This season of Covid-19 social distancing and virtual learning often poses a challenge to connecting in our own communities, not to mention with people from across the world. Recognizing the need for interpersonal and intercultural engagement, Calvin University history professor, Frans van Liere, partnered with Al Amana Centre to develop an online Scriptural Reasoning course.
Scriptural Reasoning (SR) is a method of interfaith dialogue, bringing people of different faith traditions together in reading and discussing passages of their holy scriptures, namely the Torah, New Testament, and Qur’an. The goal of SR is not to agree, debate, convert, or compromise one’s religious beliefs, but to seek a deeper understanding of others’ texts and our own. In doing so, participants form stronger relationships across traditions.
In light of canceled study abroad programs and stay-at-home orders, the Al Amana Centre online SR program offered an opportunity for students to fulfil their cross-cultural course requirement and learn alongside a diverse group of Christians, Muslims, and Jews from across the USA to Oman, Bangladesh, Palestine-Israel, Nigeria, and the UK.
Van Liere describes his vision for the course: “My idea was more ambitious than just teaching about Islam: I wanted to bring students into contact with Muslims. I believe in interfaith dialogue as an interpersonal event, not a theoretical discussion about elusive theological truth.”
Many Calvin University students, coming from predominately Christian backgrounds and a range of interdisciplinary fields, had little to no experience with interfaith dialogue and limited knowledge of Islam. At the beginning of the semester, some students were wary – conversations about religion can be awkward or contentious, especially amid disagreement. However, as the weeks went on, students grew increasingly comfortable, discovering the laid-back and respectful atmosphere SR creates for dialogue.
“I was incredibly nervous because I have never had full length discussions about religion with those who disagree with me,” Anthony, a Calvin University student, said, “However, from the first session, I could tell that it was not as stressful as I thought it would be. It was much more of a free discussion than the debate I expected.”
“Everyone was encouraging of one another,” Sara, another Calvin student, commented, “This did not mean that everyone agreed, but I learned that it was possible for people to sit down and simply talk, and that was very refreshing.”
Because SR is rooted in sharing scriptural texts rather than imposing ideas, these meetings become an open space for collective discovery and mutual appreciation. Recognizing that these texts are sacred to a member of the group, fosters a certain level of respect. A shared passion for scriptures brings participants together.
In the questions and discussions that follow, the richness of meaning and multiplicity of interpretations becomes apparent. Participants enter these conversations with a spirit of curiosity and humility, as they are not answering on behalf of their tradition or imparting an absolute truth.
Jeffrey Bos, Director of Programs at Al Amana Centre, often refers to the exercise of scriptural reasoning as “playing.” “We explore, we are open, we are honest,” he reminds.
“That shared vulnerability allowed for real encounters and personal growth,” van Liere said.
The variance of beliefs within faith traditions and the theological similarities between Christians and Muslims came as a surprise to many. As a participant myself, I recall a time when we discussed perspectives on free will versus predestination, and there were Christians and Muslims on both sides of the table. There is beauty in diversity of thought and open discussions that shine light on truth from different angles.
In the words of St. Augustine, “For what could God have more generously and abundantly provided in the divine writings than that the same words might be understood in various ways.”
We are all asking existential questions and are connected in our love for God and our journey to seek truth. SR is one way we can explore our beliefs, journeying alongside our neighbors of other faiths. Exposure to outside perspectives leads people to learn more about their own scriptures or see them in a new light. It encourages deep thinking and makes us mindful of how we respond.
“In these sessions, I was able to hear some of my core beliefs be directly challenged in a way that begged for me to do more critical thinking and not just become defensive,” Jack, a Calvin student, said.
Another student, Meghan, discovered, “It is less about knowing and more about learning.”
Students also found that hearing personal insights from Muslims directly challenged the preconceptions they came in with or false notions they gathered from the media or outside sources.
“I have a new perspective on unfair stereotypes,” Meghan said, “and I have grown in my appreciation for others and their beliefs.”
Jack reflected, “I no longer believe that Christianity and Islam are diametrically opposed ideologies, but instead believe that they’re two very closely related and intricate belief systems. They share some of the same history and figures, yet still find themselves different enough to create such fascinating discourse.”
Constructive SR conversations and closer interfaith relationships go hand in hand. When monologue is replaced with dialogue, we remember that the heart of religion is relational.
“I always emphasize that dialogue happens between people, not between religions, and SR makes that possible,” said van Liere.
Looking back on the course, Jack said “I believe the most constructive thing would be for everyone to just find a friend. The interview I did with my Muslim friend taught me so much about him. I have a completely new respect for both him and his beliefs.”
Though students were first introduced to SR in a virtual classroom setting, for many, the impact of these conversations sparked a commitment to continue learning and engaging with their Muslim neighbors.
“My desire to learn has just begun,” Sara reflected, “I have a much more willing spirit to learn, respect, and understand those who are different than me. Not only will it help me build a relationship with them, but also with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
If you are interested in joining an online SR group or want to form a group facilitated by Al Amana staff, you can reach out to Jeffrey Bos at Al Amana Centre at firstname.lastname@example.org