Pulling diverse views onto common ground Seminar: A new pursuit of understanding will start at the beginning -- Genesis, in fact.


Chris Leighton arrives in his Bolton Hill office with a ladybug tie and the residue of last night's concerns: Restless 4-year-old twins, an 8-year-old readjusting to school, a wife beginning a new job. He has yet to have his first cup of coffee, and he's already talking about the Judaism of first century Palestine.

Is this a typical morning for Chris Leighton, 46-year-old director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies?

"The chaos factor is considerable," he says, nodding. "But I'm no longer so intimidated by confusion."

You might even say he enjoys it. At home, he welcomes situations that rattle the routine, ferment family life. At work, he doesn't try to smooth over theological differences. The din of dissonance contains a path toward truth, he believes.

Leighton runs a national nonprofit organization which examines religious prejudice and works to disarm it. It's a job that requires scholarly knowledge, political instinct, patience, a knack for raising money. And the kind of humor expressed on the button he keeps in his office: "Existential Handyman: Voids Filled, Karma Adjusted, Reality Pondered."

This week Leighton is pondering the beginning of one of the institute's most exciting projects: The assembling of nine interfaith study groups from local Jewish and Christian congregations who will meet to discuss Genesis, the first book ++ of the Bible. The goal is to discover what the stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and Abraham and Isaac mean to Americans in the Age of Internet.

The study program will use "Talking About Genesis," a resource guide which Leighton helped write to complement Bill Moyers' PBS series on Genesis. The 173-page book gathers insights and essays on the Bible stories by authors ranging from Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr to child psychiatrist Robert Coles. Leighton took a three-month leave of absence from the institute last winter to work on it.

The already chosen study groups, made up of lay people and clergy, will consider such topics as how Genesis has shaped cultural visions of women and men, how it has affected views of assimilation and how it continues to influence beliefs about violence and forgiveness. The six-session program will serve as a national model for similar study groups.

"The question is to what extent do these stories really live?" Leighton says. "Do they really make a difference? There's all this talk about the Bible somehow determining the landscape of the Western imagination -- but what does that mean? As the surgeon and the plumber and the garbage collector go about their routines, do these stories impinge on their consciousness?

"We try to provide a spark that will ignite reflection upon what scholars have to say and what the Bible has to say and on what regular people themselves have to say based on their own experience."

Setting the stage for such interplay is what the institute -- and Leighton's work -- is all about.

Founded 10 years ago by a group of lay people and clergy who were concerned about improving relations between Christians and Jews, the institute has become one of the country's most thoughtful organizations to study the history and contemporary dynamics of religious prejudice.

It has also built a reputation for sponsoring interfaith gatherings -- ranging from workshops and lecture programs to trips to Israel -- that provoke rather than reassure. Leighton believes in assembling passionate, unlike-minded people in the hope of encouraging something better than consensus: The ability to learn from differences.

One study group recently sponsored by the institute, for instance, brought together Jewish theologians from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform traditions and Christians from Southern Baptist, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian backgrounds. The subject was the Book of Job and the meaning of human suffering.

Few topics, perhaps, could incite greater disagreement.

Based upon their interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus, many Christians believe human suffering can be redemptive. That notion disturbs many Jews, especially in the wake of the Holocaust.

"They are very nervous that the romanticizing of suffering can lead to a masochistic glorification of conditions that should be overturned," Leighton says. "Anything that smacks of glorifying or celebrating agony or anguish is seen as highly suspect -- and potentially, as blasphemous because it implies that suffering is an expression of God's will."

Sometimes scholars and clergy will raise their voices and even pound the table during a group discussion, Leighton says, but more often they try to understand what the world looks like from another viewpoint.

"What really excites people and holds them together is learning to move into the very situations they have been conditioned to avoid," he says. "If one can endure embarrassment, awkwardness, disruption, then one can come away emboldened live in a different fashion."

Leighton hopes the Genesis study program will allow people to disagree about the text their traditions share and increase their tolerance for contradiction and conflict. It's the kind of communication that's needed in a democracy that "has not yet learned to cope with its diversity," he says.

Leighton has a doctorate in education from Columbia, a masters of divinity from Princeton and is working on a masters in Judaic studies from Baltimore Hebrew University.

He speaks in the carefully formed paragraphs of a scholar, refusing to settle for one word when two or three more might deepen a concept. Soft-spoken, politely apologetic, he seems an unlikely defender of dissension.

But his theology formed in the crucible of the late 1960s.

"I took very seriously the political significance of religious life," he says. "I was intrigued with whether religion has a real contribution to make to the quality of the democratic life."

While Leighton was in seminary, he worked in a church, a prison and a nursing home. He saw the elderly use religion to fortify themselves for death, he watched criminals try to reconstruct their lives with help from the Bible, he saw teen-agers use church as a place where friends could forge deeper commitments to one another.

"I found that these people didn't need me to recapitulate the religious answers they've been told for much of their lives, answers which they weren't sure made sense," he says. "They needed somebody to help them live into, and then, through the wildness and uncertainty of the world.

"I was schooled to avoid the whole notion of chaos, confusion, ambiguity. I was told 'Clarity is what you want.' I was told that wrapping things up, being able to manage and control them, was the ideal model."

And now?

"I've just abandoned it."

He embraces the style of Jewish study that insists the truth of Scriptures is greater than any single interpretation, perhaps any one tradition, can contain.

"You need to do your study in the midst of other folks," he says. "Frequently the people you least expect to have far-reaching interpretive insights are the very ones that pick up the fragment you would have neglected.

"The person you're studying text with will see something you can't see. No matter who the person is, no matter what their educational background, you need to pay attention to their perspective."

Moyers talk

Award-winning PBS producer Bill Moyers will speak about his inquiry into religion in American society at 7: 30 tonight at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, 8100 Stevenson Road (Beltway Exit 21).

Sponsored by the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, the free program will also include a panel discussion with Joel Zaiman, senior rabbi at Chizuk Amuno, Kay Albury, pastor at Ames Memorial Methodist Church and Chris Leighton, director of the institute. Historian Taylor Branch will serve as moderator.

For details, call (410) 523-7227.

MPT viewers may call (410) 581-4041 for a free copy of the Genesis resource guide while supplies last. Ministers interested in starting study groups may request multiple copies.

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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