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Mudge, Lewis S.


The Gift of Responsibility. The Promise of Dialogue among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.


New York-London: Continuum 2008. XIII, 313 S. gr.8°. Kart. £ 12,99. ISBN 978-0-8264-2839-4.


Rachel Reedijk

From the very start, The Gift of Responsibility captured my intention. Mudge leads his readers to treasures of analysis regarding Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue. Central to his book are four questions, each addressing an impasse in the Abrahamic encounter. First, the gift of responsibility implies that the Abrahamic relationship moves beyond dialogue toward action. Second, autonomy is running away with Enlightenment ideas; modernity is in trouble and should be saved from itself. Third, in a world of »rooted cosmopolitanism« (Appiah), truth claims have become redundant. Fourth, there is no shared Theology of Commonalities.
Participant Interpretation: To start with, M. explains that his study concerns the responsibility of Abrahamic faiths: to their faith traditions, to one another, and to the world at large. It requires that we reframe our worldviews in larger landscapes. Abrahamic dia­-logue partners moved beyond dialogue on beliefs and practices to mutual responsibility and commitment, because they found themselves gifted by a sense of shared responsibility.
Although M. does not explicitly oppose action and reflection, he seems to suggest that dialogue is tantamount to babbling on subjects that do not really matter. In my view, this critique underestimates (a) the trust building function of small talk and (b) the illocutionary effect of speech acts: to say something is to do something, in the sense that something happens to people of different faiths who are talking to one another. Dialogue initiatives quite often suffer from being too practical: skipping the initial stage of exploring the lay of the land, omitting time-outs in order to assess the process. When understood in a both/and way – action and re­flection presume each other – M.’s notion of participant interpretation becomes interesting and promising.
Authority – Autonomy: The author localises responsibility in between authority and autonomy. Prior to the Enlightenment, Scripture was supposed to contain authoritative truths. Since the emergence of the historical critical method in the 19th century, we learned »to think for ourselves« (Kant). The axis of concern shifted from divine authority to what human beings can achieve on their own. The Enlightenment forebears were fond of the notion of homo faber (manufacturer), but it is overlooked that the Enlightenment process began by religious presuppositions. Early Enlightenment thinkers tried to integrate religious and scientific insights. Locke, for example, teached that humans freely bond together, yet making social contracts also is what God want us to do. The Enlightenment project gave birth to autonomy and that lead to irresponsibility (selfishness, narcissism). This unbalance – the flaw of modernity – can be restored, when we realise that Scripture teaches that we are summoned to be responsible human beings. Hence, »the gift of responsibility is a pivotal category«.
Given the centrality of these notions, I wondered why M. chose to elucidate the concept of »gift« in a footnote. Building on Derrida, who qualifies a genuine gift as something not involved with social conventions like reciprocity, M. feels that this gift has been »given by a Giver. It brings us close to the concept of grace.« Jewish tradition distinguishes between degrees of tsedaka, with utter generosity being the highest stage. It acknowledges that we are no saints, yet we are encouraged to strife for »holiness«. The core of M.’s responsibility theory is derived from the Akedah (Genesis 22). Jews, Christians and Muslims may find a common ground in this story of the binding and unbinding of Isaac, where Abraham comes to grasp that his responsibility is not to obey to what he receives as an irrational command. In other words, Abraham is thinking for himself and simultaneously obeying to his God.
Equality and Reciprocity: Drawing teachings from Scripture in an exclusivistic way does not work anymore. The known distinction of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism no longer serves interreligious dialogue: »The question is how to formulate that the God of Jesus Christ is also present in other faiths.« M. is addressing the truth question here to a Christian audience. In Jewish eyes, this formula may be met with suspicion. How is Judaism wrestling with truth questions? In a Midrash (teaching) on Genesis, an angel of truth argued with God: »Let him [Adam] not be created, because he is compounded of falsehood. What did God do? He took Truth and cast it to the ground« (Bereishit Rabba VIII:5). Some Jewish commentators suggest that truth has been shattered into millions of little pieces: different people possess different parts of the truth.
Muslims often refer to Al Ghazali (d. 1111), an authoritative scholar who wrote a standard work on the concept of doubt. It is said that contemporary Islam is not familiar with historical critical scriptural reading, as we know it. Yet, hundreds of Islamic scholars from countries as diverse as Yemen and America recently signed A Common Word. This letter invites Christians, and indirectly Jews as well, to come to a shared responsibility for our tormented world – to use the Jewish expression, based on an hermeneutical ap- proach. I noticed a slight proclivity of the author to engage in a conversation with Judaism. Yet, in either configuration of Jews, Chris­tians and Muslims, both differences and commonalities will be found. His comment, that Jewish teachings about justice meld easily with Christian teachings on democracy, seems far too simple to me: Judaism and Islam have cross-fertilised one another in the past, whilst Judaism and Christianity have known bitter times together. I would like to stress the utter importance of a shared Abrahamic project of gifted responsibility that is going to pay due attention to mutual trust-building. It won’t be easy, but starting interreligious dialogue from the presupposition that »we« are light-years ahead of »them« is doomed to fail.
Interreligious Hermeneutics: We can easily agree with M. in that there is no such thing, yet, as an inter-Abrahamic theology. Is postmodernism with its emphasis on particularism to blame for it? In my country, postmodern ideas are mainly to be found among elitist »canal-side« residents; the vox populi is yearning for a one-dimensional »authentic Dutch« culture. A key factor in obstructing the development of a shared Jewish Christian Muslim hermeneutics is the centuries old hate-love relationship within the monotheistic triangle. In many respects we are still to start from scratch. As M. rightly states, thinkers who have challenging ideas regarding mutual and responsible scriptural reading, and enacting these principles in praxis, are often operating at the fringes of their communities. On the other hand, the three scholars he pays tribute to – rabbi Ochs, theologian Schweiker, imam Esack – each belong to a growing community of interreligious hermeneutical pioneers. We should gratefully take cognisance of their views indeed. Will we find a common ground? And if so, does talking to other faiths pose a danger to our integrity? Strikingly, M. poses this question with­out returning to it. My PhD study on identity construction in an interreligious context demonstrates that it is possible to think and act together and remain faithful to one’s faith.