Elizabeth Burns – “Petitionary Prayer and Mindfulness Meditation: Towards a Philosophical Comparison”

Elizabeth Burns is Reader in Philosophy of Religion at the University of London, and Programme Director for the University of London Distance Learning Programmes in Divinity (email: elizabeth.burns@london.ac.uk). Her publications include What is this thing called philosophy of religion? (Routledge, 2018). We invited her to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The philosophical problems associated with petitionary prayer to the God of classical Christian theism are well-known and, in philosophical accounts of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, at least, difficult to solve (see, e.g., Davison 2017). In this post I will consider whether a form of mindfulness meditation can retain some features of petitionary prayer while avoiding these philosophical difficulties.

This comes with a major proviso. There are many forms of meditation, each of which has been influenced by its cultural context, and some of which contain supernatural elements which do not feature in what David L. McMahan refers to as the ‘Standard Version’, a form of mindfulness meditation which has become popular in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries as a way of improving psychological wellbeing (2023: 6, 17). I will refer mostly, although not exclusively, to that ‘Standard Version’ which, although a modern development, at least has its origins in the many traditions and texts of historical Buddhism.

Perhaps the two most significant philosophical problems for petitionary prayer are as follows:

i. Why do we need to tell an omniscient God something which God must already know?
ii. If God is omniscient, omnipotent, and good, why do some prayers remain unanswered?

I will take the Lord’s Prayer of Luke 11:2-4, its shortest form, as a paradigm of Christian prayer. It contains five petitions, as follows:

Father, may your name be revered as holy.
May your kingdom come. [Some texts add ‘Your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us’ or ‘Your will be done, on earth as in heaven’.]
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial. [Some texts add ‘but rescue us from the evil one’ or ‘from evil’.]
(New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+11%3A2-4&version=NRSVUE; an extended version may be found in Matthew 6: 9-13).

Elements of at least four of these petitions may be found in Buddhist teaching and practice. For example:

1. This ‘Three-fold Puja’ by Ven. Sangharakshita expresses reverence for the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha:

‘We reverence the Buddha, the Perfectly Enlightened One, the Shower of the Way.
We reverence the Dharma, the Teaching of the Buddha, which leads from darkness to Light.
We reverence the Sangha, the fellowship of the Buddha’s disciples, that inspires and guides.’ https://thebuddhistcentre.com/system/files/groups/files/threefoldpuja.pdf

2. The second petition of the Lord’s prayer, particularly in its extended form, is concerned with moral development and practice, since God’s kingdom will come only if transformed Christians work to bring this about. Something similar may be seen in the practice of compassion meditation or loving-kindness meditation, as in this example by Helen Weng and the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison: https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/compassion_meditation. We would do well to note, however, Mikel Burley’s warning that, if we wish to deepen ‘our understanding of religion in all its messy variety’, we cannot assume that ‘compassion’ has the same meaning in all religions (2020: 118).

3. The petition concerning forgiveness, for ourselves and others, has a parallel in forgiveness meditation, an example of which may be found here: https://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/forgiveness.htm

4. The petition about avoiding temptation also has significant parallels in Buddhist teaching and meditation. For example, in the Dhammapada (https://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/scrndhamma.pdf), the Buddha teaches that ‘[t]hose meditative ones who tread the [eightfold] path are released from the bonds of Mara’ (20: 276), where Mara is understood as the demon, either literal or metaphorical, who tempts humankind away from the path of virtue. Wisdom enables them to follow the eightfold path through which they avoid temptation, and wisdom ‘springs from meditation; without meditation wisdom wanes’ (20: 282).

None of these four petitions seem to involve telling an omniscient God something which God must already know since each petition is largely, if not always completely, answered as a consequence of making the petition. Similarly, the problem of unanswered prayer is less significant if petitioners play a considerable part in answers to prayer.

At first sight, however, the petition concerning daily bread does appear to be a straightforward request for something for which we are ultimately dependent on forces external to ourselves. But Thomas Aquinas (1224/5-1274) suggests that ‘daily bread’ could refer to ‘sacramental bread’ (Summa Theologiae, Second Part of the Second Part, Question 83, Article 9: https://www.newadvent.org/summa/3083.htm#article9), a daily memorial of Jesus’ death and resurrection which serves as spiritual food. This interpretation is also found in much earlier texts (as recorded in, for example, Meyer’s NT Commentary, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/matthew/6-11.htm). It could be argued that meditation, too, is a source of spiritual food, a transformational process which, as B. Alan Wallace suggests, is likened in the Samyutta Nikaya and the Anguttara Nikaya to that of refining gold (2009: 174).

If this is at least a possible interpretation of the petition concerning daily bread, it avoids the philosophical objection that petitionary prayer tells God something which we would expect an omniscient God to know, since the purpose of the petition is to express desire for a spiritual good, and thereby to attain it. This interpretation is supported in Jesus’ teaching that his followers should not worry about what they will eat or drink because God knows that they need such things (Luke 12: 29-30; see also Matthew 6: 31-32), and by descriptions of Jesus as the ‘bread of life’ (e.g. John 6: 35).

This interpretation also avoids the objection that some prayers are not answered. Many people do not have daily bread in the literal sense so if, as seems likely, at least some of them have prayed for it, their prayers have not been answered. But if all five petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are, in fact, petitions which can only be answered as we make those petitions, then it is possible that unanswered prayers are prayers for things for which we should not pray. Aquinas quotes St John Damascene (b 676) who says that ‘prayer is the raising up of the mind to God’ (Question 83, Article 1), and that ‘to pray is to ask becoming things of God’ (Question 83, Articles and 1 and 5). For Aquinas, then, the Lord’s Prayer ‘teaches us to ask … for all that we may rightly desire’ (Question 83, Article 9).

Although key features of the Lord’s Prayer may be found in meditative practices associated with Buddhism, then, it is not necessary to abandon Christian petitionary prayer in favour of some form of mindfulness meditation in order to avoid common philosophical difficulties. Others (e.g. Stead (2016), Moe (2017), and Tyler (2018)) have noted the similarities – as well as important differences – between Christian prayer and Buddhist meditation, and argued both that mindfulness may be found in the Christian contemplative tradition (e.g. Stead x, 18, 32), and that contemporary Christianity can learn from contemporary mindfulness meditation. Further exploration of this might be one way to overcome what sometimes appears to be an impasse in the study of the philosophical problems associated with petitionary prayer.


Burley, Mikel (2020) A Radical Pluralist Philosophy of Religion: Cross-Cultural, Multireligious, Interdisciplinary (London: Bloomsbury Academic).

Davison, Scott (2017) Petitionary Prayer: A Philosophical Investigation (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

McMahan, David L. (2023) Rethinking Meditation: Buddhist Meditative Practices in Ancient and Modern Worlds (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Moe, David Thang (2018) ‘Barth and Buddhism: A Theology of Prayer and Meditation in Christian and Buddhist Exchanges’ in Journal of Yoga and Physiotherapy 5(5): 555675. DOI: 10.19080/JYP.2018.05.555675.

Stead, Tim (2016) Mindfulness and Christian Spirituality: Making Space for God (London: SPCK).

Tyler, Peter (2018) Christian Mindfulness: Theology and Practice (London: SCM Press).

Wallace, B. Alan (2009) Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism and Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press).

Gereon Kopf – “How ‘Comparative’ is Comparative Philosophy of Religion? – Towards a Multi-Entry Approach”

Gereon Kopf received his Ph.D. from Temple University (1996). He is affiliated with Luther College. He has taught at Hong Kong University (2008-2009), Saitama University (2013, 2015, 2016), the Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg (2018), and the University of Iceland (2017-2022), and served a grant of the Wabash Center as P.I. (2020-2022). He is currently working on Zen: Myth, History, and Diversity (2024), Philosophy of Mind Around the World (2024), and a multi-entry approach to philosophy of religion (2024). We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

On December 3, 2021, my first contribution to this series of stimulating online conversations on philosophy of religion (hereafter “PoR”) appeared. In that contribution, I introduced my fourth-person approach as a possible model/vision of/for a future philosophy (of religion). So, when Wesley Wildman and David Rohr invited me to contribute to the current discussions on the de/merits of comparative philosophy I gratefully agreed to enter in this conversation and to introduce my multi-entry approach as an example-of/alternative-to comparative PoR. My essay today begins with a bold claim: More often than not, comparative PoR perpetuates hegemonic discourses. The multi-entry approach is designed to subvert those power structures. In this essay, I would like to reflect on how my practice of comparative religious studies and comparative PoR has led me to develop this innovative method.

Since 2014, a group of us (many of whom have contributed to the discussions on PoR here) have been involved in a project called “Global-Critical Philosophy of Religion” (hereafter abbreviated as “GCPoR”). We started our collaboration with a seminar at the American Academy of Religion (“AAR”) (2015-2019) and, this year, launched a permanent program unit at the AAR with the same title. Since 2015, we have also been holding workshops and coordinating book projects with the generous support of, among others, the NEH, the Wabash Center, and the University of Birmingham/Templeton Foundation. In the stimulating context of this group, I have developed a new approach to doing PoR globally and critically that I call the “multi-entry approach.”

So why did I think it beneficial to develop a new approach-to/method-of PoR? I was trained in comparative religious studies, comparative PoR, and in the field of inter-religious dialogue at Temple University. As a graduate student with prior training in Catholic Theology, I was attracted to the attempt to expand and globalize our discourses on/in religion, philosophy, and PoR to include a multiplicity of traditions. This is what I think is comparative PoR is at its best: developing a method to include representative texts, authors, and scholars of a multiplicity of traditions and disciplines into what is constitutive of PoR. However, even the best-intended projects to expand the scope of PoR globally, unfortunately, have had their pitfalls as the works of Edward Said (1978) and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1982) have aptly demonstrated. Even Anthony Appiah’s vision of cosmopolitanism is not immune to criticism.

While projects in comparative PoR usually start with the noble intent to be inclusive, they disclose three problematic features:

1) The very attempt to reach across boundaries, implies that there are boundaries in the first place. Many comparative projects imply, to varying degrees, a cultural essentialism that constructs cultures and traditions as “quasi-entities” (Clarke 1993, 14), erects “glass curtains” (ibid., 17), and perpetuates “enclavism” (ibid., 14). This reification of cultural monoliths is especially visible in the rhetoric of “East” vs. “West” and projects such as the “Christian-Buddhist dialogue.” It is also implied in disciplinary language that identifies a comparison between Derrida and Nāgārjuna as “comparative philosophy” but not one between Foucault and Habermas. It goes without saying that there is no dialogue between or comparison of Christianity and Buddhism, but only between/of individual people, texts, rituals, or beliefs identified as “Christian” and “Buddhist,” respectively. Reducing the diversity within and the complexity of traditions to alleged representatives raises the question of “representation” in its twofold sense of darstellen/vertreten and that of the subaltern as Spivak (1982, 70) called to our attention in her pioneering “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

2) In general, comparativists seem to apply one of two possible methods, a first-person approach that uses the language/method of one of the conversation partners and applies it to the other/s––as the many essays reading the philosophies of Nāgārjuna or Dōgen as deconstruction do––or a third-person approach that applies an external and allegedly neutral method to both conversation partners. The latter is the method used prevalently in comparative religious studies but also in recent projects in comparative or global PoR (Kopf 2023a, 123-124). The very usage of the categories “religion” and “philosophy” in many comparative projects is symptomatic of a first-person approach. If we explore phenomena that we in English call “religion” or even modify our categories in the light of discourses on this subject in cultural and linguistic realms outside of the traditions that coined this terminology, I suggest using the categories “religion” (i.e., what we call “religion”) and religion (i.e., “religion” that is not religion) instead. The latter parenthetical phrase is inspired by the rhetoric of the Diamond Sūtra (Vajracchedikā-prajñāpāramitā-sūtra). 3) Comparisons and dialogues, as important as they are, tend to obscure the complexities of texts, rituals, beliefs, and identities as they mostly result in a judgement postulating either their identity or highlighting their difference.

To reflect on comparative PoR and intercultural encounters critically, I developed a fourfold typology (Kopf 2017, 2022): 1) the “sufficiency-of-the-self” (graph 1), 2) “the encounter-with-the-other” (graph 2), 3) the “face-of-the-third” (graph 3), and 4) the “presence-of-the-fourth” (graph 4). Type 1) focuses on the self and sees the world exclusively through one’s own lens; type 2) focuses on the perceived differences between self and other and divides the world into binaries and dichotomies; type 3) focuses on the shifting alliances between self and other vis-à-vis a third, self and third vis-à-vis the other, and other and third vis-à-vis the self; and type 4), on the particular positionality of all parties involved in this comparison or “multilogue” (Kopf 2021, 2022) as well as what is included/excluded by each of them.

The sufficiency of the self

The encounter with the other

The face of the third

The presence of the fourth

I would like to illustrate these four types with four possible responses to cultural diversity, to disciplinary diversity, and to my essay.

Four possible response to cultural diversity are “1) ethnocentrism; 2) the … variations on the so-called ‘clash of civilizations,’ be it the domination of one culture over the other(s), an eternal conflict, or an awkward truce; 3) Anthony Appiah’s vision that cosmopolitans negotiate cultural specificities with our common humanity; and 4) hybridism.”

Four possible response to disciplinary diversity are “1) disciplinary sectarianism and dogmatism; 2) disciplinary competition and rivalry; 3) cross-disciplinary collaborations; and, 4) multi-disciplinarity wherein scholars start to see their own disciplines in the larger network of disciplines” (Kopf 2022, 67).

Four possible responses to my essay are the attempts 1) to interpret my essay on the reader’s own terms, 2) to focus on differences between the position of my essay and the reader’s own, 3) to identify similarities between us (against other/third approaches), and 4) to engage in critical analysis and to locate my position as well as the position of the reader on the landscape of ideologies and disciplines.

This typology has led me to what I call “multi-entry philosophy.” It is inspired by the non-essentialist philosophies implied in Chengguan’s (738-839) “fourfold dharma world” (sifajie 四法界), Dōgen’s (1200-1253) notion of “expression” (dōtoku 道得), and Nishida Kitarō’s (1870-1945) conception of the “historical world” (rekishitekisekai 歴史的世界). Using such a non-essentialist framework, we can say that every position expresses and every discipline inquires into religion “fully but not completely” (Kopf 2023a, 127). To cite Dōgen, “when one side is illuminated, another [side] is obscured” (DZZ 1:7). All worldviews and methods have strengths and weaknesses. Each religious philosophy as well as each discipline exploring them highlights one aspect of religion and obscures another. Thus, to engage in comparative PoR, I suggest a multilogue that is based on the “presence-of-the-fourth.”

I have outlined the framework of such a multilogue in a recent essay:

The foundations of such a multilogue are a) “acknowledge your social position” (地位意識), b) “erase all power difference––level the playing field” (消除力差 – 公平場所), c) “protect all participants” (守護大家), d) “remember the past––envision the future” (記憶過去 – 展望未來), and e) “search the common good” (求共同善). …. Its strategies [of engagement] are a) “listening to the other” (聆聽他者), b) a thorough and systematic “examinations of assumptions, arguments, and beliefs” (考察論點) … c) “standpoint analysis” (分析立場), by means of which we assess what standpoint and cognitive frames specific beliefs express; d) … [applying] the “dialectics of similarities and differences” (辯證異同) … e) “locating the conversation partners on the ideological landscape” (重視語境) (Kopf 2023a, 140-141).

In every encounter situation and multilogue, including discursive ones, there exist ample power differentials, some obvious some subtle, centers and margins, and varying degrees of privileged positions. Two of these centers/privileged positions are always implied and rarely acknowledged: the anglophonocentrism rampant in comparative discourses and the hegemony of academically sanctioned methods and languages. Trinh Minh Ha explores, among others, these two privileged positions in her trailblazing Woman, Native, Other (1989). A multilogue can only be successful if all participants are aware of their own historical, social, and discursive positions and the multiplicity of perspectives on our position/alitie/s. We need to realize that our metaphysical and moral frameworks are not necessarily shared and open ourselves to listen to a variety of worldviews as well as the place our own positions inhabit in them. Then, through the practice of “deep listening” (Thich Nhat Hanh) and what I call “standpoint analysis,” we might be able to identify what aspect of religion each of our worldviews and methods of inquiry illuminates and which ones they obscure.

The application of this method is not easy. First, it requires that we have to step outside of our comfort zone and agree on a common method with our conversation partners. This means we may have to let go of some our discursive assumptions and privileges. It may require that we learn and use new conceptual frameworks and languages. Ideally, though impractical, essays on GCPoR are multilingual and employ a multiplicity of genres. Most of all, however, this approach requires that we hear how our own position/method as well as its socio-historical and discursive location is viewed by multiple others. The ensuing potential disenchantment and disillusionment can be challenging and even painful. But I believe it is worth the discomfort since those kinds of rapprochement may help us realize the vision that motivated the pioneers of comparative PoR in the first place: to be truly inclusive, to work towards mutual understanding, and to avoid exclusive judgements. Judging from the news these days, such a mutual rapprochement and understanding might be more urgent than ever.

Works Cited:


DZZ 『道元禅師全集』 [Complete Works of Zen Master Dōgen]. 2 vols. Ed. Dōshū Ōkubo 城大久保道舟. (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 1969-1970).

Other Works

Clarke, J. J.1993. Jung and the East: A Dialogue with the Orient. New York: Routledge.

Kopf, Gereon. 2021. “How to make Philosophy of Religion Relevant for the Future.” In Philosophy of Religion: big question philosophy for scholars and students, ed. David Rohr. December 3, 2021 (https://philosophyofreligion.org/?p=525634#more-525634).

_____. 2022. “Envisioning Multi-Cultural and Multi-Disciplinary Engagement: Lessons from the Twelve Wolf Encounter Pictures.” Culture and Dialogue Vol. 10, No. 1.

_____. 2023a. “The Theory and Practice of the Multi-Entry Approach.” In Diversifying Philosophy of Religion: Critiques, Methods, and Case Studies, eds.: Nathan Loewen and Agnieszka Rostalska, Chapter 8. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

_____. 2023b. “Expression.” In Key Concepts in World Philosophies: Everything you need to know about doing Cross-Cultural Philosophy, eds.: Sarah Flavel and Chiara Robbiano, 365-375. Bloomsbury Academics, 2023.

Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1982. “Can the Subaltern Speak.” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, editors: Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, 66-111. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Trinh, Minh Ha. 1989. Woman, Native, Other. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Allen Stairs on “Comparative Philosophy Of Religion: It’s Not Just Academic”

Allen Stairs is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park. Though most of his research has been in philosophy of physics, he is the author, with Christopher Bernard of A Thinker’s Guide to the Philosophy of Religion. His current project explores issues that arise in connection with the idea of non-doxastic religious faith. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Like the Father’s house, philosophy has many rooms, including rooms within rooms. A philosopher of religion could honorably devote her career to exploring the Christian concept of incarnation entirely from within. But it would be astonishing if considering a range of religious traditions had nothing to contribute to the philosophy of religion. What follows isn’t written from the perspective of someone with deep knowledge of comparative religion. Rather, I want to highlight what I see as an urgent problem that could benefit from the insights that comparative philosophy of religion might bring.

Begin with a handful of features of religious traditions. The first is close to constitutive: religions are not just private. Someone might be committed to ideas and practices that they find compelling in the kind of way that a Christian or a Jew or a Sikh might see their own commitments. They might provide moral touchstones, ritual-like practices, not-merely-empirical views about the nature of reality, ways of seeing life as meaningful… But insofar as this bundle of ideas and attitudes is merely or nearly private, it would be odd to call it a religion.

Second, to adhere to a religion is typically to grant it a measure of authority. That one’s religion claims or denies or approves of or frowns on something tends to provide adherents with a reason to agree. If you see yourself as part of a religious tradition and you discover a difference between your own views and the views of the tradition, that will typically matter to you. The difference will go with giving a weight to your tradition that you wouldn’t give to another tradition — even if you can’t articulate an independent reason for treating your own tradition as authoritative. Religion isn’t unique in this respect. The customs of your country are more likely to matter to you than the customs of some other country. But in the religious case, the authority may be thought to flow from something more than worldly and beyond the reach of ordinary evidence and argument.

All of this is familiar but it also raises familiar problems. People have died because they run afoul of these kinds of commitments (apostates, heretics, “heathens”) or have accepted them at their peril (by refusing medical treatment, for example.) In other cases, people have been shunned, excluded, purged from their land, driven to despair.

Here it might be pointed out that what’s been described may take a particular form with religion, but the larger issue isn’t unique to religion. Political movements can embody the same sorts of dangers and the mechanisms are similar. Political movements may be underwritten by mythical understandings of the nation and exalted views of leaders. Religion is a source of identity, but so is political affiliation. Religious fervor can be stirred up and spread by charismatic leaders, but the same goes for political conviction. These similarities are real and important. It’s also clear that the two forces can combine in a powerful and often problematic symbiosis. But what does this have to do with comparative philosophy of religion? And why the emphasis on pathologies?

Start with the second question. For me, this issue is not just academic. I live in a country where religious and political pathology have formed a bond that ties my stomach in knots every single day. US culture wars might once have been background noise to politics as usual. These days, religious dogmatism is a key part of a political movement that continues to do real harm to real people. I do not hold the field of philosophy of religion responsible for any of this. Nonetheless, some of what philosophy of religion has produced in recent decades seems to me to push in the wrong direction, attempting to underwrite certainty where doubt is what seems apt. Yes: it’s possible to tell a kind of externalist story about knowledge on which firm believers know. And yes: by adding some astonishing epicycles, one can spin that story to account for the apparent benightedness of most of the rest of the religious world. Whether this is an accomplishment or an “accomplishment,” however, is another matter.

This brings into sharp relief one source of the value of comparative philosophy of religion. It’s possible to do serious comparative work in philosophy of religion and remain convinced that one’s own tradition is uniquely valuable and uniquely correct, but it’s not easy. That it’s not easy is a good thing all by itself. It is not a reason for abandoning one’s tradition, but it is a counter to the kinds of tendencies noted above. More to the point of why comparative philosophy of religion might matter, various traditions grapple with these issues in their own ways. This is among the things that comparative philosophy of religion can shed light on. Some traditions such as Sikhism and Baha’i are inherently more open to religious diversity. Within broad traditions such as Christianity there is more divergence. This is a reminder that comparative philosophy of religion would do well to include intra-religious as well as inter-religious comparison. The differences within parts of a tradition can be at least as striking as large-scale differences between traditions.

No one would think that philosophers can solve the practical problems described here, but comparative philosophy of religion can help provide useful intellectual tools and insights. Perhaps at least as important, if comparative philosophy of religion becomes a more central part of the discipline, it will make a difference to what students are exposed to and think about. This is a crucial way for philosophy to make a difference beyond the academy. The practical issues raised here are only one part of case for comparative philosophy of religion, but in these times, they may be at least as important as any others.

Douglas Allen – “Comparative Philosophy of Religion as Theoretically and Practically Essential”

Douglas Allen (dallen@maine.edu), Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maine (1974-2020) and Professor Emeritus (2020-present), is Editor of the Lexington Book Series Studies in Comparative Philosophy and Religion. He is the author and editor of 18 books and more than 150 book chapters and journal articles. A scholar-activist and activist-scholar, Doug has been deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam Antiwar Movement, and other peace and justice struggles continuing to the present. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The invitation to share thoughts on comparative philosophy of religion is very meaningful. I retired in 2020 after 46 years as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maine. I always listed Comparative Philosophy and Comparative Religion as Areas of Specialization, and this included Comparative Philosophy/Philosophies of Religion. To provide only two personal examples, I had the honor of serving for four years as President of the international Society for Asian and Comparative Philosophy (SACP), and I continue to serve as Editor of the Studies in Comparative Philosophy and Religion Book Series published by Lexington Books.

It is tempting to respond to the question of whether comparative research, including comparative religion and comparative philosophy, is significant for excellent philosophy of religion with a simple affirmation. Nevertheless, relevant key questions and responses are anything but simple. Indeed, scholars who respond affirmatively about this potential for excellent philosophy of religion may disagree significantly in how they understand and formulate key comparative questions, presuppositions, perspectives, and affirmative responses. In this essay, I submit that comparative philosophy, comparative religion, and comparative philosophy of religion are not only important, but they are also essential for creative theoretical scholarship and for transformative practices and actions today.

Comparative religion, in general, and comparative philosophy of religion, in particular, are not something new, even if they have more significant urgency and constructive roles to play in the contemporary world. Going back thousands of years—in Ancient Greece, Hebraic traditions, dominant Christian formulations, Ancient Classical India, and elsewhere—one finds many examples of comparative religion and comparative philosophy of religion. Explorers, traders, missionaries, and others experienced expressions of new religious phenomena. How could they and other religious and nonreligious human beings understand such new myths, rituals, values, beliefs, and faiths? Sometimes it was claimed that such understanding could be achieved by comparing these new phenomena with one’s own dominant religious and nonreligious theoretical views, faiths, beliefs, systemic structures and relations, ideologies, and practices.

Examining the historical complexity of diverse contextualized cultural, religious, scientific, and other formulations, one can conclude that such comparative understanding did not usually involve the need to understand and respect the perspectives of others on their own terms. Rather, comparative religion was often competitive religion. Comparative religion often expressed a limited and false sense of understanding that was motivated by the need to dominate, exploit, convert, and/or reject the truth and reality of others.

Most philosophy, religion, and philosophy of religion, from ancient times to the present, has not been comparative. I’ll note two major reasons for this. First, if you embrace the religious (or economic, political, social, cultural, scientific, technological, environmental) view that you possess the absolute truth and reality, why waste time in comparing and trying to understand inadequate false perspectives? Second, most philosophies of religion have claimed or simply assumed (falsely in my view) that their analyses and interpretations function on a rather abstract, theoretical, universal, rational level. It is usually not acknowledged that such philosophies of religion are deeply shaped by religious, historical, cultural, contextualized values, presuppositions, epistemological, and ontological limiting (and enabling) values, relations, and systemic structures. This, for example, is how dominant (classic, modern, western) formulations, arguments, and debates in philosophy of religion regarding theistic Proofs for the Existence of God or regarding the Problem of Evil have been presented without addressing differing comparative interpretations.

I propose that comparative philosophy of religion/philosophies of religion are of great value and significance today and offer us very difficult and meaningful challenges theoretically and practically. To be most significantly transformative, comparative philosophies of religion can adopt holistic approaches that are contextually situated, open-ended, dynamic, and dialectally related. They can emphasize the basic unity and interconnectedness of existence, expressions of value, interpretations of meaning, and views of truth and reality. What meaningfully unites us is seen as more essential than what divides us. This is a unity with a respect for legitimate perspectival differences. Such comparative philosophies of religion are invaluable for realizing the essential experiences, dimensions, and structures of loving kindness, compassion, empathy, nonviolence, peace, justice, selfless service responding to suffering, morality, and spirituality that unite us at the most essential levels of our human mode of being in the world.

In a dynamic open-ended process that resists religious and philosophical closures, comparative philosophy of religion allows for the experience, constitution, and development of new phenomena, concepts, perspectives, meanings, and practices. This process may take many forms. For example, religious scholars may start with their own religious orientations, and then, through comparative philosophy of religion, realize how these can be compared with and related to other religious orientations that can be transformative in deepening and broadening our initial perspectives and in how we understand and relate to others.

In many comparative approaches, this illustrates the correct claim that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but in my view of philosophy of religion, this involves a qualitative paradigm shift and is more radically transformative and revolutionary than typical whole-parts formulations. What emerges through the dynamic, creative, empathetic, open-ended, cooperatively engaged, and contextualized process of comparative philosophy of religion are new ways of understanding and being in the world; new ways of critical reflection and new emotional and imaginative ways of relating; new ways of experiencing our interconnectedness and unity that are needed to respond to our deepest existential crises that threaten human and nonhuman life on planet earth.

Because of length requirements, there are significant analyses and challenges to such an essential, theoretical, and practical philosophy of religion/philosophies of religion that I shall not address. For example, in comparative philosophy of religion there are two tendencies that are dialectically related, insightful, and invaluable in revealing new phenomena and interpretations of meaning, but which also reveal oppositional as well as unifying tensions and directions methodologically, theoretically, and practically.

On the one hand, there is the dominant movement of comparative philosophy of religion I have emphasized: unifying movement toward synthesis and fusion, with emergence of new phenomena and understandings, the experience and development of our unifying interconnectedness that responds to our relational existence, systemic structures, and contemporary crises. This is easier said than done. We face many methodological, theoretical, and other challenges. How do we formulate and justify such interconnected synthesis and fusion? Enact intersubjective and other checks to justify claims about emerging new principles, concepts, practices, and meanings? Resist historical contextualized patterns in which claims about oneness and unity have often been hegemonic and were achieved by erasing perspectival differences and/or by distorting and falsely integrating them within the framework of one’s dominant philosophy of religion?

On the other hand, there is the invaluable movement of comparative philosophy of religion that allows us to uncover, acknowledge, and include the wide diversity of perspectival differences with diverse religious approaches, paths, and views of truth and reality. Why should there be only one true perspective, one view, one path, or even one philosophy of religion? This pluralistic, multisided, and multidimensional orientation is insightful and desperately needed for greater tolerance, mutual respect, and harmonious relations, but it is easier said than done. We are left with many difficult challenges. For example, as evidenced in much of postmodernism, multiculturalism, cultural relativism, and other contemporary approaches, why does this comparative oppositional dialectical tendency and movement not result in the endless proliferation of inviolable, exclusive, absolute, separate differences? Fragmentation rejecting holistic unity? The basic rejection of all formulations of old and new interconnected relations, structures, and meanings?

I’ll end by submitting that comparative philosophy of religion, which is essential theoretically and practically today, necessarily involves rereading, reinterpreting, and reapplying philosophies of religion in new creative ways. My major attempt in this essay has not been to provide an absolute blueprint for comparative philosophy of religion, which would deny or minimize the necessary, dynamic, open-ended nature of such an orientation. Instead, I hope that the essay may engage readers and serve as a catalyst for the development of new formulations of comparative philosophy of religion that contribute to human and planetary sustainability and flourishing.

James Wetzel – “Comparative Philosophy of Religion: The Tao and the Inner Teacher”

James Wetzel is Professor of Philosophy and Augustinian Chair at Villanova University. He also directs Villanova’s Augustinian Institute. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

When I teach Villanova’s foundation course in philosophy—a course ambitiously named “Knowledge, Reality, Self”—I usually venture a bit of comparative philosophy of religion (though the “of religion” part is perhaps redundant in so heady a stew). For the last couple of tries, I have ventured a juxtaposition of Augustine’s dialogue on the teacher, De magistro, with Lao Tzu’s enigmatic wisdom teaching, the Tao Te Ching.

Augustine wrote De magistro not long after his return to Africa from Italy in 388 and not long before the death of his only child, his son Adeodatus, in 390. De magistro takes the form of a dialogue between father and son, and in the Confessions (conf. 9.6.14) Augustine swears that he doesn’t invent his son’s part. The boy’s voice, unforeseeably memorialized in De magistro, remains his own.

The Tao Te Ching comes out of the Warring States Period in ancient China—a time of great violence and volatility. Its authorship is generally attributed to Lao Tzu, but “Lao Tzu” likely just means “old man” or “old master”; it is not a proper name. The text is about a way that cannot be named, but, then again, there is an awful lot of talk there about The Tao.

It is tempting to compare the two works along the lines of a similar problematic, say the problem of communicability. At the start of De magistro, Augustine asks his adolescent son a potentially provocative question: “What do you think we want to accomplish when we talk?” (mag. 1.1). That could be a question about a difficult history. The father has, a couple of years prior, sent the boy’s mother away for the prospect of a better, more socially advantageous match. I wonder whether Augustine and Adeodatus ever talked about this, and if so, what would they have been hoping to accomplish? The same thing? But Adeodatus opts for the long view and answers for the ages. What we do, what any of us would want to do, is twofold: learn (discere) and teach (docere). For his part Augustine insists on the chasm between those two desiderata. He has us much preferring to be teachers of our own desire to being students of someone else’s. Maybe we have no real choice about this (natural?) preference, but then the divine teacher slips inside our solipsism and teaches us otherness. This is Augustine’s Christ, “the interior light of truth” (mag. 12.40).

If there is a problem of communicability in the Tao Te Ching, it doubtless has something to do with the Tao, or the intelligibility that seems so resistant to mapping. It isn’t by following the Tao that one gets from here to there; it is not that kind of guidance, if it is guidance at all. Here is how Stephen Mitchell, the great impresario of religious and poetic texts, translates the first four verses of the Tao Te Ching, the ones that declare, indirectly (sort of), what the Tao is:

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

Notice Mitchell’s contrast between small “t” tao, able to be named (pegged), and big “T” parent tao, or the tao that preempts naming as much as it grounds it. It is hard for me not to conclude, despite my best resistance, that big T tao is being set up as the superior tao.

Now compare Mitchell’s rendition with that of Ursula K. Le Guin, a literary figure of enormous verve. Same lines:

The way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.

It is possible, no doubt, to read Mitchell’s rendition as a clarification of Le Guin’s folksier language. “The way you can go”: ah, yes, that is a tao, not the Tao. For the really real way, we will need to have access to something eternal as well as a purely intuitive grasp of what a name names. Buckle up.

But there is a cost to having Mitchell devour Le Guin. We lose the possibility that a way is not the real way simply because there is more than one way to go. Naming the real need not be an exclusionary practice. Name things, by all means, but keep your mind open to other practices of naming—until naming starts to ebb and flow, and the sea is calm.

My aim here is not to defend Le Guin’s Tao Te Ching against Mitchell’s, despite how it may be sounding. What interests me is the vivid contrast of their poetic sensibilities. Neither of them is a translator of the Tao Te Ching in the strict sense: neither knows ancient Chinese, and both are heavily dependent on Paul Carus’s 1898 mapping of the Tao’s ideograms onto English words and phrases. That makes Mitchell and Le Guin translators of translation.

As are most of us. I read Augustine in Latin; I read Lao Tzu in English. My knowledge of Latin is an advantage provided that I don’t confuse philosophy with literalization. For there is an irreducibly aesthetic component to philosophical reading and reception. This is what Mitchell and Le Guin, in their comparative brilliance, remind me of.

Comparative philosophy of religion is not then just a matter of aiming foreign resources at a familiar problematic. It is also about the question that shows up between the lines.

So what happens when the divine meets you from within, wrecks your distinction between inner and outer, greens your knowledge, and leaves you, for a time, at peace with your desires?

Maybe nothing. Maybe that is the point.


Augustine, De magistro, ed. Klaus-Detlef Daur, CCSL 29, Turnholt: Brepols, 1970.

Stephen Mitchell, tao te ching, New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, Boulder: Shambala Publications, 2019.

Leah Kalmanson – “Diversification is not Decolonization”

University of North Texas portrait of Leah Kalmanson, Philosophy and Religion, Associate Professor. Photographed on 15, December 2021 in Denton, Texas. (Sky Allen/UNT Photo).

Leah Kalmanson is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion and the Bhagwan Adinath Professor of Jain Studies at the University of North Texas. She is the author of the 2020 book Cross-Cultural Existentialism and co-author with Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach of the 2021 A Practical Guide to World Philosophies. Her essays appear in various academic journals as well as the digital magazine Aeon. We invited her to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Diversification is not decolonization. By this, I mean that we can diversify the content of our research while not necessarily altering the Eurocentric structures that define academic disciplines. These structures may include scholarly methodologies, pedagogies, curricular requirements, and canonized texts. In terms of philosophy of religion, I understand the “comparative” dimension to refer, at the least, to the project of diversification. Accordingly, I presume this project is motivated in part by a desire to expand the discourse beyond the European monotheism that has traditionally set the agenda for research in this area and to engage multiple religious traditions across diverse cultural contexts. However, as I am suggesting here, bringing more religions to the table may accomplish the task of diversification without thereby altering the Eurocentric methodological practices of philosophy in general or shifting the theocentric focus of philosophy of religion in particular.

Even at the level of diversification, the philosopher of religion must broach the question of methodology. In the case at hand, what method guides the comparative approach? For example, in Doing Philosophy Comparatively, Tim Connolly identifies four methodological frameworks that might shape our basic understanding of the function and practice of comparison: universalism, pluralism, consensus, and global philosophy. The universalist approach assumes that, at one level or another, the work of comparison will reveal shared truths that transcend particular cultures. Pluralism, in contrast, accepts the possible incommensurability of diverse traditions and makes space for differing perspective that may prove irreducible to one another. The consensus approach, like pluralism, accepts the possible incommensurability of diverse sources but nonetheless seeks to build a common philosophical ground. The last framework, global philosophy, sets aside the practice of comparison per se and cultivates instead a diverse set of philosophical tools, taken from any number of traditions, which might then be employed to address specific questions and issues.

Connolly’s work invites us to take a meta-level perspective, as it were, on the question of methodology in general. What are the disciplinary practices that are definitive of philosophy, and do such practices have cross-cultural scope? For example, how do we separate the liberal arts from the social sciences and the “hard” sciences, and do these divisions map onto similar categories in the intellectual histories of other cultural traditions? Or, how do we distinguish a “method” from a “practice” or a “ritual,” and can these distinctions be made in other languages? In short, how do we “do” whatever it is we do that constitutes our professional identities, and do other people elsewhere do things similarly? For those who identify as philosophers, what we do might include dialogue, analysis, phenomenological bracketing, deconstruction, and so forth. Both the analytic and phenomenological methods are prominent in philosophy of religion today, and so a comparative philosopher of religion might bring either approach to the study of a diverse array of religious traditions. But do these methodologies themselves have cross-cultural scope, or are they rooted in Euro-American intellectual history?

Digging deeper, a scholar might attempt to set aside assumptions about philosophy as a discipline or religion as a tradition and instead ask: What methods were employed at famous Buddhist monastic universities such as Nālandā, founded in 427? What methodological interventions is Zhu Xi credited with introducing into Ruist or “Confucian” academies in the Song dynasty (960–1279)? Given that neither a Buddhist monk nor a Confucian scholar would have seen themselves as belonging to some larger category such as “philosophy” or “religion,” then what theories and methods allowed them to separate the Buddha-dharma, as its own discipline or category, from Ruist scholarship? And, perhaps, most crucially, can we still learn and practice these methodologies as researchers today?

A scholar who digs deeper in this way may find some methods that remind her of phenomenology, such as the xinxue 心學 or “heart-mind studies” of Ruism (i.e., “Confucianism”) or the vijñapti-mātra or “representation-only” thesis of Yogācāra Buddhism. She may likewise find many methods that remind her of analysis or that employ dialogue and various systems of formal logic. But nothing will add up neatly or map point-for-point onto contemporary academic categories such as “philosophy” or “religious studies.” In other words, in reflecting on her methodologies, she challenges her own scholarly and professional identity.

Posing such a challenge is part of the “world philosophies” approach that I take in my work with Monika Kirloskar-Steinbach and others at the Bloomsbury book series Introductions to World Philosophies. Our goal is not only diversification of content but decolonization of the disciplinary methods that establish a Eurocentric framework around what it means to “do” philosophy at the basic level. It occurs to me, only in writing this blog post, that, despite its reputation for overt Eurocentrism and theocentrism, perhaps philosophy of religion is in fact uniquely positioned to do innovative work in its pursuit of “comparison.” Let me contextualize this.

One encounters the oft-repeated truism that Asian traditions such as Buddhism or Ruism cannot be adequately categorized as either philosophies or religions. However, comparative philosophers can quickly move past this point to continue operating as philosophers when engaging diverse traditions, just as scholars of comparative religion can conveniently move ahead with the various methods—perhaps hermeneutic, historical, or ethnographic—that reflect their particular disciplinary approach to the study of religion. However, the philosopher of religion immediately faces the quandary of categorization: If, when studied comparatively, certain traditions cannot be adequately categorized as philosophies or religions, then what in the world is the comparative philosopher of religion doing? The entire enterprise “comparative philosophy of religion” thus can and should take us directly to the deepest and most difficult questions about who we are as scholars, who we are as people, and who we are as practitioners of various philosophical, religious, and spiritual paths.


Connolly, Tim. Doing Philosophy Comparatively: Foundations, Problems, and Methods of Cross-Cultural Inquiry. Second edition. London: Bloomsbury, 2023.

Kirloskar-Steinbach, Monika, and Leah Kalmanson. A Practical Guide to World Philosophies: Selves, Worlds, and Ways of Knowing. London: Bloomsbury, 2021.

Jeffrey Wattles – “Comparing in Confucianism and Comparative Experiences with the Golden Rule”

For six years of available academic time, Jeffrey Wattles nourished his soul in the study of Chinese philosophy, specializing in Confucianism. He interacted with leading specialists in North America and also at the University of Beijing, where he lectured on the Confucian golden rule and the philosophy of living in truth, beauty, and goodness. Chinese tradition remains deeply embedded in his thought. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

In one form or another, the golden rule—“Do to others what you want others to do to you”—enters into both comparative philosophy and comparative religion. The life in the rule may be observed in its different levels of meaning. In Confucianism, the first level is conscientious conformity to social rules; the highest level is spontaneously following what Confucius called “the Decree of Heaven” (Analects 2:4).1

Confucianism often speaks of comparing self and other to express what it means to relate in the spirit of the golden rule.2

1. In this heritage, the core meaning is stated by Chu Hsi (1130-1200 C.E.). “By ‘comparison’ I mean to compare the mind of another with my own, and so put myself in their place.”3

2. We have an imperfect, but nevertheless intuitive, empathic understanding of one another. In The Great Learning we read: “The ‘Announcement of K’ang’ says, ‘Act as if you were watching over an infant.’ If a mother sincerely and earnestly looks for what the infant wants, she may not hit the mark but she will not be far from it. A young woman has never had to learn about nursing a baby before she marries.”4 Comparing involves heart-and-mind (one word in Chinese).

For Olivier du Roy, in several ways the greatest historian of the golden rule, the first level of the rule is empathy, which engages the depth of human feeling.5

3. We attribute aspects of our own humanity to the other, and act in the light of what we have reason to think are shared desiderata.

A man of co-humanity [benevolence, love], wishing to establish his own character, also establishes the character of others, and wishing to be prominent himself, also helps others to be prominent. To be able to judge others by what is near to ourselves may be called the method of [attaining] co-humanity. (Analects 6.28, Chan 31)6

Du Roy repeatedly cautions against projecting our likes and dislikes onto others.

4. The agent discerns patterns of relationships, for example, the asymmetrical pattern of parent- and-child and the symmetrical pattern of friend-and-friend. In a given situation, recognizing the norms implicit in the type of relationship at hand enables golden rule conduct to be guided by ethical concerns.

Du Roy’s second level of the golden rule involves a universal principle, valid for all in the same situation, as in Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative and better expressed by 4th century preacher John Chrysostom (du Roy, volume 1, 236).

5. Great persons acquire respectful and loving attitudes to those close to them, and then extend these attitudes to remote others (Mencius 1A7).

Du Roy says that we learn the practice of the golden rule with those close to us (literally “neighbors”) but the real challenge comes with those whom we cannot spontaneously love, perhaps because they are remote, encountered in the context of an institution, or enemies. He emphasizes that the golden rule in Luke 6:27-36 comes in the middle of a lesson on the love of enemies. The natural human tendency—to expect or hope for reciprocal beneficial treatment from others—falls short of the true criterion.

7. As we grow, we see others as siblings. For Confucius’ sage, “All within the Four Seas are his brothers” (Analects 12.5, Lau). Chang Tsai (1020 1077): “Heaven is my father and Earth is my mother . . . . All people are my brothers and sisters . . . .” (Chan, 103, sec 20). For Wang Yang-ming (1472-1529), “The sage . . . regards all the people of the world as his brothers and children . . . .”7

8. Mencius. The highest level of the golden rule is spiritual, spontaneously transcending rule-following.

A noble man steeps himself in the Way (tao) because he wishes to find it in himself. When he finds it in himself, he will be at ease in it; when he is at ease in it, he can draw deeply upon it; when he can draw deeply upon it, he finds its source wherever he turns. (Mencius, 4B14, D.C. Lau, tr.)

Mencius’ expression of his spiritual path invites those who would understand him to do the same.

At Kent State University, in my world religions classes, and philosophy classes, most of which included comparative philosophy segments, I centered learning on experiential projects (I would do one with them). I would select what I thought was a widely appealing and worthy teaching in what we were studying. Then I would invite the students to transplant it into the garden of what they believed and how they thought and expressed themselves—and apply it in their lives, ideally to their “front-burner issue” (if it was psychologically reasonable for them to do so and something that they felt comfortable sharing at least with me). They wrote experience reports, a majority of which narrated difficult challenges and profound transformations. Finally, they created a commentary on these reports from the perspective of the text or tradition we were studying. Thus the act of transplanting into one’s own garden stays in dialogue with the otherness of the text.

Finally, here’s my most recent experience report of a new frontier for growth as a follower of Jesus, also inspired by Mencius and taught by du Roy. I call it “living in the plural.” This means (1) living with the indwelling spirit of God (transplanting Mencius) and (2) living with the universal family of God, including each person I relate with and each group I may be present with, e.g., other drivers on the road, or those anywhere who are in the same situation that I’m in.


1. Confucius, The Analects, tr. D.C. Lau (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1979), 63.

2. This discussion is based on Jeffrey Wattles, The Golden Rule (Oxford University Press, 1996), 19-23.

3. Chu Hsi, The Philosophy of Human Nature, tr. J. Percy Bruce (New York, AMS Press, 1973), 435.

4. Translated by Wing-tsit Chan, A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 91.

5. Olivier du Roy, La règle d’or: Histoire d’une maxime morale universelle (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 2012).

6. 6:30 in Lau. David Nivison renders the last sentence thus: “The ability to make a comparison (namely, with the other person) from what is near at hand (namely, from your own case) can be called the method of (attaining) benevolence.”

7. Wang Yang-ming, Instructions for Practical Living and Other Neo-Confucian Writings, translated by Wing-tsit Chan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), Part I, section 142, page 118.

Michael Barnes Norton – “Comparative Philosophy of Religion and Climate Change”

Michael Barnes Norton is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Co-Director of the School of Human Inquiry at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

As others in this series have already pointed out, there are several different ways of understanding what comparative philosophy of religion is and in what ways it may be useful. A comparative approach may shed light on the difference between the philosophical problems that have emerged between different traditions or schools of thought, or on different ways of approaching similar problems. A comparative approach is also particularly useful in addressing the more fundamental question of what, exactly, constitutes a “religion” or a “religious” concept or practice. Given that this term has a specifically European provenance, and that its meaning has historically tended to be overdetermined by Christian theological commitments, it always behooves contemporary philosophers of religion to consider how and to what extent “religion” adequately describes traditions outside the Abrahamic umbrella.1 Assuming for practical purposes that we can meaningfully talk about religion in widely cross-cultural contexts, though, the question remains as to what issues properly belong to the category of comparative philosophy of religion. While questions about the existence and nature of souls, suprahuman beings and forces, or an afterlife are evident choices, I would like to suggest the problem of climate change as an issue that comparative philosophy of religion has unique resources to address.

The present crises associated with anthropogenic climate change, as well as those forecasted in both the near and distant future, may typically be understood as issues more appropriate for environmental, socio-political, and moral philosophy. Besides the general problem of theodicy related to the suffering involved in climate catastrophes, the ways in which such catastrophes are problems for consideration specifically within the context of philosophy of religion is perhaps not immediately apparent. Yet, confronting the advent of the so-called Anthropocene epoch, which brings with it a continually increasing threat to the continued existence of most or all of human life (not to mention the hundreds of other species already going extinct every day), raises questions about a possible end of our world that philosophy of religion ought to be well equipped to address. Climate apocalypse is not an article of faith posited by a particular religious tradition but rather an existential threat predicted on the basis of observations of the earth on which we all live. Because it is an urgent issue affecting practitioners of all religious traditions, I would contend that an approach to climate change from philosophy of religion demands a comparative approach.

Lynn White’s well-known 1967 Science article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” posits that our contemporary climate crises are the result not just of rampant industrialization, overreliance on fossil fuels, deforestation, etc., but more fundamentally of the influence of a particular Christian theological view of the relationship between humans and nature on the West.2 This view holds that humans stand in a privileged position in nature, at the center of a world created by God for our use and placed under our more or less absolute authority. White argues that confronting climate change necessarily involves confronting the problematic legacy of this view and replacing it with a more ecological perspective, such as that offered by Francis of Assisi. In the years since its publication, White’s article has received both positive and negative reactions, with many of the latter claiming (correctly, I believe) that it offers an overly simplistic account of a much more complex issue.

I do think White’s core point is undeniable: there is a religious dimension to the historical and social forces that have led the world into the Anthropocene. White’s call to reevaluate the legacy of Christian anthropocentrism in the West in light of climate change, and to look for alternatives both within and outside of the history of Christian thought, can serve as a call for a comparative philosophy of religion approach to this crucial issue. In both religious studies and theology, comparative treatments of “religion and ecology” as a topic have abounded in the last couple of decades, yet there has been less such work within the boundaries of philosophy of religion.3 I suggest that this is fertile ground from which new comparative philosophy can emerge. For instance: one point for which White’s essay has been criticized is its claims that non-Western traditions are inherently more ecologically-minded than Western Christianity. Soon after the essay’s publication, Yi-Fu Tuan challenged this by pointing to China’s industrialization practices in the mid-twentieth century and comparing it to those of Europe.4 A comparative approach to philosophy of religion and the environment might take the critical position of work like Tuan’s and interweave it with constructive accounts of more ecologically friendly religious resources in both Christianity and Chinese culture.5

As another example, using comparative philosophy of religion to respond to climate crises also creates an opportunity to engage with indigenous thought about both environmental and religious concepts. Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro contrast indigenous American and European views on both the limits of the world (past and future) and the place of humans within nature, showing how eschatological, metaphysical, and ecological concerns are inextricably intertwined within the horizon of the Anthropocene.6 The possible end of human life on earth is clearly a matter at the center of the thought of many religious traditions, and as such philosophical considerations of such a topic qua religious would do well to proceed comparatively just as philosophical approaches that are already comparative would do well do recognize the religious aspects of the matter.

The earth is of course finite, and no point on it is merely local. Climate, by definition, is global, and what occurs in one area will in some way or other affect us all. Climate change thus serves as a context within which the diversity of religious thought and practice around the world becomes a crucial consideration. The practical demands of our present climate crises make comparative work in philosophy of religion all the more important.

1. On this point, see for example Richard King: “Philosophy of Religion as Border Control: Globalization and the Decolonization of the ‘Love of Wisdom’ (philosophia).” In Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion, edited by Purushottama Bilimoria and Andrew B. Irvine (Dordrecht: Springer, 2009), 35-53.

2. White, Lynn. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Science 155, no. 3767 (March 10, 1967): 1203–7. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.155.3767.1203.

3. I recognize this raises the question of the proper distinctions between philosophy of religion, religious philosophy, and theology. The contributions to a volume such as Ecospirit (edited by Laurel Kearns and Catherine Keller, New York: Fordham University Press, 2007) – coming from perspectives that are clearly theological, clearly philosophical, and somewhere in between – make this question even more difficult, as perhaps it should be.

4. Tuan, Yi-Fu. “Discrepancies Between Environmental Attitude and Behaviour: Examples from Europe and China.” The Canadian Geographer/Le Géographe Canadien 12, no. 3 (September 1968): 176–91. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1541-0064.1968.tb00764.x.

5. An example of the latter is: James Miller. China’s Green Religion: Daoism and the Quest for a Sustainable Future. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

6. Danowski, Déborah, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. The Ends of the World. Malden, MA: Polity, 2017.

Jonathan Weidenbaum on Comparative Philosophy of Religion

Jonathan Weidenbaum teaches World Religions, Ethics, and Philosophy in the Division of General Education at Berkeley College, NYC, and St John’s University in Queens (email: jow@berkeleycollege.edu). We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

I recall a stirring set of paintings on the inside wall of a pagoda in Sri Lanka. Above the image of demons tearing apart the bodies of those spirits unfortunate enough to have been reborn in the hell realm is a depiction of the deities in their heavenly abode—each one graceful, serene, and blissfully reposed. Or, blissful in comparison with the denizens of the other realms which comprise Buddhist cosmology. For this is a context in which the gods, like any other sentient being, are conditioned by karma and would do well to be born in the human realm in order to reach nirvana—thereby gaining release, once and for all, from the wheel of life and death. The beliefs surrounding this complex image from the pagoda wall always struck me as signifying a stronger rejection of theistic belief than even atheism. It is one thing to deny the existence of deities, another to deem them as of lesser spiritual importance.

Of course, the divide within a single religion can be equally vast, if not more so, than those between different religions. The Theravada Buddhism found in Sri Lanka is not, say, the Pure Land Buddhism of China and Japan. And within a single theistic faith God may be conceived as, among other things, a personal creator being who speaks through prophets and cares about humankind—Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “divine pathos”—or the transcendental One with which the soul of the contemplative is to identify (Harper Torchbooks, 1975).

One evening, during a discussion group composed mostly of renegade and heterodox Jews from around the New York City area, a stately and elderly gentleman sought to dissuade me from ruminating too much over such theological contrasts. Examining and comparing different religions and denominations is fine and even useful as an academic game, he explained, but it is a mere intellectual exercise, a skating over surfaces and of less significance for genuine theological insight. It was when I began to respond that I discovered, finally, where I truly stood in regard to the relationship of a vital philosophical theology to the examination of other denominations and traditions.

Several theological orientations toward faiths other than our own could only lend support to my older acquaintance’s attitude toward comparative religions. Drawing upon some well-known definitions, these include an exclusivism in which only our own tradition is understood as leading toward spiritual fulfilment/salvation, and an inclusivism in which other traditions possess value only insofar as they approximate our own. If a pluralism holds that all major religions lead to a salvation of sorts, an identist pluralism perceives these traditions as pointing toward the same salvific truth. A classic example of the latter is the perennial philosophy which argues that, while religions unquestionably differ on the exoteric surface, their esoteric core (to borrow a distinction from Frithjof Schuon) all lead to the same transpersonal and metaphysical ground (Quest Books, 1984).

Once a proponent of the last of these positions, the past years have increasingly alerted me to one of the severe limitations of an identist pluralism when drawn so tightly: if all higher spiritual traditions cohere upon the same ultimate, then what do other religions truly have to teach me? That is, beyond alternative methods of leading to the One, or simply different ways of expressing it. Next to the search after honest spiritual illumination, examining other religious traditions in such an understanding is a mere cataloging of similarities and differences, more anthropology than theology. In order for the mission of comparative religions to have sincere depth, the differences between traditions need to be more than their surface, and, in fact, must be seen as reaching all the way down.

Happily, richer forms of pluralism are readily available for those, like me, who seek robust support for the different ways in which the divine has been conceived. I will briefly mention three. First, the main project of Theology Without Walls rests upon what Jerry Martin, its founder, calls an “ineluctable syllogism” (forthcoming). If theology’s goal is to grasp the divine, and knowledge of the ultimate is not found only within one tradition, then what is required is a theological effort beyond and across “confessional boundaries.” Martin’s own investigations and personal religious experiences lead him to affirm a “many-sided” divine reality, one that is partly personal, partly transpersonal, and much more. Second, theologian John Thatamanil has worked out a novel Trinitarian vision in which our comprehension of the divine is enhanced as we open ourselves to religions devoted toward, alternatively, a loving and personal deity, an underlying and all-inclusive cosmic unity, and a realization of the interdependent nature of all things as espoused, for instance, by Mahayana Buddhism (Fordham University Press, 2020).

Third, if Martin and Thatamanil argue for one ultimate with multiple sides or aspects, the deep religious pluralism of process theology generally envisions a reality complex enough to feature more than one ultimate (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005). Without going into their exquisite and detailed metaphysics, these ultimates are proposed to correspond with how the divine is understood by different religions—namely, as personal, impersonal, and the sacred character of the natural world, as perceived by some.

Currently, I sympathize more with a deep religious pluralism than those which argue for a single and complex ultimate. It has always seemed to me that the blissful inner state of nirvana and the personal deity of the Abrahamic religions, among others, can be appreciated more richly and fully as different portions of existence than as two sides of a single absolute. But I admit this preference, at least at this point, is intuitive. A stronger justification for this, along with the broader implications of it, is for a future essay.

Works Cited

Griffin, David Ray (ed.). Deep Religious Pluralism. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

Heschel, Abraham J. The Prophets, Volume II. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1975.

Martin, Jerry. Radically Personal: God and Ourselves in the New Axial Age. Forthcoming.

Schuon, Frithjof. The Transcendent Unity of Religions. Wheaton: Quest Books, 1984.

Thatamanil, John J. Circling the Elephant: A Comparative Theology of Religious Diversity. New York: Fordham University Press, 2020.

Stephen R. L. Clark – “Comparative Philosophy: Right Reason?”

Stephen R. L. Clark is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at University of Liverpool. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

“Religion” names a collection of rituals, stories, idols and icons, hierarchies, texts, credal statements, and philosophies of a roughly familiar sort that are encountered almost everywhere within the human species (and perhaps in the past, in other hominin species). Dictionary definitions often identify “religion” with “a belief in supernatural entities,” but without any clear account either of “belief” or “supernatural.” The definitions owe more to modern, Western assumptions about “religion” than any detailed investigation: not all religious traditions distinguish “nature” and “supernature”; not all acknowledge or invoke – let alone worship – supposedly “supernatural” entities; very few, from a global perspective, make “belief” a central requirement of “religious” life. Anthropologists, most often, prefer to speak of “religious” practices as devices to strengthen social cohesion, especially by distinguishing one gender, caste, tribe, or nation from another. Psychologists may rather attend to divisions within a single person, marking off successive stages of life, potentially conflicting motives and ideals. A tribe’s mythology – which may or may not incorporate clear credal statements – puts that tribe’s motives, ideals, and problems on display.

So what role might suit “philosophy” in regard to such “religion”? Some religious forms allow a few people to speculate, more or less cogently and clearly, about the real nature of the world or our real duties in it. Some even make room for radical criticism of prevailing social norms, whether or not those critics actually opt out of the duties to which they were born: Socrates continued to serve as a soldier and a citizen within the city whose norms he questioned; Gautama left his family and palace behind to seek a cure for what was wrong with the world (but still took on a recognizable social role – the wandering ascetic). Must “philosophers” always speak and think from within the worlds and tribes where they were born and reared? Or may they, sometimes, opt to surrender citizenship in any existing tribe or class, and seek out a “truth” that is more than a social norm? “The philosopher,” said Wittgenstein, “is not a citizen of any community of ideas. That is what makes him into a philosopher.”1 And do the latter kind of “philosophers” reach anything like the same conclusions about life, the world, and everything? Or are they self-deceived about the manifold sources of their convictions?

What shall we seek to compare, if we hope to practice a “comparative” philosophy? On the one hand, anthropological and psychological enquiry can identify both amazing differences and amazing similarities between disparate tribes and ages. Human beings don’t all behave in exactly the same ways, or tell exactly the same stories – but we do all seem to appreciate song and dance and feasting, and all of us listen to stories, both to learn what is expected of us and to have shared plots and characters to gossip about. Maybe we invent spirits and gods and heroes precisely so that whole communities have characters and plots for gossip: soap operas, blockbusters, competitive sports, and even (nowadays) popularised scientific theories fill a similar set of needs. Philosophers may wonder whether these shared games and stories serve only to disguise a darker truth: that we are chance-bred hominins on an accidental rock, with no good reason either to know what is really happening, or to suppose we could. The thought may come especially to those who consider ancient or alien rituals, stories, and “sacred” texts or objects. If most of those stories are now considered fictions, and most of the supposed revelations mere delusions, why exactly are our own stories and easy rituals exempt? How can it be reasonable to think that we alone are happily born into a “religion,” a shared world-view (including in that category current popular Western dogmas2) which is, it happens, right? In Kipling’s words:

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!3

Or else, more optimistically, philosophers might wonder instead whether there might really be some way of identifying the truth in ancient, alien or modern ways of thinking and living.4 Is it enough to judge them by the standards that we happen to have ourselves, or should we at least consider whether there might be other standards at least as sound as ours, or whether there are shared truths, hidden beneath the outward dissimilarities? Is it so clear, for example, that a “belief in supernatural entities” is entirely alien to our own thought, even the most “modern” and “scientific”? Do we have sound reason to think that there is a “natural order” which is closed against intrusion? Do we have sound reason to know what counts as a “natural entity” at all? When we compare stories, rituals, hierarchies, and creeds, what motivates our own easy rejection of anything that disturbs our habits?

“Philosophers,” perhaps, have reason of some sort to suppose that there are ways of identifying errors, ways of securing some reliable conclusion, which transcend any particular inherited ways of thinking. Is that the power of abstract, “Cartesian,” reasoning? Or must it require a more empirical enquiry? In the words of Thomas Sprat, in his proleptic history of the Royal Society:

The poets of old to make all things look more venerable than they were devised a thousand false Chimaeras; on every Field, River, Grove and Cave they bestowed a Fantasm of their own making: With these they amazed the world. … And in the modern Ages these Fantastical Forms were reviv’d and possessed Christendom. … All which abuses if those acute Philosophers did not promote, yet they were never able to overcome; nay, not even so much as King Oberon and his invisible Army. But from the time in which the Real Philosophy has appear’d there is scarce any whisper remaining of such horrors. … The cours of things goes quietly along, in its own true channel of Natural Causes and Effects. For this we are beholden to Experiments; which though they have not yet completed the discovery of the true world, yet they have already vanquished those wild inhabitants of the false world, that us’d to astonish the minds of men.5

That “experimental philosophy” has since led in directions that Sprat would have found disturbing: standard axioms of common sense and Enlightenment metaphysics (objectivity, locality, uniformity) are themselves now contested in ways that are more astonishing than Oberon! The assumptions that lie behind the elevation of “experiment,” and the rejection of personal testimony, once noticed as the axioms of a very particular age and place, are no longer so compelling. What seems most rational is often only what is most familiar – and an honest comparison of creeds and intellectual explorations across the world still has power to unsettle those familiar themes.

“Comparative Philosophy of Religion,” in short, may sometimes be an excuse to criticise ancient and alien ideas and habits in the name of a supposedly higher and more realistic insight, a “Real Philosophy” into how things are and should be. But it may also be a humbler endeavour: an attempt to understand those ancient and alien ways, and join together in a continuing exploration of the human psyche and the world around us. Maybe our ancestors, and our present neighbours, are right after all to think that there are “supernatural powers”—though they wouldn’t call them “supernatural”—with a real influence on our thoughts and habits, as well as on the wider world we hope to imagine clearly. Maybe we are more than chance-bred hominins ourselves, and therefore do indeed have some possible way to discover the meaning of things: maybe, as most of our own philosophical ancestors suggested, there is after all some congruence between the powers of human reason and the world’s reason. We have room in our hearts and minds for a true vision of the universe because our spirit is a fragment of the divine, and there are other spirits around us. Conversely, if we have no such standing, and have only those powers that our sort of primates could have in a merely “naturalistic,” Darwinian universe, then we have little reason to suppose that any of our dreams and practices are more than currently convenient; and good reason (if any reason of ours is good) to suspect that ancient and alien ways, being ancient, are at least as good as ours.


1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, edds., G.E.M. Anscombe & G.H. Von Wright (Oxford: Blackwell 1967).

2. Cf. Joseph Henrich, The Weirdest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (London: Penguin, 2020).

3. Rudyard Kipling, Debits and Credits (Macmillan: London, 1926).

4. Cf. Marshall Sahlins, The New Science of the Enchanted Universe: An Anthropology of Most of Humanity (Princeton University Press: New Jersey), p.11: “It should be clear enough that, though I have not always succeeded, I try to explicate the cultures at issue by their own immanentist premises—what used to be known as ‘the natives’ point of view’ and sometimes now as ‘reverse anthropology’. I try to unfold the peoples’ cultural practices by means of their own onto-logics.”

5. Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal Society (New York: Elibron 2005 [1722]), p.340.