How to Do Comparative Theology

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Francis X. Clooney, Klaus von Stosch
Comparative Theology: Thinking Across Traditions
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fortress Press
    , December
     344 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


I asked to review this multi-author work (consisting of fifteen chapters) because I was interested to see if this truly was a “how to” book, as suggested by the title, How to Do Comparative Theology. Having long been influenced by Jonathan Z. Smith’s celebrated article, “In Comparison a Magic Dwells”—chapter 2 of Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University of Chicago, 1982)—I was hoping that this book would offer its own “magic.”

This is actually a proceedings volume from an August 2014 conference in Paderborn Germany. Following the introduction by editors Francis X. Clooney and Klaus von Stosch, How to Do Comparative Theology is divided into three main sections: “Doing Comparative Theology—As Theology”; “Comparative Theology Is What Comparative Theology Does”; and “Recognizing Comparative Theology by Its Fruits.” These three sections exemplify what might be characterized as three “dimensions”: (1) informative; (2) transformative; and (3) performative (my characterization). 

As Clooney and Stosch point out in their introduction, there is no consensus as to method in doing comparative theology: “We differ among ourselves and how we go about this” (3). The editors offer this caveat by way of the following section heading: “How to Do Comparative Theology: Let the Reader Choose” (14–16). In other words, “none of these essays, nor the set of them, offers a definitive recipe for the best way to do comparative theology” (14). 

First, in what I’ve called the “informative” section, Catherine Cornille, in chapter 1, refers to comparative theology as a “discipline” originating within predominantly Roman Catholic theological circles, although its practices have spread to Christians of other denominations and theologians from other religions (19). Comparative theology encompasses a “diversity of approaches” that “facilitate engagement with any aspect of other religions” (19). However, it is not clear what the author means by “its particular methodology” (19). Comparative theology encompasses historical, theological, and philosophical approaches (33). These “goals” or “effects” of comparative theology are said to include “intensification, recovery, reinterpretation, and appropriation” (33). In chapter 2, von Stosch elevates theology to a “science” (37). As to method, the author suggests that the basic approach should be “oriented towards problems and toward dialogue, as well as working micrologically, i.e., by turning to case studies” (39). In chapter 3, Aaron Langenfeld suggests that a comparative theological enterprise is triggered by “provocation to the respective other, so that that other gives reasons for his or her specific understanding of truth” (61–62). From beginning to end, such provocation is followed by four phases: (1) elaboration; (2) opening (i.e., deconstruction); (3) discourse; and (4) reconstruction (62).

In what I’ve called the “transformative” dimension, in chapter 11, Shoshana Gordon-Guedalia reminds us that it was St. Anselm who famously defined theology as “faith seeking understanding” (229).

Finally comes what I’ve called the “performative dimension”: in chapter 12, Emma O’Donnell characterizes comparative theology as a “relatively new field” that is gaining international recognition as seen by the establishment of various “departments and major universities” (260). In chapter 13, Brad Bannon opens with this fundamental question: "How—and why—does one do comparative theology?" (271). Theology is "often driven by an ecology of questions" (293) that "gives shape to alternative methods of inquiry, different paths for seeking (quaerens) understanding(s) of faith” (271). Bannon further notes that comparative theology is a “praxis of reading back-and-forth between two or more religious traditions” (273). In Chapter 14, Michael Barnes points out that “interreligious dialogue may be the imperative of our times” (301). Chapter 15, the capstone of the book, opens with this provocative statement: “Comparative theology is a transformative academic pursuit” (325). Stephanie Corigliano states the obvious in observing that comparison of any “specific concept or practice” in two or more traditions is “an excellent way to demonstrate both similarity and distinction between the traditions” (343). She further states: “Theological learning is personal” (345). Pragmatically speaking, comparative theology “can help develop creative, practical, and meaningful skills for living responsibly with religious and non-religious neighbors” (346).

Given its ambitious title, the “how to” promise is quickly qualified by a disclaimer noting that there is no methodological consensus. This book is therefore prolegomenal, experimental, and tentative in nature. Many, if not most, of the essays are highly personal in nature, even though they are also respectable comparative enterprises.

If the “journey” of comparative theology begins with “faith seeking understanding” as its point of departure, it would seem that the destination, ideally, should be “faith seeking interfaith understanding.” Although those involved in interfaith dialogue may be enriched reciprocally—perhaps even enlightened in some small way—scarce attention is given to what might be characterized as “reciprocal transformation.” In other words, after a given “journey” of comparative theology has run its course, is there any outcome possible mutually, even collectively? Can the participants, for instance, issue a “joint declaration,” or submit formal, agreed-upon recommendations to the leaders of their respective faith-communities?

Not only is there no consensus (which is probably too much to expect), one of the key functions of comparison appears to be missing: the formulation of generalizable hypotheses about the nature, practice, and experience of religions. That said, although the anticipated “magic” of comparison has vanished into thin air, this volume is yet another stepping stone, a contribution to the literature of an emerging field of “comparative theology.” 

While not delivering on the promise implied by its title, How to Do Comparative Theology provides many useful insights and proposals in pursuit of the categorical imperative of engaging in productive interreligious dialogue, where “faith promotes interfaith understanding” in a transconfessional, mutually transformative way. Recommended for seminary libraries, but less so for university libraries.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Buck is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Francis X. Clooney, SJ, is Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology at Harvard Divinity School.

Klaus von Stosch is Professor of Systematic Theology and head of the Centre of Comparative Theology and Cultural Studies at the University of Paderborn, Germany.



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