Saturday, July 28, 2007

New book by controversial theologian-priest gets much right, despite flaws

In Islam: Past, Present, and Future, Father Hans Kung completes his trilogy on three world religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

A Swiss theologian and Catholic priest, Father Kung is known for his controversial approach to Christian theology and for his commitment to interreligious dialogue as the basis for world peace. ("No peace among the nations without peace among the religions; no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions.")

Because of his third principle ("No dialogue between the religions without investigation of the foundations of the religions"), Father Kung takes a vigorously historical approach to Islam based on models or paradigms that summarize the world of beliefs, values, techniques and practices that are shared by believers.

In 662 pages of text, the author is able to cover far more ground than any other single recent publication in English on Islam. Other Catholic authors such as John Esposito, John Renard and Elias Mallon have written relatively slender introductions to Islam for the general reader.

Father Kung takes up some of the topics that these authors do not address and he is self-confident enough to raise the difficult issues that often shape the kinds of questions that Americans and Europeans wish to ask about Islam.

He does this with extreme candor, with all rancor removed -- not an easy achievement. Father Kung clearly wishes to prepare the modern (or postmodern?) Christian for fruitful dialogue with Islam.

This requires a survey of historical facts, reform movements, theological perspectives and political tendencies.

Father Kung never fails to assert his own interpretations of Christian theology and history in an effort to reorient the reader to these views, some of which he believes will make fruitful dialogue with Islam possible.

In fact, it is clear that Islam is a source for some of the author's own convictions about Christianity, some of which Catholic readers will find troublesome.

Father Kung seems to believe that the authentic message of Jesus was best preserved by what he calls Jewish Christianity. He then proceeds to claim that, in some way, Islam arose in Arabia among the last remnants of Jewish Christianity.

This is the theological backbone of this book, and it leads him to deny key doctrines of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christianity.

The Trinity, for example, goes by the board several times, most notably on page 509, and in the following pages there is the demolition of Chalcedonian Christology, all on the basis of Father Kung's distaste for Hellenistic thought.

The lack of evidence for the beliefs and even the existence of Jewish Christianity before the late second century makes it difficult to prove continuity with the mission of Jesus.

Moreover, the claim that some form of Jewish Christianity is proto-Islamic is based more on conjecture than on accessible historical data.

Ultimately, the author's attempt to use Islam as evidence for an early Christianity opposed to Orthodox and Catholic belief is unpersuasive.

However, both Christians and Muslims have much to learn from his analysis of Islamic history.

He has the facts right about Arabic Christianity before Islam, about possible sources of the contents of the Quran, about Mohammed as a prophet and leader, about Muslim religiosity, about Islamic law and its ongoing evolution, about the conflict between reason and revelation, about mysticism and mass movements, about the encounter with modernity and colonialism, and prospects for the future.

Without concealing the aggressive, deeply troubling political mores of Islamic empires down through the ages, Father Kung manages to give a balanced assessment of their contributions to the sciences, philosophy, architecture and spirituality. He discusses the issue of jihad with candor and in this, as in most other matters Islamic, he resists the temptation to find ideal types that manage to "explain" everything, or worse, to "predict" everything.

There is a savvy open-endedness to his assessments of modernity and postmodernity in Islam and in the world in dialogue with Muslims of our times. So, in spite of some extremely problematic interpretations of Christianity, this may be the best single volume introduction to Islam currently available in English.

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Sotto Voce

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So an inhabitant of one myth factory has written a book about the inhabitants of another myth factory. It's almost as if a fan of one cartoon series decided to write about the fans of another cartoon series.
Finn McCool

They're all mad I tell you, mad simply mad..