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.