Self and Text: Towards a Comparative Theology of the Self

By Flood, Gavin | Cross Currents, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Self and Text: Towards a Comparative Theology of the Self


Flood, Gavin, Cross Currents


Thinking about ourselves has always been one of the main preoccupations of human beings since the development of reflexive awareness and different cultural histories have come up with quite a wide variety of views about human identity although often parallel developments can be seen in those histories. In this paper I wish firstly to make some remarks about problems in comparison in religion and theology, secondly to offer a description of two very different understandings of the self from Christian and Hindu traditions, and thirdly to reflect on what we learn from such comparison. Here I shall argue that comparison cannot be neutral in an old sense assumed by comparative religion, and that furthermore comparison necessitates the generation of theory. I shall conclude with the beginnings of a comparative theory of the religious self or, more specifically, subjectivity.

Reflections on Comparison

In the last thirty years there has been a move away from general theories of the self in cultures towards area specific studies which pay attention to the particularity of history and place. This is to be welcomed because universalizing theories of the self, such as psychoanalytic theories, sociological theories, and genetic theories, have been linked to a politics of representation that has often distorted the self-representations of others; one thinks of Freudian psychoanalysis or Marxist analyses of self in Anthropology. Often universalizing tendencies in comparative studies have been for the best of motives, perceiving themselves to be a liberating discourse or claiming to present others in an equal light, but often the comparative enterprise can be linked to colonialism and imperial power, as David Chidester has shown with regard to comparative religion in South Africa, or as Said and Inden have argued with regard to Orientalism. Part of the critique of universalism has also been the critique of essence which has been replaced by the play of symbolic forces, to use Deleuzian language, pure simulacra without original. This critique of universalism has lead to a reversion to purely area-specific study and specialization in the study of religions which has lead to an increased appreciation of culture, language and history in the formation of views of the self and, indeed, in the formation of particular theologies (and one thinks especially of George Lindbeck in this connection).

One extreme position in reaction to what it perceives to be colonial forms of knowledge is the claim that only indigenous views of the self have validity and only a culture's self-representation has credence. This is to disclaim that the outsider can know something more about a culture than the culture itself, which is surely a mistaken view that is as equally erroneous as the reduction of plurality into a single, overarching scheme. Furthermore, the reversion to area specific study has often meant that scholars have not shared any common language and have not recognized common concerns. This seems to have been true in theology as well as in the study of religions where theology has meant until recently only Christian theology. But there is an increased recognition once again for scholars of religion to speak across the boundaries of their particular area concerns, for theologians to engage with other theologians, especially and vitally Islamic ones, and for theologians to engage with critical social science and even with neuroscience.

In comparing and describing different view of the self across cultures I am therefore engaged in an enterprise that could easily fall under the sign of comparative religion or comparative theology. Comparative religion has come under severe attack in recent years for the reasons I have just articulated and comparative theology has likewise tended towards universalizing claims and seeking for consensus rather than demarcating lines of battle. The traditional distinction--and this is somewhat of a caricature--between comparative religion and comparative theology has been that the former has claimed the objectivity and critical distance of the scientist operating from the view from nowhere, whereas the comparative theologian has been engaged and intellectually committed to a particular theology or has been engaged in creating a new theology from different traditions. …

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