In 1994, future UVA religion Professor Peter Ochs started an unusual but simple practice of having academics from the three religious traditions that share the Bible as a fundamental text gather to read scripture, whether it was the Torah, the New Testament, or the Koran.
“On a basic level, Scriptural Reasoning (SR) is an experiment where Jews, Christians and Muslims get in a room and start reading together and see what happens,” says UVA religion grad student Jacob Lynn Goodson. “It’s a basic but important level because historically it just hasn’t happened.”
Religion grad student Jacob Lynn Goodson appreciates how the Scriptural Reasoning program “forces me to be in conversation and dialogue with those outside my tradition.”
A lifelong Southern Baptist, Goodson encountered SR at a conference, and then was immersed in it when he came to UVA a few years ago and studied under Ochs. “One of the first things Peter did was force me to read the Bible,” Goodson says. “I saw through him a completely different way of reading and it really started to heal my own spiritual life.”
Now the grad student is the editor of the student published Journal of Scriptural Reasoning and one of the organizers of a four-day training session in SR taking place at UVA from July 20 to 23.
“My dad likes to tell me there’s probably an FBI file on me since I do this,” he says joking over coffee and a muffin at C’Ville Coffee, where I met him to talk about the practice that seems to offer a way to heal some of the divide between three of the world’s most powerful religions. The following are selections from our conversation.
C-VILLE: Is the point of SR to bring these normally divisive belief systems together in hopes of ironing out their differences?
Jacob Goodson: We’re getting together to read scriptures together not to force everybody to get along, but to force a new kind of peace amongst the three. But I’ve never been to a session where the three groups agreed. There’s usually four arguments, not just between traditions but within. Yet, friendship is always the result.
As a theologian, that’s a real gift because it forces me to be in conversation and dialogue with those outside my tradition who at the same time remind us to stay grounded in our tradition—also reminding us of what that means.
I always read the New Testament differently after I’ve read it with a Muslim. It’s not that they’re right or have the reading, but the text becomes more living for me.
Have you found that engaging in SR tests your own beliefs by having you consider others’ interpretations?
At first it became less of my own because someone else is making a claim on it, so I depossess it. But then it becomes more my own because in that depossession it becomes more living and active for me because I see it being taken up by someone else who in my world is completely other to me. I grew up in Oklahoma. Not many Muslims in Oklahoma.
In that sense the test is not one of challenging my faith and beliefs but rather it’s seeing that I no longer have possession of the Bible. Which is an evangelical tendency—this is our book, we know what it means. When I see it in the hands of someone else it becomes different for me.
It seems like SR would make it hard to exist in sectarian divisions, like in your own Southern Baptist faith.
For me, it’s been a healing process. I felt like the Bible was always kind of used against me, and not redemptively but correctively as kind of a rule book. I didn’t see where the spirit was a part of it. My reaction was to not read the Bible because I just couldn’t imagine reading it in a different way than I’d been taught. Then I got here.
SR was a return to scripture for me in new terms. I try to use those terms when I’m in church now. Let’s try to reread scripture rather than assume it means what it’s always meant for Baptists. Let’s see what a new result might be.
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