Jason Byassee: Scriptural Reasoning and awe in another faith's house

One vibrant institution, 800-year old Cambridge University, births another, Scriptural Reasoning.

Last year was Cambridge University’s 800th anniversary. That sort of age boggles the minds of North Americans by itself. But a banner flying on campus to mark the occasion may boggle it even more: “800 Years of Innovation.” On first glance, nothing seems more anti-innovation than a school still in buildings built in the 13th century. But the fledgling institution called Scriptural Reasoning may prove the slogan’s truth.

Last summer, I was privileged to attend a session of Scriptural Reasoning University, a gathering of Scriptural Reasoning practitioners that takes place in Cambridge, England. While there, I heard the event’s organizer, Nick Adams, tell a story that I’ve been thinking about ever since, one that you probably need to hear.

A lecturer in theology and ethics at the University of Edinburgh, Nick also serves as the academic coordinator for the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme, which means he organizes gatherings for the Society for Scriptural Reasoning. This outfit asks Christians, Muslims and Jews to read one another’s scripture together in small groups. Its genius is to get us out of the interreligious parts of our brains and into the scriptural reading and sense-making parts. We are encouraged to ask one another knotty and naughty questions about each other’s texts, and when asked, to bring our “internal libraries” to the answering. It’s an invigorating way to spend time, and may even hold a key for saving the planet. Who knows? Better inner-Abrahamic relations means better understanding means less shooting means peace.

Not long ago, Nick said, the Inter-faith Programme received a call from an organization that trains future Muslim leaders in Britain. The group was impressed with the way the society respected Muslims, not kowtowing to them or yelling at them but letting them be different and disagreeing with respect. The caller asked if Nick would show some teenaged immigrant future-imams around Cambridge. Nick said yes. And soon two busloads of first- or second-generation Pakistanis, Iranians, Indians and others unloaded in this picturesque, medieval university city where everything is named for English monarchs.

What did Nick do? What any decent tour guide in Cambridge would do. He took them to King’s College Chapel. If you’ve seen it you’ll know. If you’ve not, no words can describe it either in whole or in part, from the intricate stained glass to the dark woodwork to the ceiling. Its choir sings so beautifully you are all but forced to join in. The space combines intimacy and grandeur, like God’s own mercy. “One does become somewhat numb to it,” an unnamed dean said who let me into the place off-hours. “But it is stunning.”

So Nick unloaded those dozens of future British Islamic leaders into the choir stalls. And they sat there. Silent. Barely fidgeting. Until one of them asked a question.

“What do we do?”

That is the only question that matters, isn’t it? What does one do in the presence of such beauty? Of beauty in the religious house of another? Of beauty that has to be a sign of the goodness of the God whom these nice people must be worshiping incorrectly? What does one do, indeed.

The next outing was to more of a university-nerd location: the Cambridge archives. The archivist had a treat for these girls and boys. He brought out a treasured Koran, owned by the university, that is almost 1000 years old.

This time they knew what to do. They gasped, almost in unison. Then they did what all kids do in the pocket gadget age: they whipped out their camera phones (click click click click click). Then one leader from the group started crying. Then the others did too. Here they were in the presence of a treasure the likes of which their parents and grandparents could not have imagined seeing. And they were getting to touch it, turn the pages, read it. And it was Christians hosting them this whole time, treating them to a treasure from their own tradition safely stored and preserved through the ages in a Christian house -- treasures that had originally been preserved by a Jewish community hundreds of years ago in Cairo.

Scriptural Reasoning is a fledgling institution, just barely hatched from the brilliant imaginations of Peter Ochs, David Ford and others. It has an impossibly ambitious dream to help save the world. It seems like ridiculous academic hubris. Until you think of the tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of future Muslims in Britain’s increasingly Muslim future who were touched by specifically Christian hospitality that day in Cambridge. It’s enough to make you thank God for small, fragile, hopeful, ambitious institutions like the Society for Scriptural Reasoning; long-standing churchly-but-now secular, traditioned ones like Cambridge; and generous, wealthy ones like the small foundation that funded it all. And for transformative leaders like Nick the storyteller, the teenager who cried the first tear and the future they might make together.