On Comparative TheologyLast modified: October 3, 2010
“Reflection on other religious traditions,” though articulated in myriad ways, has of course occurred in religious traditions from their very beginning. So too theologies, obligated by some norms of reason and to the quest to understand and (to some extent) explain what is believed, have of necessity had to engage the thought and practice of the other traditions which helped shape the context for intelligibility in any given era. The Christian tradition (which remains the primary though not exclusive focus of this essay) is no exception, and even before Christianity, the Jewish people already shaped their language about God with an awareness of how their neighbors were speaking; they likewise articulated their own identities in comparison and contrast with those of their diverse neighbors. Other religious traditions too have had to keep reshaping their self-understanding in light of their religious others. Moreover, despite numerous misunderstandings and tragic, shameful moments of hostility and violence, throughout history religious cultures have nonetheless often related to one another with subtlety, sophistication, and boldness. Intentionally or not, interreligious exchange seems on the whole to have been a positive rather than negative phenomenon.
As but one dimension of this larger, ongoing exchange, comparative theology is not an entirely new beginning. Today, however, the proximity of religions to one another is greater than ever and the resources for understanding religions other than one’s own are unprecedented; accordingly, the opportunities are greater and responsibility more acute, and so it has become nearly impossible to justify not studying other traditions and taking their theologies into account in light of contemporary canons of learning today. While theology can never be reduced to a single task, theological reflection in its mature form always stands in a dialogical relationship to the theologies of other religions, both in general and with respect to (nearly) every topic. This commits the theological community to the practice of what will here be termed “comparative theology,” the practice of rethinking some aspect or aspects of one’s own faith tradition through the study of some aspect or aspects of another faith tradition. Other dimensions and the implications of this very brief definition will become clearer as we proceed.
As a form of theological exchange, comparative theology is particularly interested in highlighting the nature, dynamics, and use of doctrines and their referents within traditions but also across boundaries. Thus, for example, candidates for analysis will include: faith, truth, sin, grace, salvation, community, and worship, in general and in more specific doctrinal forms, plus an even wider range of vaguer but still fruitful terms such as union or communion, delusion, liberation, humility, devotion, spiritual knowledge, compassion, and healing. And there are still other terms and areas of study to be identified through learning from traditions whose concepts have until now been either ignored or poorly translated into English or borrowed without much theological sophistication; for the theologians of other traditions were not merely saying “in their own words and concepts” what “we” have already been meaning and saying. So too, like other forms of theology, comparative theology is to some extent interested in how religious traditions explain their own views of common human realities, ranging from birth and death to sex and love, eating and marriage, money and power. Since comparative theology is liable to the same range of meanings and perspectives as theology in general, it cannot be definitively in a single or univocal way; since in its current formulation it is new, it is not ready for sure and settled definitions. The following description therefore ambitions only to highlight some key features and problems of a vital yet still developing discipline.
[The opening paragraphs of “Comparative Theology,” The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology (2007), pp. 653-669, Francis X. Clooney, S.J., Parkman Professor of Divinity, Harvard Divinity School. For further information on comparative theology, see also Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, forthcoming 2010), and The New Comparative Theology: Voices from the New Generation. Francis X. Clooney, SJ, Editor. (New York, London: Continuum Publishing, forthcoming 2010)]