Thursday, November 11, 2010

Peter Kreeft on What Christians can learn from Islam

I have written a review of Peter Kreeft's book "Between Allah & Jesus: What Christians Can Learn From Muslims" for the issue of our Kairos magazine coming out this weekend. It is a book I highly recommend. You can read my review to find out what it is about.

Unfortunately, I think that Peter Kreeft will probably lose a few admirers because of this book. But that's Kreeft for you. Just like Socrates, he isn't interested in people liking what he writes. He is interested in the search for truth. This book emulates Socrates in another way too: it is in the form of a dialogue, which doesn't give you the answer. You have work it out. Of course, it is pretty obvious which way Kreeft is leaning.

The important thing is in the title: this isn't a book of what "Christianity can learn from Islam", but what Christians can learn from a serious dialogue with Muslims, ie. the actual practitioners of the Islamic faith. It is a book all about dialogue. All through the book, Kreeft speaks about the importance listening as much as talking. I can't quote the exact way he puts that, as I have given my copy to a Muslim friend to read and give his opinion on whether Kreeft's Muslim character in the dialogue is a true reflection of what a Muslim would actually say. I thought it was, from my experience, but nothing like asking someone who actually knows. (By the by, I would like to see a similar book of dialogues between a Lutheran, a liberal Catholic and a magisterial Catholic...).

In any case, several reviews have misunderstood this point and seem to think that what Kreeft has done in "Between Allah & Jesus" is a part of the Karen-Armstrong-style "industry" that "tries to find common ground with Islam". But that would be entirely out of character for Professor Kreeft, whose only object has ever been to seek for truth, and yes, Truth with a capital T too. I will take as an example of a misreader of Kreeft one reviewer, William Kilpatrick, whose review is called "Christian Misunderstanders of Islam" (note already in the title his mistake in thinking Kreeft's book is about Christianity and Islam, rather than the necessary engagement between Christians and their Muslim neighbours).

Here are some selections from Kilpatrick's review with my comments in [bold italics] writes:
Unfortunately, considering his wide appeal, Kreeft’s latest book is basically an apology for Islam. [No. It is an apology for the dialogue between Christians and Muslims.] Between Allah and Jesus: What Christians Can Learn from Muslims is devoted to the proposition that the things that we (Muslims and Christians) have in common are more important than the things that separate us. [No again. Kreeft never says this. At the very beginning of the book, he lists the major and essential differences. What he says is that NEVERTHELESS we have to have the dialogue and what we can learn from Muslims is not all negative, in fact there is much that is positive and challenging for Christians.] In fact, writes Kreeft in his Introduction, we have a lot to learn from Islam: “…I also say that Islam has great and deep resources of morality and sanctity that should inspire us and shame us and prod us to admiration and imitation.” [That's just plain Nostra Aetate, ie. the Catholic magisterial position.] Instead of fearing Islam, Kreeft says that Christians should join together with Muslims in an “ecumenical jihad” against our common enemies, sin and secularism.

...In Between Allah and Jesus, the strongest arguments for traditional morality are made by the Muslim student, Isa (the Arabic name for Jesus.) In fact, throughout the entire dialogue Isa has all the best lines. [The fact that Kilpatrick can say this means that he is in fact acknowledging that a lot of authentic Muslim standpoints have appeal for him too.] Isa is not only a defender of the sanctity of all human life, he is also a strong defender of the Jews (the six million who lost their lives to Hitler were “martyrs”), and a great respecter of women (“…all I’m doing is defending womanhood and motherhood and families”). In his appreciation of feminine virtues Isa sometimes sounds more like a Victorian seminary student than a twenty first-century Muslim male. [That's true and not true. The character of 'Isa may not be your average Muslim in the streets of Mecca, but I know plenty of Muslim men who would speak just as 'Isa does in the story. I think what this shows it that this reviewer is working from a characterisation and a generalisation of Muslim males, and has probably not actually met a lot of Muslim men, or engaged in dialogue with them.] Isa even makes the case that women in Muslim societies are happier and more contented than women in Western societies because “we let women be women,” whereas Western women are the victims of a sexual revolution which mainly benefits men. [Kilpatrick and other readers are free to disagree with what 'Isa says - it isn't Kreeft who says this, but his character- but this is also a commonly expressed opinion among the Muslim men I know.] One of Isa’s dialogue sparring partners, Libby (a liberated feminist), objects to all this with vehemence, but she is plainly no match for Isa. She spouts feminist slogans; Isa is a master of logical argumentation.

Kreeft advises his readers that he “does not necessarily agree with everything said by Isa as a Muslim,” but his sympathies clearly lie with Isa. [he has sympathies for his character 'Isa, but if you want to know where Kreeft himself stands, you have to listen to Fr Hereema, the priest character in the story] For example, Fr. Heerema, who represents the orthodox Catholic position in the dialogues, usually finds himself in agreement with Isa. [So? I'm an orthodox Catholic too, and I often find myself in agreement with my Muslim friends - more so than with my rather secular friends, anyway.] Moreover the sentiments expressed by Isa are quite similar to those expressed by Kreeft in his Introduction: for example, says Kreeft, one of the most important things Christians “should learn from Muslims or be reminded of by Muslims” is “the sacredness of the family and children.”

“Sacredness of the family?” In this and in other parts of his book, Kreeft seems to be inadvertently transposing Christian notions into Islam. [As far as I know, 'Isa doesn't call the family "sacred". What Kreeft is saying is that the Muslim emphasis on the importance of marriage and family life can be a reminder to Western Christians that Christianity actually teaches the "sacredness of the family" over against "the sacredness of the individual".] While there may be some highly spiritualized Sufi sect somewhere that looks at marriage and family in this light, this is not the picture of family life that emerges in the accounts of ex-Muslims such as Nonie Darwish, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Wafa Sultan. [From here on Kilpatrick spends a number of paragraphs demonstrating that there are plenty of Muslims that show characteristics which contradict 'Isa's standpoint. That's true. But Kreeft isn't talking about Islam or Islamic society. He is allowing the Muslim character to express his point of view.]

...But, as any objective scholar of Islam can attest, this is sheer nonsense. Islam didn’t sell itself through tenderness but through terror. Once, when a Jewish tribe surrendered to Muhammad’s forces, he ordered the beheading of over 700 of the captives. On another occasion he ordered that some captured thieves have their eyes gouged out, and their arms and legs cut off on opposite sides. Inquiring students at places such as Boston College, Calvin College and Wheaton might want to supplement their Kreeft with some samplings from the Hadith and The Life of Muhammad. [In this book, Kreeft is not dealing with what Kilpatrick seems to think is "objective" scholarship about Islam. He is dealing with one particular Muslim dialogue partner. Kreeft is also very aware that there is an "Islam of the sword" and that in many cases this kind of Islam has had the upper hand. But he is honestly trying to dialogue with the many Muslims that we in the West have as neighbours: honourable, gentle, virtous people who do not deserve to be labelled as violent or hateful or dangerous.]

Kreeft’s tendency to confuse Islamic concepts with Christian beliefs continues in his treatment of jihad. The secular media, says Kreeft, has created the false impression that jihad is a duty to wage war against unbelievers. But, according to Isa, jihad, is, in reality, “the inner struggle against evil.” The trouble is, the evidence for this interpretation is minimal. In one Hadith—the one which Isa quotes—Muhammad is reported to have said, “the most excellent jihad is for the conquest of self.” But this is from a Hadith of doubtful provenance and, in any event, the Koran makes it quite clear in several places which is the more excellent jihad. For example: “Do you pretend that he who gives a drink to the pilgrims and pays a visit to the Sacred Mosque is as worthy as the man who believes in God and the Last Day, and fights for God’s cause? These are not held equal by God.” (9. 19-20) [Again, none of this is relevant to Kreeft's book of dialogues. The only relevant fact is that this is what many Muslims tell us Jihad is. Every Muslim I have ever spoken to tells me this. Perhaps Kilpatrick speaks to different Muslims. Or does he only read about them?]

...Isa’s attitudes may be unrepresentative of Muslims but, unluckily, Kreeft’s favorable disposition toward Islam is representative of many influential Christians. [Kreeft's "favourable disposition" is ultimately not towards Islam, but towards the many honourable adherants to Islam. And 'Isa's attitudes are not all that dissimilar to those of the many Muslims I know.] He is not alone in his attempt to “reach across the aisle” and find common ground with Islam. Despite the increasingly bloody persecution of Christians in the Muslim world, many Christian leaders still cling to the pious hope that there is some slight misunderstanding between Islam and Christianity that can be cleared up by more dialogue. [Religions don't dialogue, people do. Islam and Christainity may be ultimately incompatible - but human beings can always dialogue, and where there is dialogue there will always be a better outcome than where there is war.] Dialogue with Islam has, in fact, become something of a growth industry. It’s no longer confined to high-level theologians: it’s become the in-thing for parishes and congregations. In the last few years, numerous Christian churches across America have invited Islamic speakers to come in and explain Islam to them. The rationale is that “people fear what they don’t understand,” and once we understand Islam we will see that there is nothing to fear. [So what is Kilpatrick's point? Does he want to make sure that we stay afraid? Whatever happened to "perfect love casts out fear"?]

Kreeft shares that hope. As he puts it, “I think this high and honorable dialogue between two high and honorable faiths will continue…and that something great will come of it.” But what if he’s wrong? ...We are in a high stakes struggle with Islam. It’s one that doesn’t allow for much margin of error. [ie. don't dare to come to agreement on anything!] You can misinterpret or completely ignore the beliefs of Jains or Buddhists, and still rest secure that your life will go on as before. But misinterpreting Islam could turn out to be fatal mistake. If it turns out that jihad is not, after all, an interior spiritual struggle, but rather a serious obligation to subdue non-Muslims, a lot of Western Christians are going to be woefully unprepared for the kind of things that are already happening to Christians in Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Nigeria. [Note that fear is the overriding theme here.]

Peter Kreeft has written some of the finest works of Christian apologetics of the last four decades. But he’s off base with this one. Seeing that Kreeft has been highly influenced by C.S. Lewis, and is considered by many to be a worthy successor to Lewis, he might want to take a second look at Lewis’ views on finding common ground with an alien faith. In The Last Battle, Lewis’ fictional account of the conflict between the Christian-like Narnians and the Muslim-like Calormenes, the Narnian have been deceived into believing that their God, Aslan, and Tash, the demonic God of the Calormenes actually have much in common. “Tash” and “Aslan” they are told are only two different names for the same God. In reality, “Tash is Aslan: Aslan is Tash.” After a while, the hybrid God is simply referred to as “Tashlan.” As time passes, however, the worship of Tashlan becomes simply the worship of Tash, and the Narnians find themselves enslaved by the followers of Tash. [Ironically, it is exactly here that Kilpatrick seems to have failed to understand Lewis. In the final moments, one honourable Calormene (yes, there is one! Maybe his name was 'Isa?) discovers all along that the "Tash" he thought he was worshipping was in fact truly Aslan. Kilpatrick takes hold of one side of Lewis's picture and loses the other. As Kreeft says, our common enemies are demons, not eachother. Tash is a demon. Those who seek to worship the true God will always find him.]

I am currently reading Hans Urs von Balthasar's "Theology of Karl Barth". That might seem a million miles away from Kreeft's book on Muslim and Christian dialogue, but perhaps not. Here is what he says about the importance of dialogue:
Most polemical confrontations never become real encounters, not because they are polemical and fail because people disagree, but because they really want to meet: because everyone wants to encounter the other rather than be willing to be met. Certainly in many cases we feel that Barth has not really met us, because he doesn not really see where we stand. But still, I hardly know any Catholic writing where Barth would have to admit he has been met, although he has certainly tried to hear what we have to say. But, in a dialogue a willingness to hear out the other is more important than talking. Such eagnerness to listen is in fact a dimension of our very faith and thus our obedience and our prayer, all of which form an indissoluble unity.

I think Kreeft has tried, in "Between Allah & Jesus", to bring his readers to a point where they really meet the Muslim, and to give us a chance to listen to them. He has tried to help his reader see where the Muslim dialogue partner stands, and to realise that it is not impossible for us to stand together.

If you have the time to sit and watch it, this may be of interest.


At Thursday, November 11, 2010 4:29:00 am , Anonymous Matthias said...

and what can Muslims learn from Christians-the one thing that defines Christianity from all other faiths-GRACE.
Akbat the Great had written over the doorway of a mosque in India these words " Jesus of Nazareth (peace be unto Him) said "this life is a bridge between two worlds,therefore do not build yuor house upon the bridge"

At Thursday, November 11, 2010 5:25:00 am , Anonymous Matthias said...

Fourth characteristic Jesus Christ is intracultural and cross cultural.The language of our faith is usually the vernacular,and we express the church calendar within it,whilst islam is arabisation

At Thursday, November 11, 2010 6:17:00 am , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

Well, I wouldn't see those as quite such central characteristics. Muslims would also see God as intracultural and cross-cultural. They have no figure to correspond to Jesus Christ, so no parallel can be drawn. (If you're looking for a parallel for Mohammed, I suggust a combination of Abraham and Moses.) The language of our scripture and worship is not normatively the vernacular (and indeed wasn't normally the vernacular until relatively recently, in the case of scripture, and very recently in the case of worship), while Arabic is the vernacular for a significant proportion of Muslims (though a minority). The church calendar is neither here nor there.

I'm happy to stop at three characteristics, but if you're looking for a fourth then I suggest the centrality of the Great Commission to "teach [and baptise] all nations", which has no parallel in Islam. (I would suggest Sacramentality or Eucharist, but in a sense they are aspects of Incarnation, and counting them twice would be cheating.)

At Thursday, November 11, 2010 7:43:00 am , Anonymous Matthias said...

Yes to teach and baptise all nations as opposed to convert by the sword.

At Thursday, November 11, 2010 9:01:00 pm , Anonymous Terra said...

Spencer's warnings about the wishful thinking inherent in Kreeft's book is pretty persuasive to me!

At Thursday, November 11, 2010 10:24:00 pm , Anonymous Schütz said...

what can Muslims learn from Christians-the one thing that defines Christianity from all other faiths-GRACE

Or, as Kreeft puts it, both Christians and Muslims believe that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, but only Christians know that the end of wisdom is the love of the Lord.

At Thursday, November 11, 2010 10:24:00 pm , Anonymous Schütz said...

Most conversions to Islam in the West today are not happening "by the sword", Matthias. They are happening by persuasion, and even more by example - the sort of example that St Francis spoke about (although with a different content, of course!).

At Friday, November 12, 2010 7:04:00 pm , Anonymous Terra said...

"What the Church calls the “dialogue of religious experience”" - no the 'Church' does not call it any such thing. It is a term particular to the inter-religious dialogue community!

And I'm not particularly convinced that it is a generally particularly effective or appropriate means of carrying out the Church's mission of evangelization, which must be the key dimension of any inter-religious dialogue according to Domine Ieusus.

Which mainstream Church documents 'positively encourage' attending Muslim prayers? Because most of the ones I'm aware of see the task of inter-religious dialogue as something for the experts (other than of course in the context of the every day opportunities for evangelization that present themselves in social interactions).

We all need of course to know something about other religious traditions so we can avoid giving unnecessary offence and understand the challenge they present to our society.

But the priority for Catholics should be learning more about their own religious traditions first - attend an Extraordinary Form and Byzantine Rite Mass for example and make sure we are extremely well catechized - before worrying about rushing to the synagogue or mosque...

At Saturday, November 13, 2010 12:44:00 am , Anonymous Ogden Chichester said...


I see you linked to the debate too. It wasn't coming up for me on Google Rearder, but I see it now.

Good innit?

At Saturday, November 13, 2010 12:28:00 pm , Anonymous Christine said...

And of course JPII’s Assissi gestures are one of the reasons some of us are glad the cause for his beatification has slowed…

I have to admit I had a bit of a problem with that as well.

There's a wonderful Maronite Catholic parish in downtown Cleveland. I am learning much about their Arab culture, their Syriac-Aramaic liturgy and their deep roots in the Middle East. That may actually help me to appreciate the cultural commonality with those Muslims who do not see their faith through the lens of Jihad.

Nevertheless, I tend to agree with Terra that until more Catholics become recatechized as to the truths of their faith the ecumenical talks are probably best left in the hands of the "experts" who are better qualified to sort these issues out.

Of course, that by no means excludes extending the hand of friendship to Muslims we may encounter in the workplace or socially.


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