January 21. Comparative Theologies

This week we focused on seeking to establish a foundation on comparative theologies.  In the company of Francis Clooney and David Chidester, we teased out semantic, historical, theoretical, and ideological maps that join and separate comparative theologies from reading religious texts comparatively.  We began threading the myriad lines positioning comparativisms with empire, religion, and colonialities.

By Saturday at 5pm, please post your reflection on this matter. Consult with your notes, with your pillow, with your classmates, and with me if you need to, in order to find a thread that you can grasp to share with us your ideas, questions, or concerns regarding comparative theologies. No pressure to write massively, share your thoughts; if you post a lengthy blurb, that works, too, but do not feel pressured to spend loads of time with this. Flow along, we have many more weeks coming up. Happy blogging!

9 replies on “January 21. Comparative Theologies”

Unit II: Power and Inequity in Facing the Religious Other

“Individual religious traditions are under internal and external stress as they are challenged to engage an array of religious others. Some find themselves under siege, threatened by a bewildering range of religious possibilities; some withdraw and demonize their others; some, perhaps too accommodating, begin to forget their identities. Some of us are relatively untouched by the phenomenon, but none of us avoids changing inside and out” (Clooney 3).

“In the practices of comparison and containment, the very categories of ‘religion’ and ‘religions’ were produced and reproduced as instruments of both knowledge and power in specific colonial situations” (Chidester x-xi).

In taking to task Clooney’s arguments for the need for comparative theologies and interreligious scholarship as a direct response to the unavoidability of religious diversity across the globe today, I was somewhat dissatisfied by the lack of conversation around the ways in which religion and religious study is and has always been imbricated with power, both socially and politically, and also how the inequity of said power dynamics have historically materialized in problematic ways for marginalized racial and ethnic groups. More concisely, the notion of facing one’s religious “other” cannot be separated from the long history of oppression in which religion has been used as a tool to disenfranchise racial, ethnic, gendered, and sexualized “others.” Placing Clooney in conversation with Chidester did not necessarily offer a clean solution to this problem. It is clear that Clooney and Chidester have radically different projects insomuch as Chidester is challenging the very historiography of comparative religious study while Clooney is offering a philosophical framework for Comparative Theology broadly. Furthermore, it does not escape me that Chidester’s invocation of colonialism infers an “other” who is defined primarily by race and ethnicity and then secondarily by religion. Clooney’s notion of a “religious other,” in contrast, is primarily defined by one’s religious affiliation which we can only assume is an enthusiastically accepted aspect of a person’s identity. I am less concerned here with the rhetorical politics of how each author approaches the concept of an “other” and more centered with the way that power works in the intersection of religion and politics creates a hierarchy that directly affects the efficacy of interreligious study in both theory and practice.

If we are to acknowledge the radical possibilities of religious diversity, as Clooney suggests, we cannot ignore the ways in which religion is used as a tool to bolster the status quo of both capitalism and nationhood. Echoing Clooney’s rhetorical move to highlight the limitations of his project, I think that acknowledging the relationship between religion and political inequity does not mean that Comparative Theology as a project is worthless, but that it cannot function without deeper consideration of the positionality of the intellectual and political positionality of the comparativists themselves. In short, as we look to the religious other in order to facilitate our own “self-exploration,” we must also consider who we are, what power we might access, and ultimately whether our desires, both spiritually and intellectually, allow our religious others to be able to do the same?

When Clooney says, “comparative theology, however labyrinthine, can lead us back to our core commitments; the wider learning need not undercut faith’s particularity,” it seems to me he is addressing only one side of the dilemma in which comparativisms place us. He encourages us to broaden our theological gaze to traditions outside our own, and then he quells our potential anxieties about belonging and our personal faith commitments. He is giving us permission to be who we are while urging us out of insular religious thinking.
However, I am still struck by our conversation in class about the other side of the dilemma: the dangers of committing epistemic violence on the journey to broaden our own vision. I am reminded of Bob Orsi—a historian and ethnographer of U.S. Catholicism—and his methodological call to scholars of religion to acknowledge our biases, as opposed to shoving them under the rug or disguising them as universalisms, but to also ensure they are the first word, not the last. I wonder if Clooney makes his perspective, commitments, and inevitably, bias, the last word instead of the first. If one is wholly committed to enriching one’s own faith by exploring the traditions of others—especially religious others whose practices and lives are precariously located in colonial webs of domination—how can we be sure we are not, as Andrew put so well in class, ‘smuggling in’ White-Euro-Christian supremacy into our conversations about reflexivity and humility? I am appreciative of Clooney’s and Chidester’s texts, as well as the wonderful class discussion, for planting these crucial methodological points. One thing I certainly take away from this past week is the necessity of asking difficult, even unanswerable questions. Comparativisms are not about picking something over something else but are, in part, about raising these questions precisely because it is too dangerous not to ask them.

Re-Imagining Religion as a Field
As a Haitian woman, one whose religious heritage is both Roman Catholic and Haitian Vodou, as a person who hopes to be a scholar of Africana religions, I find myself in a conundrum. Religion does not exist as a field in Haiti. The term can be viewed as western and mainly Christocentric. One of the questions that I often ask myself is, what do I, as a scholar-in-training of Africana religions, do when the people whose faith traditions I am studying do not see their systems of beliefs as “religion”? At the same time, it upsets me when I read books about Vodou, most of the time written by westerners, and they refer to Vodou as a cult. Thus, I think for me, entering the field of religion as an Africana scholar-in training has two possibilities: 1) It gives Vodou legitimacy and credibility in the “Western” world or/and 2) By coercing this system of belief into a “Western” paradigm, it does it a disservice. It limits Vodou. It constrains the faith traditions. It becomes oppressive.
Chidester best depicts my dilemma when he describes that we are part of the genealogy of the field we choose to study. Still, there is another story that can and must be told (xii). Comparative theologies have evolved and have been transformed throughout history. As Clooney states, we cannot and should not create a rupture with the past (24). Our field is deeply rooted in history, a history that continues to inform the present. This can be seen when we recognize and acknowledge the work of our ancestors. Clooney particularly names two different strands of ancestors, the Christian missionaries and the pre-20th century heritage of comparative theologies itself (24). This history includes the early church members like Paul as well as the “pagans,” since they did not have a clear rupture with their origins when they were integrated within Christianity (25).
Equally important, Chidester stresses that when thinking about ancestors, we must realize that there are two stories—the imperial and the colonized periphery. From this perspective, perhaps along with Chidester, I believe that the comparatists are not only the Western/imperial scholars, but also the colonial middlemen and the indigenous informants (xi). For instance, among the Zulu people in South Africa, William Ngidi dared to question the authority of the bible, leaving Bishop Colenso transformed (66). To me, this is one of the reasons that we cannot live in such a dichotomy between savages and colonizers, whereas the savage was changed. So too was the colonizer.
Who are the ancestors of those in the periphery studying religion? I am still uncertain. Still, like Clooney, as I seek to harmonize the intellectual and the spiritual, I keep in mind Chidester’s statement that critical comparative religion is to recognize that new knowledges, such as the one derived from studying Africana religions emerged within the context of empire even as they provide a conter-history (xvii). Furthermore, I also take into account Clooney’s definition of comparative theology as recognizing a religion in its particularities, that is, its similarities and its differences.

I confess that Clooney’s nearly-mystical approach to the task of comparative theology both attracts and repels me. As a person who claims a Christian faith, but also studies the Hebrew Bible and its interpretations, I am constantly confronted by the historical harm that “friendly” Christian interpreters have done in their rapprochements toward Jewish and Muslim faith particularly. I have been sensitized by my study to recognize that there is a centrifugal epistemological and ideological pull toward a Christian “center.” No matter how engaged, respectful, and committed the reading of the “other,” it is often in service of advancing the Christian perspective. Christianity, through its evangelical and missionary impulse (an impulse, I would argue, that is embedded into the faith), has a “classifying and conquering” tendency (I take this phrase from Chapter 3 of Chidester’s Empire of Religion). Clooney acknowledges this complicated “tension,” but still insists on its necessity: “Faith may still skew and dull scholarship, yet religious scholarship unmoored in deep commitments may remain diffuse, and largely irrelevant to living religious communities. If we do our work well, grounding scholarly commitments in faith, we will always be on the edge of failing in scholarship or failing in faith. Then we will be properly conflicted theologians, comparative theologians” (p30).

Despite Clooney’s admirable apologetic, I am extraordinarily suspicious of a Christianity that claims that it can carry out a descriptive project of another religion “faithfully.” Faith is defined by the Apostle Paul in Hebrews 11:1 as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen” (Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις, πραγμάτων ἔλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων)—a definition that should cause any researcher to pause. What does it mean? When Christian faith is defined as expectant hope, and an interior conviction by which invisible things can be proved, I think the scholar must be especially wary of trusting “faith” as a methodological tool. Without launching into a full exegesis of Hebrews 11, the chapter goes on to make the case that every biblical hero of faith was looking toward the future city of God, contributing toward a messianic hope, although they may not have understood it at the time. The mode of theology that Clooney cites often is Saint Anselm’s formula of “faith seeking understanding.” But I must ask: what kind of understanding can Christian faith produce? The Christian definition of faith is very like the intuition that Clooney praises as a methodological counter to the analytic, distanced, reasoned approach that the sociological and anthropological study of religions claims to take. While I am not unsympathetic to the craving for a shapely creative and intuitive methodological counter to the study of religion and theology, it is critical to first recognize what Chidester’s project takes such pains to expose: the roots of the study of comparative religions are wrapped inextricably around instruments of colonial control, containment, and power. The impulse to “know” the other is not pure. I remain firmly convinced that scholars of religion first need a historical, sociological, and anthropological reckoning with the dynamics of power and the history of consequences in the “imperial science of comparative religion” (in the vein of Chidester), before embarking upon a project in “comparative theology” (in the vein of Clooney).

In class discussion on Tuesday and further in this blog, we have discussed how Clooney insists that his work as a comparative theologian “should lead (back) to Christ” (107) and whether this infringes on the legitimacy of his project and creates the opportunity for various kinds of Christian/European supremacy to contaminate it. I would like to make this post a reflection on that question.

Clooney notes a division made by Keith Ward between “confessional theology,” which focuses on revelation, and “comparative theology,” which focuses on “God’s wider work in the world” (44). He challenges this distinction, however, saying that they must both be operative in Christian theology and that they can inform one another. The way this seems to work is by coming to look at his own tradition with new/fresh eyes after learning about something in another faith. He describes, for example, how he comes to see Mary differently in light of Saundarya Lahari and how she is discussed in the Qur’an (93-96). Based on my (admittedly very limited reading), it would seem then that what Clooney means by this is that his comparative work does not lead to the denial of central claims of his own faith, but rather opens up new avenues of understanding.

Is this a legitimate project? I would say that it is. It is not the only way to do comparative theology. One might come to it more willing to change or surrender the truth claims of one’s own religion rather than deepen/expand them. But someone who is convinced of certain central dogmatic claims of their own religion can still seek to enter into interreligious dialogue. They can still legitimately believe that they have something to learn from other faith traditions. They can (and ought to) seek to understand the fact of religious diversity in light of their own convictions. This is supremacist only inasmuch as it involves the claim that the central tenets of Christianity are true, a claim that as a Christian theologian I am perfectly comfortable in making. Just as I would not expect adherents of another faith tradition to bracket their central faith claims when engaging in dialogue, I do not bracket my own. This is not to say, of course, that such efforts should not be interrogated to see if they involve racist or colonialist assumptions. After all, there is a long history of comparative theology or religion being little more than an excuse to talk about how Christianity is more intelligent, developed, or moral than the other religion studied. Projects of comparative theology should be interrogated to ensure they do not fall victim to these tendencies. But unless we want to exclude those who hold fast to the central convictions of their faith tradition from comparative theology, I think we must reject the idea that it is inherently problematic to come to comparative theology convinced that it will “lead (back) to Christ.”

In chapter 4 of Clooney’s /Comparative Theology/, “From Theory to Practice,” he foregrounds reading as the focal point for any comparative theological praxis. Clooney principally does so by emphasizing the phenomenon of reading–or what I’d underline as the phenomenology of reading–as a spiritual practice. The spiritual dimension of reading (religious texts) is such that one yields oneself–or/as one’s sense of self–to the text in order to receive its calling, regardless of its doctrinal specificity. Clooney highlights the tradition of commentary as exemplary of this self-effacement, making it a pertinent source for any comparative theologian as both an authority on the secondary (or tertiary) theology and as a model for how to de-center one’s primary doctrinal commitments when reading in an alternative theological tradition. In the section, “Necessarily Elite Choices,” Clooney acknowledges that his privileging of reading (texts) is “only one part of religion” while insisting that (conventional) texts “remain the single best resource … for knowing religious traditions deeply and subtly” (67). However, I wonder if Clooney is positing both a narrow conception of “reading” and “text”:

— why couldn’t the observation of a ritual constitute both a reading(-in-observation) and text(-in-ritual)?
— what may be gained (or lost) for comparative theology/religion by understanding all modes of engagement as the “reading” of “texts”–regardless if it involves linguistic or “extra-linguistic” dimensions? (Regarding the latter, it may be worth considering both the field of semiotics, as well as, relatedly, Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s point that what we consider to be “non-” or “extra-” linguistic is itself a presupposition of language.)
— lastly, if one conceives of both reading and texts more broadly, how may that amplify the import of Clooney’s emphasis on reading as a spiritual practice of concession and reception in such a way that informs virtually all comparative engagements of theology/religion?

I think these sets of questions, stemming from Clooney’s meditations in “From Theory to Practice,” are pertinent for our own consideration of what the (pre)supposed parameters are for “reading” “religious” “texts” “comparatively.”

I want to use this space to flesh out/document for myself some thoughts regarding the dialectic/“para-dialectic” movements in Clooney and Chidester.

To begin with Clooney: I was particularly interested in the constellation of his engagement with the divine and his literary writing style. As I have mentioned previously in class, I have recently become interested in the ways in which Blanchot’s “le neutre”—one of the two movements that he sees in literature, the one that refuses/withdraws from the dialectic, mastery/domination and tends to the remnant that precedes and exceeds the dialectic—could be brought in conversation with the divine and especially with African spiritual practices. His very literary/poetic writing is, as Ariel poignantly mentioned already, is in stark contrast to Chidester, who is predominantly concerned with knowledge production/attaining mastery over the material. I don’t want to go into too much detail regarding Clooney’s style of writing (which I align with Blanchot’s notion of le neutre) and the way in which He writes about the “kenosis” of god—but I am interested in the ways in which they both tend to this sense of primordial nothingness.

The Chidester text, in its tending to mastery and knowledge production (Blanchot’s movement of negation/signification within literature), offered a stark contrast to the Clooney. More importantly, however, its focus on imperialism reminded me of the ways in which Hegel constructs his dialectic in contradistinction to the colonial subject (see Rei Terada’s ‘Racism for Radicals’, if interested). Moreover, Mohandas K. Gandhi’s insistence of rendering the colonized India into a co-colonizer with Britain—against the black (South Africans). Which I found to be a striking reminder of the ways in which the human/being is founded on anti-blackness (see Calvin Warren’s work on this, if interested—and Andrew’s, for that matter!!) Along these lines, I found the unreadability/unintelligibility of the native South African rituals (like the “war dance”) particularly interesting in their juxtaposition to the colonizer’s (& Hegel’s & Chidester’s) movement of domination & signification and it’s refusal/withdrawal from it, which deepened my interest in pursuing this line of thought for myself—and to engage in further research on the notion of philo-praxis (thanks again to Christina and her amazing Vodou book recommendation & general insight!

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