Considering Comparison

A Method for Religious Studies

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Oliver Freiberger
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Is comparison a valid and valuable enterprise in the context of the study of religious phenomena? If so, can it be taught and effectively assessed? At the onset of the academic study of “religion” answers to the first question were necessarily affirmative—as Oliver Freiberger notes in Considering Comparison: A Method for Religious Studies, for example, with Max Müller’s emphatic urging towards a comparative study of “religions” (26-27). In the course of the second half of the 20th century, though, post-orientalist and post-modern critiques have shown that the uncritical pursuit of comparison had often resulted in the decontextualization of historical and cultural phenomena—with Mircea Eliade’s opus often seen as paradigmatic (48-49). Yet, Freiberger further observes, “no postmodernist or postcolonialist has ever explicitly called for abandoning the comparative method in the study of religion” (56). Even the most influential critic of comparison, Jonathan Z. Smith, in fact, saw it as a process “provid[ing] the means by whichwe‘re-vision’ phenomena … to solve ourtheoretical problems” (“On Comparison” in Drudgery Divine, University of Chicago Press, 1990).

In this book, Freiberger offers a thoughtful, elegant, and clearly argued proposal for an overdue systematic rethinking of comparison in the context of the academic study of religion. In particular, he compellingly reframes its function and structure, as method both for doing comparison, and for evaluating comparative projects. Freiberger acknowledges important precursors who have shaped the scholarly reflection on comparison (e.g., Luther Martin, William Paden, Robert Segal, Ann Taves, and Hugh Urban), and is transparent in recognizing further theoretical influences (e.g., Burton Mack, Smith, Joachim Wach, and Ralph Weber). Yet, to my knowledge, his book is also the first contribution on the topic to provide a systematic and comprehensive discussion of comparison, rooted both in a historical appraisal of its application in religious studies (and of its critiques), and in the praxis of comparing.

At its core, Freiberger’s argument can be summarized as follows: if we understand religious studies asa discipline, and if we acknowledge that disciplines are characterized by first and second order methods, then comparison is a second-order, fundamental and constitutive method for the discipline of religious studies—and, as such it can, and should be discussed, examined, taught, applied and assessed. Before proceeding to examine the two premises that underpin this claim, it is important to acknowledge that Freiberger never presents his proposed model as authoritative or normative. Instead, the book unfolds as a rigorous, comprehensive, and convincing move towards establishing a productive debate on the methodology of comparison.

In this respect, the first chapter opens by arguing that “religious studies ought to be recognized as an academic discipline” (3). Freiberger’s contribution to the rhetorical construction of religious studies’ identity arises from preliminary historical, theoretical, and linguistic considerations (e.g., the anglophone “religious studies,” and cognates vs. the German “Religionswissenschaft”), and eventually argues for its understanding asa discipline by centering the debate on its primary object: religious studies isa discipline given that its chief concern is with the study and (re)definition of the category “religion”: “religion is studied in many disciplines, but religious studies is the discipline that puts it front and center” (43).

Freiberger then argues that, in the context of religious studies, the goal of comparison is directly related to its disciplinary discourse: description and classification (35-36, with reference to Smith). As a discipline, religious studies builds on first-order methods that are functional to gathering and analyzing data. Only when these first processes are effectively and successfully carried out can we engage, with the aid of a second-order method, in theory formation, (re)definition and (re)classification. Comparison is such a process for religious studies: “a second order method [that] opens a new interpretative dimension … beyond the scope of [first order] methods” (31).

The book’s overall argument rests on these core claims. Chapter 2, then, provides a systematic critical assessment of roughly a century of scholarship on, about, and against comparison in religious studies. Chapter 3 puts forward a sophisticated theory of comparison as a second-order method that forcefully characterizes comparative tools as having to be necessarily “heuristic and modifiable” (109). Chapter 4 proposes a methodology for comparison structured around the definition of modes, scales and scopes of comparison, the identification of a comparative process—which Freiberger articulates as five-fold: selection; description and analysis; juxtaposition; redescription; rectification and theory formation—and geared towards providing a shared vocabulary for the scholarly discussion of comparison. 

The fifth and final chapter exemplifies the application of the methodological framework outlined in chapter 4, showcasing also how the terminology codified in the previous two chapters can be adopted and applied to do comparison (in Freiberger’s case of early Brahmanical and early Christian ascetic discourses). In so doing, though, this closing chapter also introduces a particular approach to doing comparison that aims to avoid the risk of essentializing the phenomena studied. Called by Freiberger a “discourse comparison,” this approach encourages the comparer to consider the plurality of interpretations and utterances (often contradictory) about a given datum promoted by religious actors and institutions within a particular tradition or culture (167-172). Thus construed, the approach would force a scholar of religions to practice consistently a suspension of judgement, avoiding arbitrarily imposing a value to any given emic interpretation over others.

Freiberger’s comprehensive reflection on the theory of comparison, and the method and process of doing it, is an elegant exercise in, and urgently needed reminder of, the centrality of self-reflection in the context of the academic study of religious phenomena. In this respect, I would suggest that, if we ought to cultivate self-reflection to do good scholarship, and if Freiberger’s comparative method is indeed, as the author presents it, conductive to self-reflection, then we should (at the very least) test his method. Regardless of whether one agrees with his overarching argument, or proposal for a comparative method, Freiberger’s vast knowledge of the topic, nuanced examination of its historical development, and theoretical sophistication make this book an invaluable resource for any scholar of religion interested in the comparative process.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Massimo Rondolino is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Carroll University.

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Oliver Freiberger has taught at The University of Texas at Austin since 2004. His major fields of research, in which he has published widely, are South Asian religious history, early Buddhism, asceticism in the history of religion, and comparative methodology.

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