Stephen Clark on “Comparative Religion, or A World of Beings”

Stephen 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.

Before religions, or religion, can be compared we need to have some notion of what counts as a religion, or what religion is. Religions have sometimes been identified as systems of belief and practice which make some reference to entities or powers that are more than “natural,” or that lack ordinarily “empirical” proofs. But this may be giving more credit to “intellectuals” than they deserve: the great mass of people engaged with any “religion” may have little interest in any system of belief, and even take the regular practice of their “religion” more casually than the supposed beliefs require. How many professed Christians really – in daily practice – act as if they expected their every choice to guide them towards or away from Heaven, or as if the loss of their lives, their health, their family, their property was of no real importance? “I may say quite firmly that if those things the loss of which you complain of were really yours, you would never have lost them.”1 But even Boethius needed to be imprisoned and awaiting execution before the thought occurred to him. And how many who sacrificed to the effigy of an Emperor really “believed” that the Emperor was “a god” (whatever a god might be)? Nor are even the most organized and well-defined “religions” ever as homogeneous or as distinct as inquisitors might wish: symbols and stories and ceremonial dress are shared across their boundaries, and even creeds are often consciously, contentiously obscure. Some religions, as commonly understood, are rather aggregated from diverse practice and doctrine, for the benefit (chiefly) of intrusive missionaries who wanted a clearly defined opponent: has there ever “really” been a religion rightly described as “Hinduism” any more than those called “Hellenism” or “Modernism”?

Is there anything better to be said simply of “religion”? We need not suppose that there are many, or any, discrete and well-defined systems of belief or ceremonial practice of the sort that are called “religions,” even if the category is sometimes useful to bureaucrats. Maybe it helps, sometimes, to have some rough estimate of how many patients will, or won’t, eat pork or beef or horse-meat. Maybe it helps to know what days of the week or year employees or school children will need as holy days: “holy,” as being set aside from ordinary employment, as some might also set some building or patch of land aside from ordinary exploitation. Is that perhaps an answer? “Religion,” whatever its particular manifestation, is the practice of setting something aside from ordinarily practical uses. None of us find every possible food acceptable, and our dietary choices – which need not reflect our individual taste – reveal our “religious” loyalty, even if we don’t consciously understand that such barriers are “religious,” that there is no merely “medical” reason not to eat pigs or dogs or roaches. None of us will gladly exploit everything that might be of some use. Nor do we even willingly think of everything – children or the family dog – as an available asset. Just what those limits may be, on food or use or time, will vary across the nations and the years, but the common thread is that some things are “holy.” Some people, even some peoples, identify that “holy” precisely and explicitly: they keep Sabbath, eat only what is “kosher” or “halal,” and abide by other sexual and ceremonial laws. Other people, or peoples, practice a looser life – but even they will mostly acknowledge limits, sometimes rationalizing their obedience by speaking of moral or medical harms.

This notion – of some things being “set aside” from “natural” life – may also indicate a breach in “nature”: the very act of setting aside a building, a wood, a stream, suggests that another world than ours is intruding there. Abbot Suger, the architect of the Abbey of St Denis, reported that, when in the church he saw himself “dwelling in some strange region of the universe which neither exists entirely in the slime of earth nor entirely in the purity of heaven, and that by the grace of God, [he could] be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.”2 Theatres, in their first beginnings in Greece or China or India, were also places where the “other world” was manifest, complete with “gods” and “heroes” – and even “secular” audiences in the apparently modern world are similarly “entranced,” caught up in the action, even instilled with some lasting sense of human or more-than-human life. What will our descendants, long after Armageddon, think of common devotion to Sherlock Holmes or Superman? Once upon a time the Olympic Games, and other “sporting events,” were also acknowledged as the gods’ domain, occasions for the display of extraordinary talent – which was to say, of a god. So St. Augustine, in a sermon in 404 AD, gave voice to a learned defender of pagan worship: “When I worship Mercury,” we are to suppose his saying, “I worship talent. Talent cannot be seen; it is something invisible.”3 Without such gods, we are bereft: “a shadow’s dream is man, but when (a) god sheds a brightness, shining light is on earth and life is as sweet as honey.”4

Religion, then, is separate from the everyday – or rather, it is an attempt to find the marvellous even in or alongside the everyday. We cannot always be seeing things as marvellous, nor setting them aside as holy. Even the most devoted pilgrim must reckon with sore feet, and hunger, and the misunderstandings of his peers. That may apply especially in those times and places when “the divine” is conceived as “God the Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent”:

Pure faith indeed—you know not what you ask!
Naked belief in God the Omnipotent,
Omniscient, Omnipresent, sears too much
The sense of conscious creatures to be borne
It were the seeing him, no flesh shall dare.5

But the same hesitation may be found even in “polytheistic” or “animistic” cults: Semele’s request to see her lover, Zeus, “in his true form” had a disastrous end – and only her son, His son, was saved from the fire.6 In Apuleius’ story Psyche (which is Soul) was given in marriage to a god (or demon) who visited her only in the dark. Her envious sisters persuaded her to light a lamp to see who her husband was, and wax from the lamp woke him: he was, it turns out, Eros, the god of love. He fled, abandoning Psyche, who was only reunited with him, after long and difficult labours imposed by Eros’ mother Aphrodite.7 Seeing God or gods is dangerous, or at least disconcerting! And the same applies even to the thought of “galaxies like grains of sand,” spread over many billion light years.

Is this to ignore the “cosmogonical” aspect of “religious” thought and feeling? Not entirely. Consider the congruence of the current cosmogonical model, “the Big Bang,” and early stories of the very first thing to emerge, somehow, from Nothing: namely the Egyptian story of Atum’s beginning. Atum appears from the primeval ocean, Nun, and produces Up and Down, the Hot and Dry, as offspring. From these in turn arise the Million Things. All things will in the end be absorbed again in Nun, and – perhaps – the cycle will begin again, very much as current cosmologists have it. It is easy enough to claim that the Egyptian story is only imaginative fiction, and the current model is confirmed by observation (of the Big Bang’s afterglow). It is also easy to say that Atum was also – though not consistently – an object of veneration, whereas the Singularity at our beginning was only a simple fact. Both Atum and that Singularity are, in their separate ways, strictly supernatural entities – not bound by the familiar laws they themselves engendered; but that must seem, to moderns, only a sort of pun! And yet it is not absurd to acknowledge the mere feeling of cosmic unity that both stories seem to support. The Big Bang is not an event far-off, but is as close to one place as to any other. It is manifest in every cell and atom of our bodies, through aeons of stellar birth and death: we are literally star-dust – and may sometimes make that thought real to ourselves through art or poetry. A sort of “pantheistic” religiosity seems almost required by physics!

One further gloss: “the Egyptians lived in a universe composed not of things, but of beings.”8 Allen goes on to say that the “we have divorced philosophy, as a discipline, from religion. In the former we appreciate reality objectively, as something capable of study; in the latter we understand it subjectively, as something that can only be experienced. This dichotomy did not govern ancient Near Eastern thought. To it, all appreciation of reality was subjective – ‘I-Thou’ rather than ‘I-It.’”9 And it is this insight that perhaps identifies “religion,” and also suggests what is most strange in the modern “secular” outlook. Our only actual experience of the world is exactly that: experience. And yet we have somehow imagined into being a strange world devoid of any merely “subjective” or “secondary” qualities, and then been puzzled how such a merely “material” world could ever engender those same phenomenal qualities, and our experience of them. The modern “materialist” has to exercise a moral discipline as harsh as any more obviously “spiritual” practice, seeking to see the world “objectively,” and with cautious awareness of a cosmos radically other than our human home. The paradoxical conclusion is that the world of our experience – both our usual and our elevated or “god-inspired” experience – is the world there is, and it is full, as Thales said, of gods.10 What those gods may be, and how we may remember them, is the enterprise of religion.

1. Boethius The Theological Tractates. Trans., Hugh Fraser Stewart & S.J.Tester (Cambridge, Mass: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 2011), pp.181-3: Consolation of Philosophy 2.2)

2. Erwin Panofsky, ed., Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St.-Denis. Ed., Gerda Panofsky-Soergel (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1979 [1946]), pp.21, 65.

3. Augustine, Sermon 26.24, cited by Clifford Ando, The Matter of the Gods: Religion and the Roman Empire. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), p.41.

4. Pindar, Pythian 8.95-7.

5. Robert Browning, Poems 1833-65 (London: Cassell & Co., 1907), p.436. “Bishop Blougram’s Apology”, lines 637-41:

6. Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.256ff.

7. Apuleius, Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass, Bk.5.

8. J.P.Allen, Genesis in Egypt: the Philosophy of Ancient Egyptian Creation Accounts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), p.8

9. Allen, ibid. p.9.

10. Aristotle, De Anima 1.411a7–9.

Peter Jonkers on “Religious Truth from a Comparative Perspective”

Peter Jonkers is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Tilburg University, the Netherlands. He has
published extensively on questions regarding religion in the public space, in particular religious truth,
pluralism and identity, religious violence and tolerance, and wisdom, as well as on classical German
philosophy. Since 2018, he is a member of the Steering Committee of the International Federation of
Philosophical Societies. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

One of the perennial questions of philosophy of religion is the idea of religious truth. It plays an all-important role, not only in Christianity, but also in other world religions like Hinduism, Buddhism (insofar as it can be qualified as a religion), Judaism, and Islam.1 All of them claim that believing in their creeds and following their moral commandments and rituals leads to a true, blissful way of life. Obviously, not only does the content of these truth claims differ substantially among these religions but their approach to religious truth also differs. From a comparative perspective, these approaches can be classified into five different clusters. First, a religious tradition can focus on its doctrina, which serves as an introduction to its most important truth claims, in principle accessible to everyone. According to the second approach to religious truth, the faithful not only know these teachings but also profess and accept them; these are the veritates of a religion. A third approach emphasizes that the faithful practice their religious profession and live the truth of the doctrina and the veritates because a person cannot truly know the nature of the divine unless she testifies to it in her everyday activities; this is called vera religio. Fourthly, religious truth can be experienced by spiritually contemplating the transcendent Truth; this is the intellectus verus, the mystical experience of divine salvation and redemption. Finally, and most importantly, God or the divine is the ultimate and absolute truth: true insight, true being, and truthful acting (veritas). Individual religions differ as to the relative importance of these approaches to religious truth: the importance attached to intellectual knowledge and the profession of the objective truth (the veritates), as phrased in the creed and the catechism and further developed by Christian theology, shows the prominent role of the doctrina in Christian faith; while Judaism, classical Hinduism, and Islam emphasize the vera religio, living faithfully in accordance with God’s commandments and ritual laws. Zen Buddhism and some archaic religions focus instead on acquiring a true insight into the transcendent truth through meditation and contemplation (the intellectus verus), that is, through means of knowledge that are inaccessible to discursive reason. Finally, all monotheistic religions worship God as the ultimate truth (the veritas).2 According to Thomas Aquinas, truth is a transcendental property of being that, in turn, is dependent on God, the ultimate intellectual cause.3

In my view, comparative philosophy of religion can help Christian faith to rebalance its traditional focus on a doctrinal approach to religious truth. Doctrinal statements and their profession in the veritates have the advantage of laying down a long-standing and dynamic tradition and of giving a clear-cut and unambiguous identity to a community of faith. Yet, putting too much emphasis on doctrinal issues risks marginalizing a more existential approach to religious truth. Typically, a doctrinal approach rests on a propositional and ontological understanding of religious truth. The former qualifies certain factual propositions and theoretical statements as true; the opposite ones are disqualified as error, lie, or heresy.4 An ontological understanding of religious truth qualifies a whole religious belief system as true; its opposite is false religion, unbelief, faithlessness, apostasy, blindness, or hardness of heart.5 This shows the basic problem of a purely doctrinal approach: it is binary, resulting in either a positive or a negative truth value. Thus, it does not allow for a plurality of truth claims to be considered equally and potentially leads to religious exclusivism. In sum, a purely doctrinal approach to religious truth is an impoverishment of the very idea of religious truth, since it reduces its transcendent, divine nature to discursive reason and mundane concepts.

Therefore, for the sake of the truth of Christian faith it is necessary to integrate its doctrinal approach into the existential approach of the vera religio, thus relating the believer as a concrete, living person to the transcendent ground of being, the veritas.6 The crucial role of the doctrina (in a Christian terminology: fides quae creditur) is to put religious life into a set of teachings, thus giving it consistency, unity, and an objective identity that can be professed by the faithful and handed down to subsequent generations. However, because the doctrina is limited to the objective and intellectual aspect of religious truth, members of a community of faith also need to commit themselves subjectively and existentially to this truth and realize it in their lives (in Christian terminology: fides qua creditur).7 In other words, an integral view of religious truth connects the objective doctrine with the particular, cultural existence of a community and the charism of individual believers, and asks at the same time that this living, existential faith is articulated in doctrinal statements, rationally reflected upon and communicated with others. It goes without saying that this is not a once-only occasion, but a permanent, dynamic, and bi-directional process, aimed at making theological assertions transparent for lived faith. In my view, Christian faith should integrate its doctrina into the vera religio to get a more complete idea of religious truth. By comparing a doctrinal approach with other approaches to religious truth, comparative philosophy of religion can help Christianity develop a richer conception of religious truth.

1. Frederick J. Streng, “Truth,” in Encyclopedia of Religion. Second Edition, ed. Lindsay Jones (Farmington Hills, MI: Thomson Gale), 9368-9376.
2. Henk Vroom, Religions and the Truth. Philosophical Reflections and Perspectives (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 302ff. See also Streng, “Truth,” 9368-9376.
3. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1.16.5 and Idem, Questiones disputatae de veritate 1.7.
4. Reinhold Bernhardt, “Truth and Theology of Religions. A Relational Interpretation,” in Faithful Interpretations: Islam and Truth in Catholic Theology of Religions, eds. Philip Geister SJ and Gösta Hallonsten (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2021), 59-62.
5. Idem, 59, 63-66.
6. Idem, 66.
7. Vroom, Religions and the Truth, 311-14. See also Bernhardt, “Truth and Theology of Religions,” 67-71.

Eric Steinhart on “Incomparable Religions”

Eric Charles Steinhart is Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University. He has degrees in computer science and in philosophy. He has authored Your Digital Afterlives, Believing in Dawkins, and Atheistic Platonism. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

By now I suppose pretty much everybody has heard the critical thesis that traditional comparative philosophy of religion (CPoR) has a rather dark past. It was a colonial project. Or even that the very category of religion (especially “world religions”) was invented by missionaries in the British Empire. It’s increasingly recognized that the history of CPoR has been extremely Christo-normative, and often very destructive for non-Christians. Still, if it can change its ways, I think CPoR can have a brighter future.

The old way of doing CPoR appears in slogans: religion is like an elephant; all religions are different paths up the same mountain. A bit more deeply: all religions share a common mystical core; God has many faces; God has many names. One elephant, one mountain, one mystical core, one God. More philosophically, CPoR produced John Hick’s pluralism, in which all religions are different human ways of experiencing and responding to “the Real”. One Real, not many Reals. God becomes more abstract, so that religions are about “the ultimate”, “the holy”, “the divine”, “the transcendent”. Always the definite article “the”, and never plural. Always one, never many.

Even more parochially, traditional CPoR accepts the Protestant axiom that religion is mainly a matter of propositional content. It’s not hard to find illustrations of the view that religions are all different “faiths” or about “beliefs”. On this view, a religion amounts to a kind of ultimate theory, which is more or less true of ultimate reality. And there is only one ultimate reality, that is, one possible world, so religions more or less correctly describe this one world. Religions obviously make incompatible truth-claims: God has a son; God has no son. For the pluralist, the favorite strategy has been to see these as different aspects or parts of the One Ultimate Reality (see “the elephant” or “the mountain”). For the pluralist, every religion gets some but not all of “the truth” about “the ultimate” or “the transcendent”. Always with the definite article, and never plural.

Yet the alternative seems to be an incoherent cultural relativism: all religions are equally true! Why is this incoherent? Because religions really do make truth-claims, and they really do conflict. The pagan says there are many gods; the monotheist that there is one god; the atheist that there are no gods. These conflicts cannot be reconciled by finding some occult unity. They are incompatible. One popular way out of these troubles just says that religions are linked by family-resemblance. Unfortunately, the family-resemblance view is true because it is trivial. Everything resembles everything else.

I think the most positive way forward for CPoR requires rejecting its central Protestant axiom. Religions are not efforts to find the one true theory of the one ultimate reality. Religions don’t have anything to do with ultimate reality (or realities), because the ultimates are studied by entirely secular logic, mathematics, and metaphysics. Far from being descriptive, religions are ways of actively relating to other possible worlds. Here I recommend the modal realism of David Lewis: there are many possible worlds, they do not overlap, and no thing is in more than one possible world. Each religion makes truth-claims about its own world, which is not the actual world, and it makes truth-claims about no other worlds besides its own. Religions are incommensurable. Different religions are comparable, for example, in the number of gods in their respective worlds. But this comparison reveals difference rather than unity. There are many transcendent ideals, many stars, many mountains, many orderings of sacred values.

If actively relating to another possible world is a kind of climbing, then every religion climbs its own mountain. Does this mean religions deal with ethics? It does not. Ethics, too, is the province of entirely secular logic and philosophy. Our common morality emerges logically, naturally, and rationally from objective and necessary facts about persons. Religions are neither descriptive theories of ultimate reality, nor ethical theories of how humans ought to treat each other. Nevertheless, there are many non-ethical questions about how humans ought to live. But even these belong to the entirely secular study of human flourishing. And here CPoR has many questions to address: how do different religions treat women? Do they treat women justly or unjustly? CPoR can use objective, secular norms to ethically evaluate religions (and gods). In what ways are religions good? In what ways are they evil?

What is left for religion? As ways of engaging other possible worlds, religions deal with ideals that are not primarily ethical, but which enter ethics in foundational ways. Is it ethical to for mountaineers to free-solo? This depends, in part, on your assessment of the non-ethical value of free-soloing. If you think free-soloing is a way for humans to participate in superhuman or transcendental ideals, your answer will be yes. Otherwise, no. Different religions reveal different ideals. There are transcendental values, values which exceed all utilitarian computations, but these are incommensurable, and they are fully realized only in diverse possible worlds. Because there are many worlds, these values do not conflict. This is pragmatic value-pluralism. These transcendental values resemble aesthetic values, ways in which human conduct gains superhuman beauty. Religions are genres of pragmatic-aesthetic practices. They are different aesthetic ways of life, different ways of pursuing styles of aesthetic excellence beyond the human.

Keith Ward on “Comparative Theology”

Keith Ward is Regius Professor Emeritus of Divinity, University of Oxford, formerly Professor of the Philosophy of Religion, London University; member of the British Academy. We invited him to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Theology used to be seen as the articulation and defence of the beliefs and practices of a specific religion, usually Christianity. In some quarters, it is still seen in that way. But as Universities have become increasingly secular, and as greater knowledge of the world’s diverse religions has grown, it has become clear to many that the study of theos, of God, should involve a study of the many different views of God that exist.

Even within Christianity there are very different concepts of God, ranging from the ‘esse suum subsistens’ of Thomistic thought to the ‘sufferer who understands’ of Process theology, and the ‘Absolute Spirit’ of Hegelian idealism. But cast the net wider, and it becomes clear that many religions have ideas of a supreme spiritual reality, not all of which use the word ‘God’, but which underlie discernibly religious practices.

So it becomes possible to speak of a wider notion of theology as the study of ideas of a supreme, or at least other and greater than human, spiritual reality. The advantage is that one will be able to place the beliefs with which one is familiar in a wider historical context, and to expand the range of human thought about such matters beyond the rather limited confines of one’s most familiar environment. The disadvantage is that one may get lost in a vast sea of possibilities, which no one could master in a lifetime.

The same could be said, of course, of any study of history or of the sciences, and so there is a need to specialise in some particular area of thought, and not try to cover everything. Nevertheless, to get some idea of the general range of human thought about alleged spiritual realities, however relatively superficial and over general it may be – and it will be important to admit a degree of superficiality – is an important way of seeing the wider context of the leading ideas of one’s own time and place.

Whether such an enterprise should be called ‘comparative theology’ or not is a moot point. The idea of comparing different ideas of God can sound like a form of competition to find a winner. Some people think that religions are so different and so self-contained that to compare them would be like comparing a camel to an orchid. There is just no common feature to compare, and such an exercise is pointless.

However, religious ideas are not self-contained. Christian ideas were strongly influenced by ancient Greek thought; Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism have interacted continually throughout history; and Indian religions have been influenced by many philosophical perspectives, which have themselves interacted in various ways. Religious ideas are in continual interaction, and continually changing, even, ironically, when they sometimes claim to be changeless. Changes of language and of interpretation become evident to any alert historian of ideas, so that even to understand one tradition fully requires a knowledge of the social and cultural influences which forced new problems and new solutions on that tradition.

Once again, it looks as though an understanding of even one tradition requires an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of its development and varying contexts. This suggests that there will be many different ways in which a comparative theology might proceed. What will make it comparative is that it will seek to see one religious tradition (say, Christianity in the present UK) in the light of its wider context (the rise of Humanism, of non-realist and materialist philosophies, of feminism and ecological awareness, and of Islam and Hinduism in the UK, for instance). What will make it diverse is which of these aspects is the focus of interest for a particular theologian.

Some will undertake detailed philological studies of texts, to show how different values and interests are expressed. Some will be more interested in basic doctrinal or philosophical themes that are to be found, and that may show various, often unexpected, convergences and oppositions. Some will concentrate on background social or psychological forces that may be at work. And some will be most interested in what expansions or even corrections of their own tradition may be suggested by closer knowledge of other traditions.

I have written what I called a five volume ‘comparative theology’, and I confess that I hesitated about that title. It seemed perhaps a little too grandiose and all-embracing. I wrote it primarily as a University philosophy teacher, and was interested in the basic ideas of revelation, creation, and human nature and destiny, that were to be found in four of the world’s major religions. I was aware that I could not cover all the complexity of these traditions, so I tried to concentrate on the works of some major writers within the traditions. I did not want to ‘compare the religions’ as such, but to draw out some of the basic philosophical issues that some literate and sophisticated believers had dealt with. Since I was a Christian minister, I did not disguise that fact, and was well aware that my perspective was from a Christian viewpoint – though the form of my Christian beliefs was certainly shaped by my studies.

I became convinced that it was not true that all one needed to understand about religion was contained already in the Christian tradition, and that there was nothing to learn both from other traditions and from secular and scientific thought. On the contrary, I came to agree with Max Muller that ‘he who knows only one religion knows none’.

What distinguishes comparative theology, in my view, is that it studies particular religious traditions in the light of a wider set of such traditions, which may better illuminate both its strengths and weaknesses. It does not seek to defend a specific tradition (though individual teachers, of course, may defend their own beliefs, without requiring that others agree with them). Like old-style confessional theology, it covers many disciplines – the analysis of texts, historical and social influences, philosophical presuppositions, and the development of beliefs and practices. Its distinctive method is to do so with explicit reference to the global and historical context of religious beliefs. This requires comparison, not to find a winner, but to expand critical and appreciative understanding of the nature of human beliefs about God, the gods, or the existence of a spiritual dimension to reality.