Comparing Faithfully

Insights for Systematic Theological Reflection

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Editor(s): 
Michelle Voss Roberts
Comparative Theology: Thinking Across Traditions
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , September
     2016.
     304 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780823274673.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Marking her position as one of the foremost comparative theologians among the generation following pioneers such as Francis Clooney, Keith Ward, and Robert Neville, Michelle Voss Roberts has provided us with a significant landmark work. Comparing Faithfully sets out with several tasks in mind, including: showing the way(s) that the comparative method can contribute to systematic theology; demonstrating that comparative theology is not simply for specialist linguists and textual scholars with immense erudition across two traditions, but is something both accessible and doable by ordinary students of theology; and extending comparative theology beyond the usual boundaries of the “world religions” (that terrible category which theologians still too often regrettably use) by including reflections on/from Aztec religion and Daoism for instance. In all these tasks, Comparing Faithfully does admirable service.

The book is divided into five sections which address key areas within systematic theological reflection: divinity, theodicy, humanity (theological anthropology), christology, and soteriology. An introduction by Roberts provides both a brief methodological introduction to comparative theology in general as well as framing the aims and intentions of the book. Meanwhile, in each section, there are two essays that address the topic from a different methodological perspective, often taking different aspects of Christianity and a different religion for comparative insight, and a response essay which replies and reflects, often with its own insights, upon the first two essays. The whole draws from a conference Roberts convened at Wake Forest University. The list of contributors includes both well-established figures in the field as well as some fresh voices.

I will confess that when I began reading the first chapter by Jon Paul Sydnor, I developed some scepticism regarding the project of this book, since the brief framing overviews of Nagarjuna and Moltmann made me think we might be in for comparative theology lite. However, as the chapter progressed it soon became clear that this was far from the case, and a much more nuanced and sophisticated analysis emerged. Certainly, the framing made the argument accessible for someone without any background to the figures engaged. Indeed, I ended up exceptionally impressed with Sydnor’s chapter as a whole, and as I read further I do not think that a single chapter dropped below its high level. Naturally, some chapters caught my attention more than others, but I think this is more due to my interests than any quality in the respective authors.

If I attempted to summarize each chapter or section, we would end with a very potted assessment. Instead, I will therefore focus upon what was, for me, the standout section: number four on christology. When I mention that two of the authors were Marianne Moyaert and Hugh Nicholson this should perhaps come as no surprise, while the third, Bede Benjamin Bidlack, also did himself credit. The section starts with Bidlack’s chapter relating some of the birth narratives of Lord Lao and Jesus, which itself extends beyond much traditional comparative theology by including Daoism in the conversation. Taking utterly unrelated traditions and narratives, this essay showed how insights and reflections could be drawn from this conversation. In particular, it addressed and sought to mediate the potential that exists for seeing rival claims for supreme ontological status concerning the respective subjects of Christianity and Daoism: a bold undertaking in comparative theology. My only complaint with the analysis of the chapter would be the too simplistic dichotomy of the religious and political realm that marked much of the chapter. Moyaert, by way of contrast, brought two already related, indeed deeply intertwined, traditions together by looking at readings of Isaiah 53 in Judaism and Christianity after the Shoah. The reflection and insights throughout were of an exceptionally high level, showing Moyaert’s familiarity with the literature and discussions. However, for me, what really made this section as a whole stand out was the profound and insightful analysis provided by Nicholson. Indeed, after reading his response I had a deeper understanding of both the chapters I had already read, as well as the themes and interconnections that could be drawn between them. It was very much a tour de force, and I am thankful for having had the chance to read it.

In conclusion, I would suggest that this book should become part of the standard repertoire in the field of comparative theology: a go-to text for teachers, students, and researchers. Moreover, the way Comparing Faithfully shows real and substantial insights for systematic theology is the sign of a discipline not just coming of age but marking its rightful place within the broader discipline of theological studies. If, after this book, systematic theologians do not take notice of its contents and the wider insights that interreligious comparison can yield, then it can be said that their work will be the poorer for it. Roberts as editor has secured her place more firmly as a leading voice in the field, while the text itself should be on the shelf of every serious theological library.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Hedges is Associate Professor of Interreligious Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technical University in Singapore.

Date of Review: 
December 12, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michelle Voss Roberts is Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. Her most recent book, Tastes of the Divine: Hindu and Christian Theologies of Emotion (Fordham, 2014), received the American Academy of Religion’s Award for Excellence in Constructive/Reflective Studies.

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