HUMAN MEANING IN DIVINE QUESTION
Kenneth Cragg, Am I Not Your Lord? Human Meaning in Divine Question, London Melisende, 2002, ISBN 1 901764 21 4, hardback, pp. 255, £18.

[This review will appear in
Connections, Summer 2003.]

In terms of engaged observers originating from the West, there is perhaps no one in the world today who is better qualified to comment on the role of religion in local and global societies than Kenneth Cragg. Now in his 91st year, and still as acute, analytical and witty as ever, Cragg presently serves as Honorary Assistant Bishop in the Anglican Diocese of Oxford. But it as a student of, and interlocutor with, Islam that he is perhaps best known. His contribution to the field of religious studies and cross-cultural theology is incalculable.  He has served as both a scholar and a bishop in the Middle East and has also held academic posts in Britain, Lebanon, Nigeria and the USA. He is the author of a considerable number of studies in contemporary relations between the Semitic faiths.

Given both Cragg’s unassailable track record and the depressing superficiality of much modern commentary on religion, it is a great relief to turn to
Am I Not Your Lord? The title, of course, has profound Christian resonance. But in this case it is drawn directly from the all-embracing interrogation of Allah in the Qur’an (7.172). The full Arabic quotation and an English translation by the author is included in a series of citations at the beginning of the book (pp. 6-7) which indicate some of the literary, biblical and historical sources informing Cragg’s perspective. His viewpoint throughout is thoroughly ecumenical, in that it takes seriously both the actual and potential convergences within and beyond the Semitic faiths and civilisations. But it is also honest and realistic. Cragg is no sentimentalist, and his rigorous honesty about the capacity of belief to serve evil as well as good puts him well beyond the comforting solipsisms of religious apologia that can sometimes consume the critical faculties of those whose lives have been dedicated to inter-faith understanding.

In spite of its hard-headedness, however,
Am I Not Your Lord? is a redemptive work.  The final chapter, ‘Satan Under Our Feet’, contains a clear-sighted repudiation of religiously sanctioned nationalisms, a call to discernment and discrimination (in the technical, non-pejorative sense of the word) among faith communities, and a redrawing of the virtue of secularity away from irreligion and anti-religion. Both the character of the transcendent God and the unity of human beings in a world divided by ideological manipulations are at stake in the confessions we make. Rigorous self-examination is implied in the divine question, says Cragg. If society is not to be overcome by cancer, faith is needed. But if faith is not to turn bad, despair, despotism and false hopes must be overcome. This is the religious quest.

How far is this insight from the destructive religious pride that sanctioned the destruction of the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001, for example. Cragg exhumes the dark side of faith through a paradoxical exploration of purity in religious thought, relating cleansing rituals to core questions of human and communal identity, to the ‘laundering’ of global finance, and to the concomitant soiling of politics by the unconstrained passion to control. No one, ‘religious’ or ‘secular’, comes away with clean hands.

The book takes us on a journey that involves discovering how the human situation is ‘minded’ and ‘resolved’ in Islam; how servanthood, covenant, division and unity are narrated in Hebraic experience and in the transformative pedagogy of Jesus; how the legacies of history and theological difference might be handled in relation; how loyalties and meanings may be redeemable; and how we might together learn more about how we are formed (and by whom). The task, says the author, is to move from aversion to embrace within an unfolding vision of the good, that is God.

As ever, it is almost impossible to summarise and recapitulate Kenneth Cragg’s thought. His treatment of what we think of as commonplace themes is by turns sinuous, counter-intuitive, imaginative, multivalent and polysemic. This is not the conclusion of thought and relationship but an invitation to participate in their continuous shaping. An impatient, headline-oriented culture will struggle with his words, but struggle very profitably if it dares.

Among the many potential pitfalls in Kenneth Cragg’s perspective, one arises directly in the text and another lurks in the sub-title. The first (see especially pp. 165-170) is a Christian one. The author is, without doubt, deeply immersed in Islam and in respect for its great traditions. His is no distanced ‘dialogue’; it is an offering (as exposition, appraisal, affirmation and critique) from the heart – one that beats with intensity for what it knows and experiences of ‘the other’. Cragg is in no doubt that the God he worships in and through Jesus Christ also moves among those he meets beyond his own household of faith. Yet he is also committed to the distinguishing features of the Christian account of God, the difference made by Jesus’ extraordinary embracing of suffering and by his being raised in glory. No cosy pluralist, Cragg knows that difference matters, and that if its value is to be realised it has to be lived through relationship, not wished away by theory. For Christians tempted either to demonise Islam or to mitigate the singularity of their own faith this will be a tough pill to swallow. But it perhaps shows a way beyond the paths of exclusion, inclusion and mutual relativization which have dominated inter-religious traffic for too long.

The second pitfall is secularisation, which Cragg importantly distinguishes from secularity in civics and statehood. Just as he illustrates so tellingly how ideological secularity is (quite literally) incomprehensible from the perspective of Islam, so some avid secularists will want simply to reverse his sub-title so as to render it ‘divine meaning in human question’. The author is well aware of this challenge. What we do with the divine Name is crucial for him. His response, however, is not some unfeasible pan-religious apologetic. It is exposition, on the one hand, and the allocation of different (but shared) responsibilities, on the other. Just as Cragg has entered other religions and cultures in order to discover both hope and difference, so he invites those to whom faith is anathema to reconsider how human beings and the world might be positively reconstrued by what they reject. My only fear, given the particular and learned nature of the discourse, is that the effort will be too much for those who would benefit from it most.

The publishers, Melisende [
www.melisende.com], are to be congratulated for a first-rate book, well produced. Their other Middle East related titles are well worth exploring, too – not least a fine collection of essays in tribute to Kenneth Cragg himself. A Faithful Presence, edited by David Thomas and Clare Amos, was published in March 2003.

The last word should be Cragg’s final flourish, in which he explains so cogently and daringly just why his title is about something that matters deeply: “The voice that spoke out of transcendence did not say: ‘Am I not your tyrant?’ Such a question would have no meaning. Tyrannies do not consult. Neither do they interrogate either themselves or their victims. The enquiring voice did not say: ‘Am I not your
Shari‘ah?’ Nor: ‘Am I not your Dawlah?’ Nor again: ‘Am I not your Ummah?’ All these, at best, could only be in a serving, not a usurping role, contributory within our entrusted vocation to divine obedience. Nor, yet again, did it say: ‘Am I not your Pentagon?’ The divine question was – and is – ‘Am I not your Lord?’ Of all claimants to our fealty we have in all good faith to say: ‘Exalted be He above all that ye associate.’”

Simon Barrow


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