Thoughts on Comparative Religion

Thoughts on Comparative Religion

For much of the C20th the comparative method not only predominated in the study of religion, it could almost have been said to have been the defining feature of that study. To study one in isolation, it could be said, was not to undertake a properly scientific analysis because it was impossible to make properly theoretical or meta-level judgements about common patterns or aspects of the varied traditions. For a variety of reasons, however, such an approach fell from favour – some of the reason it must be said were good, others bad.

Briefly, and with no sense of being comprehensive, reasons for the decline included disillusionment with, or the fall from grace for, such grandees of the phenomenological comparative methodology as Mircea Eliade and Ninian Smart. For the former, his almost explicit theological agenda would always create problems in what was a discipline striving to establish itself as a ‘properly scientific’ and ‘secular’ discipline that was distanced from theology. For the latter, his phenomenological modernism which sought to clearly define the limits and nature of religion would be critiqued by post-modern trends which sought to distance themselves both from the possible essentialism of phenomenology and also from the colonial and theological associations that the terms ‘religion’ and ‘world religion’ were held to be subject to.

For several decades, then, the comparative method was seen as at best a backwater of the study of religion, a place occupied by a dying breed of theoretical dinosaurs or simplistic dilettantes who had not really grasped the rigours of the academic study of religion.

The twentieth century has, once again though, seen a reversal of fortunes for the comparative method. On the one hand, the post-modern deconstruction of religion has been shown to both lead to something of a dead end theoretically, and to be rather less methodologically sound than assumed – there are very good reasons for classifying the variety of things which we, in everyday speech, call ‘religions’ as religions; I, and others, have argued this at length. (Not that we reject that ‘religion’ is a constructed term, nor that the term as often used has problems, but that it is a conceptually useful tool to talk about a range of phenomena that can be meaningfully classed and analysed together – although it is not the only way it can or should be so classified or analysed.)

On the other, in areas like Comparative Theology advocated by seminal figures like Francis Clooney, and younger scholars such as John Thatamanil and Michelle Voss Roberts, it can be seen that a discourse which seeks meaningful comparison and analysis between religions is both possible and capable of being done with respect and theoretical rigour. However, while Comparative Theology enjoins such study within a specifically Christian frame (although transcending narrow sectarian limits strictly drawn), the practice of comparative religion seeks a way to do comparison outside a theological agenda (of any tradition), and to employ the methodologies proper to its own area (which is not to say that each cannot cross-fertilise in meaningful ways, and in relation to a figure like Clooney it is because he is a scholar of Hinduism of the first rank that such authority attaches to his own attempts at Comparative Theology as someone who understands both traditions with depth and empathy employing the tools of scholarship proper to any study – historical, philological, hermeneutical, etc.).

My particular musings here are inspired by my starting to read Gavin Flood’s The Truth Within: A History of Inwardness in Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) – which as I am reviewing and currently only in the first chapter of so it would be improper for me to expound upon it at length here and prematurely (the review will in due course appear in the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion) – and which stands as part of Flood’s work to enshrine the basis for a theoretically rigorous and scholarly credible comparative religious methodology once more within the study of religion. Flood’s work here is notable as he was once a scholar highly critical of the phenomenological methodology (see his Beyond Phenomenology, London and New York: Cassell, 1999) and so he has moved through the critique to once again see the value in both phenomenology and comparative methodology (when done with due care).

His work, though, is far from being alone and comparative methodology seems to be once again returning to the agenda of the academic study of religion which I see as both welcome and healthy. Of course, academic trends come and go and no doubt at some future date comparison will once again become a dirty word amongst the bright young things and most cutting edge scholarship – it is always necessary in academia to say something new and different, even shocking, if you are to establish your name and reputation – however, I believe that would be a mistake and I think the work of Flood and others will certainly provide an argument that a secure and credible case exists for the comparative methodology being seen as something which cannot be so readily dismissed as it was in the critique of figures like Eliade and Smart. While I would not suggest that comparative methods are the only, or even best, tool available to scholars of religion – or those elements of culture relating to human orientations to that perceived or configured as transcendent – they are, surely one of the valuable parts of the toolkit.

For anyone who wants further reading on this topic I would suggest the following texts which act as something of a set of references to my argument above, and also as further reading to go further. (These are initially provided somewhat incomplete and I realise I could add some further texts which some may say are essential, but this is not intended as a comprehensive or definitive reading list and if the mood takes me I may add and fill it out in due course – as I’m currently travelling this is rather thrown together off the top of my head and without access to my library or other resources to check all texts).

On the critique and current reception of Eliade see:

Bryan Rennie (ed.), Mircea Eliade: A Critical Reader, Durham: Acumen, 2006.

Christian K. Wedemeyer and Wendy Doniger (eds), Hermeneutics, Politics and the History of Religions: The Contested Legacies of Joachim Wach and Mircea Eliade, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010.

On the critique of religion:

Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion: Disciplines and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1993.
Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Russell McCutcheon, Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982.

On the rehabilitation of the concept religion:

Paul Hedges, ‘Discourse on Discourses: Why we still need the Terminology of “Religion” and “Religions”’, Journal of Religious History, 38:1, 2014, pp. 132-48.

Paul Hedges, ‘The Old and the New Comparative Theologies: Discourses on Religion, the Theology of Religions, Orientalism and the Boundaries of Traditions’, Religions, 3:4, 2012, pp. 1120-37.

Paul Hedges, ‘Can We Still Teach “Religions”?: Towards an Understanding of Religion as Culture and Orientation in Contemporary Pedagogy and Metatheory’, in G. Durka, L. Gearon, M. DeSouza, K. Engebretson (eds), International Handbook for Inter-Religious Education, Vol. I, New York: Springer Academic Publishers, 2010, pp. 291-312.

On comparative theology:

Francis Clooney, Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Boundaries, Chichester: Wiley, 2010.

John Thatamanil, The Immanent Divine, Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006.

Michelle Voss Roberts, Dualities: A Theology of Difference, Louisville, KN: Westminster JKP, 2010.

Some contemporary works on comparative religion:

Gavin Flood, The Ascetic Self, Cambridge: CUP, 2004.

Paul Gwynne, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad: A Comparative Study, Chiceshter: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.

Volkhard Krech and Marion Steinicke (eds), Dynamics in the History of Religions between Asia and Europe: Encounters, Notions and Comparative Perspectives, Leiden: Brill, 2012.

On phenomenology, both its critique and current uses and defences within the study of religion:

George Chryssides, ‘Phenomenology and its Critics’, in Ron Geaves and George Chryssides, The Study of Religion, London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, 2nd edn, pp. 157-82.

James Cox, An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, London and New York: Continuum, 2009.

Gavin Flood, Beyond Phenomenology, London and New York: Cassell, 1999.

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