- Comparative Theology Is Not “Business-as-Usual Theology”:Personal Witness from a Buddhist Christian
The following reflections find their stimulus and start in a paper prepared for a doctoral seminar on comparative theology led by John Makransky at Boston College. I was asked whether I was a comparative theologian and, if so, what difference it had made in my professional work as a theologian and in my personal life as a Christian. My basic answer was: “Yes, I think so” and “A lot!”
In this reworking and expansion of that seminar paper, I hope to unpack that “a lot.” This will enable me not only to carry on the search for clarity (and integrity) that I began in my book Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian,1 but also to comment on the promise of comparative theology (CT) and why I fear that this promise all too often goes unfulfilled.
What I’m getting at is capsulized in a blurb that John Thatamanil wrote for Michelle Voss Roberts’s Dualities: A Theology of Difference:2 “Comparative theology done well is a dangerous discipline precisely because it raises provocative questions and threatens to put an end to business-as-usual theology.” I fear that some comparative theologians are not taking their job seriously enough—or they are not following through with what they say they want to do. They are carrying on CT as business as usual.
moving beyond business-as-usual theology
Comparative theology, which two decades ago might have been considered a fade but has become a fixture in Christian theology,3 makes the bold, indeed thoroughly revolutionary, claim that in order to properly carry on the task of Christian theology, the traditional Christian sources—Scripture, tradition, the lex orandi or spiritual practice of the communities—are not enough. A Christian theologian, in order to be a Christian theologian, must also draw on the experience, teachings, scriptures, and insights of other spiritual communities and traditions. CT embodies Raimon Panikkar’s often [End Page 181] cited (at least by me!) dictum: In order to understand who I am, I have to ask who you are. And in order to know my God I have to ask about your God.4
If what comparative theologians are here claiming is true, if my understanding of myself is incomplete without my understanding of you, then after I understand you, I can be pretty sure that my understanding of myself is going to be different—really different. Otherwise, I really didn’t need to talk with you in the first place! And this is why Thatamanil can rightly sound his unsettling warning that if CT is another form of business-as-usual theology, if it is not leading to some really new discoveries about oneself and one’s own tradition, then it is not living up to its job description. And that, as I tried to say elsewhere, is what I suspect might be the case.
As I survey the output of comparative theologians over the past fifteen years, I sense that, with some promising exceptions among younger scholars, they are strong on comparing but soft on concluding. More pointedly, comparative theology, so far, has been more comparison than theology. There have been intricate comparisons of Christian texts with Hindu texts and of Christian theologians/mystics with Buddhist scholars/mystics. Striking similarities and stark differences have been noted and examined, sometime meticulously. But, where are the clear, creative, courageous conclusions as to what Christians can learn from these comparisons? What might need to be clarified or changed or discarded in traditional Christian doctrine? Especially on the neuralgic and politically dangerous (for Catholics) issue of the uniqueness of Christ, I am not aware of any comparativists who have learned anything new. I would be delighted to be proved wrong.5
I suspect that the reason why some comparative theologians are caught in business-as-usual theology is that they are also still lingering under the influence of postmodernism’s and postliberal theology’s insistence on the dominance of diversity. In their concern to respect and defend differences, postmodernists and postliberals conclude that cultures and religions are more different than they...