We reason. We speak, and when someone else speaks, we listen.
Singapore’s Arab Street on a weekend afternoon is a pleasant place. The first thing to jump out at you is colour, from shophouse façades and carpet shops, but very quickly the sense of smell edges everything else out and before you know it, you’ve followed your nose to a plate of something delicious in front of you. In the middle of all this, a couple of years ago — I think it was a Sunday — a small group of people on the second or third floor of one of the little shophouses was quietly changing the world.
The group is called Interfaith Youth Circle, a Singapore-based initiative which promotes interfaith understanding and education. I was joining them late that afternoon for an event that would represent two firsts for me: one, a Scriptural Reasoning session and, two, iftar; because it was the month of Ramadan, the event was combined with this traditional breaking of fast in the evening, followed by dinner.
Scriptural Reasoning is in many ways the exact opposite of a lot of the discourse we see when we open our browsers or social media. It is a form of interfaith communication where individuals from different faiths read and understand one another’s scriptures, or religious texts. It’s a space in which differing ideas exist — wildly differing ideas — about incredibly important things — possibly the most important things. Scriptural Reasoning’s beauty is that it does not force consensus. The aim is not to agree or convince. The aim is to listen, and speak about what we think and how we reason through religious texts. It does not tell you not to stand up for what you believe in. It just reminds us why we rarely win an argument or a position when we start by telling someone they’re wrong.
Faith — whether it is placed in a person, idea, cause, or deity — is a difficult thing. Unwavering faith is a worthwhile goal but in practice can be painful and feel impossible. Faith is often unprovable, and doesn’t always make sense. And yet we defend it, because it tells us how to make decisions about some of the most important things to us. How to live, work, earn. Who to marry. What to eat. Who should live and who should die. How to be in this world. Scriptures are products of — and contributors to — faith, both in its institutionalised form, and in its everyday expressions. So how do we enter into ‘reasoning’ with scriptures, and is it at all possible?
We sat there as people who identified with a whole range of religious practices and belief systems, or none at all. There were people who differed from one another within the same faith tradition. There were people who placed their faith in entities outside of material reality, or supernatural beings, and people who placed their faith in the empirical, or in the inherent goodness of people, or in nature or equality. We did not agree.
But we did speak, and reason through our beliefs and ideas, and when someone else spoke, we listened. Since that day, I’ve been to enough Scriptural Reasoning sessions to know that it comes with a sense of discomfort. It is uncomfortable to hear someone finding a different meaning in a scriptural text with which you may have grown up, or in which you place a great deal of faith. It is uncomfortable to listen to opinions which seem to discredit everything you value. When it’s uncomfortable enough in a session where that is the expectation, what happens when these differences occur closer to us, at home, in our workplaces, in our friendships? Or even in our places of worship? What happens when these differences affect public policy?
We reason. We speak, and when someone else speaks, we listen. There is, of course, a great deal of privilege here. That day, at my first iftar, I reminded myself that sitting in safety and enjoying a meal with people of many different faiths is an experience that many people in this world don’t have access to on a regular basis. It’s a privilege to be able to listen to people who believe different things in an environment of mutual respect, without fear for my own safety or survival.
But when we do have privilege, we need to spend it rather than hold on to it. We spend it by listening. We spend it by deciding that now, today, we listen, speak, reason, disagree, and be okay with it, because we can. We repeat this whenever those ‘nows’ happen. It doesn’t mean we don’t fight for what we believe is right. It means we become accustomed to the reality that our perfect vision for the world is not shared by everyone, and that living in this world means accommodating — sometimes messily, and sometimes painfully — other visions. Yes, it’s an incredible privilege when that accommodation doesn’t come with a violation of what we may consider our most basic rights. But if the privilege is given to us, we spend what we’ve gained from it to make a discussion on social media a little less polarised, to make someone at work feel a little more included, to make a policy a little more fair, to keep a friend instead of losing one.
But this discussion is getting away from me because right now, at this moment, you may be disagreeing with what you’re reading. But what if — what if — we could sit and talk, and listen to each other, and have a meal together? How would that change you? How would that change me?
How can a small group of people sitting in a circle on the upper floors of a shophouse quietly change the world?
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