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Thursday, 18 April 2013

Encountering God: Scriptural Reasoning

Tonight we had the first meeting of our local Scriptural Reasoning group. Scriptural Reasoning is a practice of inter-faith reading. Small groups of Jews, Christians and Muslims, and sometimes people of other faiths, gather to read and reflect on short passages from their scriptures together.

The texts we used tonight were from a Text Bundle made available by the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme. The theme was Encountering God and the process we used was of a short reflection on each passage by a representative of that faith followed by open discussion among the whole group.

This is what I said in reflecting on the Christian text: 

Encountering God: Christian text - Acts 9:1-9
This is a classic Christian encounter with God, to the extent that the phrase ‘a Damascus Road experience’ meaning an extraordinarily dramatic conversion or a profound life-changing experience has come into common usage.
Saul’s Damascus Road experience literally turned his life upside down as is symbolised by his fall. One moment he was up on his feet - a leader of others with a warrant from the High Priest to arrest heretics – the next, he was flat on his back in the road with God telling him that those he was persecuting were actually God’s own people – the body of Christ. In one moment everything he thought he knew was shown to be false and the entire direction that his life had taken up to that point was reversed so that he goes from this encounter to preach the Christ whom formally he had persecuted. I once was blind, but now I see; as the lyrics to ‘Amazing Grace’ put it. The story seems to suggest that this is the power of God’s presence – encounter with God reveals the inadequacy of all that we have known up to that point and turns us around to receive and know the truth.

This is also symbolised by the light which shines in this story. In the Christian scriptures Jesus is spoken of as ‘the light of the world.’ This light shines in the darkness of error and reveals truth. John 3. 18 – 20 says: “This is how the judgement works: the light has come into the world, but people love the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds are evil.  Those who do evil things hate the light and will not come to the light, because they do not want their evil deeds to be shown up.” Saul comes into the light, sees that his deeds are evil, turns away from them and begins a new way of life signalled by taking a new name.

Through this encounter Saul sees: that Jesus is God; Jesus has been raised from death and is alive; and Jesus is in his people - the Church, which is the Body of Christ. I once was blind, but now I see. Or does he? One of the strange aspects of this story is that in the story Saul does not see. He does not actually see Jesus - instead he hears his voice - and the immediate result of the encounter is that Saul is blinded and cannot physically see.

So what is actually going on here? Is this encounter with God actually as straightforward as my earlier comments suggest? We might want to suggest that Saul’s physical blindness is symbolic of his earlier blindness to the truth about Jesus. His physical blindness lasts for three days and then after prayer he miraculously sees once again. His blindness therefore equates to the three days Jesus spent in the tomb and Saul’s regained sight therefore equates to a resurrection experience. That interpretation would fit well with what I said earlier.

Alternatively, we might want to suggest that sight distracts us from hearing the still, small (perhaps inner) voice of God; that it is only once he has been blinded by the light that Saul can hear what God wishes to say to him. So there may be an element of asceticism in the story – the closing off of physical sight in order to enhance spiritual insight.

Again, we might also suggest that darkness, blindness, lack of sight and lack of knowing is actually essential to true encounter with God. As God cannot be defined or fully comprehended by human beings, it may be essential to true encounter with God to realise our inability to fully ‘know’ God and therefore to accept and rest in the darkness and blindness of our lack of knowing.

All these are possible paths to the further exploration of this passage as we discuss together. In this context, however, we must also acknowledge the way in which this passage has been used and abused in Church history to support anti-Semitism. On a simplistic reading of the story, Saul the Pharisee became Paul the Evangelist, the Jew became a Christian, the persecutor becomes the persecuted and all this on the basis that Jesus is revealed in the story as the resurrected Son of God. Therefore, the Church has, at times, argued and acted on the basis that Christianity is right and Judaism is wrong; a minority faith once it became the majority on many occasions reversed the change which had occurred in Paul so that those who had formerly been persecuted became the persecutors of others.

Clearly that simplistic reading of this encounter with God ignores: the fact that both Jesus and Paul were Jews; the profound influence which his Jewish upbringing, study and experience continued to have on all that Paul did and said subsequent to this encounter with God; and is at odds with Paul’s own teaching about the continuing significance of the Jewish people. How we interpret and understand encounter with God has profound implications for what we then do and say as a result. That is why deciding to do Scriptural Reasoning together in this way is so important and yet also an exercise to be undertaken with great care and sensitivity.


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