Comparative Theology: A Review of Recent Books (1989-1995)

By Clooney, Francis X. | Theological Studies, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Comparative Theology: A Review of Recent Books (1989-1995)


Clooney, Francis X., Theological Studies


Comparative theology is an exciting and quickly developing field, and a relatively uncharted one. Hence it may be beneficial to offer a descriptive assessment of what is happening today across the range of its new questions, ideas, and theses, as these are put forward by many authors in a wide variety of projects. We begin with some general observations on its nature and scope, observations which will become clearer as we work our way through the subsequent bibliographical survey.

SETTING SOME BOUNDARIES

As theology, comparative theology consists most basically in faith seeking understanding; its ultimate horizon can be nothing less than knowledge of the divine, the transcendent. As one of the theological disciplines, comparative theology is marked by its commitment to the detailed consideration of religious traditions other than one's own. It is detailed, deeply reflexive, self-corrective in the course of its own investigation, even in regard to its basic questions, methods, and vocabulary. Though one must be hesitant about using the term "theology" univocally in reference to many religious traditions (we tend to understand the word against its Christian background), it is useful to work with the hypothesis that comparative theology can be pursued from within any of the religious traditions of the world.(1)

In 1987, David Tracy reminded us that although the realities of pluralism have never been so evident as they are today, reflection on "other religions" has of course been present in the Christian tradition from its beginnings, and it has proceeded with subtlety, sophistication, and boldness in many contexts.(2) The term "comparative theology" has been in use since at least the 19th century, either in contrast to "theoretic theology" or to indicate the study of religious doctrines.(3) In many of its Christian instances, however, it seems to have designated what today might simply be called the "theology of religions," i.e., Christian reflection on the general idea of other religions, in light of some particular understanding of the Christian faith. 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. . . . [O]n 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."(4) Exploring the interplay between theological method in general and method within comparative theology, Tracy notes four major shared premises: the reinterpretation of central religious symbols in a religiously pluralistic world; the construction of new foundations for traditions; the addressing of questions of religious pluralism on explicitly theological grounds; both the hermeneutics of suspicion and critique, and the hermeneutics of retrieval.(5) Against this background, he suggests two understandings of comparative theology today: first, it can be taken as a discipline within the history of religions, in which theologies from different traditions are compared; second, it can be taken as "a more strictly theological enterprise . . . which ordinarily studies not one tradition alone but two or more, compared on theological grounds."(6)

In addition to Tracy's two interpretations, I suggest a third: comparative theology can also be thought of as truly constructive theology, distinguished by its sources and ways of proceeding, by its foundation in more than one tradition (although the comparativist remains rooted in one tradition), and by reflection which builds on that foundation, rather than simply on themes or by methods already articulated prior to the comparative practice. Comparative theology in this third sense is a theology deeply changed by its attention to the details of multiple religious and theological traditions; it is a theology that occurs truly only after comparison. …

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