Comparative Theology and Heresy Studies: Common Ground?Taraneh R. Wilkinson » ISHS: International Society for Heresy Studies



Comparative Theology and Heresy Studies: Common Ground?

Taraneh R. Wilkinson

We are all from the same tribe, they tell us as they hand us our name tags void of institutional affiliation. The only label besides our names is the intriguing and provocative “Heresy Studies.” I smile, delighted by the chance to explore the ways in which my disciplinary training prevents me from falling into neat and welcoming categories. After all, my doctorate was in “Religious Pluralism,” granted through a theology department at a Catholic university on the subject of contemporary Turkish Muslim thought. So, am I a secular scholar of religion? A theologian? Or something else entirely? On good days, I’m probably a little of both, even if the weight shifts from project to project. Yet, what if I am not properly either secular scholar or theologian? Back among my fellow “heretics,” I breathe a sigh of relief and think: finally, a conference where my disciplinary identity poses some interesting questions rather than imposing potential liabilities!

But first, how can we all be heretics? Heresy isn’t an arbitrary designation, not a label claimed in isolation, is it? Heretics make a choice to differ from whatever it is that was handed down to the fold. That makes “heretic” a relational term. It bespeaks a margin, divergence. A margin entails a mainstream, divergence a pre-established course to veer from. That’s not all. Often, heretics believe themselves to be perfectly orthodox, and would otherwise blissfully persist in such a self-designation were it not for the judgment of those in their community who have taken umbrage with their view of orthodoxy. In other words, “heretic” is the label the purported majority throws at the non-conforming fringe or lone trouble-maker, not a happy tribal identity that brings academics from various disciplines together into one shared conversation over coffee. Well, perhaps the times have changed. Lucky for me, I guess.

For the comparative theologian, however, heresy is still a label to be avoided. And as someone with training in both Christian theology and Islamic thought, who spends a lot of time thinking about how Muslim scholars respond theologically to Christian intellectual heritage, comparative theology is one of those dedicated subfields I look to for questions, and occasional answers. As it stands, comparative dynamics permeate most of my present research. And when those comparative dynamics fail to fit neatly into the methods and procedures of one discipline, I’ll take help where it’s offered. It so happens that comparative theology has been wrestling with the intersection of theology, other faiths, and the secular tools for studying religion for some time.

Comparative theology as it is known today took off in the 1990s and has since gained considerable visibility within theological approaches to the study of religion. Sometimes framed as “dialogical” or “conversational” theology, it puts a premium on theological conversation between faiths and confessions—generally through the medium of constructive and comparative readings of sacred texts (with reference to respective interpretive communities). This conversation not only involves a mixing of religious vocabularies and conceptual frameworks, it also involves points of interdisciplinary crossover, with requisite linguistic and area studies expertise. Importantly, the point of comparative intersection and its conceptual framing is very much left up to the individual comparative theologian. To give a sense, one example of a comparative theological study might be to take a Protestant theologian and a Hindu thinker and compare aspects of their philosophical assumptions (this has been done). Another example might be to compare Hindu and Christian representations of female figures of devotion (this has also been done).  There are academic comparative theologians of a variety faiths, but the question arises as to how comparative theologians simultaneously represent their home tradition and still maintain the freedom to navigate constructively across multiple conceptual frameworks belonging to multiple religious vocabularies—especially without a predetermined procedure. Isn’t this a recipe for heresy? I’m sure some would think so.

In answer to this conundrum, comparative theologian Francis X. Clooney, a Catholic priest and father of contemporary comparative theology, stresses the local nature of the text, creative insight, and the importance of acknowledging one’s theological starting point as hallmarks of a fruitful comparative effort. Yet it is precisely this openness about a comparative theologian’s confessional starting point that raises the deepest questions about the impact of comparative studies on the boundaries of religious traditions, especially the boundaries of a comparative theologian’s home tradition. For, according to Clooney, a comparative theologian must take the new tradition studied “to heart,” with all the implications that reflective self-transformation might entail.  This is not the disengaged comparison one might encounter in religious studies; comparative theology targets transformative acts of comparison, intended to have theological import for a theologian’s home tradition.

So how does a comparative theologian maintain her emphasis on a confessional identity while simultaneously affirming the necessity to be transformed by a theological encounter with another religious tradition? While comparative theologians like Clooney affirm that doing comparative theology is not a threat to Catholic identity, they may not satisfactorily explain where the border between a theologian’s home and host tradition lies once a comparative theologian has dutifully taken her host tradition to heart. Perhaps this is because there is no clean consensus on where the border lies, or perhaps it is because doing comparative theology necessarily blurs the boundaries between faith traditions without introducing an overarching explanatory framework to account for such indeterminateness.

Still, what is gained by a comparative theology that refuses to offer a big-picture framework for comparison? Some have argued that, unlike the blanket claims to objective neutrality left unexamined in other disciplinary approaches to comparative religion, the particular and limited focus of individual efforts at comparative theology honors the perspectival nature of knowledge by helping to cultivate deeper insights into and articulation of one’s home and host tradition’s assumptions about reality. That is, a comparative theologian becomes a subtle-assumption-detector rather than a wide-angle photographer.

What’s more, there may be some merit to embracing the inevitable ambiguity associated with comparative and interdisciplinary approaches to religion. Why? Because ambiguity is a part of life and human history, and it’s also, arguably, a productive way of being uncomfortable. The discomfort of standing in underdetermined interdisciplinary spaces or theologically murky, even contested, waters is the sort of discomfort that leads individual scholars to question basic assumptions that in neater paradigms might be left untouched or even undetected.

Even if the comparative theologian does not welcome the label “heretic,” she might have something in common with the heretic after all: the ability to stand uncomfortably yet confidently on the margin and take in the view. And while the boundaries most obviously blurred in comparative theology are those between religious traditions, this humble willingness to pursue local, limited, yet constructive comparisons may also have application at the isthmus of theological and secular approaches to the study of religion, where scholars already find themselves committing the dual heresies of being too theological in a secular space or too secular in a theological one. Perhaps theologians and secularists can aid one another in detecting unquestioned assumptions about reality.

Well, what does all that say about my presence at a Heresy Studies conference? It probably means I like the idea of a tribe that values interdisciplinary discomfort and crosspollination, and that I hope to encounter others willing to patiently consider blurred borders and contested margins. Conferences like these are spaces where I do not have to wear either a theology hat or a religious studies hat. Instead, I have the luxury of pursuing the sort of questions that arise in spaces of overlap, indeterminateness, and ambiguity.

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