Sunday, March 05, 2006

Dr. Hodges, Dr. Kueng, and the clash of civilizations

Over at Gypsy Scholar, there's an interesting post wherein Dr. Hodges expresses his disagreement with Dr. Hans Kueng, a prominent and controversial Catholic theologian and scholar. Father Kueng was one of my early heroes in my studies of interreligious dialogue (I'm thinking specifically of his Le christianisme et les religions du monde).

Dr. Hodges is of the opinion that Kueng is not a sufficiently strong defender of free speech. Based on the critique offered in Dr. Hodges's post (linked above), I would agree: Kueng seems to be giving too much ground.

Here's a question, though: was Kueng speaking politically or religiously?

If, for example, Jesus himself were to speak on the issue of "the right to offend," Jesus would probably speak religiously, and urge people to practice love, compassion, and honesty. He would probably say that there are times when honesty itself can be offensive, but at those times, offensiveness can't be helped because people should always cleave to the truth.

However, I'm sure Jesus would also argue that unnecessary provocation (I'll leave a definition of "unnecessary" for later) is to be avoided-- this in the name of loving and compassionate conduct, each of us treating the other as children of God. This would put Jesus' (admittedly hypothetical) point of view fairly close to Kueng's.

If Kueng is speaking religiously, as a priest or man of conscience, I think he may be justified in urging people to practice compassion. His advocacy of a free and responsible press makes sense from that perspective. If, however, Kueng is speaking politically, then his stance is indeed problematic.

What I'm trying to say is this: of course a civilized person of faith will speak out against unnecessarily offensive expression and action (obviously, I'm excluding preachers of hate when I say "civilized")-- we shouldn't expect otherwise. In doing so, such people are speaking religiously, i.e., from the depths of their religious orientation.

This raises meta-questions, though. If a person of faith can be expected to preach compassion even in the face of violence that has the potential to affect more than just oneself, is the preaching of compassion a responsible thing to do? If we disapprove of Kueng's stance, is it because we think he is giving ground to "the enemy"? Is our own evaluation of Kueng religious? Political? A mixture of both?

I have no immediate answers to these questions. The main point of this post is to suggest that, if, for example, a Buddhist monk were to argue during a dharma talk that war is not the best solution to a massive and pressing problem, we should not be surprised to hear such speech, given who the speaker is.

A final note: Dr. Kueng's stance regarding free speech offers us only a glimpse into his larger worldview. While Kueng represents a (very) liberal strain of Catholic theology, I have no doubt he would have something to say to adherents of other religions regarding the way they conduct themselves in this global village. As one of the main architects of the modern expression of "global ethics," Kueng would doubtless disapprove of current Muslim reactions to the cartoon controversy. At least... I hope he would.

[NB: Dr. Kueng's article, "How to Prevent a Clash of Civilizations," is here. My quick take: Kueng is right to note that the West should engage in self-criticism, but he overstates the point. In fact, one of the West's signal virtues, its pluralism, ensures that it is always engaged in self-criticism. While polarization such as what we see in America today can be deleterious, it is also a reflection of a robust culture of self-examination and debate. In addition, Kueng seems too willing to let Islamdom off the hook for its own misdeeds, and he makes some facile cause/effect connections when painting a picture of the history of the Muslim plight. I do agree, however, with his call for continued interreligious dialogue. People who don't talk to each other feel free to construct bitter falsehoods about each other.]

UPDATE: Riding Sun offers a blunter take than my own.



Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Kevin, I think that Kueng was speaking "legally." He used the example of libel, which is a legal category, so I took him as intending to extend that to speech about religious figures.

Jeffery Hodges

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Kevin Kim said...


That makes sense. I suppose my own belief is that Kueng is a priest first, so while he might be using legalistic idiom, his motivations are primarily religious/pastoral.

(This doesn't speak to the question of whether Kueng's stance is a responsible one, given the times in which we live.)