What is Comparative Theology?
Comparative theology is in part a comparison of theologies, and entails reflection on theological themes ("revelation," "grace," "the Trinity") and also theological method and purpose as exemplified in various religious traditions. It is not primarily a comparison of faith in itself, nor experience, nor even of scriptures.
As a constructive practice, it is also a theology that proceeds by comparison; it fulfills the basic goal of "faith seeking understanding" precisely in the intelligent juxtaposition and use-together of theological texts from different traditions.
Comparative theology is not distinguished by a certain subject matter. It is not the same as the study of religion or of religions, nor is it the same as ecumenism or dialogue. Nor is it undertaken as an alternative to other "modes" of theology, such as Christology or Biblical theology or medical ethics, Church history or historical theology. Comparative theology may actually be an exercise in ethics, or a historical study, or political analysis, or a study of scriptural exegesis, etc. In general, it engages the same array of issues that occupy theologians who do not do comparative study; it proceeds by similar necessary choices and within similar necessary limits. It is distinguished by attention to how theology is practiced in multiple traditions, and by exploring theological topics through the practice of comparison.
It is not the same as the theology of religions, even if issues such as the uniqueness of Christ, salvation inside and outside the Church, and the meaning of religious pluralism are important to the comparative theologian, just as to other theologians.
The comparative theologian is familiar with, relatively at peace with, rooted in one of the traditions compared. The neutral observer is not an ideal here. Today's changing world may however be creating a new generation of theologians who have grown up without roots in a single tradition.
In the beginning, comparative theology invests a great deal of energy in trying to understand the other tradition, primarily through the reading of theological (not simply scriptural texts) texts; though difficult, this effort at understanding yields important results; in it one's initial 'outsider' position is partially transformed into that of an 'insider' who is familiar with the vocabulary and skilled in the discourse.
Reading is often the most practical and solid means of theological learning. But reading can also, when opportune, cede a place to art, music, ritual, and other modes of discourse.
As faith seeking understanding, however, comparative theology eventually involves the theologian in questions of faith, particularly in finding a response to the other tradition's faith experiences and its 'articulation' of the world in scripture. For understanding cannot stop neatly at the edge of experience; nor can a close reading of theological texts ward off the possibility of beginning to see the world in part through the scriptures of that other tradition.
Comparative theology takes time; its project of understanding, with the involved challenges regarding experience and scripture, proceeds only in time, over time, in a back and forth process of movement from one's own theological texts to those of the other tradition, and back to one's own tradition—again and again.
Comparative theology is the acquisition of a new literacy, in which one's theology is enriched and complicated by reception of the vocabulary, methods, choices of the other tradition, and by one's assimilation of these into one's home tradition. While the elements of one's own tradition may individually remain stable, they 'mean differently,' because located in new contexts.
Insofar as possible, textual scholarship is filled out in interreligious theological conversation. One talks and interacts with theologians from the other tradition, explains one's beliefs and writings, asks questions about their beliefs and writings, and in general showing a willingness to learn from those theologians of other faiths.
Comparative theology is an ongoing reflective process, in which the theologian reassesses her or his theory and practice of theology, as these are repeatedly and cumulatively revised in the course of making intelligent comparisons.
Comparative theology can remain a confessional, even apologetic, theology. The comparative theologian is open to truth wherever it may be found, but is not afraid to argue in defense of the truth he or she has already found.
Comparative theology shares with other modes of theology, within the same limits, the goal of knowing God.