Interview: Peter Ochs

Read more of Bob Abernethy’s interview about scriptural reasoning with Peter Ochs, professor of modern Judaic studies at the University of Virginia:

Q:What is scriptural reasoning? How do you define it? How does it work?

A: Scriptural reasoning is a practice for inviting participants in Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scriptural traditions to study together. They are people who study among themselves, and we want them to study their sacred texts with one another at the same time. The basic practice, which is very simple when you do it — it took us ten years to test it out, though, because there are many ways of not doing it right. But it looks very simple. There’s a table. There’s a collection of readers from different traditions. There’s very small selections from each of their scriptures. And they sit and they together act as if they each were experts in the other’s tradition, and they interpret and they challenge each other. That’s the method. If it’s done for an hour, okay, it warms up. If it’s done again and again, particularly for two days in a row or week after week for two hours, then they discover, only then, that their understandings of their own texts and of the others become transformed, and they start interacting in a way we call the reasoning part of scriptural reasoning. They actually think differently. We’ve tested this. What difference will it make? Well, this begins at what you see as often a very academic practice. You see, you know, scholars practicing this. It’s true. The scholars initiated it. They’re testing it. But the whole plan of this is for scholars to develop a method of study that the most traditional folk villagers who love their scripture anywhere in the world — that will later include Hindu scriptures as well — the most different people, untrained but love their scriptures, how we can get them to be able to study together with people very, very different than they are. The goal is a method of bringing very disparate peoples together for close study.


Peter Ochs

Q: Why is that needed?

A: The world is at war.

Q: From what I’ve heard and read, people who do this begin with the assumption and acknowledgment that the other person also believes in God and looks at the world that way.

A: You might say that there are two poles in this study, both of which are important. One pole is an answer to the question how can we get traditional believers from folk societies around the world, people who really don’t like each other and believe their traditions bring them apart — how can we get them together? That’s one goal. That assumes believers. The assumption in that approach is that the Muslim, the Jew, and the Christian look at each other and they learn after a couple of days, “My goodness. You, too, love God. I can trust you.” The other pole is so that when educators, those who develop curricula even for the first grade, high school, programs in prisons, if they observe these traditional people studying, we feel, and we’ve begun this, they can observe methods of relating. How do individuals relate to their knowledge? How do they relate to strangers? How do they relate to each other while they’re learning? And we want to generate forms of learning unlike the classrooms most of us had when we grew up. And the method of scriptural reasoning will be that broad. It won’t be called scriptural reasoning always. When it’s that broad it will be called relational study — a different form of study, but we hope that would generate and nurture different forms of loving relationship in the classroom. That’s one of the goals.

Q: Spell that out a little bit. How does that differ from the way people are taught now?

A: The way most of us went to school, in the first grade and high school, or parochial schools — and today this applies all the more so to what schools people call fundamentalist, because many of the methods employed in so-called fundamentalist schools are borrowed from the West and applied to the religion, and what I’m referring to is this: The style of learning that says learning is something you get, you possess. It’s about ideas, and the smartest people know it. And our job as students is to sit in the classroom and receive that knowledge. Well, think of that day after day, week after week. What else is this student learning? The student is learning that knowledge is possession. That it comes with authority and that there are those who have it and those who don’t. All of those are traits that are being taught by educational systems organized that way, and we don’t think they’re good traits. They can translate into a notion of imperialism. If I’m now, after I’ve been educated, if I’m now part of the ruling body, I think of my knowledge as something that ought to be known by others, even by force. The approach that we hope can be derived from traditional people studying together is to show that knowledge, in religious terms, is God’s. But in more general terms knowledge is something that none of us possess, that each of us works cooperatively together to uncover. And part of the knowledge is about our relationship to each other, so that when you learn material, you’re also relearning how to relate to the material and you’re learning how to relate to each other.

Q: What the biggest theological differences are between Christianity and Islam?

A: Over many years of observing Muslim, Christian, and, in this case, also Jewish scholars and lay people studying together, I’ve observed certain differences that folks from different traditions have — tendencies. Not always the same, but, for example, the Muslim scholars I’ve seen as compared to the Christian scholars, the Muslim scholars will tend to take nature much more seriously, will tend to assume that when they’re studying that their scriptural texts are teaching them what they should also be seeing with their eyes when they look at trees, when they study through microscopes. It’s the same truth. The Christian [scholars], and in this case are more like the Jewish scholars, the two of them think much more no, this is a text. This is a revealed knowledge, apart from the world, that we can apply to it. That’s one difference. I won’t go through the obvious differences of Trinity, you know, a God with three persons in one. That we all know. But how does that apply itself to the texts? A second major difference I’ve seen is that the Muslim scholars believe that the text does not display itself clearly. It says other, as God is. It comes indirectly, so therefore you’re not going to get what you get with many Christian scholars, is a sense that, even in English translation, I the individual can see those words, and I kind of know what they mean. No Muslim scholar I’ve seen says here’s a text of the Qur’an; its meaning is self-evident. It takes a lot of indirect study and discussion and interpretation to be clear.

Q: What difference could this work make to the enormous amount of mistrust, misunderstanding, and antagonism between the West and Islam?

A: Well, I’d have a long term and a short term goal for Christian-Muslim relations through this approach. The short term goal is that in the thousand cities, which is what we want to do, there will be Muslims and Christians, not just scholars but ministers and congregants, studying together texts that they both recognize the other treats as sacred — environments in which many, many people will begin to care for each other even if they don’t agree with each other. That’s our first goal and that’s immediate. We have an urgent project, beginning to spread this to a thousand cities. And we have already done several. We know how to do that. The long range project is the one you see the scholars working on now. And that longer range project has to do with really disagreeing with and finding a practical way to change the general orientation in universities for the last 300 years — and high schools, because high schools often follow the patterns of universities. We have that much chutzpah, as we say, or that much pride to think that this is a method which, little by little, could change curricula, change ways of study so that different human beings come to care for each other while they study.

Q: And an example of that would be?

A: An example of that would be that in a public school setting, a university setting, a religious Muslim and a religious Christian as well as secular Muslim and secular Christian can talk about their traditions, and their talk won’t be assumed to impose itself on the other, won’t be considered — shouldn’t be talked about in public space. And because they’ll be talking about what they really care about privately at home when they are religious, it’s not that that will be imposed on the school. To the contrary. When our private religious beliefs are discussed publicly, they lose their own sense of separate and exclusiveness. They’ll become more available to the others. In a sense, we want to see people allowed to be in school who they really are, and we think we have a method to do that.

Q: And that would spread to politics and international affairs?

A: Well, I’d say there are two levels. One, if children have been schooled this way in grade school and high school, some of them will become doctors and lawyers, politicians, and we hope they’ll bear with them — this is a long range project, about a generation long — the memory of this. They’ll see the religious other as different, but somebody who shared something very, very precious. That’s one direction of the hope. I would say the fundamental difference between contemporary western education and what we see could be reduced to this — oversimplified but reduced to this: In the West, the notion is if we’re going to get understanding, we have to figure out something that we all have exactly the same. Difference is a source of tension. Difference is bad. So we’ve asked university faculty for the last 300 years to figure out the single clear truth, in a way, that will bring us together. Our approach says we’re different, and our differences sometimes are really troublesome. That’s mostly because we don’t — we haven’t developed techniques for dealing with them. We have an approach that takes the one example of religious difference, of the difference in scriptures, but we feel once we develop the techniques for studying those difference together it applies to other kinds of difference: biography, history, personality, race. It’s studying across a difference that’s good. That’s what we hope to do, and it’s not the way things are usually taught in our schools.

Q: Can scriptural reasoning work if some of those around the table are atheists?

A: There are different ways of study, different environments for study. If we’re in Southeast Asia or Brooklyn or Cape Town and trying to get a group of very traditional folks who hate each other to study, no. That wouldn’t be the place for an atheist to be a member of — we’re trying to do something else. But if we’re in the classroom — I teach classes in scriptural reasoning at the university, and there’s no requirement for any belief. One brings one’s mind to this form of study and plays at it. Anyone can. Another important dimension of scriptural reasoning is emotion. This is an environment where people reason really hard. If they’re philosophers, they reason philosophically. But they don’t detach that reasoning from what they really feel. They tell jokes. They cry. They get angry. They talk about their biographies. How is it possible? Because the other members of the group are there to balance any excessive subjectivity or excessive oddness on the part of one member. Everyone shares, and therefore we’re not worried about having a clean space of pure objectivity. That’s balanced out, and we think it’s hugely important to generate an educational system in which people can be whole people and use their deepest instincts and not just think from the neck up.

Q: And what about the things scriptural reasoning is not?

A: Scriptural reasoning — and this is important for individuals or groups who might want to start a scriptural reasoning group. It just looks like ordinary old chatting or your local community book club. And if it’s done well, it should look like that. What those who look at it don’t know is the group that worked as your old ordinary book club isn’t doing ten things that make it not work. For example, scriptural reasoning doesn’t work if individuals act like authorities — and even in a good sense. If we were studying and I said to somebody else, “Well what does your tradition mean?” — that’s not how it works. Once an individual in the circle is treated as an authority, people stop bringing their feelings. People stop bringing their own opinions. They sit back and become passive learners, which is just the educational environment we don’t want. Another thing you don’t do is impose yourself, interrupt others and say, “No, you shouldn’t read that way,” or “This isn’t how you read.” A third thing that shouldn’t be done — one respects the sacredness of the other’s text. It doesn’t mean that you’re worshipping it. It doesn’t mean that the folks at home, if they saw you, would know you’ve given up your tradition. It just means that the human being sitting next to you treats that text as something hugely dear, and you respect your neighbor’s feelings. You respect your neighbor’s sense of sanctity. And there are ways of training people to learn how to respect other people while they’re still acting like they can talk about that text, and that’s what we develop.

Q: What do you say, for instance, to a committed Christian who believes absolutely that Christianity is true, truer than all other religions, and that it is his duty, his obligation to God to try to spread the word about Christianity and convert other to it for their salvation?

A: Two comments. The first is that each setting of scriptural reasoning, whether it’s in a prison, in a grade school, among clerics, each has it’s own function and form. So there isn’t one answer for any one setting. But if I were in a setting in which there was a Christian — perhaps a Jewish and a Muslim colleague as well who believe God told us the truth, we’re here to convert the world — we would say great. Therefore you respect revelation, right? What do you consider these other two here who also receive revelation? If the individual simply says, “They’re infidels. Let me at them,” we say, “I’m sorry. We don’t want you studying,” because that’s a dangerous individual. If there’s someone who says, “I respect their tradition. If I sit and talk to them, I’ll convert them,” we say, “Come on in,” because that’s what we want. We want individuals who believe they have the answer who respect discussion, and we trust that the texts can take care of themselves.

Q: And do they?

A: They do. I mean, if all three texts are allowed to be in play, and members of each tradition want to use that session to convert the other, they keep at it for enough hours, they get pretty tired, because the other texts and its proponent can answer questions. No one wins. But we hope a little knowledge seeps in, and even more importantly — friendship. The modern western impulse — it’s the same impulse whether you fear it or you promote it, namely to believe that we get together only when we get rid of differences and disrespect them. That belief is shared by those who don’t want to come together because they fear, and we’ve talked to them, that when we come together we are going to lose our distinctness. And our response to them who want to preserve their traditional circle and to those who want to make everyone the same — we have the same response. These texts were revealed separately, differently. We respect that difference. We’re not here to reduce it. But we’re here to hear those who respect the God in those texts, to talk to each other. Difference is a context for dialogue. Not sameness.