BY NO conceivable measure can The Ayatollah in the Cathedral be regarded as an attempt to cash in on the accidental fame that came to Moorhead Kennedy as one of the 52 Americans held hostage in Tehran from late 1979 until early 1981. The book contains no sensational new details about mistreatment by the hostages' Iranian captors, no hot disclosures about disputes or animosity among the hostages, no self-aggrandizing stories of personal heroism, no grandstanding attacks on Jimmy Carter or other prominent figures in the confrontation. Its publisher is not a glitzy firm skilled at maneuvering books onto the best-seller lists, but a small one devoted to serious publishing, often of books by reputable scholars.

What Moorhead Kennedy has written, then, is not an inside-poop story of the hostage crisis, but a modest account of his own role in it and a thoughtful, sobering consideration of some larger issues that the crisis raised. His modesty is if anything excessive, inasmuch as his role was far from insignificant: his wife, Louisa, was a principal organizer of private efforts to encourage worldwide support for the hostages, and Kennedy himself became, after his release, an outspoken participant in the foreign-policy debate. It is that debate to which he devotes much of The Ayatollah in the Cathedral, not so much to specific issues as to the broad cultural characteristics -- self-assertiveness, isolationism, moralism, religiosity -- out of which American policy emerges.

Kennedy argues, as a central theme of his book, that the hostage crisis was a direct result -- and, had our policymakers been a bit more prescient, an entirely predictable one -- of American ignorance of foreign cultures and history. We learned nothing, he argues, from the one-day seizure of the embassy in February 1979; rather than establishing "only a modest diplomatic representation in Iran, with minimal staff, housed in an inconspicuous building far from the center of revolutionary activity," we persuaded ourselves that Iran had returned to "normalcy" and actually enlarged the American presence, in the process providing the revolutionaries with a fat target that symbolized everything they feared and despised about the United States. The "curious insularity" of the Foreign Service, he believes, rendered its representatives (himself included) incapable of understanding either that the United States really was the enemy to Iranians or that with revolutionary fervor at a low point, the time was ripe:

"As I should have realized, a revolution is at its most dangerous not when it begins but at the moment when waning enthusiasm demands a spectacular and catalytic event, one that will distract popular attention from mounting problems and justify the further radicalization of the revolution. The United States government, by admitting the Shah, provided the excuse for such an event, which made possible the 'revolution within a revolution.' "

The Shah "was only the ostensible reason for holding us hostage"; the goals that really mattered to the Iranian students were "to bring about the revolution within a revolution, to replace the moderate Bazargan government with more radical elements, and to keep revolutionary fervor at a high pitch while new institutions were being set in place." This helps explain why the hostages were not released after the Shah's death, but held long past it for a total of 444 days: the students had more ambitious, complex schemes than Americans, with their widespread contempt for the Arab mind, were willing to credit to them, and they were not prepared to let the hostages go until they felt that these schemes had been accomplished.

Relations Between the students and their hostages were multi-layered. The hatred that the students felt for what they saw as American imperialism was offset to some degree by their admiration for and envy of American technology and culture, so there were wide fluctuations in their treatment of the captives. Though they kept the hostages in fear for their lives, no really serious threats seem to have been made; mild, teasing threats were often following by friendly words, and guards with violent tendencies usually were quickly replaced. If anything, Kennedy was more kindly disposed toward his captors than toward most of the private individuals who came to Iran ostensibly to help gain their release but whose real motives he deeply suspected.

THIS WAS particularly true of members of the clergy. Kennedy is himself a strongly committed high-church Episcopalian, but his experiences during and after the 444 days left him with a powerful distaste for the mix of religion and politics. When three clerics visited the hostages at Easter 1980, Kennedy "sensed that the underlying motive of this group was not primarily pastoral," that "they were peace activists out to make a political case for our captors." Later, after he had left the Foreign Service and gone to work as director of a foreign-affairs institute sponsored by the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, Kennedy came to realize -- and to say so in a sermon -- that "there sometimes surfaces in churches an arrogance, an intolerance, a smug self-righteousness" that was especially evident in the fervor with which the churches embraced the Nuclear Freeze. Of that sermon he writes:

"I might have added words such as 'absolutism,' 'obscurantism,' 'know-nothingism,' 'dogmatism' and 'authoritarianism,' not to mention 'fanaticism.' For I was talking about the Ayatollah, who, as I think of him, is far more than one Iranian cleric. He is that bundle of negative feeling within all of us that prevent us from listening to one another. Through him, we ascribe our political views to the Almighty and assert them as if they were His revelation. The Ayatollah encourages us to believe that we can trample roughshod on the common-garden decencies that make life tolerable for others. And he prevents us in a variety of ways from growing up internationally as well as personally."

Moorhead Kennedy will have none of this. He believes, and he is absolutely correct, that "whether expressed as self-righteousness or as self-hatred, whether by hawk or by dove, the moral absolutism that these positions represent is the antithesis of maturity." The Ayatollah in the Cathedral is a book that tries to force us to confront this essential truth, to realize that the only mature view of the world is one that accepts its unwillingness to conform to absolutes, that tries "to take the ambiguities and anomalies of life and statescraft into account." The terrible experience of being held hostage taught Kennedy many things, the most important being that all people are different and the only responsible course is to try to understand them -- to accept diversity and keep one's mind open. That is precisely what he does in this book, which for all its modesty makes urgent claims upon our attention.