When it comes to sacred texts, Christopher Leighton thinks historical literacy is just as important as understanding the words on the page.
Leighton will discuss the necessity of such in-depth understanding in a lecture titled “Faith Without Fratricide: Wrestling with our Scriptures” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy.
“All of our sacred texts have glorious and beautiful and wise things to say, but frequently our texts were written in a polemical climate where communities were trying to establish themselves, frequently in an adversarial or oppositional relationship to others in the surrounding culture,” said Leighton, director of the Institute for Islamic, Christian & Jewish Studies. “Those texts that are articulated in the heat of battle or the heat of conflict have a way of living on, and sometimes they become exacerbated and used to justify some pretty nasty behavior.”
Leighton said these combative texts must be weeded out before interfaith cooperation can be achieved.
“If we don’t learn to identify those texts and find ways of disarming the toxic material that is situated in our traditions, then I think we’re destined to have demagogues manipulate our sacred writings for insidious purposes,” he said.
To make these issues more accessible, Leighton will examine the question of interreligious rivalries through the lens of the Cain and Abel story. He will also discuss how that biblical narrative came to be filtered through Augustine’s writings and suggest an alternative means of critically engaging with it and other texts in the modern day.
Although he feels this Scriptural revisiting is necessary, Leighton recognizes that it is a difficult concept.
“We tend to get complacent with our own ways of reading and interpreting the world,” Leighton said. “So to learn a new thing seems to be hard because it means opening yourself to having your philosophy or your theology overturned, or at least allowing ourselves to see where the cracks are or where the inadequacies reside. We’d rather not have to deal with that.”
Leighton has served as the executive director of the Institute for Islamic, Christian & Jewish Studies since its inception in 1987. The organization works to foster interfaith communication and positive interreligious relationships by encouraging people of different faiths to embrace and respect their differences.
“It’s important to affirm and celebrate the fact that we have many shared values, but what we’re most interested in here [at the Institute] is finding ways of seeing our differences as a source of blessing,” Leighton said. “The only way to disarm religious hostilities is to build a sense of religious pluralism in which those differences are honored and learned from.”
Leighton said he first realized the importance of embracing difference when his boarding school roommate pointed out that their American history class only covered one version of America’s past.
“He convinced me that education really begins when you get over yourself and your own background and step outside of the lines,” Leighton said. “The gift that he gave me was learning to critically engage my own history. I think that this is the gift that comes from interfaith relations as well, pulling us outside of our assumptions, outside of our normal routines, and jolting us into considering that the world is bigger and more complex. So, to some degree, the work that I’m doing right now feels as though it’s an extension of an educational enterprise that has its origins from when I was 16 or 17 years old.”
Despite these personal roots, Leighton said the Institute’s philosophy has wide-reaching potential.
“I think the destiny of our Creation depends on developing this capacity to welcome the stranger and to learn from the stranger,” he said. “I think that we’ve got to learn how to do that, or we’re in a heap of trouble.”