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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Comparing Hinduism and Christianity: F.X. Clooney

Review of Comparative Theology. Deep Learning Across Religious Borders (F.X. Clooney, S.J.) Wiley-Blackwell 2010

This is a relatively short (171 pp, references excluded) introduction to the field of comparative theology. It is a book Clooney ---in his own admission--- has long refused to write, thinking that comparative theology is a practice rather than a theory. Consequently, it is a book that generalises the methodology and ideas about comparative theology which he developed in his other comparative works, such as Beyond Compare. Thus, a reader who has read Clooney's work and is expecting some extraordinary new statements might be disappointed. The book is rather a concise summary, establishing (in decreasing order of importance, judging from the space dedicated to them by Clooney):

  1. a) that comparative theology is not a comparative study of religions, since it is grounded in faith. It is a faith seeking understanding through the boundaries of different religions, but which remains faithful to its first commitment. (This is by far the most frequently repeated point throughout the book, which in many senses could be described as an apology of comparative theology).
  2. b) that one has to make one's presuppositions explicit. Clooney is extremely honest in explaining his background and his first encounter with Hinduism. Nonetheless, the point seemed to the present reader even clearer when, in the Preface of Beyond Compare, Clooney wrote that his personal connection to the topic of the book was a legitimate part of the Introduction, and not of the preface, since it was part of his scientific enterprise and not accessory to it. (This point is quite stressed at the beginning, but then fades).
  3. c) that comparative theology is not incompatible with (Catholic) faith (p. 115: "God can speak to us in and through a tradition other than our own"). Clooney at times even hints at the fact that it is part of God's providential design in this age of religious diversity (p. 149, p. 165). And, in any way, one should not be afraid of learning comparatively, since "[i]n Christ there need not be any fear of what we might learn; there is only the Truth that sets us free'' (p. 165).

This last point might lead one to a further consequence: in our contemporary age of religious diversity, is comparative theology only legitimate or is it also unavoidable? Clooney explicitly argues in favour of the former claim and his stress on the extraordinary requirements of a comparative theologians might make one think that only a small élite can take the path of comparative theology (see pp. 154--158). On the other hand, in his conclusion Clooney goes (back?) to the idea that "Theology is an academic discipline, but fruitful theological reflection can be carried forward by anyone who seeks, in faith, to understand'' (p. 163).


Since the first chapters are dedicated to the claim that it is possible and legitimate to study comparatively, less space is dedicated to the difficulties of such study. However, when these difficulties are hinted at, the book becomes more intriguing. One learns, for instance, that notwithstanding Clooney's emphasis on the need to return to one's own community and enrich it with what one has learnt by doing comparative theology, "the return home may be more difficult than we might wish''. For, ''[a]s we learn honestly, extrinsic or simplistic reasons for staying in our own religion may evaporate" (p. 156). Or, more concretely, that "it was difficult to read [Vedānta Deśika's] Essence (Śrīmadrahasyatrayasāra) and [Francis de Sales'] Treatise [on the love of God] together, precisely because each is a formidable classic, expressive of a complete religious world that may be taken as exclusive" (p. 126).

Furthermore, readers interested in Hinduism will find here some insightful pages summarising Clooney's works on Śrī Vaiṣṇavism. Pages 130--148 are especially dedicated to the claim, found in the Bhagavadgītā and then frequent in Vaiṣṇava literature, that God comes to His worshippers according to the form in which they love Him or Her. Such passages have never been used by Vaiṣṇava authors ---so Clooney--- in order to justify a comparative enterprise along the lines of the passage at p. 115 quoted in point c). However, they could be understood as a Vaiṣṇava legitimation of comparative practices. Clooney's examples of practical comparative theology are stimulating and one can understands why he frequently repeats throughout the book that comparative theology is done more than it is theorised.

I frequently discuss with people who tell me that they are not interested in comparatism. Do you share this view? If so, why? Is it really possible to work and live in separate worlds, without comparing them?

On my personal campaign against implicit methodologies, which makes me see with much favour Clooney's openness, see this post. For my praise of another book by Clooney, namely Thinking Ritually, see this post.

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