Constructing Civility

The Man Good in Christian and Islamic Political Theologies

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Richard S. Park
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , October
     282 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Any attempt to construct a framework for a just, peaceable, and inclusive public life is bedeviled by the deep pluralism of contemporary societies—not just the multitude of worldviews and lifestyles, but a seeming incommensurability of the values informing and shaping modern subjectivities. The complexity of the challenge is set in sharp relief when one attempts to bridge the epistemic gulf between religious and secular-scientific accounts of the world and of the human person. Language wars echo across the divide between Jerusalem and Rome: Are these “traditions of revealed truth” or “discursive communities”? In any case, they diverge on such fundamental questions as whether objective, universal foundations of knowledge may be said to exist. 

It is perhaps easier to begin with (monotheistic) religious communities which, although differing markedly in specifics of doctrine, cosmology, and practice, nevertheless affirm an ultimate, unconditioned reality (“God”) as the source of being and ground of knowledge. Reason takes such communities only so far in “knowing” this reality. Yet binding principles of public conduct are derived from the moral imperatives forged through these communities’ defining relationship to God. Thus, these religious traditions produce not only theologians but also public philosophers and ethicists, who offer their own warrants for a common public life despite dizzying pluralism.

Thus it is perhaps no surprise that Richard Park focuses on Christian and Islamic political theologies when he articulates “the human good” as the philosophical basis for a renewed public life characterized by civility. Despite their doctrinal differences, believers in these two religions share more with one another than they do with secular moderns, at least when it comes to the crucial question of what is means to be human. Citing sympathetic Catholic and Muslim philosophers, legal scholars, and ethicists, Park devotes well-crafted chapters to elaborating his claim that to be human is to be intrinsically relational, rational, and purposive. These inherent attributes of human nature, he submits, shape the way we interpret experience, history, and culture, derive universally binding moral principles, and establish the criteria for adjudicating competing applications of them. 

Park’s affinity for Aristotelian and metaphysical categories in rendering this argument is telling: “In sum, human nature (ontology) that exhibits a particular human good (teleology) consists in the essential attributes of relationality, purposiveness and rationality—attributes that must be recovered, recognized and respected for the sake of constructing a universal framework of public civility” (76).

There are at least two hurdles in the way of this recovery project, however, if it is to ground a genuinely inclusive public life. How can “human nature” be described so as to answer the arguments of anti-essentialists, those who marshal findings of genetic and behavioral sciences (and cultural anthropology) to claim that personhood is acquired or constructed, not “given” in human nature, and thus too contingent to ground a universal morality? Here Park is perhaps too glib in dismissing such claims as “self-referential incoherence.”   

Michael Walzer, among other formidable thinkers, Park acknowledges, argues that “human or natural (rights) do not follow from our common humanity; they follow from shared conceptions of social goods; they are local and particular in character.” Amartya Sen, similarly, suggests that human persons are “divided selves” with a variety of “interests,” “identities,” and “ideals.” Neither Sen nor Walzer find natural law theory sufficiently compelling to authorize a universal conception of “the human good.” For Walzer, local, particular moralities are “thick” and binding, but only within the boundaries of the local community; they quickly become “thin” when projected on a transnational or global scale. Accordingly, any attempt to adjudicate public matters must be carried out “in terms of one or another [local, particular] thick morality.” Park’s rejoinder is feeble; it amounts to calling Walzer an ethical relativist, as if that accusation alone carries the day. Yet relativism may be the inevitable consequence of genuine pluralism, especially if one believes that “justice is a human construction and the principles are themselves pluralistic in form.” What is for Walzer justice for each community, is for Park not true justice “but mere pragmatic social efficiency” (quoted in Park, 101-103).

A second challenge for Park’s project is the pluralism and contestation within the two global religious traditions he engages, as well as the need for a selective retrieval and development of political-theological principles and ethical precepts that would make Islam, in particular, more available to a diverse public indifferent to Islamic jurisprudence. Here Park is more successful in explicating the depth of the challenge but also in beginning to locate intellectual resources for addressing it. He relies on the sage Shia scholar Abdulaziz Sachedina and on the Islamic ethicist Sohail Hashmi to guide readers in the nuances of recovering the role of independent reason in ethical judgment and in developing a teleologically based Islamic ethics. Drawing on the Mu‘zatili school of theology, Hashmi explains that human moral reasoning makes use of both divine revelation and human teleology: the truth of God’s law presented in the Qur’an is “accessible through human contemplation of nature,” including human nature (quoted in Park, 142). In order to overcome the tendency to conflate the legal and ethical aspects of sharia and thus to promote a more pluralistic Islamic political theology, Sachedina urges a return to “the foundational sources of Islamic doctrine in the Qur’an … to demonstrate ... that it shares the universal moral language of morality and human agency” (quoted in Park, 142).

As for Catholicism, Park rejects as too “thin” and diluted the language of the “common good” preferred by the progressive proponents of Catholic social teaching. The latter ground civil discourse in our shared capacity to reason alone, not in a particular teleology or ontology that would define human nature and “the human good” for all participants in the public square. This concedes too much to the “incoherence” of competing worldviews, Park believes; he sides, instead, with the (neo- neo-) Thomist wing of the Church, which is more confident of a sturdy connection between natural law theology and a universal public ethic.

For all the close reading and judicious commentary on display in Constructing Civility, Park’s project may be prematurely ambitious in scope. If and when influential, like-minded Catholics and Muslims can get their collaborative act together and create a shared platform for a religiously authoritative and publicly accessible political theology, then the hard work can begin: convincing the rest of the world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott Appleby is Professor of History and Marilyn Keough Dean of the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard S. Park is Assistant Professor of Religion at Vanguard University.


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