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  • Scriptural Reasoning and the Ethics of Public Discourse
  • Gary Slater

I. Introduction

American democracy is in trouble. Ours is a time of "post-truth politics," "alternative facts," and "fake news," and one could be forgiven for expressing a sense of alarm at the fraught state of the body politic. Without even touching on any deeper philosophical or spiritual causes, the reasons for this disquieting situation are surely manifold. They encompass such factors as rising economic inequality, unregulated cash in politics, and the echo-chamber effect of media consumption in a post-Internet age.

Yet a general diagnosis of our political crisis is not what this essay seeks to provide. Rather, my focus is more specific: the logical and interpretive problems displayed when citizens debate with one another publicly. Such problems include tendencies for citizens to talk past one another, to use common terms unclearly, to derive arguments from unexamined premises, and to overgeneralize claims. My aim in this essay is to articulate and demonstrate a measured, precise program for addressing problems such as these, and my argument is that the interface of American pragmatism and the tradition of Scriptural Reasoning offers a neglected set of resources for this work.

Scriptural Reasoning is an interfaith-dialogue model that hosts conversations between Muslims, Christians, and Jews as they read one another's sacred texts. Scriptural Reasoning is a postliberal theological project, which means that it eschews liberal attempts to speak to audiences beyond its hermeneutic base in scripture. It might seem odd, then, to argue that this movement has anything worthwhile to contribute to democratic discourse. What indeed has Jerusalem to do with Athens? But the fact is that, in addition to being a postliberal project, Scriptural Reasoning is also a pragmatic project. The pragmatic tradition has had a longstanding interest in American democracy, from John Dewey and Sidney Hook to more recent figures like Huw Price, Richard Rorty, Cheryl Misak, and Jeffrey Stout. Through the work of Nicholas Adams and especially of Peter Ochs, Scriptural Reasoning represents one of the most creative applications of pragmatic thought—specifically that of C. S. Peirce—within contemporary American theology. [End Page 123]

The task of this essay is to demonstrate the relevance of the pragmatic aspects of postliberal Scriptural Reasoning to contemporary challenges in American democratic discourse. I will do this by showing how Scriptural Reasoning models a certain kind of conversation, one that is antifoundationalist, pluralist, and melioristic. Although the sacred texts of Jews, Christians, and Muslims clearly provide the basis for Scriptural Reasoning's interpretive practices, Scriptural Reasoning warrants a distinction between formal and material understandings of scripture. Materially, scripture refers to the Torah, the Quran, or the Bible; formally, scripture refers to whatever interpretive guidelines shape a given community at its deepest levels. Nicholas Adams has described it well as a "practice of making deep reasonings public."1 It is in the formal sense of scripture that this essay understands Scriptural Reasoning's practices to be generalizable for public discourse within American democracy.

But there is more than modeling conversation that is involved here. Scriptural Reasoning also offers two logical resources—both of which are drawn from Peirce—whose formal aspects can be exported beyond the religious communities engaged in the hermeneutical practices of Scriptural Reasoning. These are, first, the analysis of logical binaries and, second, the explication of implicit forms of reasoning. While binaries represent an entry point into locating discursive problems, implicit forms of reasoning serve to mitigate problems by grounding them within less damaging contexts.

Together, the interpretive and logical resources of Scriptural Reasoning provide grounds for a critical contribution to the ethics of public discourse. This contribution comes in the form of a pragmatic program for diagnosing and responding to errant reasoning in public debates. The hope is that this program is flexible and pluralistic, such that it could be distributed across communities and cultures without relinquishing the commitments to truth and objectivity that are indispensable for democratic discourse. For present purposes, I will sketch this program in three steps. The first step is to engage with Scriptural Reasoning, contextualizing its practices with respect to the problems to which it seeks to respond. The second step is...


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