Habermas and Theology, Chapter Eleven:
Scriptural Difference and Scriptural Reasoning
University of Edinburgh, Scotland
This final chapter [of Habermas and Theology] will present an alternative to Habermas' theory of communicative action. This might seem an immodest claim, considering the vastness of Habermas' learning and his extraordinary energy in pursuing a systematic account of communicative rationalisation. It is not such a big claim, however, because no attempt will be made to formulate an alternative theory to that of Habermas, nor to engage in an activity comparable to his. The argument presented here has insistently been away from theory which grounds practice and towards attentiveness to particularities which might be translatable from one context to another. Theological critics of Habermas have admittedly to confront a kind of disappointment with settling for the fact of communication between traditions at a formal level rather than an explanation of how it is possible. This disappointment is a good disappointment, because any claim that one can achieve satisfaction at the level of theory or explanation must in principle be bogus, if Schelling's arguments against grounding (reviewed in earlier chapters) are convincing. However, at the level of lived life, they should not try simply to live with disappointment. The 'fact of communication' is a fragile matter, beset with many obstacles. Like Habermas, theologians interested in the public sphere should hope to promote more of these 'facts' and to refuse melancholy contentment with current damaged practices.
There are many objections to Habermas' theory, some which criticise details, some which aim at very basic questions. For my purposes, two in particular are fatal to his project. The first is the Hegelian objection to Habermas' Kantianism, as presented in chapter two. The second is the Schellingian objection to Habermas' Hegelianism, discussed briefly in chapter five. Habermas situates his theory between Kant and Hegel: the more he edges towards Kant, he more he exposes himself to Hegel's challenges; the more he edges towards Hegel, the more he exposes himself to Schelling's challenges. Hegel's critique of Kant is that any attempts to transcend the context of ethical life can be shown to be bound to that same ethical life if it is to bear on what real people actually hold to be moral. Schelling's critique of Hegel is that attempts to conceptualise the absolute or a philosophy's bids to grasp its own basis theoretically must fail because of the relationship of reflection to its ground. For this reason, Habermas' attempt to situate himself between Kant and Hegel does not seem very promising.
There is another side to Habermas' account that I have tried to describe. Habermas steers his theory remarkably close to certain themes in Christian theology. His theory often simply secularises theological topics. In place of the interpretation of scripture he offers two different kinds of interpretation: the lifeworld as interpretation of 'the world' (in his specialised sense) and reflective communicative action as the interpretation of the lifeworld. In place of revelation, he offers two kinds of knowledge: the 'moment' of communicatively achieved consensus and the 'intuition' that the fact of translation implies a universal reason whose features can be known by rational reconstruction. Given this proximity to theology, it is important to acknowledge that there are fundamental problems for theology which cannot be solved by philosophy. The following examples illustrate some of these well. How does one know that God is revealed in scripture? Which scriptures are more central than others? Which interpretations of scripture are better than others? Are criteria for adjudicating competing interpretations of scripture more authoritative than scripture itself? How do we learn that scripture is authoritative, and is that learning mechanism more authoritative than scripture itself? This list can obviously be extended almost infinitely. The reply that questioning cannot get behind tradition, so to speak, is true but only suggests that these questions cannot be profitably pursued to a definite end point; it does not mean they are trivial questions. The problem for Habermas is that having secularised his theological topics he then has to relearn the problems associated with them - from scratch. Any attempt to secularise theology must deal with the most sophisticated and subtle forms of that theology. Habermas' secularising work deals largely with simplistic and sometimes downright bad theology, as I have tried to show especially in chapter eight. The effort required to secularise theology is vast, and in a world where religious traditions need to encounter each other as religious it seems a needless expenditure of precious energy.
A surprisingly large proportion of Habermas' work is devoted to charting the decline of religious thinking; it is a decline of which he approves and whose only saving graces are its language of hope and redemption that, as yet, philosophy has not been able to appropriate, and its ability to supply its members with substantive ethical commitments which can then be coordinated via discourse ethics . It has been necessary to go through this material in detail in order to find out how emphatically Habermas insists on a process of rationalisation away from European religion. My reading of Habermas has tried to separate Habermas' interest in processes of rationalisation from the question of whether rationalisation leads members of modern European societies away from religion. One can claim that many members of modern societies are indeed led away from religious practices. But it is not clear that the reason for this, if it is true, is rationalisation. Instead, I have tried to indicate that some of Habermas' rational markers, such as differentiation of world from worldviews, are just as much a development within religious traditions as a development away from them. The occasional invocation of post-liberal theologies has been intended to give examples of theologies that share many concerns with Habermas. In the case of Rowan Williams this is the concern to wean philosophy away from the God's-eye view. In the case of John Milbank it is the desire to elaborate a philosophy based on the presupposition that reality is fundamentally peaceful and the puzzle is violence/distortion, rather than the contrary view that reality is fundamentally violent and the puzzle is love/healing. Williams and Habermas are equally committed to methods of training that constantly guard against seeking to capture the God's-eye view. Milbank and Habermas are equally insistent on the priority of peace, and they both mount critiques of Hobbes' 'state of nature', Nietzsche's 'will to power' and Heidegger's 'being towards death', and for similar reasons. Along these axes Habermas is much closer to Williams and Milbank than he is to thinkers like Rorty and Lyotard, even though he would find arguments with Williams and Milbank harder to understand because they use such different philosophical languages. Habermas can understand his arguments with Rorty better than those he might have with Williams because of the philosophical approach shared by Habermas and Rorty, even though he would reach certain kind of agreement more rapidly with Williams because of their shared concerns about the relationship between the God's-eye view and argumentation. My task was to find out how serious Habermas' objections to religious philosophy are, and whether they pose a strong challenge to an essentially religious project like scriptural reasoning, which will be discussed below. I judged that these objections are not serious. This is not because Habermas argues badly, but because he hardly argues at all: his eye is on rationalisation, not the decline of religion. I thus do not think his theory of communicative action ruins scriptural reasoning in advance.
My root objection to Habermas is not subtle. Habermas rightly claims that the plurality of worldviews does not simply produce a lovely rainbow of differences but throws up profound challenges to how argumentation in the public sphere is to proceed. He also wishes to point his readers in the direction of an approach that might coordinate different traditions in the public sphere in a way that fosters non-violent argumentation and what he calls 'symmetrical relations' between participants in dialogue.1 He does so against a background assumption that reality is peaceful and that distortions are distortions of a prior state that is itself not distorted. The force of the better argument is, for Habermas, more basic than coercion which he insists is parasitic on communicative action. My objection is that if Habermas is content to reproduce this basically Augustinian account of reality, an 'ontology of peace' (Milbank), why does he not also reproduce an account that works with, rather than against, the assumption that different traditions take different texts to be 'scripture' and interpret them in ways that are sometimes in concord and sometimes in conflict? Taking religious discourse seriously, which means taking their approaches to scripture seriously, may be a condition for good quality argument in the public sphere, not an obstacle to it.
Habermas assumes that religion is metaphysical. This is not untrue: even the most cursory ethnography of contemporary Jewish, Christian and Muslim life and thought would yield examples of metaphysical thinking almost immediately. But this point merely establishes that the metaphysicality of religion happens to be the case in certain common circumstances. There is no reason to assert an intrinsic relation and to think that religion is by definition metaphysical. Even the most basic understanding of the history of Christian theology yields examples of anti-metaphysical thought, such as the tradition of so-called 'negative theology', or the self-correcting patterns of thinking embedded in the doctrine of the Trinity. Religion is metaphysical and it is anti-metaphysical. One would not need to scour the daily newspapers too hard to discover immediately that modern everyday thought is both precritical and critical (in the Kantian sense), depending on the writer and the anticipated readership. Different levels of sophistication jostle side-by-side with each other. This is perhaps a trivial point, but Habermas seems oblivious to it in theology: he assumes that religious thinking is metaphysical, and those contemporary postmetaphysical theologies with which he is familiar (considered in chapter nine) are not a fair representation of contemporary theology.
In order to offer an alternative it is important to confront two formidable obstacles. The first is the challenge by Habermas that any account of reasoning must be able to show that there is some point in attempting genuine argumentation in the public sphere, and not simply reduce argumentation to the clash of competing worldviews. There are accounts which accept such a reduction, and Habermas considers them nihilistic and irresponsible. I agree with Habermas: either there really can be argumentation, in which case one should try to give an account (not necessarily an explanation) of the reasonings that supports it, or there cannot, in which case one must - intolerably - give up on public debate. The second is the challenge to Habermas by his Hegelian and Schellingian critics who insist that there is no criterion for judgement that is not indissolubly bound to a particular form of ethical life and that there cannot be a theory of the bases of philosophy. Any good alternative to Habermas must therefore promote genuine argumentation in the public sphere, must accept that theory does not ground or transcend ethical life, and must acknowledge that the bases that give rise to argumentation cannot themselves be theorised. My impression of the secondary literature on Habermas is that most critics have a relatively easy time arguing the Hegelian and Schellingian critiques, but struggle badly to achieve a good account of argumentation. There is a tendency in many of his critics to oppose narrative and argument to each other and to privilege the former. To the three conditions already named, I therefore add a fourth: that any good alternative to Habermas must do justice to the complex interrelationship between narrative and argument, and to the parallel connection between world-disclosure and problem-solving. We have probed some of these issues, especially the latter, in chapter ten.
Instead of offering an account of how these four conditions might be related theoretically, and speculating about the kind of practice that might meet those conditions, I propose willingly to accept that action precedes reflection, and 'rely on the uncontrollable reality of the fact that we are always already engaged in interpretation and understanding' (Bowie 1993: 188). In other words, we need an already existing practice over which its participants neither have nor seek control, and which can serve as an example on which to reflect.
'Scriptural reasoning' is the relatively recent name given to the practice, by members of different traditions, of reading and interpreting scripture together.2 The reading of scripture has historically been overwhelmingly intra-traditional: members of one tradition meet together to read and interpret sacred texts. This has been, and still is, the focal practice of reading scripture for members of religious traditions, and this is true also for those who do scriptural reasoning. Scriptural reasoning is thus not a focal practice for its participants, but an extension of that practice in a way that is not necessarily warranted by the theologies of the participants' traditions, and may - on certain interpretations - even be forbidden by them. At the moment the traditions engaged in scriptural reasoning are various different kinds of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, although it is in principle extendable to others. Scriptural reasoning thus means, for its participants, acknowledging that their particular traditions do not encourage their joint reading of scripture, but doing it anyway.
What actually goes on? To answer this adequately, we would need an attentive ethnography of a variety of occasions and practices. Such an account is lacking, and we must make do with my own inadequate sketch. This is not the familiar self-deprecating posture of academic false modesty: my account really is inadequate, and a better one is needed. It seems to me so important to describe, however, that even a defective account is better than none.3 At events of scriptural reasoning, participants meet in small groups in which at least two traditions are represented. (Scriptural reasoning cannot be done by one person alone under any circumstances, nor by two or more if they belong to the same tradition.) The Jewish word for this small group study, sometimes adopted by Christians and Muslims, is chevruta, meaning a group of friends. The normal practice, although others are possible, is to select texts in advance from Tanakh, Qur'an and the New Testament, which participants are encouraged to read beforehand, and then to read and interpret them together. Texts from at least two traditions are chosen. (Scriptural reasoning cannot be done by reading a text from just one tradition.) There is no fixed rule about how to select texts for study: sometimes a theme will be chosen, and members of different traditions select texts that seem appropriate. There is no prescribed outcome for scriptural reasoning study, nor any prescribed process for how the sessions are to be conducted. In practice, it is common for more experienced participants to show new-comers by example. There are rules for scriptural reasoning, written by Peter Ochs and commented upon by many participants, available on the scriptural reasoning website, noted above. These are not rules in the sense of a society's or club's rules, which are its constitution, nor rules in the sense of the Rule of St Benedict, which lay down how the practice must be done. Rather they are a response to the desire to describe the practice (and some of the history) of scriptural reasoning in an orderly way. There is also an unpublished 'handbook of scriptural reasoning', written by Steven Kepnes.
Scriptural reasoning is a practice which, while theorisable to an extent, cannot theorise its own bases. The different scriptures - Qur'an, New Testament, Tanakh - are not chosen because there are good reasons for choosing them, but because it is obvious for Muslims, Christians and Jews to read these texts. No further justification is offered for reading these texts rather than, say, Greek plays or ancient Egyptian poetry. Members of the traditions might speculate about how it was that certain texts came to be canonical, or about how a certain form came to be taken to be the authoritative version of the text, but this would have no bearing on the treatment of the texts as scripture, i.e. as holy books authoritatively teaching about God and the world.
The principal conditions for participation seem to be membership of one of the traditions allied to the desire to understand members of other traditions' interpretations of their own scripture, and of their interpretations of one's own scripture. This does not rule out those who deny they have affiliation within a tradition, but such people seem to be treated as honoured guests rather than as participants. Christians, Muslims and Jews freely interpret each other's scriptures, and it is not uncommon to find that a participant from one tradition knows the details of a text from another tradition, and the history of its interpretation in that other tradition, better than a participant who is actually from that other tradition. It is not merely about knowing texts, however. The process of 'reasoning' is not just the teasing out of interpretative issues, but also the making explicit of 'deep reasonings'.4 By deep reasonings, I mean the written record of arguments from the past, perhaps including minority positions that did not win the day, but which have been preserved. Philosophers in the Anglo-American traditions are in the habit of distinguishing between (a) definitions, axioms and presuppositions, (b) logics and rules for reasoning and (c) actual chains of reasoning, argumentation and conclusions. This is immensely useful. The religious traditions do not encounter each other with different initial (a)s and shared procedural (b)s, but with long histories of (c)s, where communal identities are expressed at a profound level. It is not just the exposure of (a)s that needs to happen in argumentation; it is the rehearsal of (c)s as expressions of identity. An example of such a specific chain of reasoning in the Christian tradition might be the documents relating to the council of Nicea in AD 325. The Nicene Creed preserves the settlement of that council; the surviving documents - which can be studied - form part of the deep reasonings that led to its formulation and permit, to an extent, the rehearsal of the debates for and against Arius. Scriptural reasoning is a practice of 'publicising' deep reasonings, so that others may learn to understand them and discover why particular trains of reasoning, and not just particular assumptions, are attractive or problematic. Scriptural reasoning makes deep reasonings public. It sees them not as particularistic obstacles to debate, but as conditions for conversation, friendship and mutual understanding. Without deep reasonings, there are no religious traditions to speak of. Depth is not obscurity, however: the acknowledgement of depth is a recognition that it takes time to plumb. Scriptural reasoning models the discovery that making deep reasoning public is not only risky - because one makes oneself vulnerable when revealing what one loves - but time-consuming. It is a non-hasty practice, and is thus a kind of beacon in our 'time-poor' world.
This is a very brief and minimal description of what scriptural reasoning is: scriptural texts from at least two traditions being read by members of at least two traditions. It is minimal because scriptural reasoning is resistant to this kind of descriptive attempt, namely a member of only one of the traditions trying to give an overview of it. Each of the three Abrahamic traditions has its own rules for interpreting scripture (and internal disagreement about these rules), and even if there is overlap between them, it is not the overlap that makes scriptural reasoning possible. The significant point of contact is a shared desire to study scriptural texts. The most striking thing about the context of scriptural reasoning is not consensus but friendship. To use the word chevruta to describe the meeting of Muslims, Jews and Christians is itself surprising, and the actual friendships that are formed through such study do not lessen that surprise. Consensus can be measured and managed, and to that extent is an appropriate object of a theory like Habermas'. Friendship is altogether more confusing, and even the most sophisticated philosophical accounts of it somehow repeat the absurdity of the hopeless lover who tries to persuade the other to love him by using arguments. Abstract description of friendship is nearly as pointless as thirstily trying to make sense of water. Friendship is nonetheless the true ground of scriptural reasoning, and who can give a good overview of that? The traditions have different understandings of friendship with God, friendship with members of one's own family, one's own tradition, and with strangers. Somehow, the recognition that each worships the one true God moves scriptural reasoning beyond an interaction determined by conventions for showing strangers hospitality. Showing strangers hospitality is a significant enough miracle. Yet scriptural reasoning does not quite reproduce this context: when members of three traditions meet together to study shared scripture, who is the guest and who is the host? In a way that is difficult to be clear about, the participants in scriptural reasoning all find themselves invited, not by each other, but by an agency that is not theirs to command or shape. There is an 'other' to the three traditions, and that seems in an obscure way to make friendships possible.
What does all this have to do with Habermas and argumentation in the public sphere? First, scriptural reasoning is hard to categorise in Habermas' terms. It is traditional, in that it is composed of members of traditions, who read texts that are authoritative for those members. It is also not traditional, in that members of tradition A read texts that are authoritative for members of tradition B in a way that acknowledges the sacredness of the text without necessarily acknowledging its authority for members of tradition A. It is hard to know what Habermas would make of this 'religious' disassociation of sacredness and authority. Indeed, it is hard to know what scriptural reasoners make of this approach to sacredness. Secondly, it coordinates discussion (I do not yet say argument) between members of different traditions without requiring a commitment to a universal that transcends those traditions. It is not even true that each of the traditions encourages the practice of scriptural reasoning, so there is no element that is common to each of the traditions. What brings members of the different traditions together is obscure, and may be different in each case.
We can now ask whether scriptural reasoning thus fulfils the conditions listed above. (1) Does it attempt to transcend the limits of ethical life? In one sense, no. Participants engage in scriptural reasoning only as members of a particular tradition, only speak from out of this tradition, and acknowledge no authority above that of their own tradition other than the authority of God. In another sense, yes. Participants acknowledge that God is not circumscribed by their tradition, but is the non-circumscribable possibility of its very existence. God transcends ethical life, but the human practices of scriptural reasoning do not. (2) Does it attempt to theorise its own basis? No. The basis of scriptural reason seems defiantly obscure, and the theology of any one of the traditions is not sufficient to describe it. It is true that all three Abrahamic traditions are committed to hospitality, but their accounts of why hospitality is good are different, and in any case there is something more than hospitality going on in scriptural reasoning. (3) Does it do justice to the relationship between world-disclosure and problem-solving? Yes. Scripture is read as world-disclosive, indeed revelatory, and as a resource for problem-solving at the same time. The most obvious problem is the damaged relationships between members of the traditions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, and scriptural reasoning is an attempt to repair that damage. The narrative form of scripture and the narrative form of scriptural reason are aspects of a profound problem-solving practice. (4) Does it promote genuine argumentation in public discourse, rather than the mere juxtaposition of different narratives? This question is not so quickly answered. I think the answer is yes, in so far as there is not just shared discourse, but genuine argumentation. The criteria for argumentation, understood and used by participants in scriptural reasoning, are not easy to be sure of. The criteria for argumentation, which one can try to reconstruct from displays of 'deep reasonings', are different for each of the traditions, and there is disagreement within those traditions. At the same time there are other criteria for argumentation which are not necessarily from within any one of the three traditions, yet which are the basis for judgement: many of the participants are trained in modern universities which promote the kinds of argumentation that Habermas claims is a feature of any argumentation. It is not straightforward to determine if it makes sense to ask whether scriptural reasoners' skill in argumentation is learned within their tradition, or outside it in the university. Most participants would affirm that universities are shared space rather than neutral space, although the differences between these are not easy to be clear about. Perhaps the more important distinction is between shared space and contested space. The difference matters: where both sides acknowledge that the other claims to belong there, in the first case (shared space) one accepts that claim and in the second case (contested space) rejects it. The idea of neutral space seems to imply that anyone or no-one belongs there.
The practice of scriptural reasoning is difficult to adjudicate with respect to Habermas' requirement that it promote argumentation rather than merely juxtapose narratives. This is because it seems to call into question the strong contrast between argumentation and narrative that Habermas characteristically makes. The scriptures are narrative; the interpretations are narrative; the doctrinal or legal norms that arise from interpretation are often narrative. Yet at every stage of reading there is argumentation. Reading the plain sense generates arguments almost at once about what words and sentences mean - especially when the scriptures are read in their original languages and translations side-by-side. Interpreting the text more freely than in the plain sense throws up arguments about the legitimacy of the interpretation according to certain criteria, conventions and histories of interpretation. Engaging with doctrinal or legal norms means reviewing the history of argumentation that gave rise to the doctrines or laws. The narrative and the argumentative seem to be taken together. Members of the same tradition often argue with each other, and in a complementary way it is not uncommon for the lines to be drawn diagonally across traditions: Christians, Muslims and Jews who believe one's interpretation should stay close to the plain sense will often find common cause and argue against their colleagues who are prepared to permit very broad latitude in interpretation. Philosophers listening in on this discussion will, incidentally, be intrigued to learn that it is highly irregular for any participant to defend her claims as 'a matter of faith'. They are nearly always supported by reference to texts instead. I am unsure of the precise import of this fact. It seems worth mentioning given that many philosophers suspect that religious people use their religious faith as a rhetorical means for blocking requests for reasons. Scriptural reasoning does not display this phenomenon.
Habermas' scheme makes it difficult to account for these practices of argumentation. He might say that there is some implied common philosophical method that makes such coordination possible, and in any particular argument he would be right. The most transparent arguments are between members of the same tradition, who share a philosophical method; the most obscure arguments are between participants from different traditions who use different philosophical methods, and the latter can sometimes be far more significant as points of contact, or as obstacles, than which traditions they belong to. Arguments between members of different traditions who use the same philosophical methods (e.g. pragmatism, transcendental idealism, phenomenology) are far easier to map than arguments between members of the same tradition who use different philosophical methods. Yet although it is easier to map arguments between those who share a philosophical method, it remains the case that the members of the same tradition are in some sense closer to each other than members of different traditions. I do not know how to specify further this 'some sense'. At this stage, I can do no better than indicate that members of different traditions who share a philosophical language have arguments that are easier to follow than members of the same tradition who use different philosophical methods, but at the same time those who share a tradition have more in common than those who share a philosophical method. In this sense Habermas is closer to Williams and Milbank in the way that members of the same tradition are close to each other, even though his arguments with Lyotard or Rorty are easier for him and his readers to follow, because of their shared philosophical methods.
In chapter four we considered Habermas' distinction between 'normatively ascribed' and 'communicatively achieved' agreement. It was explained as the difference between (a) claims which appeal to already accepted background assumptions, and which invite a 'yes' response, and for which (in my interpretation) a 'no' would be intolerable and (b) claims which invite a 'yes or no' response and which are genuinely open to contradiction. For Habermas a communicatively achieved 'yes' is hard won, and therefore binds those who agree on it together in some socially significant way. This is an interesting idea because it raises the hope that the critical impulse that is almost always associated with loss of solidarity in a lifeworld is, for Habermas, also a potential source of being bound together, thus repairing what is often called the 'motivational deficit' in Kantian moral theories. I agree that Habermas has a point in differentiating between a 'yes' that is hard won, and a 'yes' that is secured in advance. But it is far from obvious that this is directly related to social solidarity. Those who achieve a hard won 'yes' may indeed be bound to the decision for the simple reason that it was so costly. But is it really clear that they would be bound to each other thereby? Possibly; but Habermas offers no good arguments for this and so his claim cannot be evaluated further. Scriptural reasoning offers an alternative, and in some ways bleaker, scenario. There is genuine argumentation between participants, and it is by definition across different traditions. Most kinds of 'yes' that arise are certainly hard won in Habermas' sense. But are they 'normatively ascribed' or 'communicatively achieved'? Here scriptural reasoning is an anomaly for Habermas. By 'normatively ascribed', Habermas refers to assumptions within one tradition that secure agreement. By 'communicatively achieved', he means the generation of agreement across traditions without appeal to norms held to be true in only one tradition. But participants in scriptural reasoning acknowledge only the norms of their own tradition, and subject them to no higher authority except that of God.
Argument in scriptural reasoning can generate agreement across traditions, although agreement is not its goal: its goal is study rather than agreement. What, then, is the generation of agreement across traditions while appealing to assumptions within one tradition? Do participants in scriptural reasoning suspend their commitments to their tradition? They do not. Do they acknowledge the authority of the other tradition for themselves? They do not. Do they acknowledge the authority of the other tradition for the other? They do. This latter stance is by no means unintelligible for Habermas, but it is not one that he considers much. Habermas' characteristic move is to emphasise the transcending mechanisms inherent in things like translation, rather than focus upon the aspects of a tradition which orient its members towards strangers. Scriptural reasoning does the reverse. Its members have almost no interest in 'shared' or 'common' assumptions, beyond the commitment to study together. Or, if they do show interest, it is a kind of delight in discovering such shared or common life; it is certainly not such sharing that makes study and argumentation possible. Instead, it is the desire for friendship with God, which is understood differently in each tradition, which illuminates desires for friendship across traditions, and which again is understood differently in each tradition, that brings people together for study.
Acknowledging the authority of the other tradition for the other is not 'rational assent' or an intellectual position vis à vis that tradition, but a gesture of friendship. It has something to do with hospitality, but as I have already indicated, in scriptural reasoning it is very difficult confidently to assign the roles of guest and host. It is vital to acknowledge that this is bleaker than Habermas' theory. The commitment to friendship, with God and stranger, is not 'communicatively achieved': it is already there. It is hard to imagine scriptural reasoning between participants who do not already share this commitment. Again, this commitment is understood differently in the three traditions and so cannot be counted, in a simple way, as common ground. In Habermas' theory, participants become bound by the process of argumentation. In scriptural reasoning they are already bound by their own traditions. Participants do form friendships, even very deep ones, with each other, but probably not because 'communicative action is a switching station for the energies of social solidarity' (Habermas 1987b: 57). Habermas' theory offers the generation of solidarity across traditions, if it is true. Scriptural reasoning does not. Neither does it rely on 'overlapping consensus': it relies wholly on already existing commitments within one tradition. The possibility of friendship in this environment is not theorisable, except in a vaguely Augustinian sense that people who love the same things are like each other. But notice that even this is a Christian observation, because it acknowledges Augustine as an authority, and Augustine's account of the unifying power of love is rooted in a Christian account of the relationship between God's love and human action.
There is, arguably, one aspect of scriptural reasoning that has something of a 'transcending' quality, in Habermas' sense. This is the fact that none of the three traditions encourages or even licenses chevruta study with members of the other two traditions. Participants come together as members of their own 'houses' of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. But they study in an imaginary 'tent of meeting' that belongs to God, and not to any of the houses.5 The desire to enter this tent is intelligible within any one tradition, because it is a desire for God, and if God is to be found in this tent, then that is where I should be. But it also tugs in the opposite direction: it denies, somehow, the sufficiency of any one tradition. Now this needs saying with some care: it cannot possibly mean (for me) that Christianity is in some sense insufficient, and Islam is more sufficient. If I were to express this belief, my Muslim colleagues would be the first to say that they cannot do scriptural reasoning with me, because I have forfeited the very difference between us that makes such study possible. Rather, it means acknowledging that God is great: greater than language, greater than traditions, greater than scripture. Here there can be no theory in a strong sense, because God's greatness cannot be circumscribed, and its extent cannot be charted. There is thus a transcendence of tradition, but this is identical with God's transcendence, and not with any human project - and certainly not with any appeal to 'reason' whether unified in its diverse voices (Habermas) or in any other way. Again, each tradition understands God's greatness differently; but each of these understandings seems to attract people into this tent of meeting. No theory is needed beyond that. And even if someone were clever enough to construct a good theory, it could never substitute for the already learned commitments within any one tradition.
We have come a little way: argumentation and narrative are closer together in scriptural reasoning than Habermas believes them to be in university debate, and there is genuine argumentation in scriptural reasoning even though there is no commitment to some neutral or universal criterion that transcends the traditions. Returning to a theme raised in chapter four, disagreements between members of different traditions are not always experienced as 'intolerable', although disagreements between members of the same tradition can produce stresses when voiced in the company of strangers. The fact of tolerable disagreement, within and across traditions, ruins Habermas' easy distinction between sacred and modern forms of thinking. Nonetheless, we are still some way off from an account that can show how something like scriptural reason illuminates argumentation in the public sphere at the level of drafting and passing legislation. On this question, some reserve is essential. Scriptural reasoning actually happens: it is a practice that interested guests could find out about, witness and describe. Theoretical reflections come second. In the case of something big like the public sphere, scriptural reasoning has not much been tried out. As I indicated in chapter one, we should equivocate about whether there can be an inter-religious public sphere in Habermas' sense, given that the public sphere is itself a tradition-specific concept. There are two problems with it. First, although it is a Christian institution by virtue of arising in Christian Europe, it has not been properly theorised within contemporary Christian theology; this is one of the tasks for Christian theology identified in chapter ten. Secondly, analogous terms need to be theorised within Judaism and Islam and other religious traditions. There is no public sphere in the Middle East; perhaps it displays a 'Muslim street' ((Eikelman and Salvatore 2002). There is ample room here for scholarship within and across traditions. That said, scriptural reasoning has made little impact in the public sphere: there have been no instances, as yet, of committees drawing up recommendations for legislative bodies on the basis of discussions rooted in cross-traditional chevruta. There is no good purpose to speculating about what its outcomes might be. For the moment we must rest content with sowing the thought that it might be a good idea to find out how well it works. Someone should try it out. If the problem of argumentation in the public sphere is as serious as Habermas says it is, then a potential resource like scriptural reasoning - which offers not just the possibility but the actual practice of coordinating different traditions in argumentation - is too good an opportunity to pass over.
These remarks about scriptural reasoning are very sketchy, and it is perhaps rather naïve to ask them to bear the weight of this attempt at repair of Habermas' theory. I have claimed, rather than argued, that scriptural reasoning conforms rather well to a Hegelian account of ethical life rather than a Kantian account of morality, and to a Schellingian account of untheorisable thinking rather than a Hegelian account of the absolute. There is much work to be done here, and the task has been outlined here only in a very preliminary fashion. It is worth adding that none of this discussion amounts to a renewed apologetics. I am not sure it could even be used to promote the superiority of theology over certain secular forms of reasoning. It seems to me that theology is only superior to other forms of thinking in those cases where it actually addresses what Peter Ochs, following Peirce, calls real as opposed to imagined doubts (Ochs 1998: 60). I doubt that theology can be shown a priori to be superior to rival forms of thinking, except in the rather minimal sense that it might under certain conditions be more consistent: only in situations where it is tested and performs well can really interesting claims of superiority be made. This is a rather unfashionable thought in theology these days. The Christian theological mood is confident and combative, and 'the secular' can be sure of a regular drubbing at the hands of skilled philosophical theologians. Yet a thought borrowed from Karl Marx suggests itself here. The theologians have only refuted the secular, in various ways; the point is to change it. Claims to superiority do not invariably serve this purpose well.
Scriptural reasoning is a fragile practice that can be tested and which offers the possibility of challenging and changing certain arenas that are seen as secular. Habermas is not going to be persuaded, at least not by this study, that he should take religion seriously as a modern postmetaphysical possibility. At best he might concede that I have exposed certain weaknesses in his arguments, and at worst he might suggest that my energies are misplaced and would have been better directed at developing the Hegelian and Schellingian critiques further. However, I think that he would be genuinely willing to learn from something like scriptural reasoning. Habermas is the kind of thinker who might readily concede not only the force of the better argument, but the force of the better practice. It is almost certain that he would give a more subtle description of scriptural reasoning than I am able to do, even though he could never do scriptural reasoning: Habermas is formidably good at mapping processes of argumentation. Scriptural reasoning seems to me to be a better practice for coordinating different traditions in genuine argumentation than his own project of discourse ethics. It does so, however, in a very limited context: the interpretation of scripture in chevruta study, in predominantly academic contexts. This is, however, changing. Scriptural reasoning is being tried out in all sorts of contexts and some of its practitioners hope that leaders from different religious communities might find themselves engaging in scriptural reasoning in future. This really would be a powerful challenge to the secular, whose principal appeal is precisely its claim to reduce conflict rooted in religious difference through the promotion of neutral criteria for executive, legislative, and judicial practices. To show that the religions are better at healing their conflicts than the secular alternatives is not just a rhetorical triumph. It would be to have changed something for the better.
The crucial feature of scriptural reasoning - and, in principle, any practice that discharges similar tasks - is that it does not require participants to bracket or suspend or conceal their traditional identities for the purpose of conversation and argumentation. Instead, it provides a context in which participants learn each others' languages. At one level this might mean something as basic as learning a few important words in Hebrew, Greek or Arabic. Obviously more encouraging is the possibility of learning the thicker languages of the traditions, not with the goal of inhabiting them but in order to hear the deep reasonings in what others are saying. What Stephen Toulmin calls the project of 'Cosmopolis' (Toulmin 1990) was the goal of discovering or fashioning a universal language that everyone might learn. Such a language would provide a culturally neutral means of communication which would abolish the messy entanglements that arise between actual historical languages. The problem with the cosmopolitan project was not that such a language was never found - one might argue that the new imperialism of spoken English, or the dominance of computer languages like C or Java come close to universality - but that it fails a priori to house the thick things in life like kinship rules, eating practices, poetry, folk songs and the languages of elusive desire. The joy of learning another language is the discovery of all these things, expressed in fascinatingly unfamiliar ways. Particular languages house histories of wisdom. For members of two different traditions to understand each other, they can certainly converse in a third language that is native to neither. That will work. But if they wish to understand each other's histories of wisdom, they must learn the other's language. Our children are taught in school that learning other languages is useful because they will be able to close a sale more rapidly if they speak the target language. Again, that will work. But we need to teach them that learning other languages is vital if there are to be friendships within which one learns each other's histories of wisdom, and which foster genuine argumentation in the public sphere. We might also acknowledge the inherent beauty of learning languages: it is a good with its own integrity.
This study has not proven that scriptural reasoning changes things for the better: only actual situations in which it is tested can do that. Instead, I have tried to take Habermas' fundamental problem with the greatest seriousness and to ask, with him, how members of different traditions can genuinely argue in the public sphere. My response has been to look, at some length, at his belief that religious thought has been, and should be, gradually left behind and to suggest, all too briefly, that there might be at least one form of religious practice which fosters genuine argument between members of different traditions. This is not yet argument in the public sphere, but it is perhaps good enough as a prototype, and time will tell whether it is extendable to a degree that will actually promote political change. It is a practice that encourages the learning of the other's language, and without more practices like these, the public sphere will be forced to host argumentation either in imperially dominant languages, or in 'third languages' that are not common to any two participants. Scriptural reasoning is exercised in multiple languages. This is not the multiplicity of simultaneous translation, as at UN meetings where delegates are isolated from each other by headphones and the staccato chatter of information. It is the evocation of worlds and histories whose marks are left in ancient languages, leaving their traces in turn on participants who are always in the middle of learning to read and hear them. Processes of understanding are inseparable from processes of forming relationships. As Schleiermacher once observed: to understand the other you do not need to share a common language; the only formal requirement is the desire to understand the other. Scriptural reasoning schools desires, at the same time as skills, of understanding. The plural public sphere needs schools like this.
Habermas does not think religious practice is much help beyond being the guardian of a powerful language of hope and healing. This is because he associates religious thought with the metaphysical, with the mythical and with the unreflective. I have placed obstacles in the way of these associations. More importantly, I have tried to outline a religious practice that paradigmatically cannot be called metaphysical, mythical or unreflective. Some Christian theologians have recently been trying to show how the Eucharist is a model for certain kinds of philosophical discourse, not least the articulation of a politics that is radically alternative to the tradition of Hobbes (Pickstock 1997; Milbank 2003). It remains to be seen whether it will feed into non-theological philosophy in the way Hegel's account of Spirit - a manifestly theological topos - shaped subsequent secular thinking. It might. I have looked not at the Eucharist, but at the practice of reading scripture. Like the Eucharist, it is as a practice that models a type of philosophical discourse, including peaceful political implications, and it is a radical alternative to the tradition of Kant exemplified by Habermas. Unlike the Eucharist it is not particular to only one tradition, and can be shared. It does not teach a language, but models a practice of learning languages. Just as in combative theologies that meditate on the Eucharist, in the case of scriptural reasoning too it remains to be seen how well it will influence a realm that is disastrously dominated by the view that religion is not just the problem historically but is inevitably and always the problem in public discussion. The advantage of scriptural reasoning is that it not only challenges certain secular assumptions, but obviously brings together members of different traditions in a way that should be quite unintelligible if an account like Habermas' is correct. Scriptural reasoning is very likely not going to cause mass conversions to any of the Abrahamic traditions. But there are millions who are already members of these traditions and who do not yet know how to argue peaceably with each other. Scriptural reasoning is aimed at them. It might not be the solution to every problem.
But secular approaches to religion are not working. It's time to try something new.
1 If the focus of this chapter were critique, it would be worth spending some time exploring the limitations of Habermas' overemphasis on symmetry. As Eikelman and Salvatore point out, this model of the public sphere 'unrestricted by considerations of status or authority' is an obstacle to charting different kinds of publicity in modern cultures, including Islamic ones. (Eikelman and Salvatore 2002: 106).
2 For a descriptions of this project, which is well supported by online resources, see the website for The Society of Scriptural Reasoning. My description of scriptural reasoning is not normative, but is an attempt at description arising from participation.
3 For essays on scriptural reasoning see Ford and Pecknold (forthcoming).
4 The sentiment is Jeffrey Stout's (Stout 2004: 1-15); the phrasing is Chad Pecknold's (Pecknold forthcoming)
5 These terms come from an unpublished essay by David Ford, Daniel Hardy and Peter Ochs.