- Comparative Theology and the Problem of Religious Rivalry by Hugh Nicholson, and: The Spirit of Contradiction in Christianity and Buddhism by Hugh Nicholson
There are many ways to read Hugh Nicholson, and almost just as many to lose sight of what he is up to. Readers of this journal will no doubt initially notice the more recent book under review, even as other members of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies will be interested in if not also engaged with the enterprise of comparative theology that is Nicholson's first book. Yet those drawn to Nicholson as a comparativist will soon observe that he is operating—in both volumes—in a significantly different domain than are most of his peers working in this arena, even as scholars of Buddhist-Christian studies and relations will see that there is a lot more going on in the later book than a comparative analysis of these two traditions. In order to appreciate his achievements, let's introduce Nicholson briefly, set out his overarching research agenda, and overview the arguments in the two books before rendering some preliminary assessment.
Nicholson studied under Francis X. Clooney, SJ, at Boston College, finishing his PhD in comparative theology in 2001 on a Vedantic reading of Karl Rahner's sacramental theology. After eight years at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he began teaching theology at Loyola University Chicago in 2009 (where he remains to the present), all the while publishing in comparative theology, particularly vis-à-vis the field of religious studies. Of the so-called new comparativists—which label I derive from Clooney's edited book, The New Comparative Theology: Interreligious Insights from the Next Generation (Bloomsbury, 2010), to which Nicholson contributed a chapter—our author is no doubt one of the leading lights, if measured by both quantity and quality of published output.
Yet Nicholson's trajectory differs, carving out a distinctive arc from that of his colleagues not only methodologically but teleologically. If comparative theological approaches are dominated by close textual readings across religious traditions (à la Clooney), specifications of vague categories across religions (exemplified for instance [End Page 273] in the Boston Theological Institute's Comparative Religious Ideas Project in the late 1990s, to which Nicholson was a contributor while working on his PhD) or crossing-over-and-returning (an approach featured in Nicholson's PhD thesis, in fact), to name the most recognizable trends, Nicholson's comparative work in the main serves other purposes, namely that of clarifying the political and social dimensions of theological ideas and claims. Or if much of the "new comparativism" is motivated by the concern that contemporary theology in a pluralistic world cannot proceed just internally to religious traditions but, simultaneously, comparative analyses in this context must be supported by relatively thick descriptions of each tradition, Nicholson's comparativist instincts have come to be shaped more by religious studies sensibilities and questions than by theological ones. Put pointedly: if many of the new comparativists are theologians seeking to make sense of their tradition in extended dialogue with another tradition (or other traditions), Nicholson appears more as a scholar of religion who makes his arguments with case studies in comparative theology.
What I mean is that for Nicholson, at least in the volumes under review, comparative theology is a means not necessarily to a theological end but to understanding how theological commitments come about within their social and political milieus. While such objectives are not necessarily bereft of theological takeaways (about which I will say more later), these are of secondary concern. What is important for Hugh Nicholson are other questions: that concerning religious rivalry in the earlier book and that concerning the sociopolitical dimensions of counterintuitive theological claims in the second book—both of which contribute to an interrelated research program in understanding how theological and doctrinal traditions unfold. Let us examine these arguments briefly, each in turn.
What is "the problem of religious rivalry" signaled in...