Category Archives: Hermeneutics

A session of Scriptural Reasoning

Scriptural Reasoning (SR) is an increasingly widespread practice. Small groups of Jews, Christians and Muslims meet together for intensive study of each others’ scriptures together. Since 2003 I have been involved in an SR group meeting annually in Cambridge and before each year’s AAR, and the following brief paper emerges from that context.


What goes on in a Scriptural Reasoning group does not lend itself easily to summary or report. After all, the success of a Scriptural Reasoning discussion is not measured by the production of take-home conclusions, and even when a discussion generates ideas that seem to have legs those ideas sometimes seem rather lame when taken out of the context that they temporarily powered.

These difficulties of summary or report are not, of course, absolute: it is often possible to convey something of what has excited a group, even if such descriptions tend to work best when given to people who have studied the same texts in other groups. And it is similarly possible to generate interesting theoretical descriptions of the kinds of reasoning involved in SR discussions, even if, again, those descriptions have often worked better as aids to reflection for participants in SR than as clear explanations for outsiders.

Nevertheless, summary or report is difficult, as anyone can discover by returning from an SR meeting and trying to explain to those who have never been involved what it was like, what good it did, and what came of it. So I have for a while wanted to try an experiment: to write up a fictionalised version of a real SR discussion, and then to comment upon that fiction – trying to show what cannot easily be told: what SR is like.[1] SR groups differ widely, of course, and those differences are particularly marked when one moves between the different contexts in which SR is done: from academic to civic, from long-term series to one-off events, and so on. Nevertheless, although what follows is a fictionalised version of a discussion from a very particular setting – an academic ‘Scriptural Reasoning Theory Group’ meeting, largely involving people who were familiar with SR and who had met in this context before – I hope that it conveys something of the rhythm and progress of SR conversation more generally.

A discussion of Sura 40.78

The participants in the group are AALIYAH and HABIB (Muslim), MORGAN and NATHAN (Jewish), and BRIAN, JOHN and KAREN (Christian). KAREN is convenor. It so happens that in this session the group chooses to study a passage from the Qur’an; in other sessions, the group read texts from the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

The group has been assembling and chatting for a couple of minutes already, exchanging greetings and questions about the journey to Cambridge. Karen has asked people which text they want to start with, and in the absence of a clear preference has suggested a brief snippet from the Qur’an – 40:78.

KAREN: (After a pause, reading slowly from the Arberry translation – with the kind of tone and rhythm that might be used for a bible reading in an Anglican church.) We sent Messengers before thee; of some We have related to thee, and some We have not related to thee. It was not for any Messenger to bring a sign, save by God’s leave. When God’s command comes, justly the issue shall be decided; then the vain-doers shall be lost.

[There is silence, while the members of the group stares at the passage in front of them. After ten or fifteen seconds, HABIB reaches into his bag and pulls out his Qur’an, flicking quickly through to the passage; his lips move slightly as he reads the Arabic.]

BRIAN: The bit where it says ‘justly the issue shall be decided’ – I looked at a translation online when preparing, and it had (he refers to a sheet in front of him) ‘it will be concluded in truth’. The translation we’ve been given seems to make more sense. The other one I have here (he refers to the Penguin Classics Koran, which he has open in front of him) says ‘And when God’s will was done, justice prevailed.’

NATHAN: I have ‘when the command of Allah will come, matters will stand decided justly‘. What does the Arabic say?

HABIB: (Somewhat hesitantly) Judgment was passed, or judgment was – given, or made, with truth. True judgment was passed.

BRIAN: So – is it: God’s command comes by means of messengers, it comes when God chooses, and when it comes it executes true judgment?

HABIB: Yes. It passes or executes true judgment.

BRIAN: It sets things to rights, perhaps?

HABIB: Yes, yes. Perhaps.

[Silence falls again for a few seconds.]

MORGAN: So, who are the ‘vain-doers’? Are they, like, people consumed with vanity – all preening and posing?

HABIB: Vain-doers? They are those who deny God’s revelation. They are the ones in the wrong, the ones who oppose God. You could translate it ‘falsifiers’.
BRIAN: (Consulting his Penguin Classics Koran) My translation has ‘disbelievers’.

HABIB: Yes, yes – disbelievers.

MORGAN: Those who don’t believe the message, or the messenger?


[Murmurs of assent lapse into another brief silence.]

JOHN: ‘[O]f some we have related to thee…’ That’s ‘related in the Qur’an’, I assume?

HABIB: Yes. ‘Related’ – it is like saying, ‘We have given you information. We have told you stories about them. Yes, we have told you some of the messengers’ stories, and we have not told you others.’ It is not just in the Qur’an, though –

JOHN: Not just in the Qur’an?

AALIYAH: Mostly in the Qur’an. Some elsewhere, but mostly in the Qur’an.

HABIB: The Qur’an names twenty-seven messengers – but there are supposed to be 124,000 messengers in total.

JOHN: 124,000?


AALIYAH: Yes – (then, animated, rapid-fire:) so it is like, ‘Don’t think these are the only ones! There are many more. There’s an abundance. More than you can count’ – because 124,000 is not really fixing a clear limit – it is ‘thousands upon thousands. I have sent you more messengers. Be open to them. Wherever you turn, there will be a messenger.’

JOHN: And others – beyond the twenty-seven – are mentioned in the traditions?

AALIYAH: Some, yes – but not many. The point is not that there is any list of who they are. There couldn’t be a list. There is an abundance of witnesses, more than you know, so many more than you might think. They are everywhere!

NATHAN: (Speaking at the same time as Morgan) So, what makes someone a messenger­?

MORGAN: (Speaking at the same time as Nathan) Who is the ‘We’? Is it Allah?

HABIB: Yes: it is one of the ways that Allah speaks of himself. There are different registers in the Qur’an. ‘We’ is for God’s greatness and ‘I’ is more for God’s nearness ­-

AALIYAH: (Interrupting) Yes – like ‘I am near to them’

HABIB: – and ‘Thee’ is Muhammad (peace be upon him).

[Yet another brief pause.]

KAREN: (Taking advantage of the lull) What is the context for this verse?

HABIB: Allah is comforting Muhammad (peace be upon him). ‘You must tolerate the difficulties you have with your message, for there were many before you…’

AALIYAH: (Interrupting) It’s part of a longer discussion of messengers and signs. And there’s a story of a believer in Pharaoh’s household, who kept on trying to get Pharaoh to be open – to listen to the possibility that Moses was speaking the truth –

NATHAN: (Surprised) Moses?

AALIYAH: Yes, Pharaoh wants to kill Moses because he does not believe his message –

MORGAN: So Pharaoh is a vain-doer?

AALIYAH: Yes, because he does not believe the message.

BRIAN And so is this believer saying to Pharaoh, ‘Listen out for the message?’ Is there something, then – (He pauses, searching for the right words) – something about inculcating the right kind of attentiveness? Listen out for messengers, they’re all around you! Look out for signs, they’re everywhere! You need the right kind of attentiveness. Is that what it is saying? You need the right kind of eyes?

JOHN: But is that what this passage is saying? It’s not really addressed to those who ought to receive the message, is it? It’s addressed to the Prophet, and it tells him that he is not in charge of the message, but that when it comes, it will be effective.

BRIAN: Okay – yes, fair enough. So it’s like: don’t worry if you can’t produce the effect you want. This is not about you producing anything. You simply have to be obedient to the One who does produce – who can execute judgment when he chooses.

JOHN: Yes, I think so. I think that’s right.

NATHAN: (Who has been waiting to say something for a little while, and now finds an opportunity.) So, looking around, could anyone be a messenger? Could you be – could you find that the people around you become messengers? Are messengers sent to everyone, to all peoples?

HABIB: In other parts of the Qur’an, it does talk about how there are messengers for each community…

BRIAN: Though that’s not really in view in this text, is it?

AALIYAH: But this ayah does mean that the problem is not that Allah did not send enough messengers, because he has sent more than enough – he has sent thousands upon thousands. The problem is that you do not see them –

JOHN: You do not have eyes to see.

NATHAN: I guess what I was asking is whether a messenger is simply anyone through whom a sign is given, and whether a sign is simply anything that points you to God?

HABIB: Well… Signs – miracles or recitations – they are in the permission of God, no? They cannot be demanded: ‘it was not for any messenger to bring a sign.’ God chooses when to make a sign, not the messenger. So God makes the sign and the sign makes the messenger. The sign is a revelation, and the messenger is one who transmits it. You need to keep God in the picture.

JOHN: The priority of divine action.

AALIYAH: The messenger is one who is given a sign, who believes the sign, and who proclaims it or presents it.

NATHAN: So the messenger has to believe?

AALIYAH: I think so, yes –

JOHN: If someone proclaims – if someone preaches truth about God, is that a sign? Does it make them a messenger?

AALIYAH: Well, like Habib was saying, the most important thing of all in this passage is that the messenger does not have disposal over the message. There is something in the context here: this ayah is part of a longer story where there have been demands for signs, for miraculous proofs. And Muhammad has been saying, ‘I’m only human.’ I do not have wonders, miracles, at my command. The only miracle he gives is the one he has been given: the recitation itself – the message itself. And he’s not simply preaching: he’s – like Habib said – he’s transmitting what he’s been given.

HABIB: Yes – sign, ‘ayah’ – can mean miracle, or it can mean verse, a verse of the Qur’an –

AALIYAH: (interrupting) They are both signs that point to God, to God’s power.

HABIB: – and it is signs that confirm that a messenger is a messenger. That’s really what miracles are for – they’re secondary. They confirm a messenger’s status as a messenger: they’re signs pointing to signs.

BRIAN: So you might know you are in the presence of a messenger if there is a miracle, a dramatic sign – but this verse suggests that the real mark of a sign (the sign of a sign?) is that bit about deciding on truth. How did we say that should be translated?

KAREN: When true judgment is passed, or when God’s true judgment is proclaimed.

BRIAN: Speaking with authority? The real mark of a sign is somehow its ability to speak authoritatively, decisively?

JOHN: So is recognition of a sign like the bit in the Gospels: ‘Were not our hearts burning within us – ‘?

AALIYAH: Where’s that from?

JOHN: It’s from one of the resurrection stories, where people at first don’t realise that it is Jesus who is speaking to them until he reveals himself, but then realise that his words were having an impact on them even before they recognised him.

BRIAN: That would be a good passage to do to discuss one year, I think.

[A brief pause.]

MORGAN: (taking advantage of the lull, and speaking slowly) I’m interested in the phenomenology of all this: the signs having this attention-grabbing power –

HABIB: But it’s not just attention-grabbing. The Qur’an speaks against signs simply as spectacle – things that attract attention to themselves, rather than to God –

MORGAN: Exactly: so there’s this attention-grabbing power, and yet (hunting for the right words) a transparency, a transitiveness to signs?

HABIB: Yes, signs have to be transparent.

MORGAN: But in the Qur’an, isn’t the whole world a sign?

AALIYAH: Yes, it points to God.

MORGAN: So the signs – specific signs – they have a kind of contagious transparency: your eye is drawn towards them and then beyond them, and if these signs do their work, then other things around them – whether other things that you might think these signs pointed to, or just the world around the sign – begins to become transparent too. The world’s capacity to be a sign gets activated?

NATHAN: And messengers are there to help you read the world? They proclaim God, but in a way that’s proclaiming the proper understanding of the world?

BRIAN: Passing true judgment on the world?

HABIB: Yes – and there is one messenger, there are twenty-seven messengers, there are 124,000 messengers – and this is a sequence that has a telos: when the whole world is a sign, the whole world becomes transparent.

MORGAN: So, the one, the twenty-seven, the 124,000 – that’s like an epidemiology of transparency?

[A brief pause.]

BRIAN: Is there some kind of hermeneutics for the Qur’an itself here? If what Morgan says is right about contagious transparency (I love that phrase!) then does it work for the signs of the Qur’an? Are there central ayahs in the Qur’an that, as it were, activate the others – or some kind of mutual activation? So one ayah shows you God, but also shows you how to see God more truly in other ayahs – and vice versa?

[JOHN, MORGAN and NATHAN nod – but nobody picks up the suggestion. There’s a brief pause.]

KAREN: When it says that the vain-doers are the losers – and the vain-doers are the ones who don’t recognise or believe the signs – does that mean that we all have the capacity, the responsibility to understand the signs?

BRIAN: Are we free to acknowledge or reject the signs, do you mean?

KAREN: Yes. Or is there anything like God hardening Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus –

BRIAN: (interrupting) You mean, do the vain-doers become vain by rejecting a message they could have accepted – or are they people who have somehow been given over to vanity, and so are incapable of recognising the message?


AALIYAH: Oh, I definitely think they are responsible. Yes, they are very much responsible. And Muhammad is, like, ‘Why do you not listen? Why do you not understand? It has all been set before you so clearly…!’

[There’s a pause. Karen, who is chairing, begins to shuffle her papers, wondering whether to suggest moving on to another text, but…]

HABIB: The two meanings of ‘sign’, of ayah – miracle and verse. I’m not sure – was it Aaliyah who said that Muhammad (peace be upon him) was not doing miracles, but simply gave the recitation, the message? But the Quran is both. When Moses gave miraculous signs, they made people look, or listen – they created a space that allowed him then to give his message and be attended to. And so the miracles and the message were separate, with the miracles making way for the message. But with Muhammad (peace be upon him), the recitation is also the miracle: its beauty, its power as language – it creates the space, and the attention, for its own message.

AALIYAH: Yes – it is itself miraculous.

HABIB: And the people to whom it was addressed, the Arabic people – they were people who would misunderstand other kinds of miracles, but they were a people for whom poetry was very important – it was central for them – so this sign, this recitation, is aimed right at them, to grab them and make them attend.

NATHAN: So, it is a message in their language, but which heightens, or disrupts, or breaks open that language to make it capable of pointing beyond itself?

BRIAN: In the Gospels, Jesus both heals and teaches – or heals, exorcises and teaches. But it’s not that the healings and exorcisms are simply signs that make space for the teaching –

JOHN and KAREN: (together) No.

BRIAN: The teaching interprets the healing and exorcism, and makes those things signs of more than simply Jesus’ power –

MORGAN: Contagious transparency, again?

KAREN: It goes the other way around, as well, though: the miracles interpret the teaching?

HABIB: How do you mean?

KAREN: Well – they show what Jesus means. They show what the Kingdom of God looks like. It is release for captives, sight for the blind –

HABIB: Metaphorically, do you mean?

JOHN / KAREN (together): No –

KAREN: Not just metaphorical –

AALIYAH: Is there anything like the Qur’an’s recognition of the danger that miracles will not be understood, that they will not really be signs?

JOHN: There’s the bit about this foolish generation demanding a sign – as if it were entertainment or titillation.

KAREN: And the demons – we discussed this last time, didn’t we – can’t you see the demons as fixating upon the sign itself, the power of the miracle-worker, but not seeing beyond it?

JOHN: Apart from they do recognise Jesus’ identity –

KAREN: I suppose so. (She pauses.) But we’re getting away from the text in front of us. Unless…

BRIAN: Sorry, just one more thing on this. I don’t think the right comparison is with Jesus’ message and miracles, because the real sign in the Christian context is Jesus himself. And the teaching and the miracles are signs that interpret the sign that he is. I don’t think, in Jesus’ case, you could so easily say ‘It was not for a Messenger to bring a sign.’

JOHN: Well – Jesus says he only does what he sees the Father doing, so there’s the same sense of dependence

BRIAN: (interrupting) Yes, but the signs are not simply something that Jesus receives and transmits. That’s all I mean.

MORGAN: Wouldn’t Christians say – this is getting back to the contagious transparency thing, again – wouldn’t you say that Jesus is the one who makes all the other signs transparent?

BRIAN: Yes: he is the transparent one, and he makes other signs transparent.

JOHN: (frowning) I think you need a more dialectical picture than that, though: the teachings and the miracles are part of what makes Jesus transparent.

[Brian nods, but doesn’t respond. A pause for a few beats.]

KAREN: (Taking advantage of the lull) So we want to move on to a Christian text now, then? Our conversation seems to be heading that way?

BRIAN: Sorry, I didn’t mean to derail our conversation.

NATHAN: Could we spend just a bit more time with this text, first, though?

KAREN: Sure, yes.

NATHAN: I wanted to come back to the point about the vain-doers’ responsibility. Is there a sense in which the vain-doers have closed themselves off – so it’s not simply a matter of a decision, in the moment when they are confronted by the sign, to reject that sign, but of that being a decision for which they have perversely prepared themselves? They’ve prepared themselves to ignore transparency…

BRIAN: They’ve immunised themselves against the contagion?

HABIB: The vain-doers are not simply all those who did not understand this particular sign. (He pauses to look at the Arabic again)

KAREN: My translation has ‘the followers of falsehood’, which sounds more like a pattern of life than a one-off decision.

AALIYAH: Yes: they are people who have told themselves that the world they see is all there is –

NATHAN: That there is only surface, and no depth?


HABIB: But you shouldn’t lose the sense of responsibility that remains at the time when the sign is actually given. Signs – in God’s wisdom – they do really break through to people and confront them. God gives people signs that are fit for their context, fit to communicate to them. When a sign comes, it is powerful and active –

KAREN: It passes true judgment.

HABIB: Yes, but it also is not so overwhelming as to deprive you of responsibility. A sign comes close to you, but also leaves some distance – you will hear it, but you are responsible for acceptance or rejection. You’re not deprived of your humanity in the process.

AALIYAH: And even Muhammad has to seek confirmation: the message he receives does not stop him from asking questions and doubting himself, or from knowing that he is human.

MORGAN: So a sign that comes to someone who has closed themselves off against the potential transparency of things – against the more-than-visible – is going to have to be something visible that nevertheless shakes them out of that –

NATHAN: Like the burning bush in the text we were looking at last time.


BRIAN: Which also leaves Moses needing confirmation – leaves him human and questioning and unsure.

MORGAN: So the strangeness of a miraculous sign – its miraculousness (is that a word?) – is not there simply to be a sign of God’s arbitrary power (Hey, look what I can do!) but to make the sign a sign: something that actually breaks through and grabs the attention? Is that right?

NATHAN: But this thing about the messenger being left without complete certainty – left with questions – for both Moses, and even more for Muhammad (but not for Jesus), there’s this sense of waiting on a message that is utterly beyond your control –

BRIAN: (Interrupting:) Jesus is waiting in Gethsemane I think –

NATHAN: (Carrying on:) God says to Moses ‘I will teach you what to say’, and here Allah says, ‘ it was not for any Messenger to bring a sign, except by God’s leave’. It’s not in their control. They wait on it, and don’t know if or when it will come again –

JOHN: Except that God has promised –

NATHAN: – except, yes, that God has promised. But that’s trusting in someone else, trusting something outside yourself. It’s not like simply being confident in your own right.

[Pause. Karen is being more cautious about closing this part of the discussion down. She wants to be sure people have finished.]

HABIB: Coming back to the ‘vain-doers’ –


HABIB: Well, there are traditional discussions of people who can’t be held responsible, who are not vain-doers even though they do not understand: if you are too young, or mentally unfit, or in some other way do not have the capacity. Various different categories. But I think even those people are said to have been given signs that are fitted to their capacity, however limited.

JOHN: Accommodation – signs accommodated to their capacity?


NATHAN: Does that mean that, if they develop – someone who is at first too young getting older, perhaps – the signs that they are presented with grow with them, in some sense?

HABIB: Yes, I think you could say that. Until you reach the point where you are brought to the message of the Prophet, and submit explicitly to Allah.

NATHAN: But that submission builds on the preparation of the earlier signs?


BRIAN: There’s a kind of pneumatology –

JOHN: Or doctrine of prevenient grace.

BRIAN: Yes, with the agency of the prophet – or of God through the Prophet – crowning that process?

MORGAN: And the vain-doer is not simply someone who says ‘No!’ to a sign given at one step of process, but is someone who has built up resistance?

BRIAN: Back to contagion again!

MORGAN: Yes – someone so acting as to make themselves go blind…

AALIYAH: Or maybe to keep their eyes from opening.

MORGAN: But it’s a process, rather than a punctiliar thing.

JOHN: A habitus?

HABIB: Yes – although the supreme sign given through the Prophet (peace be upon him) – is the Qur’an: and you are still confronted by it with real responsibility, with a real decision.

[Brief pause.]

MORGAN: When Brian said about the agency of God through the Prophet providing the central sign – the sign that sets all the others off. Would Christians say the same about Jesus?

HABIB: It is different though. Muhammad (peace be upon him) is not with us, but his sign – the sign given through him – is. The focus is on the sign that is given through him.

MORGAN: So is the writing down of the Qur’an in Islam the analogue of the resurrection in Christianity: it is what prevents the sign dying away?

BRIAN: Would that make the act of copying the Qur’an like the eucharist?

KAREN: Or would it be the act of recitation that was eucharistic?

BRIAN: Maybe. Maybe.

[A longer pause.]

KAREN: (Looking around for confirmation) Have we finished with this text for now, do you think?

[With murmurs of assent, and shuffled papers, the session moves on.]


I am not going to offer a detailed commentary on the content of this discussion, or to rehearse any of the more sophisticated theoretical discussions we have had about the nature of SR. I simply want to offer a few low-key reflections on some facets of our practice that I think this dialogue displays.

  • Sputtering and motoring . The discussion begins with a sputter of clarificatory questions, punctuated by pauses. After a while, it is as if the engine catches, and the sputtering gives way to motoring: conversation runs more-or-less smoothly, more-or-less energetically for a while, though eventually the engine does cut out, of course – and we’re back to sputtering. No-one knows when the engine will catch, when the sputtering will give way to motoring: it cannot be produced, only received. It is a matter of grace.
  • Hosting . This dialogue depicts the reading of an Islamic text, and there is an obvious sense in which the Muslim participants (particularly Habib, but also Aaliyah) function as hosts for some of the session: they answer questions about a text that is deeply familiar to them, welcoming in to that territory the other participants who are relative strangers there. But they are not only hosts, or not always hosts. They are most obviously hosts when the conversation is sputtering (when it is in question-answer form, with the hosts providing answers), least obviously hosts when the conversation is motoring.
  • Exegesis without exegesis . This dialogue is exegetical, but it is not as such an exegesis of the text. It dos not produce anything like a coherent, well-defended construal of the text as a whole. (A whole other level of reflection or commentary upon this dialogue would be needed to turn it into such an exegesis.) Rather, it is a series of explorations of the text. The pattern of sputtering and motoring makes this clear: to change the metaphor, it is as if the conversation is exploring a maze, not knowing which openings are going to lead to dead ends (sputtering), which to pathways to follow (motoring). The conversation finds its way – but finding a way and drawing a map are not the same thing.
  • With and beyond the plain sense .What is the maze being explored, though? On the one hand, what is explored is not this text in the abstract: it is this text as the text of a religious community: hence the appropriateness of hosting, of the sputter of question and answer. On the other hand, this is not a session that consists simply in the group being told what Muslims have made of this text: hence the uneven presence of hosting, and the possibility of motoring. The exploration is a matter of the group playing together with and beyond the plain sense of the text – where the plain sense is the most obvious sense it has for the hosts.
  • Exploring the penumbra . The exploration includes exploration of the penumbra of knowledge and assumptions that surrounds the faithful reading of this text. This is most obvious when specific questions for clarification are asked: ‘What is the context for this verse?’, Karen asks; ‘Who is meant by “We”? Is it Allah?’, Morgan asks. But it sometimes involves longer detour – as when the conversation explores the relationship between signs and miracles: detours from the text, for the sake of the text, as now this, now that idea that has arisen in the course of explanation is explored.
  • Playfulness and discipline . The exploration of the text and its conceptual penumbra frequently takes the form of experimentation: of the playful suggestion of possible construals. Could you read it this way? How about that way? Can one read this text, Aaliyah suggests, as being about Allah’s condescension, sending appropriate messengers to all parts of humankind? But these suggestions get tested, and sometimes rejected. ‘That’s not really in view in this text, is it?’, Brian answers Aaliyah. Both the discussion of the Islamic theological ideas that are in play when this text is read faithfully, and the experimental construals of the text offered, are from time to time disciplined by return to the specificities of the text.
  • Ambiguity of voice. This experimentation often involves participants speaking in ambiguous voices. A Christian reader might playfully suggest a reading of part of this Qur’anic text – and it is in part an offering to the Islamic readers of a way in which they could read their text, a gift to the Muslims qua Muslims, from a non-Muslim who cannot but sit lightly to the gift. But sometimes, it seems to me, the suggestions made are as much suggestions to the Christians and the Jews: does the reading I am suggesting for this Qur’anic passage not suggest analogous readings of Christian and Jewish texts, or analogous theological ideas? Might it be an idea Christians or Jews can appropriately borrow or adapt, even if it turns out not to be a sustainable Islamic reading? Might it in fact be more a suggestion for Christian or Jewish participants than a suggestion for the Muslims? It is worth asking, for instance, who Brian is speaking to and for when he says ‘So it’s like: don’t worry if you can’t produce the effect you want. This is not about you producing anything. You simply have to be obedient to the One who does produce – who can execute judgment when he chooses.’ And who is Morgan speaking to and for when he suggests the idea of ‘contagious transparency’?
  • Comparative hypotheses . One of the way in which experimentation is conducted (and one of the ways in which ambiguities of voice are exacerbated) is by the explicit posing of comparative questions, or making of comparative suggestions. Is the act of Qur’anic recitation in some sense Eucharistic?, asks Karen. How does the relationship between messenger, message and miracle work in the case of Jesus, or the case of Moses, and how does that differ from Muhammad’s case? People sometimes make suggestions about Christian and Jewish parallels to help clarify the specificity of the Qur’anic text, sometimes to help suggest a new construal of the Qur’anic text, and sometimes simply to suggest ways in which the discussion might spiral into Christian or Jewish territory, if allowed.
  • Pick-and-mix vocabularies. To power and express their explorations, the participants draw on a variety of vocabularies, mostly quite unsystematically and playfully: most obviously the vocabularies of Christian and Jewish thought, but also (in this case quite briefly) clearly philosophical vocabularies. (Morgan mentions phenomenology, though that doesn’t end up firing the conversational engine on this occasion.)
  • Conversational momentum . Ideas or patterns of reasoning from previous sessions sometimes appear (acknowledged or unacknowledged), and help drive the conversation forward. There is a kind of momentum to SR groups – and that raises some interesting questions about how constant group membership needs to be in order to allow momentum to build, and how variable it should be in order to distribute the momentum achieved.
  • Running jokes. Conversational motoring is powered in part by ideas that catch – and ideas that catch well can survive the conversations descent from motoring to sputtering, and reappear. Motoring, momentum, and catching are not the same thing. Momentum is seen in the ways in which a conversation is informed by earlier conversations. Motoring is seen when a conversation flows, in some reasonably coherent way. Catching is seen in the reappearance of concepts that you thought had gone away, or that refuse to go away. And sometimes the most generative ideas in SR sessions are indistinguishable from running jokes.


[1] Fictionalised? Some time ago, and with the permission of the participants, I took detailed (though uneven) notes during one SR small group session. In writing them up, I have changed names (and, in fact, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the dramatis personae below and the original group members – Redha Ameur, Jeff Bailey, Gavin Flood, Tom Greggs, Martin Kavka, Catriona Laing, Susannah Ticciati, Umeyye Isra Yazicioglu and William Young ); I have rearranged material; I have borrowed some things I heard from other conversations on the same text; I have neatened it all up, and tried to make it readable or followable, in a way that an unedited transcript would not be. The result is a fiction, even if it contains little of substance that was not said in the original session (though I admit that there were places where I couldn’t help adding in something that I would have said, if only I’d thought of it at the time).

Continuity and Discontinuity

I’ve been on holiday for a week, in (mostly) sunny Cornwall, and confirming that Kynance Cove is one of my favourite places in the world (and the Lawrences some of my favourite people).

Anyway, just one last post to put the ‘abducting John’ strand of thinking to bed. I have spoken of a ‘dialectic of description and registering resistance, within a life in pursuit of holiness’, and then suggested that needs to be rethought. I’d like instead to suggest that a theologically nuanced reading of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus in Mark (and, more deeply, between Mark’s Jesus and the ‘as it is written’ of the Prophets) will start with a ‘reading for continuity’: reading John in terms of Jesus and Jesus in terms of John: John the Baptist as the one who made Jesus possible; Jesus as the one who was made possible by John. Reading John as theotokos, as I put it a long time ago). This is itself an ongoing process, a matter of continual adjustments in reading as a better ‘fit’ is sought between the two sides; it is not a matter of a static, achieved interpretation.

This ‘reading for continuity’ will be shadowed and interrupted, however, by ‘registering discontinuity’. Register the resistances on both sides: that in Jesus which exceeds anything we can see made ready in John; that in John which is unassimilated, unpreseverved, unfulfilled in Jesus.

Mark’s Gospel lends itself to reading for continuity (that is how it tells the story) and to seeing the ‘resistances’ on Jesus’ side. It allows glimpses or hints of resistances on John the Baptist’s side only indirectly, through the gaps in what it says. When it comes to the Prophets, and to the Hebrew Scriptures in general, those resistances are considerably more visible.

What I am suggesting has some connections to the ‘criterion of dissimilarity’ and opposing proposals of a ‘criterion of similarity’ in Jesus research – but I am not proposing criteria for judging historical authenticity: rather, I am proposing (to myself, if no one else) a set of questions to have in mind when reading, a set of processes of reading to go through, and hold in tension, in order to be sent more deeply by these texts into serious thought.

And I have one last complication to throw back in, from another strand of posts on this blog. ‘Reading for continuity’ may well be rather complex, if one of the forms of such continuity involved is precisely the ‘prophetic’ continuity of speaking from within the excess involved in any attempt at continuity. John the Baptist is made, in Mark, to stand (in part) precisely for that inspired discontiunity-for-the-sake-of-obedience which is an authentic, continuous strand in the Hebrew scriptures…

The Law and the Prophets

Even scriptures that are adhered to by the most rigid of conservatives do not fully dictate their own application. There is always an ‘excess’ in application: decisions made on grounds other than unyielding continuity – pragmatic grounds, aesthetic grounds. That is not simply a failure of continuity, though, or a force that fights against continuity: this possibility of excess is also what makes faithfulness to a text possible in history.

(It is, by the way, easy to slip between talking about texts and talking about power-structures in this context, even though they are not quite the same thing. But what I have said about scriptures is true of ‘power-structures’: they are perpetuated, but always perpetuated differently. Power always evolves – though not necessarily in ways you’d like…)

The relationship between law and prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures is, perhaps, analogous on to this relationship between continuity and excess. Prophecy is the arrival of the word of God at the edges of our current obedience, showing where our obedience is no such thing and calling us to change. You could see it as the excess which makes continuity possible – which calls to new construals of the existing text, a new grasp (pragmatic, aesthetic) of what is central and what peripheral, that is needed in order to carry on. It is not that without prophecy, continued application of the text would involve no excess. No, it would still necessarily evolve over time and space. But prophecy, as it were, authorises evolution in a particular direction – or calls readers back from the direction they thought was the way forward and sets them on another. Prophecy makes obedience to the law possible as obedience – precisely at the same time as, in fact precisely because, it attacks existing obedience to the law, existing construals of the law. Without prophecy there is no faithfulness, only arbitrariness.

And, yes, to those looking back, the claimed ‘authorisation’ will in part be judged by what it made possible – by what happened, or can happen, next.

When John the Baptist is described, he is wrapped in the words of the Hebrew Bible. He is presented as a continuation, a form of faithfulness to the text. But that means (whether we think about John the actual human being, standing in the desert, or “John” the character in the gospel texts) that John will be a new way of reading the text: he will of necessity be excessive – and this is necessarily true before we have noticed the explicit liminality that marks his portrait. But when we go on to look at the details – the desert setting, the raw food, the strange clothing, the asceticism – we can see that John stands explicity for divinely authorised liminality: for that prophetic call to faithfulness which disrupts present obedience. He stands for, announces, represents a call to continuity that explicitly recognises that continuity must be excessive, and therefore must involve us in decision and repsonsibility – and precisely in doing this he stands in the prophetic tradition that has always announced this message, but of necessity stands in it differently (as all the prophets do).

So, yes, John’s liminality is the form that ‘as it is written’ takes.

And, no, I don’t know what to make of the leather belt.


The last two posts, and Rachel’s comments, prompt an aside.

This is one of those times when an apparently clear path turns out to lead into a thicket. And trying impatiently to pull one bramble out of the way pulls several others into view. Several issues are mixed in together; it’s not quite clear that we have hit upon the distinctions or the vocabulary to sort them out; and the point of what we’re saying has become elusive.

It is at this kind of point that it actually becomes necessary to think. To work, to labour at untangling without oversimplifying. I find that my life (the life of an academic theologian!) doesn’t actually involve that many occasions when I am required, in this sense, to think. Most of the time (when I’m not absorbed in those activities in which thinking would be a dangerous distraction – like driving, or attending committee meetings…) my life involves putting myself in places where I might be called upon to think – and then waiting, listening for the call.

It’s not that we’re obviously tussling with big, dramatic profundities. Playing with big, dramatic profundities doesn’t often involve a real labour of thinking, in my experience. We’re simply trying to work out whether anything can be saved from a platitude that seemed like an obvious thing to say about a particular passage. But the labour of thought is set of by small incongruities, small rucks in the carpet.

All this is one reason for reading the Bible slowly, of course: putting oneself on a path that leads into thickets.

Literal and Spiritual (still more)

Okay, so here’s how I see it. Now that I’ve thought about it, I realise that all I’m doing is re-phrasing Hans Frei’s work on the sensus literalis – and, indeed, stuff I’ve said about him already – but, hey, originality is overrated.

Let’s say that the Bible is read within some weave of ecclesial practices, habits, institutions, worldview, ethos. Within that, over time, for readers thoroughly woven in to that context, there will be an ‘obvious’ way of approaching biblical texts – a sensus communis or ‘plain sense’.

Note that this ‘obvious way’

  • will almost certainly be slowly evolving;
  • won’t necessarily cover all biblical texts – simply those which feel most familiar and usable to this group;
  • won’t necessarily lead to consensus about meaning: it might, instead, simply be a consensus about the kind of argument it makes sense to have about the meaning of a particular passage in this group;
  • will shade off into other plain senses at the edges as this group is messily mixed in with other groups in a wider social setting; and
  • may, in fact, not be a single ‘plain sense’ at all, but a set of differing approaches to the Bible which manage, at least temporarily in this setting, to reinforce one another – to be held in some kind of stable equilibrium.

Now, it is only within such a practice that we can talk about ‘spiritual’ and ‘literal’ readings – because the practices by which the Bible is approached in this ‘obvious way’/’plain sense’ will be such that the Bible is both made grist for the group’s mill, sustaining and supporting its existing shape, and also in some ways (perhaps only vestigial) allowed a certain objectivity over against the needs, desires and projects of the group. And so we’re back to ‘use’ and ‘resistance to use’, and so to my earlier discussion. The term ‘literal sense’ can be used to mean either ‘plain sense’ simpliciter, or ‘that side of the plain sense that stands in objectivity over against the readers’.

Literal and spiritual (yet again)

Okay, slight wobble:

What I seem to have ended up doing is, roughly speaking, aligning ‘spiritual’ with ‘sensus communis’, both over against ‘literal’. And yet I learnt my hermeneutics from a theologian who insisted upon the connection between ‘sensus literalis’ and ‘sensus communis’. I don’t want to give up on the latter, so I think a bit more precision may be called for. Which means I may have to think, rather than simply pontificate. Damn.

Literal and spiritual (again)

Here’s the relevant extract from the Cross-Currents article:

One way of attempting to pinpoint [the distinction between literal and spiritual] is to say that ‘spiritual’ interpretation is precisely that kind of interpretation which has to find the Bible useful, or tie it into the framework of already-known truth, whereas literal interpretation is precisely that kind of interpretation which pays attention to the ways in which the Bible resists use – the ways in which it is awkward, diverse, and difficult.

Classically, spiritual interpretation arises precisely when the reader encounters something awkward in the literal sense – paradigmatically, something that is not edifying. By following strange strands of subterranean connection that link this awkward text to others, the spiritual interpreter discovers multiple ways in which the text can be woven back into edification. The text’s strangeness, registered by literal reading, becomes a doorway to the questioning and recovery of what is already known, but it will be a recovery which drives the already-known more deeply into the reader – or the reader more deeply into the already-known. Rather than aligning contemplation simply with spiritual reading per se – which might seem the obvious way to go – we might more properly say that contemplation arises within this whole literal–spiritual process: that it is driven by literal reading’s discovery of strangeness, and explored by spiritual reading’s determination to wait until that strangeness speaks edification.

An instrumentalized Church, however, lives in a broken version of this economy, in which two things have changed. On the one hand the meaning of ‘edifying’ has shifted towards ‘useful’; and on the other the spiritual reading it pursues when faced by texts which do not feed this usefulness is not a form of patience, waiting on the awkwardness discovered by the literal sense, but a form of impatience: a desire to find forms of reading which will not allow this awkwardness to intrude or distract. If literal reading is that kind of reading specifically designed to register and highlight those places where the text is awkward, where it is problematic, where it stands in the way of the uses we would made of it, then we might say that the instrumentalized Church suffers most of all from a refusal of the literal sense.

The kind of literal reading that such a Church needs to learn in order to be saved from itself is one that pays serious attention to the strangeness of the text; it is that reading which ‘resist[s] the premature unities and harmonies of non-literal reading’. Serious attention to textual questions, to grammar, to lexicography, to genre, to redaction, to historical context, to the various hermeneutics of suspicion – all the forms of questing attention which the University encourages – can serve precisely this purpose, and so make true spiritual reading (one which wrestles with the awkwardness uncovered until dawn) possible.

(The quote in the final paragraph is from Rowan Williams, ‘The discipline of Scripture’ in On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), pp.44–59: 47, earlier printed as ‘The literal sense of Scripture’, Modern Theology 7 (January 1991), pp. 121–134

Literal and spiritual

Let’s get this show back on the road.

Elsewhere, I have tried to relate the distinction between spiritual and literal senses, and connected it to the distinction between the use of a text and its resistance to use.

Today, I’ve been thinking about a rather different way of exploring that contrast. The contrast between literal and spiritual might map on, more or less, to the distinction between the questions, “What does this say?” and “Where does this take me?” – the first being a question expecting an answer, the second a question expecting a journey.

I don’t mean to deprecate either side.

This would, I think, mean that the old idea that you can’t prove doctrine by the spiritual sense is a sound one – because if you’re playing the ‘proving’ game, you’re playing the ‘answers’ game, and so playing the ‘literal’ game by definition. Spiritual reading is about a different sense of ‘proving’: testing, exploring.

Hmmm. Not sure how much water this holds.

Supersession again

Another thought that has been disrupting some of my earlier conclusions:

If we take seriously the idea of the history of ancient Israel involving an ongoing series of ideological constructions of the identity of ‘Israel’ – an ongoing series of abductions, to use the terminology I was using a few months back – what does it do to our assessment of that (series of) abduction(s) involved in early Christianity?

Person and text: different depths

One thing that struck me a while back is that I have too easily, when thinking about Christian reading of the Gospels, glossed over the difference between the inexhaustible richness of these texts and the inexhaustible richness of the human being Jesus of Nazareth.

So, for instance, a few years ago I wrote something about the doctrine of providence. At one point, I said:

[H]uman lives are not well captured by sets of principles, or by generalities…. [H]uman lives are, if you like, as particular as existence gets…. Human lives above all are realities that call us to keep on paying attention, realities which undermine and question and irritate and complexify any diagrams or systems we might have. If you’re trying to understand a human life, you never get to a point where your understanding, your grasp of that life, can stand in for the life itself. If you’re trying to understand a theory or a set of principles, maybe you can get to a point where you’ve thoroughly internalised them; but you can’t internalise another person, another life. So to commit to letting one’s understanding of providence be shaped and challenged by a human life – by Jesus Christ – is to relativise reliance upon abstractions; it is a commitment which undermines glibness.

Before very long, however, the piece finds me talking about the disruptive unfinalisability of scriptural reading:

[I]f Christians approach the doctrine of providence in this way, what it points to is not a set of answers to questions about what is going on in the world, nor primarily to a feeling of assurance (and certainly not ‘comfortable assurance’) that the world is in good hands, but to an ongoing process of questioning and inquiry and learning. So, I think constructing the doctrine of providence in this way leaves Christians with, to draw on a famous image used by Karl Barth, the Bible (the primary witness to Jesus Christ) in one hand, the newspaper in the other, and no way of putting either down.

It’s not that I can think of no way of making this transition. But the more I think about it, the more I find that I’m sounding to myself like some combination of Friedrich Schleiermacher, Martin Kähler, and Rudolf Bultmann – which is not who I thought I was at all!