Our congregation recently hosted a lecture titled "What is the Significance of My Neighbor’s Religion for My Own? Deepening Faith and Learning from Others in a Context of Religious Diversity." Our lecturer was Dr. Emily Holmes, of the religion and philosophy department at Christian Brothers University, Memphis, Tennessee.
Dr. Holmes specializes in a newly emerging and renewing field of theology--comparative theology. As the concluding text for a class I have been teaching at our local indie bookstore, Nightbird Books, we read the signature text in this field, Francis X. Clooney's Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders.
Clooney recommends small, specific engagements (the close reading of religious texts of other religions, for example) rather than a search for grand unifying theories of religion. He writes as a Jesuit priest who studies the ancient sacred texts of the Hindu tradition.
As a Christian, I have become increasingly skeptical of forms of interfaith dialogue that try to develop or discover overly simplistic and facile commonalities. It is almost as if a popular version of interfaith dialogue has as its goal a migration to a "third place," a religion that is a mashup of the two or more religious traditions that are in conversation with each other.
In my estimation, this tendency respects neither the particularities and visions of the religion of the one engaging in dialogue, nor the faith and particularity of their neighbor. It assumes "you are really actually like me and we just need to gloss over differences or make up similarities," and that counts as interfaith dialogue.
Comparative theology, in comparison, invites a theologian (and by the way, EVERYONE IS A THEOLOGIAN) to travel to live with the religious other, especially by reading their texts, closely and carefully and slowly, in order to learn something and discover the riches of those texts. Then, and only then, does the comparative theologian return and examine how this deep learning across religious borders has reformed and shaped how they think about their own faith and tradition.
What I love about this model is that it invites us, even requires us, to remain deeply grounded in our own tradition, while deeply engaging the religious other. This had been the goal of our class at Nightbird Books, to examine the riches of having a tradition. The course was titled "Canon, Creed, and Comparative Theology," and our four books included books on the development of the creed and biblical canon in conversation with each other, plus a book on ecumenical dialogue between Christian denominations, and concluding with Clooney's book on comparative theology.
This model has additional value, because it models humility (and even repentance) in the face of religious difference. It starts with a posture of listening, sitting in humble love together in common reading of sacred texts.
As part of Dr. Holmes presentation, she had this to say, ""I’m searching for theological language that avoids the twin dangers of religious imperialism, on the one hand (depicting the other as the same as or just like me, included in my theological categories and assumptions), and incommensurability, on the other (depicting the other as so different that we have nothing in common and I can say nothing to or about her). How, then, might one engage in a task that is both necessary and seemingly impossible? How might one responsibly speak of and to the other in a way that preserves the otherness of the other? An apophatic approach to our theological language for religious diversity may provide one path through this dilemma."
This is about all I can accomplish in this short blog post, to hint at some directions, and witness to the value of comparative theology. In an era when people tend to either assume that other religions are really, actually, in the end, just another path to God quite like our own (in other words, they are really me), or in an era when people tend to assume that other religions are totally different from us, evil and different and distinct (in other words, they are truly "not me"), Clooney and Holmes and others are working at a way of maintaining who we are while also honoring who the other is.
And we trust, in the exercise of such practices, and openness to such dialogue, truth does emerge, faith is strengthened, and love is formed, for it is to this kind of conversation that God has called us--for we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. In the context of interfaith dialogue and comparative theology, this call to love of neighbor as self takes on precisely the dimensions the Good Samaritan story illustrates. We love our neighbor, who is the religious and ethnic other, while remaining committed to loving who we are ourselves. And in loving the other as ourselves, we discover who we are together in God. That is a solid way forward.