Theology: Comparative Theology
THEOLOGY: COMPARATIVE THEOLOGY
Historically, the term comparative theology has been used in a variety of ways. First, it sometimes refers to a subsection of the discipline called "comparative religion" wherein the historian of religions analyzes the "theologies" of different religions. Second, within the discipline variously named "the science of religion," Religionswissenschaft, or "history of religions," some scholars have used the term comparative theology to indicate one aspect of the discipline. F. Max Müller, for example, in his Introduction to the Science of Religion, used the term to refer to that part of the "science of religion" that analyzes "historical" forms of religion, in contrast to theoretic theology, which refers to analysis of the philosophical conditions of possibility for any religion. As a second example, in 1871 James Freeman Clarke published a work entitled Ten Great Religions: An Essay in Comparative Theology, which concentrated on the history of religious doctrines in different traditions.
Problems and Possibilities
On the whole, contemporary scholars in history of religions or religious studies do not use the term comparative theology in Müller's or Clarke's senses, and these earlier usages are therefore now of more historical than current disciplinary interest. In the contemporary scholarly world, the term can be understood in two distinct ways. First, it may continue to refer to a comparative enterprise within the secular study of history of religions in which different "theologies" from different traditions are compared by means of some comparative method developed in the discipline. Usually, however, comparative theology refers to a more strictly theological enterprise (sometimes named "world theology" or "global theology"), which ordinarily studies not one tradition alone but two or more, compared on theological grounds. Thus one may find Christian (or Buddhist or Hindu, etc.) comparative theologies in which the theologian's own tradition is critically and theologically related to other traditions. More rarely, comparative theology may be the theological study of two or more religious traditions without a particular theological commitment to any one tradition. In either theological model, the fact of religious pluralism is explicitly addressed, so that every theology in every tradition becomes, in effect, a comparative theology.
In principle, the two main approaches are complementary and mutually illuminating: any comparative enterprise within history of religions (or comparative religion)—that is, a secular or scientific study—will interpret theologies as material to be further analyzed from the perspective of, and by means of, the comparativist criteria of that discipline. Any theological attempt at comparative theology—that is, from within the context of belief—will interpret the results of history of religion's comparisons of various theologies by means of its own strictly theological criteria.
The fact that theology itself is now widely considered one discipline within the multidisciplinary field of religious studies impels contemporary theology, in whatever tradition, to become a comparative theology. More exactly, from a theological point of view, history of religions, in its comparativism, has helped academic theology to recognize a crucial insight: that on strictly theological grounds, the fact of religious pluralism should enter all theological assessment and self-analysis in any tradition at the very beginning of its task. Any contemporary theology that accords theological significance (positive or negative) to the fact of religious pluralism in its examination of a particular tradition functions as a comparative theology, whether it so names itself or not. The history and nature of this new, emerging discipline of comparative theology as theology bears close analysis.
A difficulty with the phrase comparative theology is that theology may be taken to describe a discipline in Western religions but not necessarily in other traditions. Indeed, the term theology has its origins in Greek religious thought. Historically, theology has functioned as a major factor within the religious discourse of Christianity that has been influenced by Hellenistic models—and, to a lesser extent, within that of Islam and Judaism. Any enterprise that is named "comparative theology," therefore, must establish that the very enterprise of theology is not necessarily a Greco-Christian one.
To assure this, two factors need clarification. First, to speak of "theology" is a perhaps inadequate but historically useful way to indicate the more strictly intellectual interpretations of any religious tradition, whether that tradition is theistic or not. Second, to use theo logia in the literal sense of "talk or reflection on God or the gods" suggests that even nontheistic traditions (such as some Hindu, Confucian, Taoist, or archaic traditions) may be described as having theologies in the broad sense. Most religious traditions do possess a more strictly intellectual self-understanding.
The term theology as used here does not necessarily imply a belief in "God." Indeed, it does not even necessarily imply a belief in the "high gods" of some archaic traditions, nor the multiple gods of the Greeks and Romans, nor the radically monotheistic God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Whatever the appropriate term used to designate ultimate reality may be, that term is subject to explicitly intellectual reflection (e.g., the term sacred, as in the "dialectic of the sacred and the profane" in the great archaic traditions, as analyzed by Mircea Eliade; the term the holy, suggested as the more encompassing term, in distinct ways, by Nathan Söderblom and Rudolf Otto; the term the eternal, as suggested by Anders Nygren; the term emptiness, as used in many Buddhist traditions; or the term the One, as in Plotinus; etc.). Insofar as such explicitly intellectual reflection occurs within a religious tradition, one may speak of the presence of a theology in the broad sense (i.e., without necessarily assuming theistic belief). However useful it may be for the purposes of intellectual analysis, the term theology should not be allowed to suggest that the tradition in question names ultimate reality as "God"; or that the tradition necessarily considers systematic reflection on ultimate reality important for its religious way. (Indeed, in the case of many Buddhist ways, "systematic" reflection of any kind may be suspect.) "Theology," thus construed, will always be intellectual, but need not be systematic. With these important qualifications, it is nonetheless helpful to speak of "comparative theology" as any explicitly intellectual interpretation of a religious tradition that affords a central place to the fact of religious pluralism in the tradition's self-interpretation.
Among the theological questions addressed by a comparative theology may be the following. (1) How does this religion address the human problem (e.g., suffering, ignorance, sin), and how does that understanding relate to other interpretations of the human situation? (2) What is the way of ultimate transformation (enlightenment, emancipation, salvation, liberation) that this religion offers, and how is it related to other ways? (3) What is the understanding of the nature of ultimate reality (nature, emptiness, the holy, the sacred, the divine, God, the gods) that this religion possesses, and how does this understanding relate to that of other traditions?
Such comparative theological questions may be considered intrinsic to the intellectual self-understanding of any religious tradition or way, and one may thus speak of the implicit or explicit reality of a "comparative theology." More specific proposals will result from particular comparative theological analyses; for example, the suggestions of a radical unity among many religions (Frithjof Schuon, Huston Smith, Henry Corbin), or suggestions that one may have a Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or Jewish or Islamic comparative theology (Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Raimundo Panikkar, Masao Abe, Ananda Coomaraswamy, S. H. Nasr, Franz Rosenzweig, et al.). All these more particular proposals, however, are based on theological conclusions that have followed an individual theologian's comparative assessment of his or her own religious tradition and other traditions. Prior to all such specific theological proposals, however, is the question of the nature of any comparative theology from within any religious tradition.
In general terms, therefore, comparative theology always accords explicit theological attention to religious pluralism, despite radical differences in theological conclusions. In methodological terms, contemporary comparative theology provides an intellectual self-understanding of a particular religious tradition from within the horizon of many religious traditions. It is a hermeneutical and theological discipline that establishes mutually critical correlations between two distinct but related interpretations: on the one hand, the theological interpretation of the principal religious questions given a context of religious pluralism in an emerging global culture; on the other, an interpretation of the responses of a particular religious tradition to that pluralism.
As this general methodological model clarifies, the comparative theologian cannot determine before the analysis itself what ultimate conclusions will occur, for example, that all religious traditions are either finally one or irreversibly diverse, or that a particular tradition must radically change or transform its traditional self-understanding as the result of pluralism. It is clear that to start with an explicit (and usually, but not necessarily, positive) assessment of religious pluralism challenges the position of traditional theology, which argued, implicitly or explicitly, that the fact of religious pluralism (and therefore of a comparative hermeneutical element as intrinsic to the theological task) was of no intrinsic importance for theological interpretation. A contemporary Christian comparative theology, for example, will inevitably be different from a Hindu or Jewish or Islamic or Buddhist comparative theology. But, just as important, each of these emerging comparative theologies will be different from all those traditional theologies which disallowed a comparative hermeneutics within the theological task, either explicitly (through claims to exclusivism) or implicitly (by denying its usefulness). There is as yet no firm consensus on the results of "comparative theology," but it is possible that those engaged in this increasingly important task may come to agree on a model for the general method all comparative theologians employ. The further need, therefore, is to reflect on this method. First, however, it is necessary to review the historical precedents for this emerging discipline.
History: Premodern Developments
For reasons of clarification and space, this historical survey will be largely confined to Western traditions where strictly theological issues have been especially acute. Westerners should not forget, however, that other traditions (especially those of India) have struggled for a far longer period and with great philosophical sophistication with the question of religious pluralism. (See Surendranath Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, 5 vols., Cambridge, 1922–1955, and Eric J. Sharpe, Comparative Religion: A History, London, 1975.)
Monotheistic religions until early modernity
Although the term comparative theology is not employed in discussions of the premodern period, comparative elements in traditional Western philosophies and theologies were present, in positive and negative ways, in the premodern period. In the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, the insistence upon the exclusivity of divine revelation led, on the whole, to a relative lack of interest in analyzing other religions, save for polemical or apologetic purposes. This lack of interest was based (especially in the prophetic trajectories of those religions) on an explicitly and systematically negative assessment of other religions or ways from the viewpoint of scriptural revelation. Attacks on the ancient Canaanite religions by the prophets of Israel in the Hebrew scriptures are the clearest among many examples of this "exclusivist" development. Still, as modern scholarship has shown, the borrowings by ancient Israel from other religious traditions, or those by early Islam from Jews, Christians, and "pagans," suggest a more complex scenario than traditional Jewish, Christian, and Islamic exclusivist theological interpretations suggest. Moreover, there are elements (especially in the wisdom tradition) that suggest more positive appraisals of other religious traditions (e.g., the covenant with Noah, the Book of Ecclesiastes, universalist tendencies in the New Testament, as in 1 Timothy 3–5). Other exceptions are found in the Logos tradition of Philo Judaeus in Judaism and the distinct but related Logos traditions of three Christian theologies (Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Origen). The esoteric and gnostic strands in all three monotheistic traditions challenged orthodox biblical theologies through more syncretic theologies, which were sometimes based on a belief in an original (and shared) revelation. The use of ancient Greek and Roman philosophical sources in the theologies of all these traditions also provides some partial exceptions to exclusivist emphases.
Yet even the use of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Neoplatonists in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theologies was strongly conditioned by the framework of the received traditions, especially traditional theological interpretations of the subsidiary position of philosophical reason to revelation (Ibn Sīnā, Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas). Inevitably, the use of the "pagan" philosophies of ancient Greece in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theological self-understanding generated some comparativist interests in all these monotheistic theologies—but these were usually colored by traditional apologetic and polemical concerns. The greatest exception to this general rule may be found among Islamic thinkers, especially al-Sharastānī (d. 1153), whose treatise The Book of Sects and Creeds provides a comparative theological analysis from an Islamic perspective of most of the major religions of the then-contemporary world. Most Christian theologies, for example, did not agree with Tertullian's implied negative response to his famous rhetorical question, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"
The most common understanding on the part of Christian theology was that the use of philosophical resources did not necessitate any assessment of the religions to which these "pagan" philosophers may have held. For example, the use of Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism by Christian theologians emerged at those locations (e.g., Alexandria) where the relationship of Neoplatonism to the mystery religions and occult practices was weakest in the ancient world. Hence theologians like Origen and Clement could appeal to Middle Platonic philosophy without comparativist analyses of the explicitly cultic practices sometimes associated with Middle Platonism and Neoplatonism. The dominant comparative question for Christian theology (and, in their distinct but related ways, for Jewish and Islamic theologies) was the relationship of theology to philosophy, of revelation to reason. There was little explicit theological interest in comparativist religious analyses—again save for the traditional apologetic and polemical treatises on the "pagans."
Ancient Greece and Rome
Provided that a particular religion did not interfere with civic order, the ancient Greeks and especially the Romans were generally more tolerant of religious differences than were the monotheistic religions. This tolerance, in certain somewhat exceptional circumstances, gave rise to some interest in the fact of religious diversity. Among the classical Greeks, the major writer with an interest in comparativism is undoubtedly the great historian Herodotos. His work demonstrates remarkable concern with non-Greek religions (especially the religions of the Egyptians, Persians, and Babylonians), as well as with the religious diversity within the Greek world itself. As a "comparativist," his "syncretist" sympathies are equally clear. His most notable successor in these interests (especially as regards Egyptian religion) is Plutarch.
The Stoics were the first in the West to attempt to establish the existence of common beliefs within the diversity of beliefs in the ancient world. They did so through their invention of the term religio naturalis ("natural religion"). The most famous work of what might be called comparative theology in the ancient world remains Cicero's famous dialogue De natura deorum, in which the theologies and philosophies of the Stoics, Epicureans, and Academics are discussed. (Cicero's great dialogues encouraged comparativist interest in later ages as well—witness David Hume's use of him as a model for his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.) The Stoics also developed allegorical methods of interpreting the ancient myths and gods (e.g., Zeus interpreted as the sky, Demeter as the earth). These methods were later employed by some Jewish (e.g., Philo) and many Christian theologians as an implicitly comparativist, hermeneutic method of scriptural interpretation. Comparativist interests may also be noted in the writings of Varro and comparative elements are evident in texts with other major interests—for example, Strabo's Geography and Tacitus's Germania. In the medieval period, the outstanding figure with comparativist interests was the Christian philosopher-theologian Nicholas of Cusa.
Early Western modernity
The Renaissance, of course, occasioned new interest in the works of antiquity, including the classical mythologies. The most remarkable expression of this interest can be found in the speculations on the existence of an original revelation in all religions, in the texts of the Christian thinkers Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Giordano Bruno, and others. These men not only revived the ancient myths for Christian theological purposes but also argued for the "esoteric tradition" as the common stream present in all the known religions of both antiquity and the modern world.
The age of Western exploration in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries stimulated new interest not only in the religions of antiquity but also in the newly observed religions of the Americas and those of Asia. The most remarkable example of an exercise in "comparative theology" during this period remains the work of a Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci, whose positive assessment, on Christian theological grounds, of Confucianism is unique. Indeed, Ricci's letters and reports, although unsuccessful with authorities at Rome, were, in the eighteenth century, deeply influential upon the interest in Chinese religion among such thinkers as Leibniz, Voltaire, Christian Wolff, and Goethe. The comparative theological interests of the Enlightenment were characteristically addressed to classical Confucianism (somewhat bizarrely interpreted as eighteenth-century "natural religion"), rarely to Daoism or Chinese Buddhism.
With the advent of historico-critical methods, the comparative theological interests of Western thinkers shifted in both their approach and in the areas of their dominant interest. The Romantic thinkers (e.g., Johann Gottfried Herder) analyzed distinct cultures as unitary expressions of the unique genius of particular peoples. This interest encouraged the development of historical studies for each religion as unitary and unique. Earlier negative assessment by Enlightenment thinkers of what they had named "positive religions" (as distinct from a presumed common "natural religion") yielded, in the Romantics, to a positive comparativist assessment of particular religious traditions and cultures. The simultaneous nineteenth-century historical interest in the ancient Near East spurred renewed comparativist interest in the religions of ancient Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt.
The rise of interest in Indian religions, moreover, paralleled both Western colonial expansion and the scholarly development of Indo-European studies in the expanding search for the sources of Western culture. Indeed, in the nineteenth century that interest in Indian religious traditions arose not only among scholars in Indo-European studies but also among philosophers with little strictly scholarly competence, but with strong comparative theological interests—such as the American Transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau, et al.) and the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. With the emergence of historical consciousness, the transition from ancient, medieval, and early-modern comparative theological interests to a more complete modernism may be said to have begun.
The modern period
The crucial intellectual development in the rise of comparative theology in the modern period was the emergence of historical consciousness and historico-critical method. The recognition of the historically conditioned character of religious traditions led to a crisis of cognitive claims for Western Christian and Jewish theologians. The Enlightenment's hope that a universal "natural religion" could be abstracted from all "positive" (i.e., particularist) religions was a hope shared, in different ways, by most thinkers of the period, including both the Christian philosophers Leibniz and Kant and the Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn.
But the combined force of Romanticism's fascination with past cultures as living and unique wholes expressive of particular peoples and the scholarly development of historico-critical methods and a resultant historical consciousness led to a widespread awareness of the need to incorporate that historical sense in all the exercises of reason, including philosophy and theology. Thus Western philosophy and theology, by becoming historically conscious, became implicitly (and often explicitly) comparativist as well.
The two major thinkers who initiated this comparative philosophy and theology—although it is important to recall that neither ever so named it—were Friedrich Schleiermacher and G. W. F. Hegel. Schleiermacher, a Reformed theologian, developed a Christian theology that deeply influenced all later Christian theology, among other reasons because it incorporated explicitly comparative elements. Schleiermacher defined religion as "the sense and the taste for the Infinite" and, later and most influentially, as "a feeling of absolute dependence"; as such, religion is the central reality for humankind. Moreover, in his Christian theology he attempted a comparison of religions. He argued for the superiority of the monotheistic over the polytheistic religions and for the superiority of the "ethical monotheism" of Christianity over the "ethical monotheism" of Judaism and the "aesthetic monotheism" of Islam. The details of Schleiermacher's controversial theological arguments are less important here than his insistence that Christian theology should include genuinely comparative elements.
Schleiermacher's great contemporary and rival, Hegel, had a similarly controversial influence on the development of historical and comparative elements in philosophy (and, to a lesser extent, in Christian theology). Hegel's complex developmental-dialectical model for philosophy demanded, on intrinsic philosophical grounds, a systematic and comparativist account of the major civilizations and the major religions. The thrust of his argument was that Spirit itself (at once divine and human) had a dialectical development that began in China and moved through India, Egypt, Persia, Israel, Greece, and Rome to the "absolute religion" of Christianity. This last reached its climax in German Protestantism and in his new dialectical philosophy. Hegel's formulation of the intellectual dilemma for comparative theology and comparative philosophy is an attempt to show the "absoluteness" of one religion (Protestant Christianity) by relating it explicitly to a developmental and comparative (i.e., dialectical) schema. This attempt to demonstrate absoluteness proved influential upon both Western Christian theology and secular philosophy.
Although the comparativist conclusions of both Schleiermacher and Hegel are generally accorded little weight among contemporary philosophers and theologians, their joint insistence on the incorporation of comparativist elements into both Christian theology and secular philosophy has proved enormously influential. In the twentieth century, their most notable Christian theological successor has been Ernst Troeltsch. Troeltsch engaged in several disciplines: he was a major historian of Christianity, a sociologist of religion, an interpreter of the new comparative "science of religion," an idealist philosopher of religion, and an explicitly Christian theologian. His ambitious theological program has proved more important for its methodological complexity and sophistication than for any particular theological conclusions. Troeltsch insisted throughout his work in these different disciplines that Christian theology as an academic discipline must find new ways to relate itself critically not only to its traditional partner, philosophy, but also to the new disciplines of sociology of religion and the general science of religion. Troeltsch became, in sum, the systematic theologian of the newly emerging "history-of-religions" school of Christian theology centered at the University of Göttingen.
It is also notable that Troeltsch shifted his earlier theological judgment on the "absolute superiority" of Christianity among religions to a later position in which he held that Christianity was only "absolute" for Westerners. This controversial theological conclusion was based, above all, on Troeltsch's conviction (as a historian) of the unbreakable relationship of a religion to its culture. This was true, for Troeltsch, even for such relatively culture-transcending religions as Christianity and Buddhism. This theological conclusion of merely relative absoluteness was also warranted by Troeltsch's conviction that it is impossible to assess the relative value of a religion through objective or neutral criteria that are independent of the diversity of particular cultural and religious values. Similar comparative theological enterprises (generally without Troeltsch's methodological sophistication and without his conclusion of the merely relative superiority of Christianity for Westerners) may be found in both liberal Protestant and Catholic modernist theologies in the early twentieth century.
However, the relative optimism, as well as the comparativist theological interests, of both the liberal Protestant and Catholic modernist theologians soon disappeared. In Catholicism, the end came through the intervention of Rome. Among Protestants, it occurred through the collapse of liberal optimism following World War I. The major theological alternative for Protestant thought at that time (generally called dialectical theology, or neo-Reformation theology) was found in the work of Karl Barth. Barth rejected most of the liberal Protestant theological program, including its comparativism. He held that Christian theology was a discipline not intrinsically related to the larger question of the nature of religion (including Christianity as a religion). Christian theology was determined only by the question of the meaning of God's self-revelation in the Word of Jesus Christ. As such, any Christian theological interest in comparativist analyses of religions was improper to the strictly theological task.
Barth's great theological contemporaries Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich, however, continued to include some major historical and comparative emphases in their distinct and non-Barthian formulations of dialectical theology. Indeed, at the end of his long career, and influenced by his seminar work with Mircea Eliade, his colleague at the University of Chicago, Tillich returned explicitly to his earlier Troeltschian interest in history of religions in an important lecture entitled "The Significance of History of Religions for Systematic Theology" (1965). Other Christian theologians, moreover, continued and refined aspects of the program set forth by Troeltsch. It is notable that three of the most important founders of the discipline known as phenomenology of religion in the modern period, Nathan Söderblom, Gerardus van der Leeuw, and Rudolf Otto, were also Christian theologians who incorporated their phenomenological and historical work on religion into their constructive proposals for Christian theology.
Even granted these notable and important exceptions, however, Christian theology of the period between the wars largely abandoned its earlier comparativist interests: in Roman Catholic theology through the suppression of modernism and the revival of scholasticism; in Protestant theology through the ascent of Barthian dialectical theology. These developments tended to remove Christian theology from its earlier intellectual alliance with the "scientific" study of religion. Both Protestant dialectical theology and Roman Catholic scholastic theology gave relatively little attention to comparativism.
However, a comparativist theological analysis within the Barthian perspective, designed to show the radical contrast of Christian revelation to that of other religions, may be found in the notable work of Hendrik Kraemer, especially in his detailed study of other religions, The Christian Message in a Non-Christian World (1938). In Roman Catholic theology (especially in the work of Jean Daniélou and Henri de Lubac), moreover, the "return to the sources" movement of the nouvelle théologie of the 1940s and 1950s engaged in historical and comparative work on the relationships of non-Christian religions and philosophies to historical Christianity in the scriptural, patristic, and medieval periods.
This scholarly work helped set the stage for the affirmative declarations on the world religions by Rome both during and after the Second Vatican Council (1961–1965). Roman Catholic theologians (most notably Karl Rahner and Hans Küng) began to include comparativist elements in their Catholic theological proposals. In Jewish theology, an earlier notable comparativist theological enterprise was achieved by the great Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig with his development of a "two-covenant" theme.
In our own period, many Christian theologians have returned to the kind of comparativist theological program initiated by Schleiermacher and Hegel and refined by Troeltsch. Without necessarily accepting the conclusions of earlier comparative theologies, and without abandoning the strictly theological gains of dialectical theology, many contemporary ecumenically oriented Christian theologians (whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox) are concerned to include explicitly comparativist elements within their theologies. There are, at present, many alternative proposals for how this might best be accomplished. Among Christian comparative theologians these include the "theology of the history of religions" proposal of Wolfhart Pannenberg; the Christian theologies of religious pluralism of John Cobb and Raimundo Panikkar that allow for mutual and radical self-transformation; proposals of Hans Küng and Langdon Gilkey for dialogue among the religions as intrinsic to all Christian theological self-understanding; proposals for a "global" or "world" theology by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a thinker who is both a Christian theologian and a historian of religion; a proposal for radical rethinking of Christianity's traditional christological claims by the Protestant theologian and philosopher of religion John Hick and the Catholic theologian Paul Knitter; explicitly comparative theological proposals based on the pluralism within the Christian tradition as a central clue to a pluralism among all religions (George Rupp); and revisionary comparative proposals for different religious models (saint, sage, etc.) from a Christian theological perspective (Robert C. Neville). Comparative theologies in other traditions have also been developed, such as the Hindu global theologies of Swami Vivekananda and Ananda Coomaraswamy, the Buddhist comparative theology of Masao Abe, and the Islamic global theology of the sacred of S. H. Nasr.
Important comparativist theological elements may also be found in the modern period in the philosophers Ernest Hocking and F. S. C. Northrup, the historian Arnold Toynbee and the psychologist C. G. Jung. Each of these thinkers, although not a theologian, exerted a powerful comparativist influence upon many theological enterprises.
General Theological Method and the Possibility of a Shared Method for Comparative Theology
As contemporary theologians in a religiously pluralistic world grope for new, inevitably tentative formulations of a paradigm to guide their deliberations and inform their expectations, they are confronted with the question of method. Theological method must always be a secondary matter for comparative theology, subsidiary to concrete interpretations of the specific symbols of a particular religious tradition. Method—precisely as a necessarily abstract, heuristic guide—must always be secondary to the concrete interpretations of each particular theology. But the secondary also serves. Reflection on method serves the common cause of all concrete comparative theologies by bringing into sharper focus the principles behind the common search for a new paradigm—principles that are often obscured in the present sharp conflict among particular proposals and conclusions in this emerging discipline. The abstract does not merely extrapolate from the concrete; the abstract also enriches the concrete by highlighting and clarifying what is essential.
It is helpful, therefore, to reflect on what kind of general theological method may be shared by contemporary comparative theologians despite otherwise sharp differences among them. The present hypothesis can be described by four premises. First, comparative theology must be a reinterpretation of the central symbols of a particular religious tradition for the contemporary religiously pluralistic world. Second, a new paradigm for comparative theology must be so formulated that the interpretations of a tradition can no longer be grounded in older, classicist bases but must rely on new foundations that incorporate both past tradition and the present religious pluralism. Third, in keeping with the demands of an emerging globalism and a pluralistic world, theologians in all traditions must risk addressing the questions of religious pluralism on explicitly theological grounds. Fourth, it follows from these first three premises that contemporary theologians must engage in two complementary kinds of interpretation of a tradition—those now known as the "hermeneutics of retrieval" and the "hermeneutics of critique and suspicion." There is no innocent interpretation, no unambiguous tradition, no history-less interpreter. There is no merely abstract, general "situation" and no theological method that can guarantee certainty. There is only the risk of comparative theological interpretation itself: the risk of interpreting the great symbols in all the traditions for the present pluralistic situation and then presenting those interpretations to the wider global theological community and the wider community of religious studies for criticism.
This general model can be made more specific by introducing the following definition of a shared theological method in the new situation: any theology is the attempt to establish mutually critical correlations between an interpretation of a particular religious tradition and an interpretation of the contemporary situation.
Thus, contemporary theology as a discipline shares with history of religions, the humanities, the social sciences, and, more recently, the natural sciences, a turn to reflection on the process of interpretation itself. For theology is one way to interpret the elusive, ambiguous, and transformative reality named, however inadequately, "religion." Theology is not merely a synonym for any interpretation of religion but rather bears its own methodological demands and its own criteria. It is necessary, therefore, to clarify this definition of theology and to show how it can yield a common model for a theological method, one appropriate to a contemporary comparative theology in any tradition.
Theologians interpret the claims to meaning and truth in the religious classics of a particular tradition for a new situation. The religious classics are theologically construed as human testimonies to some disclosure of ultimate reality by the power of ultimate reality itself, as that power is experienced by human beings. The questions to which such testimonies respond are the fundamental "limit-questions" of the ultimate meaningfulness or absurdity of existence itself. Religious questions are questions of an odd logical type, emerging at the limits of ordinary experience and ordinary modes of inquiry (ethical, aesthetic, political, scientific). Like strictly metaphysical questions, the fundamental questions of religion must be logically odd, since they are questions concerning the most fundamental presuppositions, the most basic beliefs about all knowing, willing, and acting. Like strictly metaphysical questions, religious questions must be on the nature of ultimate reality. Unlike metaphysical questions, religious questions ask about the meaning and truth of ultimate reality, not only in itself but also as it relates existentially to human beings. The religious classics, therefore, are theologically construed as testimonies by human beings who cannot but ask these fundamental limit-questions and, in asking them seriously, believe that they have received an understanding of or even a response from ultimate reality itself: some disclosure or revelation bearing a new and different possibility of ultimate enlightenment, or some new way to formulate the questions themselves, or some promise of total liberation that suggests a new religious way to become an emancipated human being through a grounded relationship to that ultimate reality which is believed to be the origin and end of all reality.
It is not the case, of course, that theology has only become hermeneutical in the modern period. However, the explicit concern with hermeneutics after Schleiermacher has been occasioned, among Westerners, by the sense of cultural distance from the religious traditions caused by the seventeenth-century scientific revolution and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. This sense of distance has been intensified by the emergence of historical consciousness (as expressed by Troeltsch and Joachim Wach), and the development of the great liberation movements and their attendant hermeneutics of suspicion (with respect to sexism, racism, classism, etc.). And it has been still further intensified by the Western sense of cultural and religious parochialism stimulated by the emerging pluralistic and global culture as well as by the tensions, conflicts, and possibilities present in North-South and East-West relationships. The epoch-making events of modernity have brought about a need for explicit reflection on the hermeneutical character of all the religious disciplines, including the hermeneutical developments (as elucidated by Wach, Mircea Eliade, Joseph M. Kitagawa, Charles H. Long, et al.) in history of religions and the widely recognized hermeneutical character of all theology.
In order to understand the present situation of radical religious pluralism, theologians must interpret it theologically. Interpretation is not a technique to be added on to experience and understanding but is, as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur argue, anterior and intrinsic to understanding itself. This is especially the case for any theological interpretation of the contemporary situation. For theology attempts to discern and interpret those fundamental questions (finitude, estrangement, alienation, oppression, fundamental trust or mistrust, loyalty, anxiety, transience, mortality, etc.) that disclose a religious dimension in the contemporary situation.
Paul Tillich described this hermeneutical character of theology as the need for an explicit analysis of the given "situation," that is, for a creative interpretation of our experience which discloses a religious dimension (for example, of cultural pluralism itself). It is possible to distinguish, but not to separate, the theologian's analysis of the "situation" from his or her analysis of a particular religious tradition. Theologians, in sum, interpret both "situation" and "tradition." In some manner, implicit or explicit, they must correlate these two distinct but related interpretations. Like any other interpreter of the contemporary pluralistic situation, and like any other interpreter of the religious questions in that situation, the theologian brings some prior understanding to the interpretation—an understanding influenced by the historical givens of a particular religious tradition. A Buddhist comparative theology, for example, will inevitably be different from a Jewish comparative theology.
The clarification of the emerging discipline called "comparative theology" follows from this brief analysis of theology itself as an academic and hermeneutical discipline. In the sense outlined above, theology is an intrinsically hermeneutical discipline that interprets intellectually a particular tradition in a particular situation. Further, any interpretation of a tradition will always be made in and for a particular situation. In classical Western hermeneutical terms, this means that every act of interpretation includes not only intelligentia ("understanding") and explicatio ("explanation"), but also applicatio, an application of the interpretation to its context that is at the same time a precondition to any understanding and interpretation.
A properly theological interpretation of the contemporary situation demands that those fundamental religious questions cited above be raised, for the responses to them by a particular religious tradition are the primary, strictly theological, means of interpreting that tradition (e.g., an interpretation of the way of Buddhist enlightenment as the response to a fundamental situation of suffering and a fundamental state of inauthentic existence seen as "ignorance"; an interpretation of the Christian creed of faith, hope, and love as a response to the fundamental situation of suffering and an existential state of inauthentic existence seen as sin). Internal to each theological interpretation of each religious tradition, moreover, is a theological assessment and identification of the normative elements of that religion (e.g., identification of the proper canons of the religion, of the proper role of "tradition," of the proper role of modern historical research, etc.).
Any theology, therefore, involves the development of a set of mutually critical correlations between two distinct but related interpretations: an interpretation of the tradition and an interpretation of the contemporary situation. But it is important not to presume that a tradition will always supply adequate responses to the questions suggested by the contemporary situation. Rather, as the qualifying phrase "mutually critical" suggests, the theologian cannot determine before the concrete interpretation itself whether the traditional responses of a religion are adequate to the contemporary situation.
In strictly logical terms, the concept of "mutually critical correlations" suggests a number of possible relations between the theologian's two somewhat distinct interpretations: (1) identities between the questions prompted by and the responses to the situation and the questions and responses given by the tradition (as in many liberal and modernist Christian theologies); (2) similarities-in-difference, or analogies, between those two interpretations (as in many Neo-Confucian "theologies"); and (3) radical disjunctions, or more existentially, confrontations, between the two (as in the Hindu and Buddhist insistence on the necessity of the reality of a "higher consciousness"); or the radical dialectic of the sacred and the profane in archaic ontologies; or the radical correction of traditional self-interpretations of a religion after the emergence of historical consciousness.
In properly general and heuristic terms, therefore, theology is an intellectual enterprise that may now be described more exactly as the hermeneutical attempt to establish mutually critical correlations between the claims to religious meaningfulness and truth of a religious tradition and the claims to religious meaningfulness and truth within the historical situation for which that tradition is being interpreted.
This general model of theology as an intellectual discipline within religious studies may be further specified to demonstrate how "comparative theology" both fits and challenges it. Comparative theology fits the model insofar as it also demands that the theologian attempt to establish mutually critical correlations between the claims to religious meaning and truth in the same two sets of interpretations. What renders any theology within a particular tradition explicitly comparative, however, is a substantive (and not merely methodological) change in the interpretation of the contemporary situation. Any comparative theology in a particular tradition will insist on theological grounds that religious pluralism in the contemporary situation must receive explicit theological attention. Insofar as that crucial hermeneutic and theological change of focus is made at all, the theological task is notably altered. For now the different questions and responses of the various religions present in the contemporary pluralistic situation must be explicitly and comparatively analyzed as part of the task of any theological interpretation in any tradition. A sense of the cultural parochialism of traditional theological interpretations of both situation and tradition is likely to follow. A confrontation with any traditional, purely exclusivist, interpretation of the one tradition is also likely—just as earlier confrontations with traditional interpretations were occasioned by the emergence of historical and hermeneutical consciousness. A sense of the need for any comparative theological interpretation to take account of the comparative analyses of history of religions is also likely to arise, with the result that comparative theology will also recognize the need for the kind of interdisciplinary discourse found in "religious studies."
Comparative theology is an emerging discipline with as yet no firm consensus on conclusions, but with a possible agreement on the revised method of correlation that it implicitly employs. It is a branch of the general field of religious studies that must learn from the comparative method used in the study of history of religions, by reflecting on the results of those studies in explicitly theological ways. Traditional theological self-interpretations in all traditions are likely to undergo radical revisions—indeed, even at this early stage in the discipline, such revisions are visible. The final conclusions for any tradition's self-understanding in a religiously pluralistic world will be determined only by further, concrete comparative theological studies in and among all the traditions. Yet this much is clear: any contemporary comparative theology in any tradition must relate itself explicitly to the comparative studies of theologies in history of religions and to the theological dialogues among the religions. It must also explicitly raise the traditional theological questions of meaning and truth that earlier, secular comparative enterprises were legitimately able to "bracket."
In sum, comparative theology, as theology, is an academic discipline that establishes mutually critical correlations between the claims to meaningfulness and truth in the interpretations of a religiously pluralistic situation and the claims to meaningfulness and truth in new interpretations of a religious tradition. The central fact of religious pluralism, as well as the existence of religious studies (especially history of religions), has challenged all theologies in all traditions to become explicitly comparative in approach. The future is likely to see the evolution of most traditional theologies into comparative theologies in all non-fundamentalist traditions. With that development, the conflict in interpretations among various models and differing conclusions among contemporary comparative theologians may eventually yield to a disciplinary consensus for all theology. Any theology in any tradition that takes religious pluralism seriously must eventually become a comparative theology.
The following list of contemporary publications in English is representative (but by no means exhaustive) of theological work that functions, implicitly or explicitly, as comparative theology.
Hick, John. God and the Universe of Faiths. New York, 1973.
Hick, John, and Brian Hebbletwaite, eds. Christianity and Other Religions. Philadelphia, 1980.
Küng, Hans. "The Challenge of the World Religions." In his On Being a Christian, translated by Edward Quinn, pp. 89–118. Garden City, N.Y., 1976.
Panikkar, Raimundo. Myth, Faith and Hermeneutics: Toward Cross-Cultural Religious Understanding. New York, 1979.
Panikkar, Raimundo. The Unknown Christ of Hinduism. 2d ed., rev. & enl. Maryknoll, N.Y., 1981.
Pannenberg, Wolfhart. "Toward a Theology of the History of Religions." In his Basic Questions in Theology, translated by George H. Kehm, vol. 2, pp. 65–118. Philadelphia, 1971.
Rahner, Karl. "Christianity and the Non-Christian Religions." In his Theological Investigations, vol. 5, pp. 115–134. Baltimore, 1966.
Rupp, George. Beyond Existentialism and Zen: Religion in a Pluralistic World. Oxford, 1979.
Schuon, Frithjof. The Transcendent Unity of Religions. Rev. ed. Translated by Peter Townsend. New York, 1975.
Smart, Ninian. Beyond Ideology: Religion and the Future of Western Civilization. New York, 1981. See pages 17–68.
Smith, Huston. Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition. New York, 1976.
Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. The Meaning and End of Religion. New York, 1963.
Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. Religious Diversity. Edited by Willard G. Oxtoby. New York, 1976.
Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. Towards a World Theology: Faith and the Comparative History of Religion. Philadelphia, 1981.
The reader interested in further background and bibliography for the historical sections of this article will find references and much of the early history recounted here in Eric J. Sharpe's influential study Comparative Religion: A History (London, 1975). I have followed Sharpe's work in several of the more historical sections. The reader may refer to that work for further detail. Among earlier works, see also Morris Jastrow's The Study of Religion (London, 1901) and Joachim Wach's The Comparative Study of Religions (New York, 1958). For more recent materials and invaluable bibliographies, see Mircea Eliade's magisterial A History of Religious Ideas, 3 vols. (Chicago, 1978–1986). See also The History of Religions: Essays in Methodology, edited by Mircea Eliade and Joseph M. Kitagawa (Chicago, 1959), and Jacques Waardenburg's Classical Approaches to the Study of Religion: Aims, Methods and Theories of Research, 2 vols. (The Hague, 1973–1974).
Representative of modern, influential tests in the emerging discipline of comparative theology, the following works are worthy of special attention:
Hegel, G. W. F. Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. 3 vols. Translated by E. B. Speirs and J. B. Sanderson. London, 1895; reprint, Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1968.
Hocking, William E. Living Religions and a World Faith. New York, 1940; reprint, New York, 1975.
Northrop, F. S. C. The Meeting of East and West. New York, 1946; reprint, Woodbridge, Conn., 1979.
Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli. The Hindu View of Life. London, 1927; reprint, London, 1980.
Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli. Eastern Religions and Western Thought. 2d ed. Oxford, 1975.
Schleiermacher, Friedrich. On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers. Translated by John Oman from the third edition. London, 1894; reprint, New York, 1955.
Schleiermacher, Friedrich. The Christian Faith. Edited by H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart. Edinburgh, 1928; reprint, New York, 1963.
Tillich, Paul. The Future of Religions. Edited by Jerald C. Brauer. New York, 1966.
Toynbee, Arnold. An Historian's Approach to Religion. New York, 1956.
Troeltsch, Ernest. The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions. Translated by David Reid. Richmond, Va., 1971.
Barnhart, Bruno, and Joseph Wong. Purity of Heart and Contemplation: A Monastic Dialogue between Christian and Asian Traditions. New York, 2001.
Benin, Stephen. The Footprints of God: Divine Accommodation in Jewish and Christian Thought. Albany, N.Y., 1993.
Bloom, Harold. Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection. New York, 1996.
Leeming, David, and Jake Page. God: Myths of the Male Divine. New York, 1996.
Neusner, Jacob, Bruce Chilton, and William Graham. God: The Formative Faith and Practice of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Boston, 2002.
Obeyesekere, Gananath. Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerinidian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth. New York, 1996.
Right, J. Edward. The Early History of Heaven. New York, 2000.
Viswanathan, Gauri. Outside the Fold: Conversion, Morality, and Belief. Princeton, N.J., 1998.
David Tracy (1987)