Who among us is good? … and who is “us”?

by Arthur Holder, Academic Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs (taken from the March 2011 Dean's Newsletter, "Reading Sacred Texts Interreligiously")

Literary critics and theologians often talk about "interpretive communities" and "capable readers." Who has the ability--and even the right--to interpret a text, especially a sacred text that bears authority in a particular religious tradition?

Last month I participated in a weeklong interreligious Theology Conference at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem along with Naomi Seidman (Director, Center for Jewish Studies), and Nargis Virani (visiting faculty, Center for Islamic Studies). The theme of the conference was “What makes a good person?” Small groups involving participants from all three traditions studied key sacred texts together, working both in the original languages and in English translation.

So what makes a good person? Nearly all the small groups concluded that we know one when we see one. We also noted that all three traditions provide some clear rules for good behavior while continually stressing the need to go beyond the letter of the law. Being good is more than just doing what is right (though it certainly includes that). The truly good person is often the "secret saint" who marches to a different drummer by challenging the norms of the society and even of the religious community itself. There is no single set of principles or rules that will turn us into good people all at once. We have to make those hard choices every day in response to the demands of our time and place. In order to be good, we have to take the risk of being wrong.

Since the shared study of sacred texts from different traditions has been a hallmark of our own interreligious programming here at the GTU, my colleagues and I were glad to expand our pedagogical and theological perspectives in discussion with more than fifty distinguished Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars from around the world. We also visited sacred sites of all three religions and attended worship services of the three traditions as we prayed for justice, peace, and mutual understanding in that beautiful but perennially conflicted city.

One insight that came to me during the conference was that in our religiously pluralistic and culturally interdependent global village today, all of our interpretive communities need to include people beyond the borders of our particular religious traditions. Jews can read Christian texts; Buddhists can read Torah; Christians can read the Qur'an. These crossreadings benefit not only those outside a tradition, but the insiders as well. The outsider perspective often brings new appreciations as well as provocative challenges. At the GTU, we enjoy this privilege every day as we share our classrooms and worship spaces with one another. It was wonderful to go to Jerusalem, and it is good to be home.

Read more in the Shalom Hartman Institute News