ANNMARIE MICIKAS: “Comparative Theology as a Devotional Practice: A Christian Argument”Last modified: October 3, 2010
In challenging the theologian to remain “rooted in a particular faith tradition” while yet “learning from one or more other faith traditions,” the discipline of Comparative Theology is, in some sense, premised upon a tension between the particular and the universal aspects of religious truth.[i] This tension is central to religion and the study of religion. In the field of Buddhist studies, for example, Donald K. Swearer writes of the “creative tension between the universal and particular dimensions of the figure of the Buddha.”[ii] Interestingly, however, Swearer goes on to compare this tension in the figure of the Buddha to the simultaneous universality and particularity of the “enfleshment of the universal Logos” in the figure of Jesus Christ.[iii] Swearer’s use of the particular-universal tension to compare the Buddha to Jesus Christ suggests that understanding the particular and universal aspects of religion may be not only a productive trope for the study of a single religion, but also a crucial component of any attempt to think interreligiously. In fact, the comparative theologian–beyond recognizing this tension–must herself experience and even embody this tension: theologizing from a position committed to a given tradition while remaining actively open to the inspirational and challenging truths of other traditions requires that she maintain a strong sense of both the culturally-contingent and particular nature of her own tradition’s insights as well as the potential universality of the insights of other traditions.
As an endeavor which exploits this very tension, Comparative Theology represents a valuable tool for helping all scholars think across religious boundaries. In this article, however, I argue that Christian Scripture’s emphasis on the particularity and limitedness of human understanding on the one hand, and the broadness of divine revelation on the other, suggest that the particular-universal tension on which Comparative Theology is premised may be particularly relevant for Christian thinkers. Indeed, insofar as Comparative Theology can be understood as an activity which reflects Christian principles regarding this tension, it can be seen as a devotional practice through which Christians consciously respond to and meditate on both particularity and universality as they affect human apprehension of divine revelation.
I begin with a brief discussion of the support for these principles in Christian Scripture, then move to a consideration of two figures in the field of Buddhist-Christian studies: Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama and Thai monk Buddhadasa Bhikku. Although these thinkers would probably not call themselves comparative theologians (in the case of Buddhadasa’s Buddhist reflections, “theology” is an especially problematic term), each of them, in developing his religious ideas through consciously-dialogic reflection on those of another tradition, has been led to emphasize both the particularity of our own culturally-specific religious formulations and the universality of the truth which informs them. Their examples suggest that the activity of Comparative Theology may not only be a productive way of meditating on these realities, but may even contribute to Christian devotional practice by bringing us face-to-face with, and helping us operationalize the implications of, these important principles.
Limited human understanding, broad divine revelation
Christian Scripture speaks to both the inherent limitedness of human spiritual understanding and the broadness of God’s revelation of truth. First, it warns us that we should neither claim nor expect to fully grasp divine Truth. For example, Job 11:7-8 asks: “Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens—what can you do? They are deeper than the depths of the grave—what can you know?” Or again, Job 28:20 states: “…Where does understanding dwell? It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing, concealed even from the birds of the air…” These verses draw a deliberate distinction between human understanding–and, by extension, human capacity to articulate truth–and the unreachable divine truth which our religious doctrines attempt to approximate. Oft-quoted 1 Corinthians 13:12 puts this discrepancy in temporal terms: “Now we see but a poor reflection; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then shall I know fully, even as I am fully known.” In such passages, limited understanding is posited as an inescapable fact of the human condition and the humble recognition of this reality is further recommended as the proper attitude toward human formulations of religious truth.
These reminders of the limits of human wisdom–and, hence, the limited nature of the religious conceptualizations created from it–are complemented by verses which describe the universality with which God’s truth can be sensed. One of the most familiar such passages emphasizes God’s general self-revelation to all peoples in the form of creation:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night, they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the end of the world (Psalm 19:1-4).
Romans 1:19-20 builds on this theme of the openness and obviousness of God’s revelation by insisting that no one can claim not to have access to revealed truth: “What may be known about God is plain to [humanity], because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that humanity is without excuse.” Similarly, Scripture explains that the capacity for moral discernment is found among all peoples. Romans 2:15 points out that “… [Even pagans] show that the requirements of the law are on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing or defending them.” Scripture thus supports an understanding of all peoples as blessed with the capacity to recognize both the glory of God and moral truths related to divine authority.
Although this discussion has only skimmed the surface of this topic, it is clearly possible to make a case for the principles of limited human understanding and broad divine revelation as Scripturally-based Christian tenets. Given the Scriptural importance of these notions, I argue that Christian participation in Comparative Theology–when it is grounded in and contributes to our appreciation of these principles–has great potential value as a devotional practice. Specifically, in the same way that other forms of worship such as singing and praying can help the practitioner develop an appropriate mindset vis-à-vis the divine, Comparative Theology can function as a way of meditating upon and actively affirming the principles of limited human understanding and broad divine revelation, thus encouraging an attitude of proper humility as regards our own, and appropriate openness as regards others’, apprehension of religious truth.
Comparative Theology as leading to an ever-deepening spiral of humility
Like other devotional endeavors, the practice of Comparative Theology can help deepen our appreciation of the principles that call Christians to it in the first place. In helping us internalize the limitedness of human understanding and of human capacity to express religious ideas in language, engaging in Comparative Theology can inform the way we understand our own truth claims’ relationship to Truth itself. Furthermore, in helping us internalize the broadness of God’s revelation, Comparative Theology can affect how we think about the truth of others’ traditions. Ultimately, by making us more keenly aware of the realities of limited human understanding and broad divine revelation, Comparative Theology can guide us into a kind of ever-deepening spiral of humility in which, once moved to reflect theologically across religious boundaries, we gain–through sustained engagement–even more reasons to reflect further.
In order to demonstrate how comparative theological reflection can lead to a deepened appreciation for these Christian tenets, I would like to highlight two thinkers in the field of Buddhist-Christian studies whose works are enriched by engagement with another tradition: Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama (1929-2009) and Thai monk and reformer Buddhadasa Bhikku (1906-1993). An exploration of how Koyama and Buddhadasa’s consciously-dialogical approach to religious reflection has led them to understand both the particularity and the universality of religious truth claims will demonstrate the contribution which Comparative Theology can make to our thinking about these principles.
Although primarily focused around the question of how Christian missionaries and theologians should approach theology for and about Asia, Kosuke Koyama’s Water Buffalo Theology is inherently dialogical in that he develops his discussion of Christianity in conscious conversation with the Buddhist perspectives he encounters in Thailand. This experiment in “dialogical inter-context[ual]” religious reflection prefigures Comparative Theology in identifying multiple cultural sources for theological inspiration.[iv] Koyama describes the theologian’s task not as creating de novo theology which can be appreciated across cultures, but rather as discovering those “potential amphibious agent[s]” which already cut across cultural boundaries, and then elaborating on them so as to optimize their ability to reflect value in each culture. As an example, Koyama describes how the truth of the Japanese notion of tsurasa, a principle of Japanese tragedy, interpenetrates the truth which Luther articulated when he described the crucifixion as God fighting with God.[v] He explains that when we engage with another culture in a way that uncovers and highlights extant shared truths, “What takes place is dialogue between the inner meaning of the event of Christ and the inner feeling of the Japanese people.”[vi] Koyama calls this phenomenon “the meeting of two inners,” making a distinction between an external layer of articulated difference and an inner sense of apprehended Truth. Koyama approaches his discussion of these particularly-packaged yet universal truths by proposing an analogy which describes divine truth as an initially-raw, unflavored dish which acquires cultural ‘seasoning’ when expressed through the vocabulary of a given religion.[vii] His consideration of the culturally-specific ‘flavor’ of Christianity as expressed in Western contexts and as transported into Eastern ones demonstrates how thinking about religious truth as it is interpreted across cultural boundaries–as we do in Comparative Theology–can help us appreciate how and to what degree our doctrines may be ‘seasoned’ to a specific cultural taste. In fact, Koyama calls us to mentally distance ourselves from our home cultures so as to truly appreciate the cultural indebtedness of our religious doctrines:
Isn’t it true that the incarnation of the Son of God means his “in-culture-ation”? Wasn’t he a Palestinian Jew?…Does this then mean that one must not simply reject the “pepper and salt” of any culture, but attempt to see what kind of pepper and salt is seasoning Christ…?[viii]
That Koyama’s own attempt to explore how the Gospel is ‘seasoned’ takes the form of a set of musings in which Christian ideas are considered as they relate to Buddhist ideas suggests that a dialogical model of theological reflection may be useful as we respond to Koyama’s challenge. Further, his distinction between a set of culturally-specific seasonings and a presumably ‘unseasoned’ dish encourages us to look beyond the external trappings of our religious doctrines to an underlying continuity with the spiritual sensibilities of other cultures. Koyama’s example thus demonstrates how cross-cultural theological reflection, by making us aware of the ways in which our doctrines are culturally ‘seasoned,’ can encourage us to consider the limitedness and particularity of our own religious formulations, and, by helping us uncover the potential amphibious agents that swim in the inner sensitivity to Truth shared by all peoples, can call us to further appreciate and explore the broadness of divine revelation.
Another example of the power of this mode of thinking appears in Buddhadasa Bhikku’s 1967 Sinclair Thompson Memorial Lecture. In this work, Buddhadasa moves dialogically between interpreting Christian concepts and explicating related Buddhist ideas, probing the extent to which the doctrinal terminology of particular religions represent different attempts to access what he sees as the same truths. Buddhadasa’s analysis of the resonances between apparently-contradictory concepts–for example, God and Karma—is an effort to move past the image-bound, metaphorical meaning of religious concepts in order to access a deeper level of meaning which can then be compared to the meaning of a concept in another religion.[ix] This exercise of mentally moving between Christian and Buddhist concepts–for example, between Salvation and Nibbana,[x] Redemption and release from suffering,[xi] or the figures of Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha[xii]–leads Buddhadasa to treat religious systems as languages. That is, much the way Koyama treats particular religious formulations as culturally ‘seasoned’ forms of a given raw truth, Buddhadasa treats religious systems as idioms which reflect the cultural rooting of different groups but which, when employed properly, can also be used to reflect truths that are universally available.
Buddhadasa’s sense that terms like the Buddhist “Dhamma” and the Christian “God” are, when properly interpreted, just different ways of referring to the same truth,[xiii] leads him to call for a clear distinction between doctrinal concepts and the underlying truth for which the doctrinal terms of different religions are simply culturally-marked signifiers. The culturally-marked signifiers of individual religions he calls “conventional language,” whereas the reality to which they refer he calls the “language of Dhamma.” Buddhadasa defines Dhamma language as “a special kind of religious language embodying the “inner world,” the culture of mind, of the heart.”[xiv] This definition captures the sense in which Dhamma language is less a way of communicating than a way of apprehending–that is, by mind and heart. According to Buddhadasa, moving beyond literalist loyalty to conventional language and into the realm of Dhamma language–that is, to truth as it is apprehended by human religious sensibility and not as it is articulated in culturally-packaged doctrines–will allow people to recognize that, although the degree to which different religious formulations approximate divine truth may vary, the underlying truth which religious language tries to capture is nevertheless consistent across time and place.[xv] Buddhadasa’s comparison of Buddhist and Christian doctrines as a way to highlight the existence of this kind of universally-applicable and universally-accessible Truth, behind and beneath and above the language we use to point to it, helpfully demonstrates how Comparative Theology offers an opportunity to contemplate both the universality with which truth is sensed and the chasm between Truth itself and our particular religious formulations of it.
The experiences of both Koyama and Buddhadasa thus demonstrate how, by heightening our awareness of and deepening our appreciation for the very principles which support Christian participation in endeavors like Comparative Theology, this discipline can lead to what I have termed a “deepening spiral of humility.” As we humbly embrace the principles of limited human understanding and broad divine revelation, we are rewarded with an ever-richer understanding of how these principles can and must be practiced if we are to think about and seek truth in the way that Scripture calls us to do so. The devotional practice of Comparative Theology thus offers us both further–and, ultimately, never-ending–reason to engage in interreligious theological reflection and, as a result of that reflection, a deepened and ever-deepening sense of humility as regards religious truth.
Responding to the richness of divine revelation
As illustrated by the experiences of Koyama and Buddhadasa, the practice of Comparative Theology fulfills the devotional function of helping participants meditate on and internalize the disjunction between God’s unconstrained and universal revelation and our culturally and linguistically-constrained, particular apprehension of it. Moreover, allowing the insights of another tradition to inform and inspire those of our own can help us not only recognize, but perhaps even begin to escape, the boundaries of our own particularity, enriching our thinking by enlarging the pool of vocabulary and imagery at our disposal for speaking about and meditating on religious truth. By allowing us to creatively substitute different metaphorical and visual descriptions for concepts in our own tradition, we can perhaps glimpse new aspects of the ultimate Truth to which our familiar language makes reference. In this way, we can begin to ‘cheat the system’ of cultural seasoning and reach out to savor multiple tastes at once!
Seen in this light, the practice of Comparative Theology can be understood not only as a devotional practice that deepens our understanding of our own limitations and of God’s broad self-revelation, but also as a grateful acknowledgement of and a faithful response to the variety and depth of that revelation. Acts 17:24 – 27 suggests a way of conceiving this endeavor:
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth, and does not live in temples built by hands…From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.
Interpreting this passage in light of the preceding discussion suggests that just as God does not live in temples built by hands, so God’s Truth does not reside in doctrines formed by human minds. Further, in attributing human diversity to God and, specifically, to His desire for humans to seek Him, this passage suggests that the diversity of human religious perspectives could serve as a resource for our attempts to seek God. Thus, in addition to affirming the principles of limited human understanding and broad divine revelation, Christian participation in Comparative Theology can also represent a grateful response to the richness of God’s self-revelation. Ultimately, engaging in Comparative Theology offers a fresh way of approaching a God whose Truth is too great to be grasped by any one group, and whose revelation is so broad as to touch all peoples–and, in so doing, to bring them together in a shared experience of dialogic learning.
AnnMarie Micikas holds a B.A. in International Studies from the University of Chicago, and is currently a first-year student in the Master of Theological Studies program at Harvard Divinity School. Her primary research interests lie in the areas of Comparative Theology and Reformed theology, with special focus on the problem of evil and theological responses to suffering.
[i] F.X. Clooney
[ii]Donald Swearer, “Buddha Loves Me, This I Know,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 19.1, pp.113-120, p. 113.
[iii] Swearer, p. 116.
[iv] Kosuke Koyama, Water Buffalo Theology (Orbis Books: 1999), p. viii.
[v] Koyama, p. 86.
[vi] Koyama, p. 87.
[vii] Koyama, p. 63.
[viii] Koyama, p. 63.
[ix] Buddhadasa Bhikku, “Christianity and Buddhism.” Sinclair Thompson Memorial Lecture, 5th series, 1967, p. 32.
[x] Bhikku, p. 18.
[xi] Bhikku, p. 111-115.
[xii] Bhikku, p. 106-107.
[xiii] Bhikku, p. 67-71.
[xiv] Bhikku, p. 4.
[xv] Bhikku, p. 10.