an urgent issue which method for the conversation between religions is appropriate. How can a meaningful meeting take place among partners of whom everyone claims absolute truth?

If in the dialogue a common theological basis is assumed or aspired to the conversation is running towards a new common identity, and one ultimately assumes the possibility of a meta-religion that has to be reformulated. But such a dialogue does hardly justice to the interlocutors' unconditional and non-deficient conception of themselves. The difference between the religions has therefore to be starting point and goal of a sound programme for the encounter; at the same time the method has nevertheless to succeed in uniting in a substantial manner the different voices at one table. In North America and Great Britain in this theological field of tension of religious encounter Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians have been working for several years under the name of Scriptural Reasoning - which could be translated into German "reading reason" or in reference to Franz Rosenzweig also "scriptural thinking". "Scriptural Reasoning" refers to a theological movement that practises and theologically reflects the common reading of the texts of revelation of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.


Re-reading the Texts of the Tradition

The movement has its origins in an inner-Jewish theological project to which it owes some of its formative personalities and its hermeneutical and theological conception of itself.



In the nineties under the name of Textual Reasoning a group of North American Jewish theologians got together who were looking for ways of re-reading the texts of the tradition in the "post-modern" time. By this turn towards tradition the theologians hoped to discover new elements establishing the identity of the present Judaism.

On the one hand it was important not to give up the philosophical paradigms of the modern age and on the other hand to achieve, by the recourse to biblical and rabbinic texts, a connection between philosophical reflection and tradition, and so to free the Jewish religious practice and theology from the limitations and dichotomies of the modern age. Most of the protagonists of "Textual Reasoning" are working in the interdisciplinary and inter-religious neighbourhood of the Religious Studies at North American universities and have outer-universitarian horizons of experience through living in different Jewish communities, from Orthodox to liberal ones.

Since according to "Textual Reasoning's" conception of itself the place of doing theology is essential for its truth, the personal acquaintance of the participants, the developing relationships among them, and their roots in science and education, in the life of family and community are part of the theological project. With "Textual Reasoning" it is, generally speaking, about the search for that kind of rationality that is serving the internal hermeneutics of the religious community without abandoning the scientific discipline.

Based on Charles Sanders Peirce's teachings on meaning [Bedeutungslehre] Peter Ochs, professor of modern Jewish thought at the University of Virginia, co-founder and perhaps the most influential figure in the movement has developed a theoretical model for this Reading. Ochs describes the potential of forming sense of theological or philosophical text studies in the tripartite system of signs, meaning and interpreter. The interpreter then includes the historical persons, and ultimately the entire communications community taking part in the language event [Sprachgeschehen]. Through the interpreter the context is therefore of relevance to the truth of the terms of reference between signs and meaning.

But in every religious reading process, as actually in every linguistic statement the context is given as a limitless horizon. It can therefore not a priori be demarcated against another context, on the contrary, each new context of a language or reading event changes the meaning of the sign. Since the meaning of a sign does not exist "in itself" but "for" the interpreter, the truth in a pragmatic reading event is admittedly basically relational but not relativistic, because various interpreters are not separately standing next to each other but forming together a new context.

Pierce's semiotics is particularly suited for "Textual Reasoning", because it is able to describe in what way the common reading process possesses an ethical orientation and a potential for a new meaning. The interpreter is then no individual or an isolated subject that was able arbitrarily to assign meaning to the sign. In the language game involving the signs, meanings and interpreters the community of readers or speakers as a whole produces the creative impulses in connecting signs resp. text and meaning.

The individual participant in the language game, the individual theologian devoted to "Textual Reasoning", and also the respective present-day and thus limited community within a revelation religion are therefore at the same time active elements and recipients in the event of revelation or meaning. This is one of the meanings of the sentence that Ochs likes to quote, "We will do, and we will be obedient" (Ex 24, 7): The practice precedes the understanding. In order to understand it you are to get actively involved in the language game in which God ascribes meaning to the world.


Shared Reading of Sacred Texts

"Textual Reasoning" forms in this way a Jewish-theological discourse that is able to connect different views that are often caught in conflicting with each other without dissolving them in a new unity. It has proved to be a bridge between science and community life, between traditional texts and modern theological tradition, between individually and jointly performing theology and religious life, and also between liberal, conservative and orthodox Jews.

In addition to that the discussion has also opened beyond a further border-line without wanting to cancel it, namely into the theological discourses of Christianity and Islam. At the border-lines of its tradition this inner-Jewish initiative has been opened and a similar inter-religious project was developed, both by the fact that the life of the protagonists of "Textual Reasoning" was linked up with the theological reflection of other religions and by a fundamental openness in looking for understanding one's own religious performance.



So since 1995 at the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion inter-religious sections have been meeting under the title of the Society of Scriptural Reasoning. Inspired by the experiences of "Textual Reasoning", one was looking here for opportunities for a joint reading of the sacred texts of those three religions that see themselves in the tradition of God's covenant with the world that was opened with Abraham. Two places became primarily crucial for the development of "Scriptural Reasoning": starting from Ochs the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and starting from David Ford the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. In addition to regular meetings this cooperation became institutionalized in an online magazine; other publications represent and reflect this theological project.


A Special Form Has Developed in the Mean Time

While the in a strict sense academic discourse is going on, the idea and practice of "Scriptural Reasoning" has been developing its own momentum and is meanwhile also in other contexts tried and tested as a specific form of interreligious encounter. Especially in the UK in schools, religious community centres and institutions of adult education a movement of interreligious encounter developed according to the standards of "Scriptural Reasoning".

If such an interreligious initiative is practised in a wider public, one has of course also to cope with new challenges. After an inner-Islamic controversy about the legality of reading the Koran in the context of an interreligious study group a London Islamic religious court issued a fatwa, a legal opinion regulating the Muslim participation in "Scriptural Reasoning" (

After the formulation of basic conditions a positive opinion is given on the Muslim participation and the use of Koranic texts in the context of "Scriptural Reasoning". In particular, the equality of Muslim and non-Muslim participants in a Scriptural Reasoning-reading and the appropriate dealing with the Koran texts are required. The latter includes the awareness of the actual wording of the Koran in Arabic and the respectful treatment of all the Koranic texts. In particular, ethically questionable funds must not be used for the publication or reproduction of Koranic texts. As the goal of the religions' encounter the fatwa formulates: peace, justice and the promotion of serving the One God.

It becomes clear that the way of religious encounter as it is practiced in Scriptural Reasoning has a great radiation, both in scientific and practical matters of religion and is also suitable for the integration of decidedly non-liberal circles. What does "Scriptural Reasoning" in practice? The actual place of the event is the greatest possible direct encounter between members of the three religions.

For it a quite fixed form has developed. The individual reading group usually includes six to nine members, and so each tradition can be represented by two to three members. Where several reading groups are simultaneously at work plenary sessions allow the interlinking of the reading experience and insights in a wider circle and the joint reflection on the reading event. The followers of the various religions determine which texts of their traditions are read. It is about reasonably short passages on related topics.

The primary testimonies of the revelations, i.e. the Tanakh, the Christian Bible and the Koran are the main basis of the texts. In a first step one examines the present text in its word-meaning [Wortgestalt] and prevents thus that the representatives of the different traditions lapse into the stereotyped sermon on their theological conception of themselves. A moderator who is to be appointed in each case helps to maintain discipline. The texts are examined in two different directions. The participants of the other religions ask the representatives of the tradition discussed in detail about their interpretation and vice versa these also ask the participants of the other religions about their understanding of the texts.

A suitable model for illustrating the way of the encounter is that of mutual hospitality. Each tradition grants to the members of the other religion hospitality in its own tradition and is host while studying the texts of the other one.



It is the nature of hospitality to invite the other person in an exceptional time [Ausnahmezeit] in one's own house and to one's own table. One can in this way mutually give provisions and help for the way without being in need of building a common house. In the hospitality difference and asymmetry are maintained in view of the stranger; at the same time the stranger is for the time of hospitality a full member in the house and at the table. He can demand unconditional solidarity but also bring new things and even salvation (cf. Gen 19).

The common reading table [Lektüretisch] of "Scriptural Reasoning" makes hospitality possible in one's own faith [Bekenntnis] without monopolizing others. The difference can be maintained by both sides and makes nevertheless a real encounter and a joint struggle for the truth of the texts possible.

The hermeneutical key element of "Scriptural Reasoning" is the struggle for the meaning of the text beyond the border-lines of the traditions. Above all the situation of being asked by the member of another religious tradition about the meaning of a text seems to involve a new religio-theological constellation. What matters is at first not the other person's gain in knowledge but the fact that I am asked as a witness or interpreter of my tradition.


Equality of All Who Take Part in Reading and Respect for the Tradition of Others

In the conversation of "Scriptural Reasoning" it is therefore less about mutual authentic information than about the personal testimony of one's own tradition. The perspective or goal [Zielperspektive] is neither a syncretic meta-religion with a slightly wider canon of tradition nor the missionizing of others intending their conversion. On the contrary, it is about the inquisitive conversation with each other, which in turn rather is a proof of strength than of weakness of the interlocutors.

Central elements of "Scriptural Reasoning" are the personal commitment of the participants and the acquaintance with each other. One does not look for objective truth but for a personal encounter and a discussion within the horizon of the sacred texts of the three religions. On that occasion equal rights for all who take part in the reading and respect for the tradition of the others are indispensable. In this way at the level of ethical reason a community of interest is practiced that can lead to the formation of friendships beyond the confessional border-lines.

It is possible in this way to accept the differences at the level of the dogmatic creed and of the ordinary religious life without a condemnation of the other person resulting from them. Since the other person does not appear only as a neutral or generally human person but as someone who is reading his own religious tradition, the encounter leads to concrete respect for the struggle for truth in other religions. Such respect for the stranger that is able to dispense with relativizing one's own belief is the starting point for every workable theology of religious pluralism.

Not the wish to review or harmoniously to reformulate one's own position or that of others but the open interest in the examination of the sacred texts of others brings the dialogue partners together. The only point in common on which the reading event is based is the formal fact that in all religions the examination of one's sacred scriptures and significant traditions has a central place in the religious performance.

As already recognizable from the origins of the movement in the initiative "Textual Reasoning", not only a religious motivation can drive those who take part in "Scriptural Reasoning" but also an academic one: the concern about the way in which the texts of revelation and tradition are present in the theological and scientific debate. The "nasty broad ditch" between a historical-critical approach and the need to adopt the texts in one's religious practice can cause the wish not only to work on the texts but also to "read" them without having then to suspend one's role as a scientist.

The actual practice is then deliberately rooted to the soil. Before a systematic reflection and interpretation of the event takes place, the wording of the texts from the Bible and the Koran and classical commentaries are first carefully examined. What matters for the participants of the reading group is the understanding of the texts. Historical-critical findings as well as understanding keys [Verständnisschlüssel] from the tradition can then be contributed and the resonance of the text can be examined with the help of current issues from the religious or theological practice.

"Scriptural Reasoning" has developed a good form for an authentic encounter of religions, but every religion has to find reasons of its own why it gets round the reading table with other religions. The general human interest in peace among people of good will, an open interest in other people as well as common conflict situations in modern society and science can be a first motivation for the meeting of theological traditions among themselves.

For a lasting commitment, however, it is necessary in the end to find internal religious reasons [Bekenntnisgründe] for the encounter of the religions. A systematically theological reflection upon the task in this sense has not yet made great progress.



Every religion has particularly to have its own argumentation, based on the theology of revelation, for a full theological integration of the encounter practised in "Scriptural Reasoning", in order to find out in which way the happening at the table of the study group is of relevance to its own tradition. The religious pluralism of the present time [religionsplurale Gegenwart] needs theological concepts that are able simultaneously to describe the closeness and difference of the various religions, the fulfilment and openness of one's tradition and of one's own understanding of revelation.


Christian Motivations

What could therefore motivate Christianity to take part in "Scriptural Reasoning"? The first encounter in which Christianity meets another tradition in its own centre is the counterpart in Judaism. According to Christianity's reliance [Verwiesenheit] on Israel, which is inscribed on it in Jesus' being a Jew and in the epistemological valence of the Old Testament, Christianity could also recognize a significance of the post-biblical tradition and of the current situation of Judaism for the actual understanding of the Christ event (see HK this issue, 318 et seq.)

The fact that "Scriptural Reasoning" is an originally Jewish theological initiative that has opened to the integration of Christianity and Islam becomes then significant. "Scriptural Reasoning" is not a Christian effort to bring about the dialogue between religions, which is possibly from the beginning suspected of wanting in whatever ways to acquire a hold on the other confessions. The starting point of this "theology of religion in the process" is the Jewish confession and thus that covenant which was revealed by the One God and which is also for the Christian confession the original one; it is the one God who on his way through history is looking for understanding and loyalty to this covenant and who then invites the two posthumous religions, Christianity and Islam to one study table.

"Scriptural Reasoning" provides a way for the encounter of religions that is able to build up and to secure peace between the religions without promoting alienation or a loss of substance of the religious traditions. Better than with other forms of dialogue the different historical reality of the confessions is preserved. An authentic encounter between different faiths and also between different interpretations within the denominations represented is practised. The restrained way of encounter referring back only to particularly central places in the canon of tradition enables the integration of liberal as well as of anti-liberal attitudes in the respective religions. The Russian Orthodox Archpriest Vladimir Fedorov described this venture as the "Spiritual Exercises" of religious encounter. Let us hope that this movement of interreligious scriptural studies in theology and religious practice will get a foothold also in Germany.


    {*} Matthias Müller (born in 1972) studied in Freiburg, Jerusalem and Charlottesville (Virginia) Catholic theology, mathematics and Judaism. In 2008 in Freiburg a doctorate was conferred on him ("Gemeinsames Warten. Christliche Fundamentaltheologie im Angesicht des Judentums" [Common Waiting. Christian Fundamental Theology in the Face of Judaism]). At present he is a research associate at the Institute Fundamental Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Erfurt.

More information:
- Journal of Scriptural Reasoning:
- Journal of Textual Reasoning:
- Fatwa zu Scriptural Reasoning, see:
- Peter Ochs and Nancy Levene: Textual Reasoning. Jewish Philosophy and Text Study at the end of the Twentieth Century, London 2002
- David Ford und Chad C. Pecknold: The Promise of Scriptural Reasoning, Oxford 2006


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