2015, From ‘comparative theology’ to ‘comparative experience’

From ‘comparative theology’

to ‘comparative experience’ 

John R. Dupuche 

Paper delivered at the Winter Workshop with

Frank X. Clooney sj,


Australian Catholic University,

August 2015





In her description of ‘comparative theology’, [1] Anita Ray describes in detail what it is, and what it is not. This paper wishes to explore what it might lead to.

Clooney’s succinct definition, which Hakan Çoruh also quotes in his paper, reads as follows:


“Comparative theology … marks acts of faith seeking understanding which are rooted in a particular faith tradition but which, from that foundation, venture into learning from one or more other faith traditions.” [2]

This paper is structured around the various elements of Clooney’s definition and examines the shifts that are implied.


… acts of faith        – the shift from word to Spirit

The starting point for Clooney is faith, which in the Christian tradition is primarily an inspired act. St Paul writes: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit”.[3] Faith is experienced, and does not arise merely from human volition. In this sense it is svayambhu, to use a Sanskrit term that Diana Cousens will develop in her own paper. As a result all remains the same yet all is perceived differently, as Diana will say.

Furthermore, a faith tradition is not an abstraction but a community whose tradition is expressed in texts and rituals, in art and practices. Therefore, in comparative theology, the focus naturally shifts from the expressed to the expresser. Comparative theology is not confined to texts, as Anita will note in her study on Aboriginal theology.

One might ask, what cognitive theory can substantiate the experience? The answer is simply that no cognitive theory is possible since the faith experience has moved beyond cognition to inspiration. Gregory Palamas, the last of the great Greek Fathers before the fall of Constantinople, makes the point clearly, “[The human being] sees truly neither by the intelligence nor by the body, but by the Spirit.”[4] The work of Jesus is narrated in the Gospels, but the work of the Spirit is different. “The Spirit blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”[5] This incomprehensibility means that the Spirit has a narrative which is essentially unnarratable and apophatic.

The Sacred Silence that occurs after communion at Mass is a paradigm for the prayer that can take place between members of different religions, for that silence is not muteness but fullness of the Word. Thomas Merton puts it well, “[T]he deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless.”[6]


seeking understanding       -the shift from theology to contemplation

Anselm’s celebrated definition of theology as fides quaerens intellectum,[7] ‘faith seeking understanding’, echoes Augustine’s crede ut intelligas[8] ‘Believe in order to understand’. St Bernard takes it further and emphasises experience, credo ut experiar,[9] ‘I believe in order to experience’. These viewpoints, however, need to be seen in a wider context.

Pseudo-Dionysius (6th century CE), drawing on earlier Patristic writings, distinguishes between two meanings of the word ‘theology’:


“Ineffable and mysterious on the one hand, the more open and more evident on the other. The one resorts to symbolism and involves initiation. The other is philosophic and employs the method of demonstration … The one uses persuasion and imposes the truthfulness of what is asserted. The other acts and, by means of a mystery which cannot be taught, it puts souls firmly in the presence of God.”[10]


Alex Bruce, in his paper commenting on Evagrius, concurs: “Theology” as ultimate truth is the state of unmediated experiential knowledge of the Trinity. This teaching has implications for the process of ‘learning’ as we shall see.


venture – the shift from doubt to trust

The word ‘venture’ suggests a degree of prudence. It starts, however, not from Cartesian doubt but from the supposition of truth. It can be linked with the term “dialogical dialogue which”, as Gerard Hall will describe more fully in his paper, “can only proceed on the basis of a certain trust in the “other qua other” ”. The Spirit who inspires faith in the Christian also gives insight into the divine mystery in other traditions. St Paul speaks of the Spirit “interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.[11]

Observers who are taken up into the experience of others realise more fully their own experience, since the Spirit recognises the works of the Spirit. For example, at Bodh Gaya, there is a great pipal tree spreading over the platform where the Buddha awoke to the realisation of the void. The bareness of the seat let me experience in some small way the liberating power of the void. It communicated a sense of the empty tomb, the principal sign of the Lord’s resurrection.


learning          – the shift from text to personal experience

The word ‘learning’ suggests, in the first instance, an intellectual act. It also has a richer meaning. We learn from the very being of members of another tradition. “Dialogical dialogue”, as Gerard notes following on Panikkar, “is primarily the meeting of persons”. It is grace becoming aware of grace. It is freedom recognizing freedom. We are aware of being moved by the same Light.

This process of learning looks back to well-established traditions, but also to the future to vistas never imagined before. As a result, religious experience grows exponentially and cannot be complete. The work of understanding is a fleeting moment between past and future, between two unknowns.

Experience meets experience. A depth is seen which we cannot resist. We delight in being challenged. There is the wish to share in their truth. We discover ourselves in discovering each other. Truth sheds its light on truth; truth enhances truth; truth reveals truth.

This learning takes place without presuppositions or requirements, without expectations or prejudices. Participants make themselves defenceless and humble, presuming that others have been inspired in a manner their own tradition has not. One senses, in the depths of the Spirit, that the other too has been enlightened. The learning involves self-emptying and kenosis. It requires purity of heart and the abandonment of discursive intellect in favour of contemplation.

One might ask at this point, where is the critical faculty, all the equipment of intellectual rigour? St Paul, speaking of “the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual” provides the answer. In other words, the Spirit is also a critical faculty, indeed the only critical faculty.

Interpersonal relationship is an essential aspect Christianity. However, a real relationship involves emptying oneself before the other, discarding masks, attachments, and mental constructs. The Buddhist, in seeing the kenôsis at the heart of the authentic Christian, will see more clearly that their own experience of the void is an experience not of absence, but of the fullest Presence. As a great Geshe said to his disciple at the time of his death, ‘We shall meet in the void’. One must be empty in order to meet.

But the ‘voids’ cannot be reduced one to the other. The void (śūnyatā) of Buddhism is not the same as the self-emptying (kenôsis) of Christianity. There is an inviolability of experience. The irreducibility of one experience to another means that the infinite is experienced more effectively.

St Paul prepares us for this exclusiveness when he declares that the Spirit works differently in each. Fabrice Blée puts it well:

“In each theophany God communicates in a particular way the power of the divine saving act, and yet God is not fully revealed in any particular manifestation.”[12]


This inviolability establishes the dignity not only of the tradition but also the members within that tradition. They have a unique value that cannot be replaced. It is essentially reserved to them. We can only bow down before it.

Thus, we can learn from the Jewish tradition but we can never make it obsolete. The People of the Covenant have something, which no other group can have or indeed needs to have, for the Spirit of God is not confined to Judaism.

The result is paradox. Not only are the systems of the diverse faith traditions intellectually incompatible, but also the experiences of these traditions cannot be assimilated one to the other. The paradox may be troubling at first but in fact it allows us to enter the depths of the ‘cloud of unknowing’ where the Truth is most fully perceived, in the depths of the Spirit. Tony Kelly will note that “Comparative theology is an introduction into the limitless Mystery of God”

The encounter is itself a unique experience. It


“ does not designate a purely verbal exchange centred on the religious experiences of each person involved. It is a religious experience in itself in which relationship to the other is what prompts renewed relationship to the divine.” [13]


The dialogue of experience is therefore a work of contemplation, recognizing the Divine in the other. Our perception of the gift in the other reveals more fully the quality of the gift in our selves. By perceiving the other we perceive ourselves. Futhermore, we are taken beyond our own limited experience to the origin of every spiritual experience. The kataphatic proclamation, which is the text of a tradition, is essential but the apophatic moment marks the beginning and end of all experience.

‘Learning from one or more other faith traditions’ is in fact a need. We need to be enlightened about our own light. Other faith traditions will show Christians, for example, how Jesus is indeed Lord. They will learn this in ways they have not understood in the past.

Christians reveal the Divine Presence. This is their gift. Christians seek to be present to others, to be with them and for them. This meeting of person to person leads to the awareness of the Person who truly says ‘I am’. This is “God as pure subjectivity”, as Meredith Secomb will say in her paper. God becomes present to others in a way that does not undermine their truth but reveals it.

Gregory Palamas makes a striking analogy with the eye. He pictures a sun of infinite radiance and size – at the centre of which all stands – but now transformed into an eye. He then says:


“If it (the visual faculty) looks at itself it sees light; if it looks at the object of its sight that is also light; and if it looks at the means it uses to see, that too is light; that is what union is: let all that be one.”[14]


One faith tradition sheds its light upon another. There is light upon light till the various religions are no longer an object of study nor the means of discovering one’s own faith. Light illuminates light by means of its own light. It will not longer be possible to speak divisively of Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism and Islam and Judaism etc., since all become one Light, one Knowledge, or to borrow from Kashmir Shaivism, all is simply ‘I am’.



Comparative theology, as defined by Frank Clooney, represents a significant shift in the study of religions: from reason to faith, from observation to learning, from texts to the members of faith traditions, from commentary to experience, from theology to contemplation. This shift in turn leads to an increased awareness to the Spirit, of the personal dimension and of apophatic silence. It leads ultimately to the experience of the “one Light that enlightens all people” (Jn 1:3). It is a challenging and invaluable approach.



[1] AEJT 20.2 (August 2013) Ray, D’Arcy May, Dupuche/Doing Theology Inter‐Religiously?

[2] Francis X. Clooney, Comparative Theology; Deep Learning Across Religious Borders. (Chichester UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) 10.

[3] I Cor. 12:3.

[4] Triads II.3.24. Palamas, Triads, Edited with an introduction by John Meyendorff, translated by Nicholas Gendle, Preface by Jaroslav Pelikan. London: SPCK, 1983. P. ??

[5] Jn 3:8.

[6] Quoted from Mitchell, Donald. W., and James Wiseman 2010 The Spiritual Life: A Dialogue of Buddhist and Christian Monastics. New York: Lantern Books. p. xv. Quoted in Fabrice Blée, The Third Desert, The story of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, translated by William Skudlarek with Mary Grady, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2011. originally published in French under the title Le desert de l’altérité, Québec, Médiaspaul, 2004. p. 142.

[7] Proslogion, 1.

[8] Tract. Ev. Jo., 29.6

[9] Professor Constant Mews, Director of the Centre for Studies in Relion and Theology, Monash University, Melbourne, has sent me the following clarifying note: “Did Bernard ever say, however, “I believe in order that I might experience” (credo ut experiar), as claimed by Kilian McDonnell in a 1997 study that refers back for its authority to a quotation made in a book about Bernard and the Song of Songs, published by Johannes Schmuck in 1926, and occasionally repeated in other studies.[1] Careful verification of the Latin text of all of Bernard’s Writings, accessible through the Library of Latin Texts published by Brepols, shows, however, that Bernard himself never used precisely this phrase. Schmuck was mounting an argument that Bernard was consciously modifying a class phrase, used by St Anselm and inspired by Augustine: “I believe in order that I may understand” (credo ut intelligam). In doing so, Schmuck was arguing that Bernard’s mystical and experiential theology was quite different from what he saw as the scholastic, more intellectual model promoted a generation earlier by Anselm, a Benedictine rather than a Cistercian monk.”

[1] Kilian McDonnell “Spirit and Experience in Bernard of Clairvaux,Theological Studies 58.1 (March 1997), 3-8, quoting at n. 8 Johannes Schmuck, Das Hohe Lied des Hl. Bernhard von Clairvaux (Paderborn: Schoningh, 1926), p. 11. I am indebted to John Dupuche for prompting me to research this detail in response to a comment he makes briefly within an excellent study on interfaith theology and experience.

[10] Pseudo-Dionysius, ‘Letter 9’ in The Complete Works. Translation by Colm Luibheid, foreword notes and translation collaboration by Paul Rorem, preface by René Roques, introductions by Jaroslav Pelikan, Jean Leclerq and Karlfried Froelich. New York: Paulist Pres, 1987. p. 283.

[11] I Cor 2:11-13.

[12] Fabrice Blée, The Third Desert, The story of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, translated by William Skudlarek with Mary Grady, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2011. originally published in French under the title Le desert de l’altérité, Québec, Médiaspaul, 2004. p. 150.

[13] Fabrice Blée, The Third Desert, The story of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, translated by William Skudlarek with Mary Grady, Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2011. originally published in French under the title Le desert de l’altérité, Québec, Médiaspaul, 2004. p. 4.

[14] Triads II.3.36. Palamas, Triads, Edited with an introduction by John Meyendorff, translated by Nicholas Gendle, Preface by Jaroslav Pelikan. London: SPCK, 1983.

About interfaithashram

Rev. Dr. John Dupuche is a Roman Catholic Priest, a senior lecturer at MCD University of Divinity, and Honorary Fellow at Australian Catholic University. His doctorate is in Sanskrit in the field of Kashmir Shaivism. He is chair of the Catholic Interfaith Committee of the Archdiocese of Melbourne and has established a pastoral relationship with the parishes of Lilydale and Healesville. He is the author of 'Abhinavagupta: the Kula Ritual as elaborated in chapter 29 of the Tantraloka', 2003; 'Jesus, the Mantra of God', 2005; 'Vers un tantra chrétien' in 2009; translated as 'Towards a Christian Tantra' in 2009. He has written many articles. He travels to India each year. He lives in an interfaith ashram.
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