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.