Journal of Comparative Theology » SAMUEL J. YOUNGS: The Frontier of Comparative Theology

SAMUEL J. YOUNGS: The Frontier of Comparative Theology

Religious climates are rarely static, and the flux of religious materials, manifestations and attitudes has generated difficulty in identifying a method of religious study and dialogue which is able to speak to all areas of faith and practice. Though theology and comparative religion have been utilized with varying degrees of efficacy, modern attitudes of religious approach and issues of interreligious encounter have revealed some of their deficiencies. This study will explore some of these modern religious approaches, treat theology and comparative religion in light of them, and articulate the value of a comparative theological approach as an alternative. The end goal shall be to demonstrate that comparative theology provides a way of study and interaction which is desirable not just as an assemblage of modifications to the approaches of theology and comparative religion, but as a needed way of speaking to the concurrently engaging and volatile times in which we live.

Creativity, Tension, Contrast: Three Approaches to Religion

Religious pluralism as an international phenomenon saw a tremendous spike during the globally-active period subsequent to World War II. In the United States, unprecedented immigration allowed non-Christian religions to establish themselves and flourish.[i] The pluralistic Zeitgeist in America was further compounded by the vibrant explosion of religious curiosity and innovation in the 60s and 70s, bearing witness to an increased focus on Far Eastern and other Asian religions, a substantial growth of Islam, and surges in missionary impetus within various Christian denominations.[ii] In short, contra the eventual “end-of-religion” that was prognosticated near the turn of the 20th century (e.g. Frazer’s The Golden Bough), religious formation was booming. NRMs (New Religious Movements) proliferated, especially in America, where syncretic and/or original NRMs continue to be born apace. This atmosphere of curiosity and pluralism proffers several challenges and opportunities for religious dialogue today, raising questions of practical theology, sociology of religion, divergent and/or derivative faith systems, and philosophical questions of religious authority and actuality.

A second, far more combative, approach to religion has also gained stock in the more recent Western intellectual economy. The tragic events of 9/11 sprung a floodgate of anti-religious rhetoric on the part of several prominent naturalists and humanists, a handful of the more prolific having now been dubbed the “new atheists.” While it is true that 9/11 sharpened Western awareness of fundamentalist (or “strong”) faith systems,[iii] the New Atheism has interpreted the event as an indication of the detrimental potentiality of religion as a whole (though, on balance, the Abrahamic systems have received their fullest attention). Other acts of violence, historical tensions, scientific discourse, and a vigorously humanistic ethos have also been leveraged, with varying degrees of validity, against religious and theological concerns by the New Atheist movement.[iv] This vocal outside tension has defined another series of important concerns: the relation of religion to secular culture, religious ethics, and theological anthropology. The lambency of the New Atheism has also engendered tension with religious concerns as a whole, and sometimes with the theological project specifically.[v]

The third strand of religious approach has been placed last in this overview owing to its relation to the previous two. This approach is best understood as strong religion defining itself anew amongst mounting secular and religious pressures.[vi] The wake of modernity has caused reactionary strains in established, absolutist categories of religion, which often see modern culture as “the common denominator of outside forces.”[vii] Further, the invigoration of pluralism has served to generate what Peter Berger terms a “counterpluralist animus,” a reactionary phase wherein stronger theologies define themselves by contrast to emergent and coercive outer trends.[viii] This contrast vibrancy causes these particular religions to augment their theological pronouncements, more vigorously defend their absolutist beliefs, and makes them a significant factor in both theological and sociological engagement. The New Atheism, of course, is yet another modern current against which strong religious movements have grown restive.

Theology and Comparative Religion

In light of these pivotal ripples in the religious climate of the West, the methods of studying religion—notably theology and comparative religion—must be examined with fresh insight. Theology, the study of God-concepts and resulting doctrine of a particular faith from within that particular faith (being perhaps most fully developed as a Christian discipline) has a rich tapestry of scholastic, philosophical, and devotional history. Both lay adherents and clergy stand to benefit from their own theological systems. However, attempts on the part of theologians to adequately encounter other faith systems have often been one-sided and superficial treatments at best and polemics at worst. Even Christian historians-of-religion can encounter methodological complications if an attempt is made to apply a “Christian hermeneutic” to their studies.[ix] Donald Wiebe and theologian Paul Tillich have denounced the partisan tendencies of—usually Christian—theology’s approach to religious plurality.[x]

Comparative religion involves its own procedural obstacles. Explaining religion in a scientific manner was initially viewed as a way of studying the phenomena apart from one’s own religious commitments; however, the history of the discipline has demonstrated that anti-religious sentiments have found no shortage of scholarly association nor material with which to work. This dichotomy of approach was illustrated even in the nascence of the field, in the opposition between thinkers like Max Müller and E.B. Tylor.[xi] For those scholars who attempt to be sympathetic in their approach, the functionalist tendency of much religious studies methodology can be problematic, since such approaches tend to neglect religious experience, the believers’ own apprehension of their religious structures, and the philosophical aspects of religious interaction. The functionalism of Freud, Marx, Durkheim and others, though their excesses are avoided by some modern scholarship, has served to invigorate atheistic arguments against religion.[xii] (A demonstrable modern example is Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.[xiii]) The evolutionary framework of certain theories of religion has also been used to fortify anti-religious agendas.[xiv] Further, modern scholars of religion can exhibit disdain of the “religious study of religion,” preferring to work in purely reductionist/functionalist categories,[xv] despite this approach’s propensity for arming anti-religion polemicists and its lack of applicability to the interreligious encounters provided by the presence of both strong faiths and religious pluralism.[xvi]

From Phenomenology to Comparative Theology

Substantive and/or phenomenological appropriations of the study of religion deserve to be noted for their attempts to re-balance the difficulties of both the theological and scientific approaches to religion. Phenomenology has sought to interact with faith forms “as they appear” without diminishing them into purely functional categories.[xvii] Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy stands as one of the foremost examples of this method. However, this way of engaging religion also carries a potential difficulty: the emergence of a soft methodological universalism.[xviii] Assuming that the “the absolute” or the “the numinous” is a universal religious category which all religions attain to in all their forms is nearly as much of an assumptive impediment as over-emphasizing functionalism.[xix] On an interactive level, this type of assumption places a natural wedge in the study of strong religions which maintain an exclusivist outlook, as the scholar’s presupposition will run counter to one of the religion’s core tenets.

Into this intersecting mix of methods has come the emerging discipline of comparative theology, wherein a religious scholar or theologian reaches out from their own faith tradition—without denying that tradition—in order to intentionally and sympathetically interact and exchange with other systems of theological belief in a comparative way. The value and insight to be gained from comparative analysis is thus not lost, as in pure theology, and underlying theological commitments are not sequestered away for the purpose of scholarly work, as in the science of religion. The work of John Carman is a key illustration of a comparative method that empathizes while remaining rooted in a strong theological framework and suffering no deficit of strong scholarship.[xx] Carman’s methodology owes much to phenomenologists like Otto, Kristensen, and van der Leeuw,  and acknowledges that it is “seeking understanding through comparison,”[xxi] which could perhaps be considered the key trait of the comparative theological method. The fruits of other disciplines are not ignored in this framework, for, as Kristensen recognized, a balance must be struck between the findings of comparative religion, through which we gain knowledge of the practices and beliefs of other faiths, and phenomenology, by which we enter into sympathetic interaction.[xxii] Traces of comparative theological method in recent scholarship can also be seen in works by comparative religionist Geoffrey Parrinder and Christian theologian Timothy Tennent. Though neither of these scholars are comparative theologians per se, the method’s temperament can be perceived in their approaches to certain material.[xxiii]

The Utility of Comparative Theology in Light of Modern Religious Attitudes

In bringing the method of comparative theology to bear on the three modern religious currents discussed earlier, several key potentialities and applications may be addressed. Concerning NRMs (and even emergent trends in established bodies of faith), it deserves to be noted that these quickly arising and occasionally radical communities of belief have often been subjected to rather acute prejudice, not solely by traditional religions, but also by the larger secular community.[xxiv] This reactionary strain owes its vitality, in part, to the fact that NRMs, besides exemplifying religious curiosity and invention, can also be illustrative of various societal tensions or forces; that is, NRMs are often indications of a “religious, social, and cultural dynamism.”[xxv] This particularity entails that one of the more incisive ways to approach NRMs is through the sociological study of religion. However, a purely sociological methodology has often generated the same pronounced, reductionist tendencies as the general comparative trends which were examined above.[xxvi] While the social sciences can certainly provide valuable insight, comparative theology can effectively mingle the benefits of this and other disciplines in light of a religious and theological temperance which both empathizes and dialogues with emergent movements.

In the examination of “emergent pluralism,” insights also stand to be gained from applying impressions from the philosophy of religion, in particular the study of religious ethics and epistemology. Where do NRMs and related groups locate their authority and truth centers and, perhaps more importantly, what is the theological basis for this structuring? How do they view differing religious and cultural climates and what are the societal impact of their views and actions? Both of these questions—besides a good many more that could be posed—are swathed with implications for philosophy of religion, sociology, and theology. However, comparative theology can allocate a door of understanding, critical assessment, and dialogue which these disciplines cannot generate in isolated application.[xxvii] The emergent creativity of a pluralistic culture thus stands to be edified and refined through comparative theological exchange, where new ideas and instances of syncretism can be examined in a non-combative way and the strengths of multiple methods can be brought to bear.

The New Atheism has entrenched itself with somewhat startling aplomb in both the popular and, to some extent, the academic colloquy of the West. The fact that “religion,” as broadly and vaguely construed, has contributed a due series of woes to the history of humanity is probably beyond dispute, and is not a fact that a comparative theological approach should seek to shirk. However, there is no good reason to think that the “rationalist fundamentalism,” as James K.A. Smith has aptly put it, of the New Atheism, with its blatant and sometimes philosophically jumbled attack on faith in all form and aspect,[xxviii] is the appropriate or prudent reaction to these facts. However, though descriptions of the movement’s shortfalls and defects have been leveled,[xxix] the benefits of the New Atheism for religious interaction should not be missed. Virulent “atheology” can, admittedly, be abrasive when on the prowl, but it can also provide a valuable mirror for both the religious adherent and the scholar of religion to examine potentially deleterious theological suppositions and instances of impropriety masked by faith. Such insights, if developed critically, stand to be appropriated by a comparative theological approach that values honest intellectualism and critique. But such insights should be dealt with by, again, a dialogical and sympathetic approach to the faiths in question, and not as ammunition for a salvo of bombastic polemic.

In making use of insights from naturalistic perspectives, vigilance should also be practiced so that forces like the New Atheism, or those strongly influenced by them, are not allowed to strip all uniqueness and nuance from religion as “mythological” remnants not worthy of the modern world. The traditions, writings, and history of the world’s faiths must be allowed integrity if truly academic and constructive encounter is to take place.[xxx] Retaining a keen sense of the unique facets of world faith is necessary if the comparisons and contextual categories formed by the discipline are to have any conceptual potency or, for that matter, relevance. The assumed truths of religion should, in the emphasis of fair study, be treated with the believer’s perspective foremost in concern, rather than any humanistic agenda; indeed, thoroughgoing naturalists would do well to note Slavoj Žižek’s assertion, “[A] true atheist has no need to boost his own stance by provoking believers with blasphemy.”[xxxi] With such considerations in mind, comparative theology stands to ease the tensions presented by the New Atheism and related groups by offering honest, but non-capitulatory, analyses of deep theological concepts and the ways in which they are appropriated in cultural encounters.

Perhaps one of the more important aspects of comparative theology is the fact that the vibrancy of “strong” religion, even if held to on the part of the comparative theological scholar, will not be compromised as a demand of the discipline’s methodology. While this is not free license for apologetics or propaganda masked as scholarship, it does free the scholar from a constant pull toward “methodological dishonesty” and take advantage of the potential insights offered as religions are studied and compared by scholars who are themselves religious. Comparative theology can also (taking a prompt from phenomenology of religion) study strong faiths “as they are”: utterly convicted, soaked in a variety of ritual and tradition, and firmly anchored by their theological outlooks. These faiths offer some of the best material with which comparative theological work can be done, for the positions held to by these religions are constructions of often grand metaphysical import that have been bolstered by, in many cases, centuries of learned thought, philosophical shouldering, and pious nuance. Many faiths of this kind are present in the United States, and it is their convictions and ardent spheres of religious expression which lend the spiritual topography of this nation such remarkable diversity.[xxxii] The study of strong religion is of utmost importance, and comparative theology can encounter these systems on their own terms.

However, the fact also remains that strong faiths now inhabit a pluralized world where interaction and dialogue with other strong faiths, as well as the inevitable splintering and fragmentation of previously cohesive belief systems, must be dealt with. Many adherents to strong religion are not dialogical with, or even particularly curious about, other faith systems. The trends of faith-to-faith interaction have primarily oscillated between two extremes: (1) absolutism, which flatly condemns all other bodies of belief, to the detriment of any potential for real engagement and understanding and (2) relativism, where previous proponents of strong religion or religious dabblers compose a worldview which flattens or rejects all unique religious elements and teachings, rendering all faiths equally palatable to personal taste. Comparative theology stands in the rarified position of being able to thread this delicate needle, neither advocating any one religion in an absolutist manner nor reducing faith into a colorless and impotent stew of variegated functionalisms. Strong religion can be allowed to express its fullest measure of difference and tradition, and comparative theology should not wilt in the face of (a) evaluating and comparing belief-systems in the light of other religions and (b) allowing each religion to shine its singular emphases upon other faiths,[xxxiii] whether this be in the form of the Christian kerygma, Buddhist dharma, or any other core of religious orientation. These considerations allow comparative theology, besides being an academic field in its own right, to provide avenues of discussion and reflection in and among committed faith systems. But the dialogue fostered should be “a critical dialogue, in which all religions are challenged not simply to justify everything, but to deliver their best and most profound message.”[xxxiv]

This wide range of utility amid the many tides of the modern religious climate demonstrates how comparative theology can serve as a potent force in both interreligious encounter and academic examinations of faith. In contrast to the tendency in scholarship toward a bias against traditional religion,[xxxv] and against the still-strong pull of secularization dismantling many aspects of shared cultural memory, communal heritage, and religious tradition,[xxxvi] comparative theology is gathering on the modern frontier as a discipline which allows for a “ledge of singularities” in religious expression. At a time when phenomenology of religion has entered a period of “dormancy”[xxxvii] and the scientific study of religion is seeking to “reestablish” itself,[xxxviii] there is a prominent need for a methodology which can both critically study and sympathetically approach religious manifestations and communities. Comparative theology fills this void by treating religious faith as a phenomenon which pulses with both traditional meaning and significance for the modern world. The comparative theological approach thus distinguishes itself by not seeing key differences in religious belief and practice as something to be forced into an evolutionary theory or functionalistic armature, nor to be subsumed beneath an all-encompassing universalism, but as unique examples of living theology, which we all stand to learn from and be challenged by.

Samuel J. Youngs received his Bachelor of Arts from the University of South Florida where he took a double-major in Literature and Religious Studies. He is currently a graduate student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary where he is working on a Master of Arts in Religion, concentrating in Comparative Theology.

[i] Christopher Patridge, New Religions: A Guide (Oxford, 2004), 14-15.

[ii] William R. Hutchison, Religious Pluralism in America (Yale, 2003), 222-224; J. Gordon Melton, “The Fate of NRMs and their Detractors in Twenty-First Century America,” in New Religious Movements in the 21st Century, eds. Philip Charles Lucas and Thomas Robbins (New York: Routledge, 2004), 229-231.

[iii] Gabriel A. Almond et al, Strong Religion: The Rise of Fundamentalism Around the World (Chicago, 2003), 5-6.

[iv] See Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Geneva: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006); Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004); Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great. (Hachette, 2007); on the parallels made by New Atheists between religion and violence/terrorism, note John F. Haught, God and the New Atheism (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 1-2, 7.

[v] E.g. Dawkins, 33-37, 54-61, et al.

[vi] For perhaps the best recent sociological analysis and definition of strong religion, see Almond et al.

[vii] Ibid., 37-38, see also 30-33.

[viii] Hutchison, 220, 225-227.

[ix] See Kees W. Bolle, “History of Religions with a Hermeneutic Oriented Toward Christian Theology?” in The History of Religions: Essays on the Problem of Understanding, ed. Joseph M. Kitagawa (Chicago, 1967), esp. 110-111.

[x] Donald Wiebe, The Politics of Religious Studies (New York: Palgrave, 2000); Paul Tillich, Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality (Chicago, 1955), 2-4.

[xi] See Daniel L. Pals, Eight Theories of Religion (Oxford, 2006), 10.

[xii] Julia Mitchell Corbett, Religion in America (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1994), 310-311.

[xiii] Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Penguin, 2007).

[xiv] Haught, ix-x.

[xv] E.g. Sam Gill, “The Academic Study of Religion,” The Journal of the American Academy of Religion LXII/4 1994, esp. 965-970.

[xvi] On the difficulty of reductionist theories for believers, see Pals, 316.

[xvii] On the history of religious phenomenology and some of the key considerations, see Carl Olsen, Theory and Method in the Study of Religion (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003), 101-105.

[xviii] Examples abound, but for a representative look see Friedrich Heiler, “The History of Religions as a Preparation for the Co-operation of Religions,” in History of Religions: Essays in Methodology, eds. Mircea Eliade and Joseph M. Kitagawa (Chicago, 1959).

[xix] For a look at this critique and others of phenomenology of religion, as well as some possible responses to the critiques, see Thomas Ryba, “Phenomenology of Religion,” in The Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion, ed. Robert A. Segal (Blackwell, 2006), 114-117.

[xx] See John Carman, Majesty and Meekness: A Comparative Study of Contrast and Harmony in the Concept of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

[xxi] For further elucidation of Carman’s method and influences, see ibid., 19-38.

[xxii] W. Brede Kristensen, “On the Study of Religious Phenomena (excerpt from his The Meaning of Religion),” in Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion, ed. Jacques Waardenburg (New York: Gruyter, 1999), 90-97.

[xxiii] E.g. Parrinder’s book Avatar and Incarnation: The Divine in Human Form in the World’s Religions (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1997), which focuses primarily on Christianity and Hinduism, shows great appreciation for the spectrum of theological sentiment and data of the respective traditions. Tennent’s Theology in the Context of Global Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), while ultimately missiological in focus, shows thorough learning and a non-reductionist look at non-Christian faiths systems.

[xxiv] For a thorough analysis of NRMs and differing societal and religious reactions to them, see John A. Saliba, Understanding New Religious Movements (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995).

[xxv] Saliba, 109.

[xxvi] For one of the best short treatments of elitist and reductionist strains in the field of sociology of religion, see Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), 1-13.

[xxvii] Pure theology, originating within an established faith tradition such as Christianity, has often tried an apologetic-focused approach to engaging NRMs, which can lead to various attendant difficulties, see Saliba, 182-183.

[xxviii] For instance, Richard Dawkins’ insistence that “theists” have not had their respective “consciousnesses raised” by Darwinism, as manifested by their attempts to merge the idea of God with an evolutionary framework; Dawkins, The God Delusion, 114-119, esp. 118-119.

[xxix] See four theological critiques/approaches to the New Atheism surveyed by D. Stephen Long, “Atheism’s Resurgence and Christian Responses,” in “God is Dead” and I Don’t Feel to Good Myself: Theological Engagements with the New Atheism, eds. Andrew David et al. (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010), xv-xxi.

[xxx] Contra, for instance, Thomas White, “Profane Holiness: Why the New Atheism is (Partially) Good for True Spirituality and Religion,” Crosscurrents (Dec. 2009): esp. 551-553.

[xxxi] Quoted in Lang, “Atheism’s Resurgence,” xiv.

[xxxii] See William Scott Green, “Religion and Society in America,” in World Religions in America (3rd edition), ed. Jacob Neusner (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 319-320.

[xxxiii] These two points are informed by Hans Küng’s stipulations for interreligious dialogue, though his focus is solely on Christianity; see Hans Küng et al. Christianity and World Religions, trans. Peter Heinegg (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1986), xvii-xviii.

[xxxiv] Kung et al, xviii.

[xxxv] See Stark and Finke, 19-20.

[xxxvi] For an insightful discussion describing these elements and their impact on the practice of faith, see Ronald A. Kuipers, “Faith as the Art of the Possible: Invigorating Religious Tradition in an Amnesiac Society,” in “God is Dead” and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself, 145-156, esp. 147-150.

[xxxvii] Ryba, “Phenomenology of Religion,” 119.

[xxxviii] On modern difficulties in the field, concerning both method and identity, see the short piece by Donald Wiebe, “Religious Studies: Toward reestablishing the field,” Religion 39 (2009): 372-375.

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