The Universal Guide to Scripture Reading for Beginners


Having participated in Scripture study with Muslims and other believers, I've realized there's a universal approach for beginners to take when they start reading Scripture for the first time. No matter what tradition they come from, there are three things that every person needs when they engage with these texts.

Awe

If you want to understand why people read Scripture, what the lasting relevance of the texts are, this is the spirit I think they all teach. Whether it's awe and wonder for God, for self, for others, or something in the world around you, this is what we're all searching for. Those of us who revere our sacred texts do so because we have experienced that awe and wonder in the past, and hope to do so again in the future.

When you're in a comparative religion space and sharing Scripture with others, giving space for the awe and wonder of other believers for their own texts and sharing in it is one of the most beautiful experiences you can share with other people. Interfaith spaces that can achieve that are truly special. And you don't have to be a believer to experience it.

If you can look at any text and recognize "this honors the dignity of the human spirit and I respect that," that is something anyone can experience.

Curiosity

In pursuit of that awe, there are two approaches you can take: alone or in community. And what becomes almost immediately apparent is Scripture demands to be understood in community.

"What does this mean?"

How can there be an answer to this question if there is no one to ask?

And this, I think, is also part of the value of religious texts. They can't be understood in isolation. Curiosity invites communion, which resists ignorance and isolation.

Curiosity, the spirit in which questioning becomes a sacred act, is essential to understanding any religious text. It's the act of opening oneself to new thoughts and ideas about the world, to extend a hand out into the world to see what will fill it in response.

And when you study Scripture with many people, including those outside of your tradition, the possibilities for the answers that can find their way to you greatly expands.

Skepticism

Not everything a person will give in terms of answered questions or communion will be consistent with sacred texts as written, or historical viewpoints and practice. Being able to handle contradictions with care, especially in a respectful way, is also a holy act. It's necessary for the pursuit of truth, which can end up being a composite of many different viewpoints. Some things will fall away. Others will be embraced. This discerning influence is impossible with skepticism, which every student of Scripture needs.

Gentle, respectful interrogation of an idea or principle is one that leaves no trace for the person being asked. It's a practice that honors consent. It leaves space for deep examination, which often takes time and ongoing consideration. It recognizes that not all people are prepared or willing to engage in that examination, and seeks out those who willingly enter that place of reasoning. It's an honor, another sacred act, to occupy that space with someone else. Honoring that space means allowing others to decide the impact you can and cannot have upon them there, and accepting that choice.

In my experience, those who study Scripture need all three of these traits to have a vibrant, healthy inner life and outward expressions of their own faith. When these three traits aren't in balance, it gives place to dogmatism, extremism, and conflict.

Part of why sharing beliefs with newcomers and seekers outside of our own communities is often such a rewarding experience is because we exercise these traits/reset these boundaries with them in ways we don't with our own communities. These are the healthy habits that matter most in seeking the sacred through Scripture.

When people ask me where to start with reading Scripture, they often ask me about which sections to read, translation recommendations, and resources to assist in the act of reading. And while those things are important, this is what I find myself wanting to explain instead.

To simply read Scripture was never the point. It's true in my religion with my texts. It's true, I think, in every religion with all sacred texts. And if giving ourselves and others access to the full power and benefit of Scripture is what we want, how we read almost matters more than what we read.

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