Journal of Comparative Theology » In Response to the Religious Other – Book Review

In Response to the Religious Other – Book Review

Marianne Moyaert. In Response to the Religious Other: Ricoeur and the Fragility of Interreligious Encounters. Lexington Books, 2014.

review by Kathleen Mroz

Doctoral Candidate at Boston College Department of Theology

In her latest book, Moyaert seeks to correct what she sees an imbalance in current literature on interreligious dialogue, which is too much emphasis on practice to the neglect of theory. Admitting that this is “virgin territory,” she applies twentieth century philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s ideas of linguistic hospitality to interreligious dialogue. Moyaert’s attempt at draw out a “hermeneutics of comparative theology” provides a valuable service to a new and emerging, but crucial and indispensable field of academic theology.

The first chapter does a superb job of demonstrating the necessary connection and interdependence between interfaith dialogue and anthropology. Our answer to the question of who we are inevitably affects the way we relate to others. This is illuminated by Moyaert’s contrast between Rene Discartes “exalted self,” free from prejudice and tradition; and Ricoeur’s “vulnerable self that embraces the virtues of humility and hospitality.”[i] While humility and hospitality have been well-established as criteria for interreligious dialogue[ii], Moyaert introduces vulnerability as a condition that is prior to the realization of the former two. Departing from Descartes’s certain and self-assured subject, Ricoeur’s anthropology insists that the self is an incomplete project, dependent upon others. Here, “vulnerability becomes the basic condition for reciprocity.”[iii]

In the next chapter, Moyeart draws on Ricoeur to provide a refreshing view of the meaning of religious faith and the situation of religious pluralism. Religious diversity is the result of the constant dialectical play between the infinite and the finite. Ricoeur states, “every religion claims to give a human answer to a questioning that comes from above, from a higher ground than the human.”[iv] This faith is not static, but a continuous process of interpretation that constantly calls for reflection and study. Moyaert traces the roots of religious violence to the human tendency to try to overcome the tension between finitude and infinitude, and appropriate God for one’s self or one’s group. Here, theological anthropology and interreligious dialogue appear as interdependent resources for hope in a world where religious violence endures. People are not confined to the continuous repetition of the violent patterns that emerge from the reproduction of a never-changing tradition, but rather “have the gift and desire to withdraw from the known, recognizable, and familiar.”[v]

Ricoeur, as illustrated in chapters three, four, and five, can serve as a mediator between absolutism and relativism; liberal pluralism and postliberal particularism; radical openness and radical difference. His famous definition of the self as containing both an idem identity (formal essence, stability) and ipse identity (ability to initiate something new), shows how our relationship to others constitutes the nature of our very selves. Here, Moyaert sees Ricoeur as pointing to a hermeneutics of interreligious hospitality. In practicing hospitality toward other faiths, one dialogues with others, thereby allowing others to challenge him/her and point to blind spots in his/her own tradition, rather than simply absorbing the religious other into one’s own pre-conceived narrative in a way that disregards the possibility of the other having any wisdom to offer.

In her final chapter, Moyaert shows how comparative theology, as defined by Francis Clooney, SJ, is an example of Ricoeur’s linguistic hospitality. Comparative theology, like Ricoeur, seeks to avoid both pluralism (claiming all religions are the same) and particularism (claiming other religions are completely alien and meaningless to our own). However, according to Moyaert, comparative theology remains an ambiguous discipline, which lacks a clearly developed hermeneutical framework and methodological principles. Moyaert suggests a hermeneutical turn in interreligious dialogue that moves away from soteriology and the threefold scheme of pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism. She describes comparative reading as a “process of metaphorization.” Without claiming neutrality, the comparative theologian makes room for the discovery of the new and unexpected. This process is captured in Ricoeur’s three phases of the hermeneutical circle: naïve understanding (preliminary reading from one’s own perspective), objective explanation (checking one’s first reading to preclude projecting one’s own religious background onto the text), and appropriation (process through which something strange becomes one’s own). Overall, these three phases are extremely helpful, especially for teaching comparative theology. Sadly, theology departments in most major universities do not yet teach or offer comparative theology. As a doctoral candidate at a Catholic university, I think that teaching students about comparative theology itself prior to exposing them to the texts and teachings of other traditions is imperative. Conversations about how comparative theology is done are necessary if comparative theology is to be seen as a legitimate discipline alongside areas like systematics, ethics, and biblical studies.

However, I do have some reservations with regard to her treatment of soteriology and theology of religions. Moyaert insists that the threefold scheme of pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism is insulting and patronizing. While this threefold schema may not be perfect, one must take into account its usefulness for distinguishing among particular positions. Labeling Karl Rahner and Jacques Dupuis as inclusivists (although Rahner and Dupuis are certainly not the same) in contrast to John Hick as a pluralist, for example, may be beneficial when we are discussing how various Christian authors approach non-Christian religions. Moyaert fears that soteriology and the threefold schema understand the other in terms of one’s own tradition, rather than letting the other be heard. However, one cannot be overly optimistic about our capacity for neutrality. Clooney holds that bias is inevitable.[vi] Catherine Cornille expresses that “all conceptions of the other are always to some degree determined by one’s own particular and limited set of presuppositions.”[vii] For the Christian comparative theologian, the question of the salvation of other religions is one that cannot simply be shoved aside. One can deny neither that how a Catholic understands the phrase extra Ecclesiam nulla salus determines whether he or she can enter dialogue at all, nor that for many traditions, salvation is not purely other-worldly but something we strive to approximate in this life. Soteriology has a direct impact on ethics, as Jacques Dupuis explains, and there is a mutual complementarity between Christianity and other religions, by which “an exchange and sharing of saving values” takes place.[viii] The question of whether or not other traditions are saved must be answered in the affirmative if mutual learning is to occur.

In spite of my disagreements with Moyaert above, I believe this book is a must read for all of those who are engaged in interreligious dialogue. Developing a hermeneutics for comparative theology will require more voices than those of Moyaert and Ricoeur alone. It will also demand attention not only to religious diversity, but also to how other aspects of identity–race, gender, culture, sexual orientation, socio-economic status–affect one’s relationship to and interpretation of their religious tradition. Nevertheless, Moyaert’s work makes an indispensable contribution to the field of comparative theology and reminds comparative theologians of the need to consult fields like anthropology, psychology, and philosophy in their studies.


[i] p. 16

[ii] See Catherine Cornille, The Impossibility of Interreligious Dialogue. New York: Crossroad, 2007.

[iii] Moyaert, p. 39

[iv] p. 46

[v] p. 61

[vi] Francis Clooney, Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 64.

[vii] Cornille, 44.

[viii] Jacques Dupuis, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997), 326.



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