- Meaning and Method in Comparative Theology by Catherine Cornille
Cornille’s Meaning and Method in Comparative Theology is an excellent effort at defining comparative theology and its various subcategories; but it is much more than that. In this work, she also includes a diverse range of concepts which have been utilized in the wider field of interreligious dialogue over the past half-century. This makes it a good synopsis, not only for comparative theology, but also for the myriad ways the field of interreligious studies has played out over the past several decades, occasionally even drawing upon her own previous works. In this effort, there are a few drawbacks, but first, the positive takeaways.
In the beginning there is an explication of early-twentieth-century framing of comparative theology to provide historical background, but by and large the bulk of the content is drawn from the past forty or so years with a few notable exceptions, such as Karl Rahner, a Vatican II-era figure. The sheer assortment of scholars that are either referenced or quoted is larger than one might expect in a book of this size. Cornille clearly has demonstrated a mastery of the entire content of interreligious understanding in recent decades, and rightly so as she has amassed multiple edited volumes on the topic to her credit. A plethora of major figures who have published in this area are cited at some point, from the late Raimon Panikkar to more recent scholars such as J. R. Hustwit. The references cited number more than one hundred for each of the first four chapters. If nothing else, one could easily glean a fairly complete annotated bibliography from this one work alone. It is undeniably well-researched and the systematically organized section topics within each chapter provide a natural flow.
The first chapter contrasts confessional with meta-confessional comparative theology, the difference being whether one is constrained by a particular [End Page 149] religious tradition. The second chapter covers six categories of interreligious framing, most of which would be quite well-trodden territory for many readers familiar with the field: exclusivism, particularism, closed and open inclusivism, pluralism, and a more recent category (at least for interreligious studies) of post-colonialism. The third chapter on hermeneutics again contains some familiar faces such as Gadamer and Ricoeur, but also mentions participation methods such as rituals and artistic expressions as well as addressing the problems of syncretism and hegemony. The fourth chapter details types of learning that include intensification, rectification, recovery, reinterpretation, appropriation, and reaffirmation with great examples in each section to illuminate the reader along the way. The final chapter explicates a range of issues largely focused on comparative theologians working from or within a confessional framework. These include such concerns as hybridity, criteria of discernment, target audiences, and the overall relationship between comparative and confessional theology.
One of the drawbacks that becomes prominent as one engages this work is that some of the content being billed as comparative theology existed long before under other classifications. If one had little or no prior reading in the field of interreligious studies and were to be exposed to this material for the first time by reading this work, one would not necessarily realize that some of the characterizations listed here may be a bit anachronistic to be labeled as comparative theology, at least in the new formulation of scholars such as Clooney and Fredericks. Figures such as Panikkar and Knitter, e.g., did not refer to their positions as comparative theology in this newer sense. But since comparative theology is a popular and somewhat en vogue term, stretching the category to cover what would normally be in a wider category of interreligious studies to reach a specific audience may not be all that grievous of a transgression.
There are two other minor drawbacks that may affect some readers. First, the many references and quotations are helpful for illustrative purposes to supply support for the concepts Cornille is elucidating, but in some sections of the work it seems a little much. One almost...