Flamenco, Tai Chi and Six-Text Scriptural Reasoning; Report on a Visit to China
by David Ford (orginally published on the Cambridge Interfaith website - used with permission)
Dancing, dancing and more dancing – that is what went on every day in the public park near our hotel in Beijing. Tap dancing, Spanish dancing, waltzing, tango, jiving, modern no-contact dancing, and several dances I assume must be Chinese, together with activities that may or may not be called dancing (a category, I suspect, as complex as religion) – various forms of aerobics to music, and Tai Chi with swords, spears, long coloured ribbons or just those tantalizingly slow, poised, concentrated movements punctuated by rapid ones. The daily life of this lovely park in autumn sunshine, with people of all ages taking part, and dancers ranging from experts in the flamenco, guiding students dressed in something like Spanish style, to complete beginners trying to follow steps and rhythms, gave me the image I needed to try to do justice to the new experience of Chinese Scriptural Reasoning. I had never done group study on Confucian, Daoist or Buddhist texts before – the Scriptural Reasoning that began in the mid-1990’s has mainly been with Tanakh, Bible and Qur’an. Now all six were on the table – short extracts on a theme (suffering; human beginnings and human nature; the good person), read out in the original language and in Chinese and English, briefly introduced, then discussed one by one and in relation to each other. It felt like when an elderly Chinese woman in the park invited me to dance with her to a music I had never heard before, and I spent some minutes trying to move in step with her.
The introduction to strange texts, helped by those who know them better, was an obvious parallel, but so too was the uncertainty of the categorizing. Is Confucianism a ‘religion’? What makes a text ‘scripture’? It was obvious that trying to settle such issues in advance was going to postpone indefinitely actually reading together (and Scriptural Reasoning on Jewish, Christian and Muslim texts has likewise found that plunging into reading for a few hours is the best way to proceed – though there are always complex preliminary issues, such as how to choose the texts). In reading together some traditions were clearly more like formal waltzing than free improvisation, and the range of reading and discussion styles was striking. How be sensitive to the less argumentative, less authoritative, more meditative or more tentative? How allow ourselves to be led into each interpretative pattern in turn, the ‘steps’ often having hundreds of years of tradition behind them? Yet all these texts are also used in contemporary living, shaping individuals and communities, so they are constantly being asked to inspire answers to new questions – there must be improvisation too. The setting encouraged new questions from beginners and experts, and discussion that brought different texts into interaction, seeing the long familiar in new light, and exercising interpretative ‘muscles’ we were hardly aware of having till they started being stretched. These texts had already sustained reading and argument century after century, so there could be some confidence in their capacity to generate further meaning now.
I found two of the hallmarks of Scriptural Reasoning, as I have known it, happening with the Chinese readers too. One was argument – it did not take long for someone to be challenged by a comment and take issue with it. The other was laughter – the juxtapositions of texts, topics, languages and people made for all sorts of humorous misunderstandings or mistranslations, unusual angles, and acknowledgements of sheer oddness or mismatch. Several times the rapid exchanges in Chinese outstripped the pace of my translator, so I just sat back and enjoyed observing the intensity, which often led to a burst of laughter. In one session in the University of Shandong in Jinan the discussion of a text on ‘chaos’ in relation to creation or innovation led into laughing recognition of the session as an example of it. This combination of argument and humour made me think of the men and women practising Tai Chi in the park with swords and spears: a martial art has been turned into a dance, competitive fighting into a different kind of striving together.
There were all sorts of problems in the actual sessions – too many texts, too little time (except when we allowed a full three hours), some introductions too long, some excessive looking to ‘experts’ instead of risking interpretations (a bit like stopping dancing to watch the instructor – necessary at times, but too much of it means less apprenticeship in actual dancing). But these seemed to me to be just teething problems, relatively easy to overcome through frankness, practice and reflection on experience. As Deborah, my wife, said, ‘It works! They have the spirit of Scriptural Reasoning right!’ An intriguing question is why some Chinese universities (the three I engaged with were Minzu and Renmin in Beijing and Shandong in Jinan) are so hospitable to Scriptural Reasoning. What are the conditions for this to happen at all? What is its history?
Genesis of the New Chinese Religious Studies and the Institute of Comparative Scripture and Inter-religious Dialogue
I had been invited to China after accepting a position (along with Prof Peter Ochs of the University of Virginia and Prof Francis Clooney of Harvard) as International Advisor on the Academic Committee of the new Institute of Comparative Scripture and Inter-religious Dialogue (ICS) in the Faculty of Philosophy and Religious Studies in Minzu University of China, Beijing. Modeled on Scriptural Reasoning and Comparative Theology, this was set up in 2011 ‘to conduct comparative research in the classical or scriptural traditions of the great world religions and to engage in interreligious dialogue… The Institute not only focuses on a purely academic or scientific comparison of texts, but also allows for a study of one’s own scripture as authoritative Scripture in the context of one’s faith community as well as of other faith communities.’ (Institute brochure). Minzu is the ‘University of the Nationalities/Ethnicities’ – the dozens of non-Han ethnic groups (numbered in tens of millions) recognized by the Chinese government – so its whole ethos is to do with diversity. Since many of the groups also are religious in distinctive ways, it seems ideally suited to a practice that tries to deepen relationships and understanding across deep differences. In conversation over lunch with the Vice-President of Minzu University, Prof Song Min, and the director of the Minzu Office of International Relations, Prof He Keyong, I was impressed by the level of informed interest and support from the university authorities.
The background was that in 2008, following a visit to China, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, hosted a symposium at Lambeth Palace for Chinese and UK academics in the field of theology and religious studies, at which I was invited to present a paper on Scriptural Reasoning. My respondent was Yang Huilin (Vice-President of Renmin University of China, and Professor of Comparative Literature and Religious Studies there), who through this was introduced to Scriptural Reasoning. Back in Beijing, he and You Bin, Professor of Christianity and Director of Research at Minzu University (who had been my interpreter and guide when I lectured in Beijing in 2000, and with whom I had discussed Scriptural Reasoning then), decided to apply for funds to set up ICS within Minzu University as part of its Innovation and Development Project. They obtained Chinese government funding for a first phase until 2016, and Prof Yang is now Chair of the Academic Committee of ICS. In May 2012 Professor Peter Ochs and Professor Vanessa Ochs from the University of Virginia spent two weeks in Beijing at ICS doing Scriptural Reasoning and lecturing. In June 2012 King’s College London hosted a conference on ‘China and the West: Religion, Politics and Ethics’ at which I responded to Professor Yang’s paper on ‘What does Scriptural Reasoning mean and what is its relevance for China?’ Also present at this was Youzhuang Geng (Professor of Literary and Art Theory, and Deputy Director of the Institute for Chinese Language and Culture, Renmin University), whom I had got to know during study leave he spent in Cambridge.
What of the broader institutional background? I learned a good deal from co-lecturing in Minzu University on ‘The Future of Religious Studies’. My co-lecturer was Professor Zhuo Xinping, whom I had first met when giving a seminar in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) during a lecture tour in China in 2000. He is a scholar of Christianity (not himself a Christian), educated in Germany, who since 1998 has been Director of the Institute of World Religions, belonging to CASS. Since 2001 he has also been Chair of the Chinese Association of Religious Studies (CARS), covering all the university departments that study religions. He and some others (a few of whom I have come to know over the years, and met with again this time, including Professors Yang Huilin and Youzhuang Geng in Renmin) have been key architects of the remarkable development of religious studies in Chinese universities in recent years – I was especially struck by this, since it has largely been achieved since my visit in 2000. In his paper for the Minzu co-lecture Professor Zhuo summed up the transformation: ‘Before the reform era, religion in China was characterized as a private affair, which should have no connection with the society. So the study of religion was mainly from an ideological perspective. Nobody paid special attention to the academic study of religion. But now, the academic study of religions in China plays a leading role.’ He and others have worked with universities, the Ministry of Education, and the State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) to achieve this.
I later had a long audience with the Vice Minister of SARA, Jiang Jianyong, in his ministry (a former palace, exquisitely restored), during which he strongly affirmed the importance both of university academic study of the religions and also of high quality seminary education (one of his staff who was present is about to spend two months in Fuller Theological Seminary in California). He also emphasized the number of inter-religious initiatives China had begun or taken part in, nationally and internationally, and he explained that Chinese religious organizations are trying to learn from the West how better to be involved in charitable and social service work of many sorts (there is, for example, an arrangement with Georgetown University for training Chinese religious leaders in this). He himself serves on the Academic Committee of the new Institute of Comparative Scripture and Inter-religious Dialogue. He and the academics appear to have understood that in the twenty-first century a world class university needs to engage well academically with the religions, and they have set about achieving this - and, as the academics told me, they have also, predictably, met some resistance from those who are anti-religious or do not see the point of taking religions so seriously.
Prof. Zhuo’s frank and informative lecture faced up to the new international context of ‘reforming China’, including ‘the rapid revitalization of religions in contemporary China’ which is being affected by globalization and world religions. He saw this as ‘the beginning of open religions in an open society of China’ and named some of the dilemmas this is posing. How, for example, is ‘cultural nationalism’ to be related to Chinese Marxism? He noted unresolved issues and conflicts, but said that ‘the Chinese government is trying to divert from the classic Marxism in Europe to a ‘harmonious culture’ in Chinese society, that emphasizes diversity as the ultimate leading ideology. This new policy, on the one hand, creates space to open up and absorb new ideas from other cultures. On the other hand, it gives room for self-recognition and self-realization through Chinese cultural identity… In the dialogue between Chinese traditional culture and Marxism, or in the process of Sinicization of Marxism, we can find the subtle influence of religion.’ There is a tension between wanting to separate politics from religion and wanting to control the religions (e.g. through having a say in the appointment of religious leaders). There are also pressing questions of religious freedom and human rights, and what it means for religions to be under Chinese law. He traced the evolution of official attitudes from ‘religion as opium’ through ‘religion as culture’ to ‘religion as religion’, towards which there is still a deeply ambivalent attitude. Some see religion as ‘negative and backward’, to be resisted; others see it positively. He himself sees it as largely positive and ‘normal’, and says that ‘understanding Confucian spirituality is the critical point in understanding Chinese religiosity’. Vital to this is the academic study of the religions, as it moves from being a ‘dangerous discipline’ to a ‘promising discipline’.
The situation resulting from this history has some striking features. There is no sense that religious studies in universities is only for non-believers – nor, of course, is it only for adherents of religions. Rather, it is taken for granted (at least by those I know well, who include those of various religious affiliations and none) that a department will be a plural space, embracing those of many religions and none. It is also taken for granted that there can be theology in those departments, in the sense of both studying theological thinking and exploring issues raised in current discussions. A common Chinese perception of Scriptural Reasoning is that it can mediate between what in the US and the UK are called ‘theology’ and ‘religious studies’. This is because it requires the scholarly disciplines related to texts and contexts and yet also allows for discussion of contemporary issues of interpretation and application. It has two further features that seem to suit at least some Chinese departments well: it is intrinsically hospitable to many traditions, enabling a plural collegiality; and it does not insist on coming to conclusions – it tends to operate in an interrogative and exploratory mode, and while individual participants may come to conclusions there is no pressure to do so, or any demand for agreement.
As I understand it, the two main ways until now of relating across religious traditions in Chinese departments of religious studies (often in fact heavily philosophical or sociological) have been through philosophy and the social sciences, both for many years largely Marxist, though now diversifying. A disadvantage of both is that they are external to the religions, and tend to interpret or explain them through ‘foreign’ categories – which may be illuminating, but are inadequate for enabling in-depth understanding of their particularity. Scriptural Reasoning allows each tradition to speak for itself; in addition it allows them to speak to each other, and also, through the hermeneutical process, to draw on philosophy, history, philology, psychology, sociology, etc. as appropriate – what Dr Aref Nayed once called the ‘internal libraries’ of those around the table. I am sure that in China, as in the Scriptural Reasoning I have known, there will be some tensions between philosophers or theologians and textual scholars or those in related historical or social scientific disciplines, and indeed some of those I studied with reported very different emphases among those doing Scriptural Reasoning. I suggested to them that the main thing is to go on giving priority to the practice of reading together, and then arguing about whatever issues arise, drawing on whichever philosophy or other discipline is considered by any participant to be relevant.
Professor Yang Huilin himself has a strong interest in philosophy, and especially philosophical hermeneutics, but combines this with a passion for the detail of texts and their translation. His co-lecture with me on the general theme of inter-faith dialogue in the twenty-first century was entitled ‘Inter-faith dialogue and the implications of Scriptural Reasoning’. He discussed the use by Nestorian Christians of Chinese Buddhist terms to translate key Biblical ideas, and also the translation and interpretation of Chinese classics by Western missionaries; but at the same time he was concerned with the hermeneutical circle as understood by Bultmann, Heidegger, Gadamer and Tillich.
Overall, the impression was of an academic engagement with the religions that has emerged in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution (some now leading senior figures in religious studies suffered a good deal during that period) and has taken advantage of the fresh start in higher education to reinvent the Chinese study of religions in a way that seeks to avoid some of the problems elsewhere. It is not surprising that Scriptural Reasoning is attractive: its main institutional homes so far have been the Universities of Cambridge and Virginia, where there have been sustained attempts to develop combined theology and religious studies. Some Chinese academics have realised that the binary oppositions (notably between theology and religious studies) inherited from Western history are not well suited to the twenty-first century, and Scriptural Reasoning is being seen as helping to move beyond them.
Scriptural Reasoning - Chinese Version
But the Chinese practitioners are not simply taking Scriptural Reasoning over as it exists already. The most obvious innovation is that they are adding scriptures that are important in China – Confucian, Daoist and a variety of Buddhist texts. Since Scriptural Reasoning was developed specifically through reading together three ‘sibling’ scriptures, the addition of three scriptures unrelated to the Abrahamic ones, and more distantly related to each other, poses new challenges.
A second innovation is in drawing on Comparative Theology as well as Scriptural Reasoning. Prof You Bin has recognized the affinity by having Francis Clooney, the pioneer of Comparative Theology (which so far has dealt mainly with Christian and Hindu or Buddhist texts) as an International Advisor on the Academic Committee of ICS. I am at present guest editing a 2013 issue of the journal Modern Theology on ‘Interreligious Reading in the Aftermath of Vatican II’ in which the relationship between Scriptural Reasoning and Comparative Theology will be one of the themes, but Prof You Bin has anticipated this. A key difference between the two is that Scriptural Reasoning is inherently conversational and collaborative, and never assumes that anyone will be at home with more than one scriptural or theological tradition, whereas Comparative Theology requires that one scholar be at home with more than one tradition, and conduct an interior dialogue.
Another experiment that seemed to me to be getting under way was in using Confucianism as a relatively uncontroversial Chinese point of reference. It is, I think, very important that they are not using the numerical scarcity of Jews in China to drop or marginalise Judaism. One of the pleasant surprises in Shandong University was to meet the Professor of Jewish Studies, Fu Youde, who is a fellow-member of the Academic Committee of the ICS. He even had two Israeli Jewish doctoral students, Sharon Small and Shamir Inbal, studying with him, and their presence in our Scriptural Reasoning session completed the Abrahamic representation around the table.
A further Chinese innovation is a new disciplinary setting for Scriptural Reasoning: comparative literature. Scriptural Reasoning’s main institutional location is in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies in Minzu University, but another is in comparative literature, due largely to Prof Yang Huilin and Prof Youzhang Geng in Renmin University. They have seen that comparative literature is a natural home for Scriptural Reasoning. They are also introducing it to the international comparative literature academic community. In July 2013 in Paris Prof Yang Huilin has sponsored a Round Table on Scriptural Reasoning at the International Association of Comparative Literature annual meeting, to which Peter Ochs and I have been invited to contribute. I rather like it that such an association is having its first engagement with scriptures through a Chinese initiative. Comparative literature also heightens awareness of the importance of translation, both of the scriptural texts and commentaries themselves and of the discussion around the table – I became more aware of the limitations of having so far done Scriptural Reasoning mainly in settings where the lingua franca is English.
What might other Chinese dimensions of Scriptural Reasoning be? – I look forward to returning to China regularly to find out. But there is also the question as to what effect Chinese Scriptural Reasoning will have on the ways it is practiced and understood elsewhere. When Peter Ochs returned to the University of Virginia after two weeks of SR study and lecturing in Beijing in May 2012 he began an engagement with faculty and graduate students in Asian
Studies, including Tibetan Buddhism as well as Confucianism and Daoism. A group from Virginia, together with others from UK and US, is due to go to Beijing in May 2013 for further study and discussion, and already ‘Asian Scriptural Reasoning’ is having effects in Virginia.
On my last day in Beijing, having returned from visiting (by a train that averaged over 200 miles an hour) the home town of Confucius, and climbed (largely by chairlift) up Tai Mountain to the great religious centre at its summit among the clouds, called ‘The City of Heaven’, Prof You Bin and I met to look to the future. We reflected on the academic development of the Institute of Comparative Scripture and Interreligious Dialogue, which already has an array of research projects on topics including: Tillich’s theory of religious dialogue; post-Vatican II Catholic theories of inter-religious dialogue; cross-scriptural debates between Confucianism and Buddhism during the Six Dynasties period; theories of modern philosophical hermeneutics and cross-cultural religious dialogue; cross-reading of the sacred texts of Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism; a Christian commentary on a Confucian text on how to read scripture; and interpreting Islam with Confucian resources – Chinese Islamic writings during the Ming and Qing dynasties. We thought about future issues of the Journal of Comparative Scripture Studies (the publication of the Institute of Comparative Scripture and Interreligious Dialogue), whose first issue is in press and due out in December 2012. This should be a forum for monitoring and also shaping developments in China and between Chinese academics and others. We discussed participation by Prof You Bin and other Chinese academics in Scriptural Reasoning networks and events in US and UK, and participation in China by academics such as myself.
We also looked beyond the academy to how Scriptural Reasoning and allied forms of inter-faith engagement might contribute to improving understanding and religious literacy, and building peaceful societies. I began to glimpse the potential of collaboration with the Chinese in a ‘partnership of difference’ that could have impact through education in other parts of the world. You Bin suggested that his Institute join with the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme in sponsoring an event in a third country – Pakistan? Turkey? Jordan? Oman? Egypt? Libya? Tunisia?
Then we considered the future of Scriptural Reasoning, which seems to me rather different now than it did before I visited China. Four distinctive pioneering features of the Chinese version, as already mentioned, are the addition of three Eastern religions to the three Abrahamic, the combining of Scriptural Reasoning with Comparative Theology, the role of Confucianism, and the additional disciplinary setting of comparative literature. In the light of the the Institute of Comparative Scripture and Interreligious Dialogue research projects one might add to those a strong historical dimension in intertextual research and thinking. All five of these features are likely to be developed further and have an impact elsewhere. But in addition there is the whole ‘applied’ side of Scriptural Reasoning. To see it being welcomed and institutionally established in a politically, economically and religiously dynamic society such as China, energizing students who are likely to be future leaders, and opening up ways of deepening engagements across divisions, was encouraging; and to hear You Bin immediately talk about its potential global impact opened up a further horizon of contributing to the peace of plural societies.
A final thought is about the relationship of Scriptural Reasoning to recent Chinese history. The roots of Scriptural Reasoning in Textual Reasoning were inseparable from the attempt of some Jewish academics to discern how to be Jewish in the aftermath of the Shoah (Holocaust). They came to see that this involved seeking wisdom through reading their classic texts of Tanakh and Talmud afresh together, through engaging deeply with modernity, both critically and constructively, and through coming together with others in different religious traditions that have also had to wrestle with modernity. China too has had its twentieth-century traumas, and is now faced with the challenge of rediscovering what its identity might be in their aftermath. I also found many Chinese had some sense of identification with the Jewish people – perhaps related to sustaining an identity over thousands of years. Each of those key elements of Textual Reasoning (which are shared with Scriptural Reasoning) is deeply relevant to the Chinese situation – retrieving and reinterpreting classic texts, grappling with the transformations of modernity, and learning and being formed through partnerships across different communities and traditions. The deepest learning may happen through suffering, but so too may terrible disintegration, despair and meaninglessness. In China, as Prof. Zhuo recognizes, many people are being drawn beyond traditional Chinese and modern resources into the world religions, and the identity issue is about more than what it means to be Chinese. It is of considerable importance for the world of the twenty-first century how the situation develops. This two-week visit to China, especially seeing the impressive developments in academic religious studies and taking part in creative improvisations on Scriptural Reasoning, was for me a sign of considerable hope.
 The Vienna Hotel – noted for its food being halal, and therefore a favourite place for Beijing Muslims.
 There have been some variations beyond the Abrahamic – e.g. Peter Ochs and Gavin Flood on Jewish and Hindu texts in a course in the University of Virginia; prison chaplains in five training sessions in early 2012 covering most English prisons, which included Buddhist, Jewish and pagan chaplains with their texts; and a range of non-scriptural sessions (on liturgies, poems, commentaries, works of art) – but none of those so far has been sustained over years.
 CASS is the highest academic research organization in the fields of philosophy and social sciences in China. It has 31 research institutes and more than 50 research centers, which carry out research activities covering about 260 sub-disciplines. CASS currently employs nearly 3000 academics directly, with large numbers of others involved in projects, publications and exchanges.
 After the audience Deborah and I had a meal with members of his staff during which there was a fascinating discussion of the situation of the five officially recognized religions (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam, Protestantism and Roman Catholicism), of the international religious situation (including a good deal of comparison with India), of how to approach inter-religious engagement, and of the selection process the younger staff members had gone through in order to be get their posts in the face of many thousands of other applicants.
 In my part of the shared lecture with Prof Zhuo I discussed ‘new theology and religious studies’, as laid out in Chapter 8 of my recent book, The Future of Christian Theology (Wiley-Blackwell 2011).
 I was struck that Professor You Bin wrote in the brochure for ICS: ‘We aim to promote “a better quality of disagreement between religions” … through reading each other’s authoritative texts’ – using a phrase about Scriptural Reasoning originally coined by Professor Ben Quash of King’s College London. The brochure here and elsewhere implicitly corrects, or enhances, the common Chinese ideal of ‘harmony’ by conceiving it in a way that allows for continuing differences and enduring disagreements which yet do not degenerate into destructive binary oppositions.
 The origins of Scriptural Reasoning were in Textual Reasoning, in which Jewish text scholars, philosophers and theologians studied and argued about texts together in small groups inspired by the chevrutah practice of rabbinic Judaism.
 The difficulty in China, as elsewhere in universities, is likely to be the busyness of academics and their reluctance to give the time to reading together – which can seem an unproductive process. Prof. You Bin recognizes the unlikelihood of gathering busy colleagues with any regularity, and is centring his regular reading group on students, especially postgraduates. This is apprenticing a good number of the rising generation of academics to the practice.
 My analysis of the situation in Germany, UK and US (cf. Chapter 8 in The Future of Christian Theology) met with a generally favourable response.
 One source of guidance is likely to be the practice of Comparative Theology – see below.
 Another recent work with substantial treatments (amounting to ten chapters) of both Scriptural Reasoning and Comparative Theology emerged from the 2009 conference of the European Society for Intercultural Theology and Interreligious Studies (which, as its name indicates, is concerned to overcome any division between theology and religious studies) in Salzburg – see Interreligious Hermeneutics in Pluralistic Europe: Between Texts and People, eds. David Cheetham, Ulrich Winkler, Oddbjørn Leirvik and Judith Gruber (Rodopi, 2011). The chapters by Nicholas Adams on ‘Scriptural Reasoning and Interfaith Hermeneutics’ and by Francis Clooney on ‘Comparative Theology – As Theology’ are especially illuminating.
 Clooney quipped to me once: ‘Comparative theology is more for introverts!’
 There was also an articulate Chinese Muslim presence here - for example, a student who was not confident of her ability to recite the Qur’an in Arabic without making mistakes brought along a recording of the part of Sura 2 that we were studying and, after playing it, expounded it energetically. In Minzu there was also a strong Muslim presence, including Dr Yang Guiping – she is Minzu’s Professor of Islamic Studies.
 This has to a lesser extent been present in Scriptural Reasoning, for example in the Princeton Center of Theological Inquiry 3-year project involving sixteen Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars, including several Medievalists, which produced the book Crisis, Call, and Leadership in the Abrahamic Traditions, eds. Peter Ochs and William Stacy Johnson (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).