Dilatato Corde 1:2
July – December, 2011



There is a need for the interfaith movement to continue to expand its territory and spread its influence throughout society. One such area is in academia, which holds tremendous possibilities as an environment wherein students and faculty actively engage in learning about and being challenged by viewpoints other than their own, yet holds a number of methodological complexities. Francis X. Clooney, director of Harvard University’s Center for the Study of World Religions, offers guidance through this maze in two books released in 2010, Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders and an edited volume, The New Comparative Theology: Interreligious Insights from the Next Generation. Here, I focus my attention on the former work which includes a useful overview of the terrain and then uses his own journey as a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest and Hindu scholar as an example through which to offer a method for engaging in another religion while remaining faithful to one’s own. The result is a book that is a key contribution in the approach to the academic study of religion, but with applicability beyond academia.

Clooney’s book provides a helpful outline of the issues. His historical overview, highlighting the Jesuit missions in India beginning in the 16th century and through works by comparative theologians such as James Garden, Max Muller, James F. Clarke, and J.A. MacCulloch, is much more succinct than those found in books such as Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism by Jacques Dupuis, The View from Mars Hill by Charles B. Jones, or Comparative Religion: A History by Eric Sharpe. Clooney’s history might have included the trend away from the study of other religions by Christian missionary-minded scholars toward the “objective,” “scientific,” or “academic” study of religion; but instead, jumps ahead to provide summaries of contemporary scholars whose work might be considered comparative theology: David Tracy, Keith Ward and James Fredericks. This implies that comparative theology could be seen as a continual thread from the modern missionary enterprise, although with an apparent gap in the middle of the 20th century, rather than a new confessional alternative in reaction to current non-confessional religious studies. As further background, Clooney differentiates between comparative theology and other closely related areas of interreligious encounter: interreligious dialogue, theology of religions and the academic study of religions. This section could have been extended with more detail and examples considering the ease of confusion and importance of identifying when one is engaging in these closely related and overlapping areas.

Comparative theology is an academic discipline wherein the scholar studies a religion outside the one she practices, but rather than approaching the other with a method of phenomenological bracketing or neutrality, she engages the other while acknowledging and embracing her own religious identity. But rather than using knowledge of the other as a missionary seeking converts, the comparative theologian recognizes the other as a partner in pursuit of ultimate truth from which she may gain insights and see her own religion in a new light. So, in Comparative Theology, Clooney writes autobiographically, as a Christian theologian in the Roman Catholic tradition whose career has been focused on the study of Hinduism. He includes comments on the question (that typically arise in regard to non-theistic religions) of whether there is comparative theology, or even theology, in other religions, specifically Hinduism.

Unlike his previous works wherein he explored topics through the application of his method of comparative theology such as Theology after Vedanta (1993), Seeing Through Texts (1996), Hindu God, Christian God (2001), Divine Mother, Blessed Mother (2005), and Beyond Compare (2008), Comparative Theology is primarily about the method itself. Only in chapter 6 does he provide a brief example of comparative theology to illustrate his method. He uses a plenary address presented to the Catholic Theological Society of America in 2003 wherein his studies and experiences of the Hindu goddess Devi provide a fresh perspective from which to revisit Mary, the mother of Jesus. After expanding his reflection to include Marian perspectives from Islam and Sojourner Truth, this example becomes somewhat convoluted; however, the premise of serious engagement in another religion prevails in subsidiary insights he provides along the way.

The importance of Clooney’s studies in Hinduism is that it has made him careful and has given him the proficiency to avoid making generalized statements about other religions by emphasizing the particular in Hinduism. Of course, this entails recognizing the diversity within Hinduism; thus, he speaks more specifically of the Mimamsa, Vedanta, and Srivaisnava traditions. I have heard well-intentioned Christians generalize about Hinduism by saying, rather simplistically, that it is essentially monotheistic, that the various gods, goddesses, and avatars are all expressions of the one ultimate source. As a much clearer, nuanced observer, Clooney cites his previous work, Hindu God, Christian God, where he lists three claims about God common to Christian and Hindu theistic theologies and four more claims that represent shared ground, albeit incompletely (116-7). To come to such more precise comparisons between religions necessitates this kind of lifelong, in depth study of a single other religion.

Clooney acknowledges that what he offers here is merely a starting point. For one, Clooney is committed to the study of Hinduism and offers comparative theology as a method for  others to take up studies of other religions. But also, the method of comparative theology he proposes is not an endpoint, but needs further adaptation and development by others, both within and beyond academia. As a logical next step, the edited volume, The New Comparative Theology, gives voice to a number of scholars on comparative theology and gender (Michelle Voss Roberts), theology of religions (Kristin Beise Kiblinger), and theological hegemonism (Hugh Nicholson, David A. Clairmont and Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski)  to name a few.

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