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Comparative Study of Religions: A Theological Necessity

by Ivan Strenski

Dr. Strenski is chairman of the department of religious studies at Connecticut College. This article appeared in The Christian Century, February 6-13, 1985, pp. 126-128. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

This is not to underestimate the knowledge of native believers -- those who understand their own religious language and no others. But theology is nothing if it does not aspire to second order, reflective knowledge; it cannot rest satisfied with the native believer’s knowledge, however proper that may be to living piety. Theological apprehension of one’s own Christian tradition requires knowledge of at least same representative number of other theologies which are not Christian.

Christian theologies are many, their tasks varied. But those tasks can be classified broadly into two groups: those in which theologians want to regard themselves as doing something special and unique and those in which they wish to affirm community with other religious traditions. One sometimes hears that ideas like the incarnation show Christianity’s distinctiveness. By contrast, in defending the teaching of theology in the universities, the claim is made that what is taught is somehow common human religious property, and not exclusively Christian. Which claim is true? In order to decide, one must be familiar with a broad set of theological claims. One may discover that a doctrine considered uniquely Christian, like the incarnation, commonly appears in the historical family or structural class of the theologies related to Christianity. Similarly, it might be that something considered common and general, like the theology taught in a university setting. actually is uniquely Christian. Whatever the case, one cannot know the relative identity of one’s theological claims without being familiar with the content of many theologies, so that one can locate oneself on thc theological map. The comparative study of religions can provide theologians with such maps.

The principle of the necessity of comparison already guides historical and structural linguistics. For instance, before English was systematically compared with other languages, one could analyze it into grammatical elements such as verbs, nouns and the rest. By focusing exclusively on English we might even have begun to recognize the oddity of our names for certain cardinal numbers such as "eleven" and "twelve." Why are these not "oneteen" and "twoteen" to match the other cardinals between 12 and 20? Yet we would not be able to understand why these numbers are as they are. To understand that we would need to see English in comparison with other languages. German cardinal numbers are similarly odd: "elf" and "zwölf," followed by "vierzehn.’’ "fünfzehn" and so on. But French and other Romance languages do not show these odd forms.

Such comparative considerations would urge us to suppose some hitherto unrecognized kinship between English and German, and thus help us to understand English better. Once it were shown that some features of a particular language could be understood only within a Comparative perspective, any attempt to claim (or deny) uniqueness for a particular linguistic feature could only he made from such a perspective Any particular claim would be vulnerable to what this perspective might reveal: to justify claims to uniqueness, one would need to appeal to a sufficiently broad comparative context. And, if the claims of certain universal grammarians be proven true, we might need to go to the broadest comparative context of all -- the human language capacity itself.

In religion, consider Christian claims about the uniqueness of notions like the incarnation or Christianity’s historicity, or neo-Hindu claims about the universality of the concept of dharma. Considerable contemporary controversy has swirled around these issues. But are incarnation and historicity really unique to Christianity, or are they more general features of certain historical families or structural classes of religion? Similarly, do all religions really boil down to the dharma of neo-Hindu interpretation, or is this belief itself a special -- even unique -- feature of neo-Hindu apologetics? The comparative study of religion could settle these matters, and in doing so would give believers pause to consider the consequences. That one could or could not place certain notions into privileged positions might make quite a difference to Christianity or Hinduism’s self-understanding. There may indeed be general historical and/or structural patterns of religions as there are of languages. Insofar as this is so, theologians would need to take them into account in order to do their jobs in an informed fashion.

This, I presume, is what William Schmidt had in mind when he called for a theology which would relate faith to the "modern world of culture," and one which would theologize "consciously and with a measure of clarity" (‘Theology: Servant or Queen?" [The Christian Century. February 1-8. l984]. p. 101). If so, I applaud Schmidt and urge us to give his words further meaning by realizing that to understand our own tradition, we will need to see it in a comparative context which includes both ourselves and others.

Why is it not sufficient for Christian theology to be understood within the context of the history of Christianity alone, rather than the history of religions at large? Why should not Adolf von Harnack be our guide here, rather than Goethe or Max Mueller? It was Harnack who, in 190l, addressed this very issue by asserting that Christian theology had no need of the history or comparative study of religions because, through its own long and varied history. Christianity had demonstrated all the variety and complexity to be found in the world religions. He put it this way: "Christianity is not a religion, but the religion. ... Whoever does not know this religion knows none, and whoever knows Christianity together with its history, knows all religions’’ (Reden und Aufsätze. Volume II [Topelmann, 1906]. p. l68; translation mine).

We need not be inordinately troubled by Harnack’s cannonade. Besides missing the mark, as even a cursory survey of the history of religions shows, Harnack’s barrage falls back down upon his own head. It is only through the advanced work that has been done by students of comparative religions that he knows that Christianity manifests (some of) the forms of the other religions. Yet Harnack might be read more loosely as raising a larger question: How indeed does one decide on the context to which one ought to refer a theological program?

The boundaries of comparative contexts will be set by various communities of scholars who, in doing so, will stamp their enterprises with whatever character they choose or are compelled to choose. We might decide -- like the Indo-Europeanists -- to compare languages only within the contexts of certain geographically and historically related families. Doing so has had its own manifest advantages. But this is no argument against other arrangements for comparison where historical contiguity may not play a part, or where we want to focus on matters other than history, as in structural or psycholinguistic research relating neurological structure and linguistic capacities and/or performance. Moreover, objectivity does not rule thought; human imagination, valuation and social location govern how we identify and classify things -- and thus, how we construct contexts for comparison.

Thus, no a priori limits can be drawn around the contexts we might invent for Christian theology to inhabit. The insistence that we treat Christianity only within its own history (and study religion only through Christianity) remains unpersuasive because it simply begs the question of the proper context for the study of religion and the doing of theology.

In addition to these arguments against Harnack and his followers, adopting his historical exclusivism would make us into a certain kind of people. Theologians must ask whether this is what they want to be. Do we want to close tribal ranks and keep out the world?

I do not say that Christians ought not proudly to study their own traditions, nor that they alone ought to be forbidden to look inward -- only that the way of Harnack and his fellows is ugly. It is cultural tribalism of the kind we sadly witnessed in television’s coverage of the 1984 Olympics. We are all free to swell our chests with pride at what is ours; but what right do we have virtually to deny the existence -- God-given, like ours -- of others’? ABC wrapped its Olympic coverage in the Stars and Stripes: Harnack and his ilk wrap their theology in the glories of the West. But what values do we espouse in so resolutely indulging our own feelings of uniqueness and superiority, while behaving as if the rest of religious creation meant nothing to us? Christian theology has nothing to fear by recognizing the existence of the rest of the religious and theological world, and of taking its place in it. Without apologizing for ourselves, we should be welcoming that world.

In 1901, Jean Reville, the head of the religious studies section of Paris’s École Pratique des Hautes Études, answered Harnack. One day "it will be more useful to understand foreign religions than to be instructed in the sects of the European middle ages.’’ he claimed ("L’Histoire des Religions et les Facultés de Theologie" [Revue de l’Histoire des Religions, Volume 44, 1901], p. 429). Can any person pondering today’s threats to world peace and harmony seriously doubt this? Reville also spoke of following world news or participating in the world economy as normal, everyday affairs. When we fret over what comparative context Christian theology should seek, we are making a definite statement about our values regarding the rest of humanity. Will Christian theology merely "report" on other religions? To avoid doing so, we will have to open Christian minds and sensibilities through the comparative study of religions.

Although the parallel is not exact, the theology of religions is like political foreign policy. But a theology informed by the reality of other religions would be more like national economic policy, formed with in the comparative context of a world market economy. Ready reference to world commodity prices is always there, because there is a world commodities market. Similarly, we live in a world market of religions and world-views. Accordingly, a theology renewed along comparative lines should be more conscious of its own situation in relation to others, understanding how it was and was not like other members of the global repertoire of world views. This renewed theology would be conscious of others in the same way that contemporary students of language keep in mind and put to work the lessons of comparative historical or structural linguistics.

Inspired by a seminar that he taught jointly with Mircea Eliade in the 1960s, Paul Tillich planned to "shake the foundations" of his own Systematic Theology in pursuit of such a renewed Christian theology:

I must say that my own Systematic Theology was written before these seminars and had another intention, namely, the apologetic discussion against and with the secular. Its purpose was the discussion or the answering at questions coming from the scientific and philosophical criticism of Christianity. But, perhaps we need a longer, more intense, period of interpretation of systematic theological study and religious historical studies. Under such circumstances the structure of religious thought might develop in connection with another or different fragmentary manifestation of theonomy or of the Religion of the Concrete Spirit. This is my hope for the future of theology [" The Significance of the History of Religion for the Systematic Theologian," in The Future of Religions, edited by Jerald C. Brauer (Harper & Row. 1966). p. 91].

Although Tillich does not give examples of what this theology renewed by the comparative study of religion might be like, we can venture to imagine what it might produce. For instance, imagine how enriched the subject of soteriology would be by the comparative contextual depth offered by Buddhism. How is it that in some contexts Jesus saves like the Buddha, and in others does not? By comparing the religious structure and historical evolution of Buddhist soteriological ideals with those of Christianity, we might better understand the bases of Christian beliefs about salvation. or even create new theological conceptions thereof. Other traditions offer ways of generating explorations into facets of Christianity illuminated by their historical experience. Consider the following example of how divine graciousness may be linked with historical concreteness.

Some Christian theologians have tended to make much of the so-called historicity of Christianity as an indication of divine graciousness. What a marvel, the plotline goes, that God should so love the world that he would send his only son to fend for himself amid the travails of human history what a loss, therefore. Christ’s death is! Yes, it was followed by his resurrection and ascension, and by the sending of the Holy Spirit. But somehow these pale in comparison with the prospect of seeing the vivid, living Lord in a new heaven and new earth.

If we look at the Buddhist tradition,. we see a similar crisis facing a primitive community, resolved in interestingly different ways. Theravada Buddhists accept the loss of the historical teacher as final -- without resurrection or eschatological return (in most cases). As a result, the prestige of the monastic community -- the Buddha’s "church" -- grows virtually to equal that of the deceased lord. In the later developments of pure-land Buddhism, the Buddha’s graciousness entails his transcendence of history and, therefore, of his own death. In some sense he never really lived, much less died. Thus, his historical existence is reinterpreted as being a manifestation of celestial Buddhas, and, the monastic community’s prestige diminishes somewhat. Historicity signals limits within the economy of salvation, and an increase in the status of the monastic institution: divine graciousness calls for the transcendence of history and dependence upon social institutions.

This comparison between Christianity and Buddhism exemplifies interesting differences and provokes thinking by creative juxtaposition. Such a comparison might compel Christian theologians to reassess their attitudes toward historicity -- an idea that may have received undue emphasis since the 19th-century rise of specifically German theories of history-writing and philosophies of history. We might want to reexamine the assumption that Buddhism’s indifference toward history signals its inferiority, and that Christianity and Judaism are superior because they are historical faiths. Further, such a comparison might stimulate us to rethink the specifically nonhistorical doctrines thrown up by Jesus death -- the ascension and descent of the Holy Spirit. For many believers, the Holy Spirit seems to play a ghostly role in Christian life and theology: at best the Spirit seems little more than a theological way of speaking about good feelings. Christian theologians might learn to theologize creatively about thc Holy Spirit by consulting a tradition like pure-land Buddhism, in which this sort of thinking seems to have been going on for more than two millennia.

Without gaining a comparative world perspective, Christian theology can neither fully know its own strengths nor strengthen its weaknesses. Indeed, it cannot know itself. It is thus for its own sake that Christian theology needs to be grounded in the comparative study of religions.

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