Douglas Allen (email@example.com), 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.