Review: John Renard, Islam and Christianity (2011, University of California Press)

Three observations immediately strike the reader of John Renard’s 2011 Islam and Christianity: Theological Themes in Comparative Perspective.  First, the text contains a tremendous wealth of factual content presented in an accessible and enjoyable style.  Second, two refrains echo throughout Renard’s side-by-side presentations of Christianity and Islam: “The Christian practice / understanding / history of X is analogous to the Islamic practice / understanding / history of Y,” and “Though X and Y may appear at first glance to be similar, closer inspection reveals several key differences.”

Third, Renard is not simply cataloging historical data, but subtly is doing something theological in his presentation.  Renard’s work reads less like an amalgamation of research which the author conducted in specific anticipation of writing the book and more like a reflection on an enormous repository of knowledge which an authoritative scholar has internalized over the course of many decades (he has been teaching at Saint Louis University since receiving his PhD from Harvard in 1978).

The book is grand and sweeping – Renard’s admission about the difficulty of encapsulating various debates within biomedical and sexual ethics might be a caveat for the entire book: “The breadth and depth of possible topics is far too vast and complex to be described adequately in a survey such as this” (174).

While the scale may be daunting – he summarizes themes and trends in fields ranging from the philosophy of architecture to moral theology to institutional pedagogy to heresiography – Renard clearly has a strong grasp on the high points (as well as eclectic and lesser known details) across broad swaths of both Christianity and Islam.  The perspective is reasonably balanced, especially when one normalizes for the author’s admission that both he and his likely readers share a dominantly Christian hermeneutical lens (72, 75, 224, compare 46, 56, 203 for possible impositions of Christian moral categories).

The reader is left wondering whether Renard intends his book to supply the foundation for, or start to participate in, the “world theology” approach to comparison which he borrows from Robert Neville (225).  Before engaging analysis, however, it might be beneficial to say a few words about the content and structure of Islam and Christianity.

The book may be divided into three “sections,” albeit sections which are woven throughout the text and are not coterminous with Renard’s explicit structure (the book devotes one “part” each on the areas of communal origins, normative beliefs, institutional development, and ethical engagement, with each “part” divided into chapters which in turn treat multiple related topics).

The first “section” (to impose terms not found in Renard’s own organization) might be called “philosophical catalysts,” and is found primarily in the preface, prologue, introduction, and epilogue.  The second might be called “data,” and is found wherever Renard presents information on a single tradition in coherent pericopes.  The third might be called “analogical assessment” in which the author examines the data side-by-side, drawing out interesting comparisons and flagging potential points of disconnect.  The text of Renard’s four “parts” alternates between “data” and “analogical assessment” so that material being considered is always of a manageable size, broad enough to facilitate comparison, but specific enough to make the comparison interesting.

When this presentation and analysis is complete, Renard transitions back to the “philosophical catalyst” material in order to offer “some suggestions about where the path of theological dialogue might lead” (221).  The subsequent epilogue seeks a way beyond the limitations of Hans Küng’s inclusivism and Kenneth Cragg’s dialogical approach (as well as John of Damascus’s polemical and Thomas Aquinas’s Scholastic engagements) to a practicable “world theology.”  In the epilogue Renard uses grippingly imaginative imagery and the reflections of Neville, Ross Reat and Edmund Perry, C.S. Pierce, and Richard McCarthy to suggest that “world theological” encounter between Christians and Muslims is imperative, possible, and rewarding.  Christians ought “to swim” in “the sea” of Islam because, after all, “the water’s fine” (232).

One helpful, though ancillary, dimension of Islam and Christianity is that it contains enough factual material to function simultaneously as “Christianity 101” and “Islam 101” courses.  While the purpose of the book may be theological, the reader cannot help but marvel at the even-handed and comprehensive presentation of key facts.  Renard has a good grasp on what is important, foundational, and formative across a multitude of disciplines in both religious traditions.  The enormous scope of the book often reinforces his thesis that both traditions are incredibly complex and dynamic, though this type of survey demands a certain amount of generalization and lack of attention to complicating details which might simultaneously work against Renard’s complexity argument.

We will return to the challenges of breadth shortly; the reader will note, however, that an appreciation for complexity, nuance, contextuality, fluidity, and evolution comes across in both Renard’s style and his content.  He succeeds in evoking “surprise” or “shock” “at the nuances and diversity that characterize” Islam and Christianity (90).

Another helpful insight is spelled out most explicitly on page 97 but implicitly undergirds much of Renard’s analysis.  He suggests that similarities between Christianity and Islam can be attributed both to the binding tie of shared human experience and to the strikingly similar questions which Christians and Muslims have asked, while the contextuality of history and the differences in the traditions’ premises can explain the variance between their answers (compare 46, 88, 108, 112, 154, 208).

The book includes three particularly useful foci.  First, Renard pays attention to traditions outside “normative” Sunni Islam and Roman Catholic Christianity.  His special attention both to Eastern Orthodox and to LDS theologies, as well as to the diversity within Protestantism, is especially commendable.  At the same time, his vantage point does not pretend to a false neutrality – Renard is careful to note those points at which isolationist and conservative expressions of the faiths are hoisted with their own petards (e.g. 108).  Second, the theme of power and its interaction with theological thinking is extremely useful for those asking the questions of relatedness and divergence between Christianities and Islams.

He notes repeatedly the “complex interface between theology and politics” and asserts commendably that, “all politics has theological implications and…all theologies have political implications” (112, 129).  Third, Renard highlights narrative theology (though without mention of the recent phenomenon alternately called “post-liberalism” and “narrative theology” represented by Hans Frei, George Lindbeck, and David Kelsey), which he considers to be an antecedent to creedal formulations in both traditions (69, 72).  The analogies Renard uncovers between early Christianity and early Islam in the use of narrative seem to be particularly fruitful ground for further reflection.  However, his use of analogical comparison – which is his most pervasive and fundamental methodological tool – runs into limitations because of the massive scope of his work.

Renard is vague on two points regarding his use of analogy.  First, he is never quite clear about whether similarity or difference “wins the day” when the two are collocated.  His pattern is to note similarities but then to uncover differences within them; is the take-home message that differences are bounded by larger similarities or that the eagerness of universality is to be tempered by the reality of particularity (compare 27, 97, 192)?  He is silent in this regard, though this silence itself might be a characteristic of his sought-after “world theology.”  Second, Renard seems to conflate morphological and genealogical relatedness between the two traditions, rarely acknowledging that similarities reflect common heritage rather than parallel thought processes (especially 67; compare 31, 55, 159).

Another complicating factor in Renard’s use of analogy is the problem of moving targets.  Sometimes Renard aligns Sunnism with Protestantism against the parallel between Shi‘ism and Catholicism (118, 133f., possibly 192, 200) while at other times the primary analogy is between Sunnism and Catholicism (170, 173).  Hadith are sometimes comparable to the New Testament (38) and sometimes have no analogue in “Christian theological literature” (77).  Finally, the Prophet is sometimes compared to Jesus (both are revered and imitated “founding figures”).  In this analogy the Christian scriptures (particularly the New Testament and more specifically the Gospels; compare 88) are parallel to the Qur’an (27, 42, 48, 157).  Other times the analogy compares the Prophet with Mary (following Cragg) and the Qur’an with Jesus (110, 224).  This analogical ambiguity deserves deeper reflection, especially when the reader considers the analogy of questions which undergirds much of the book.  Because early Christians asked similar questions about the nature of Christ to those which early Muslims asked about the Qur’an, does Renard’s frequent “Jesus is to Muhammad as the Bible is to the Qur’an” analogy undercut his vital observation about parallel interrogatives?

Finally, Renard’s use of analogy is weakened by the sheer scope of his work.  He misses potential analogues between Christianity and Islam simply because he does not go into sufficient detail in his presentation of data.  For example, his distinction between direct and indirect intercessory prayers in the (Roman Catholic) Christian tradition is a barrier to analogy with Islam, a barrier which deeper thought might overcome (203).  Also, his claim that Christians disagree about the number of Sacraments (two or seven) but that all Muslims agree on the number of Pillars (five) imposes a needless dissimilarity, as Twelver (ten) and Sevener (seven) Shi‘ites have different enumerations of the Ancillaries of Faith.

The enormous bounds of Renard’s work leads him to three further difficulties.  First, he often fails to account for complexity: he presents the Sunni-Shi‘i divide as very early and unequivocal (45), reads a revisionist “irenic” quality into normative Christian-Muslim historical cohabitation (57), presents oversimplified theologies of time in both traditions (62), ignores Constantine’s attitude toward Judaism (88, 91), presents Christian beliefs about hell and Muslim beliefs about the death of Jesus as monolithic (110), describes Adam as an Islamic prophet (a notion which is found in Hadith sources but not made explicit in the Qur’an; 18, 76, 93, 133, etc.), and often neglects potentially helpful nuances in both traditions (compare 65, 93, 160, 192).  Such generalizations are inevitable in a work of this magnitude and in no way discredit Renard’s theological project, but they do provide a caution about the potential pitfalls in such an ambitious comparative work.

The second – and related – difficulty with this broad scope is that Renard misses a number of opportunities to solidify his analogies through additional detail.  His descriptions of contemporary Christian theology and classical Islamic reflections on God exemplify this.  In not mentioning (in Christianity) the important work of process, liberation, and feminist theologies and (in Islam) the classical Islamic sciences and sira material, he leaves many potential analogies undrawn (8, 24, 88, 190, though he briefly discusses sira on page 17).  He commits what statisticians refer to as “Type I errors” when he concludes that the two traditions are ultimately different even though more nuanced readings might challenge such differences (e.g. 181).  But perhaps the most pernicious difficulty inherent to any book which attempts “much too brief summary of an enormously complex subject” (32) is the potential that generalized statements have for error.

Renard succumbs to this difficulty on at least four points.  He claims that “most Evangelicals” have moved away from language which describes the Christian scriptures as inspired or inerrant (36).  He suggests that Paul is equally the author of Romans and 2 Timothy (42).  He claims that creeds play no role in Islamic ritual life (88).  Finally, he states that the Council of Nicea affirmed that the Holy Spirit is homoousios with the Father (95).  These generalized and problematic statements would benefit from deeper reflection and nuanced qualification, but the pace of Islam and Christianity does not allow for such subtlety.

In addition to the difficulties inherent in Renard’s recourse to analogy and the breadth of his work, a final methodological question lingers.  The author seems to suggest that analogical readings of the two traditions, which exposes differences within similarities, can contribute to the Nevillian project of “world theology” and circumvent the inevitable problems of polemical, Scholastic, inclusivist, and dialogical approaches.  Thrice he invokes the image of Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4 (41f., 228, 258 n.17).  The scandal of the interaction (besides the power dynamics of gender, upon which Renard focuses) is that Jews and Samaritans typically had nothing to do with each other.  This mutual abhorrence derived from differences within similarity, precisely the phenomenon which Renard finds again and again in the comparison of Christianity with Islam.  At the risk of oversimplifying a complex history, we might say that Jews disliked gentiles (with whom they had nothing in common) but despised Samaritans (to whom the analogies were plentiful).  Does establishing a “similar-but-not-identical” relatedness between Christianity and Islam advance or hinder the cause of “world theology?”  The answer is perhaps yet to be seen.  In any case, Renard has opened countless doors for deeper comparative reflection.

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One thought on “Review: John Renard, Islam and Christianity (2011, University of California Press)

  1. Thanks so much for the book review. I really appreciate the picture that you have included. I am going to purchase this book soon! I recently purchased a book called, ” The iChurch Method: How to Advance Your Ministry Online.” by Jason Caston. The book was written to help ministries advance the Kingdom online and take the gospel to the world. The book contains 5 different parts to taking your ministry online. I am really enjoying it. It’s very informative on how to reach out to people online!

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