- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2007

ISLAM: PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE

By Hans Kung

Oneworld Publications, $39.95, 1,024 pages

REVIEWED BY MICHAEL RICCARDS

In the 1960s, the Rev. Hans Kung was the most visible theologian in the world, an articulate and progressive expert at Vatican Council II. At his home institution in Tubingen, he promoted the academic career of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. But the spirit of Vatican II evaporated, and a sharp reaction took place especially during the long papacy of John Paul II and his dogmatic watchdog — the same Mr. Ratzinger.

That Roman leadership forced Mr. Kung out of the university’s theology department, but it could not terminate his employment at a German university. Mr. Kung went on to become the head of a center on global religion and continued his extraordinary publishing career.

Mr. Kung has already explored Christianity and Judaism in separate volumes; now he has produced a third long volume on Islam. His express purpose is to show the common elements of these Western faiths as a way to promote interfaith dialogue.

All these religions acknowledge, for example, a common father — Abraham of Ur — who had a special pact with God and whose progeny populated the Middle East, keeping alive his historical memory and the beliefs he embraced. All those faiths are monotheistic and all these peoples have a book — the Old Testament, the New Testament or the Koran.

In Islam, there is only one God, and Mohammed is his Prophet. Mr. Kung concludes that Mohammed was indeed a prophet of sorts, and the Koran is divinely inspired in some ways. Those declarations may seem strange coming from a Catholic theologian who has been so critical of some of the central tenets of his own faith, holding them up to his heightened standards of evidence.

Mr. Kung is a great advocate of using models or “paradigms” to show separate historical developments. The models go from the original tribal Islam community in Arabia, to the growth of an Arab empire, to the status of a world religion, to a belief system confronting modernization. Mr. Kung has a difficult time in dealing with the relationships of Islam and violence, although he has a whole section devoted to it.

Most prominently, Mr. Kung argues that early Christianity made a major shift of its own in the early centuries of its existence when it abandoned Palestinian Judaism for a Hellenistic version of Christianity. The early church moved way from its Aramaic, peasant background to become a version of Judaism that left the synagogues and came to think, speak and write in Greek.

Classical Greek was the language of the educated classes in the Roman Empire (not Latin). Its philosophical subtleties allowed it to explain the uniqueness of the Trinity without seeming to abandon monotheism and the complex definition of Jesus Christ as God and man. The Gospels are in Greek, not Hebrew; the letters of St. Paul, which predate the Gospels, are written in Greek, not Aramaic; most importantly, the first great statement on the faith, the Nicean Creed, was written and said in Greek.

That intellectual jump to a world language is not seen by Mr. Kung as a great triumph in thought and evangelism. But he argues that this shift in language and emphasis was such a profound change that it led to a Christianity that self-respecting Islam could not compromise with. He is especially talking about the notion of the divinity of Christ.

This book is a brilliant treatment of Islam and its beliefs by a brilliant theologian who is still outside the linguistic tradition of the Koran. But his central criticism will make no sense to the Christian faithful. Christians have historically believed and still do in nearly all circles in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. He cannot be seen just as a special prophet, a miracle worker, an ethicist, but as the Son of God.

To argue that they should give up that central dogma because it is “Hellenistic” is not compelling, anymore than one can argue to Muslims that Mohammed was not a divinely inspired prophet. Those are core beliefs in both religions, and their abridgment is not possible for the orthodox of either faith. While we can celebrate the convergence of these faiths, one should not do so by denying what is most essential to their faithful.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of “Vicars of Christ” and “The Papacy and the End of Christendom.”

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