Academic journal article Canadian Social Science

Translation, Interpretation and Culture: On the Disingenuity of a Comparative Theology

Academic journal article Canadian Social Science

Translation, Interpretation and Culture: On the Disingenuity of a Comparative Theology

Article excerpt


In this three-part article, I look at Francis Clooney's work on comparative theology, identify one of the crucial problems of translation that comparative studies confront and outline the nature of a task for the twenty-first century cross-cultural theology. In the first part, I show that there is no unique 'translation problem' but that it actually names a plethora of problems. Such problems include not only the translation of texts across languages but also the philosophical problems of incommensurability of theories and inter-theoretic reductions. In the second part, I undertake a fairly close examination of aspects of Clooney's enterprise. Here, I show that, quite contrary to what he promises, his project simply rehashes old dogmas of earlier Christian writers albeit in a hidden and implicit manner. In the third part, I suggest that we need to rethink some of the ingrained but hardly orthodox assumptions, if we intend to understand the cultures and practices which are other than those in the West. I suggest that a new theological practice is more adequate to our times than what we have inherited from the past.

Key words: Comparative theology; Hinduism; Christianity; India; Translation; Culture


The Oxford online dictionary defines the word 'disingenuous' as follows: "not candid or sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does." This term suffers from ambiguity and a moral load. However, this paper will ultimately disambiguate the word and provide an explanation of its sub-title.

While doing comparative theology, especially when it involves two different cultures, we face what we can term as a ''translation problem': the issue of translating terms from one language into another. Say that the languages in question are English and Sanskrit. When we settle for 'God' as a translation for 'Brahma', or for 'Religion' as a translation for 'Dharmd', we face this problem. Even though anthropologists had confronted this problem earlier (Hodgen, 1988; Kay & Willet, 1984) and the Christian missionaries even before them (Lach, 1994; Neill, 2002), its sharpest formulation in philosophy is due to Quine (1960) where he speaks of a radical indeterminacy of translation. Many have had occasion to take issue with Quine, the most notable of whom is Donald Davidson (Davidson, 1984).

Clooney's (2010) Comparative Theology, which I discuss in the following pages, takes up 'Hinduism' and Christianity as its units of comparison. His knowledge of Sanskrit and Tamil confronts him with this problem and he seems aware of its existence. As he says it explicitly,

...I concede the necessary cautions about using Western, Christian, and English-language words to characterize realities otherwise described in their own traditional contexts. But it seems to me that this process of translation and adaptation is inevitable... (Clooney, 2010, p.78).

This caution is necessary because doing comparative theology while remaining a Christian is no sinecure. On the one hand, one has to remain within the confines of one's religion, which makes absolute truth claims; on the other, one has to relate earnestly to faiths and traditions other than one's own which appear as competitors. As a Jesuit priest, Clooney is aware of walking a tightrope. He speaks of the "tension between open-mindedness and faith, diversity and traditional commitment" (Clooney, 2010, p.21); of the "intense and difficult balance at the edge between traditions" that is at the heart of comparative theology (Clooney, 2010, p.80). He says too, "if we ourselves are faithful to our faith traditions and also intent upon honest encounter with other religious traditions, we are not going to escape the tension that energized and vexed the missionaries..." (Clooney, 2010, p.44).

It is important to notice how he has walked the tightrope and what its results are. The sub-title of his book, deep learning across religious borders, suggests that inter-religious learning should not only be "deep" but also that it is possible only at those borders where religions meet each other. …

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