Comparative theology and dual-belonging.


Comparative theology and dual-belonging.


Francis Clooney puts it clearly:

 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.[1]

 This paper will try to unpack the implications of this definition. It will show that comparative theology ultimately leads to dual-belonging, or rather, to the one belonging. This paper will take the key phrases are “rooted in a particular faith tradition” and “learning from one or more other faith traditions” and examine their implications.


Part I

“learning from one or more other faith traditions”

The Catholic Church for most of its history has had a negative even hostile view of other religions. It is only with the Encyclical of Pius XII Evangelii Praecones (2 June 1951) that the point of view officially changes.[2] The encyclical states “… the Catholic Church neither despises nor rejects [neque despexit neque respuit] the doctrinal teachings of other peoples.”[3] It represents a complete about-turn. The disregard and rejection of the past is itself now rejected. A further step is taken when Nostra Aetate states “Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture.” Clooney’s phrase “learning about other religions” is an even further step in this trajectory. Not only do we not despise, not only do we acknowledge but now we also learn.

But what is the nature of learning of that sort? Is it merely observation without participation, analysis without appreciation? Does this learning engage the mind only? Learning of that sought is severely limited, like knowing all about Paris but never going there.

A religious text, as distinct from an almanac, is truly read only if sympathy occurs between the words and the reader. Then the learning ceases to be just notional assent and becomes real assent, to use Newman’s valuable distinction. While notional knowledge is necessary – the authentic text, the accurate interpretation of terminology for instance – it is also necessary to know the tradition from within, for pure observation is impossible.

Werner Heisenberg’s “indeterminacy” or “uncertainty principle” has significantly affected modern physics and philosophy. He notes, for example, that a scientist can know either the charge of an electron or its position but not both since the very act of scientific observation alters the object that is being examined. He states that

 “Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature, it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves.”[4]

 It is impossible to fully know ‘from outside’. It is possible to truly observe only by becoming what one observes. One thus observes not as subject to object but as subject to subject. Hindu yoga teaches that by being in union with the inner self, the yogī is able to enter into union with an object and to become that object.[5] Thus, only by becoming fire can one truly understand fire, or more significantly only by entering into the mind and history of my friend will I truly understand him.

The text is the expression of a tradition and if it is to be understood in all its richness the reader must enter into the tradition itself. Thus initiation is an essential step. Does this mean undergoing a ceremony? No, but it does mean effectively being taken into the other tradition and belonging to that tradition. This occurs by grace, for the moment of real perception of the value of another tradition and the heartfelt attraction to it: this experience is due to grace from above, not to mere volition or reasoning. An initiation occurs in the broad sense, an initiation from above, so to speak, and not by a human member of that tradition. As long as learning remains a purely intellectual affair, we remain in charge. Once learning means becoming part of a tradition, we become subject to the tradition.

We begin with reading the text and find it inspiring. It is not a matter of personal will power. We have in some way been chosen. Furthermore, this grace cannot be rejected without inner dislocation. If truth is revealed it must not be refused. We feel drawn to what is being taught and draw close to those from whose experience it has arisen. We come to their truth, but also to our own truth. It is the discovery, not only of a tradition but also of one’s own being. That is why the teaching resonates. It is our truth, it is who we are, and it is part of our being. It determines our identity.

When I came across Kashmir Shaivism, one of the many traditions of India, I felt an immense reverberation, a great resounding from the depths. It was because at last I had discovered the words, which gave expression to my own experience. I did not cease to be a Christian. One truth did not destroy the other. I did not belong dually, I simply became myself. Dual-belonging does require reflection and an attempt to see how one truth enhances another, how one allegiance promotes the other, how the many truths reveal the one Truth.

Is there ‘cannibalism’ in the phrase: “learning from one or more other faith traditions”? Do we devour the truths of other traditions so as to enhance the appreciation of our own? Is it a ‘vivisection’ where we examine one part of a living tradition without regard to the living totality? Is there a sense of invasion in the minds of our Jewish friends, for example, when they see Christians giving the Torah an interpretation at variance with their own? The issues that arise between Christianity and Judaism are paradigmatic for relations between religions as a whole.

It should not surprise us, then, that members of other traditions do not share their own truths all at once. The normal practice in India, for example, is to preserve secrecy, to maintain the arcana. When the disciple has shown his or her worth, only then and for the sake of liberation not for the sake of information, will the guru communicate the secret teaching, and then only by personal teaching and not by published text.

This is also true of the Catholic tradition, for while the whole content of its kerygma is available in such texts as The Catechism of the Catholic Church, it does reserve the central experience, namely receiving the Eucharist, to those who have been initiated. Thus, it is not possible to understand the full meaning of the Catholic tradition without becoming a Catholic.


Part II

 “rooted in a particular faith tradition”

The trajectory that moves from Pius XII to Vatican II and to comparative theology needs to take the further step, we propose, towards dual-belonging. This is a ‘strong thesis’, so to speak, and worth debating.

Clooney’s definition very indirectly faces the question of dual belonging, which is broad and complex. It has been amply treated by Gideon Goossen who notes that dual-belonging “throws out a momentous challenge to ecclesiology”.[6]

The act of baptism has two essential components: the profession of faith on the part of the candidate and the act of baptising on the part of the celebrant. Baptism is thus both personal and communitarian, both a private and a public event. These two aspects have to be kept in balance. The wisdom of the community is vital, but the experience of grace imparted freely from above is also essential. The Church is enriched by the unique experience of the individual who in turn is enriched by the long tradition of countless millions over many centuries. Neither must outweigh the other.

The truth does not belong to us as though it were some possession placed at our disposal. Rather we belong to the truth. Similarly the Church assents to the truths found in other religions, and therefore belongs to them. As Jesus says to Pilate, “anyone who is on the side of truth listens to my voice” (Jn 19. 37). The Christian belongs to the truth wherever it is found and therein listens to the voice of Christ.

Those truths that awaken us to the presence of God cannot be rejected, wherever they may come from. It is not possible to learn fully from the truths of other traditions without eventually belonging to them. Dual-belonging is a problem only if we oppose one religion to another, hermetically. It is a problem only if we are concerned with categories and statics, for how can dual membership be categorised? It ceases to be a problem if our concern is for the truth. This does not mean that we adopt an uncritical syncretism or that we abandon the search for coherence.

We have reserved our attention to texts since this is the major field of Clooney’s research but religious traditions involve body and soul, emotions and acts, community and ritual, so that there are many ways of learning. However, that is a whole new subject.

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

[2] Laurentin, Bilan du concile, 297.

[3] Pius XII, “Evangelii Praecones,” Acta Apostolicae Sedis , (1951): 497-528, at 522.

[4] Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1959. accessed 26 January 2013.

[5] John Dupuche. Abhinavagupta: The Kula Ritual as elaborated in chapter 29 of the Tantrāloka. Delhi, MotiLal BanarsiDass, 2003. p. 259.

[6] Gideon Goosen. Hyphenated Christians, towards a better understanding of dual religious belonging. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2011. p.156.

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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