When describing himself and his academic studies, doctoral student Axel Takács makes a certain, subtle distinction: "I don't want to say I study comparative theology," he says. "To say that I am studying to become a comparative theologian is a better way to look at it."
In more specific terms, he says, "I am studying to become a comparative Catholic theologian, where, in addition to learning Catholic theology—its history and contemporary theology—I am also learning Islamic mystical philosophy, mystical theology."
For this first-generation American, whose Hungarian Slovak father, born and raised in Budapest, and Italian mother, born in Bordeaux, France, first met in Waterloo, Iowa, the path from undergraduate computer science major to becoming a comparative theologian was by no means planned. But some "accidents" are meant to be.
While an undergraduate at St. Louis University, a Jesuit institution, Takács took required courses in philosophy and theology, and then took more, graduating not only with a double major, but with two degrees—a bachelor of arts in theology, with a minor in philosophy and history, and a bachelor of science.
Though his professors had different suggestions to make about his post-college direction, all offered one piece of advice in common: take some time off before continuing his formal education. So, for two years, leaving computer science behind, Takács was a teacher at a Catholic high school—teaching scripture.
Convinced he wanted to pursue Catholic theology and medieval philosophy, he expanded the depth and breadth of his reading and talked over ideas with as many people as he could. And he began to consider comparative theology, which would allow him also to follow a burgeoning interest in Islamic studies.
"I don't know what exactly made me choose Islamic studies," he says. "It was just something that fascinated me."
Knowing he would need a master's degree before entering any doctoral programs, he applied and was accepted to Harvard Divinity School in 2008 and graduated with a master of theological studies degree in 2010. As an MTS student, his area of concentration was Islamic studies.
"I wanted to take Arabic, and I knew I just needed to dive right in and take as many courses in the languages and in Islamic studies as possible."
Takács not only took advantage of as many offerings at HDS as he could, but, through the Boston Theological Institute, he "stumbled" onto a class at Boston College that sounded interesting. The course was James Morris's "Encountering the Qur'an."
"I didn't know who he was or what his area of expertise was," Takács says, "but he introduced me to the world of Islamic philosophy and Islamic mysticism, and that's when I decided that this was the pursuit that I wanted to study"—in particular Ibn 'Arabi, Persian mystical poetry, and the philosophical school of Isfahan that developed in Iran.
After another year off, living and working in Paris and continuing his Arabic and Persian studies, Takács applied to the ThD program at HDS, where he now works to define—and refine—the way he approaches comparative theology.
"From the outset," he explains, "I just say what I'm doing: I'm a Catholic theologian. I want to read a certain Islamic text in order to give as sympathetic a reading of it as possible, such that, as I read it, it triggers or awakens in me something I read in Catholic theology that I can then go back and forth with, explicating or expanding upon a theme in Catholic theology through the lens of this Islamic text that otherwise was not apparent."
He cites a famous hadith that Ibn 'Arabi quoted—"the heart embraces God"—to illustrate the kind of knowledge he is drawn to: God says, "My heavens and my earth embrace me not, but the heart of my faithful servant does embrace me." Takács says, "I look at wisdom knowledge as that kind of knowledge that is inherently transformative in the way one lives one's life: my daily activities, my relations with others, what motivates me in life, what I choose to do, how I choose to interact."
While still a master's student at HDS, Takács and two other MTS students founded The Journal of Comparative Theology, a graduate student, peer-reviewed journal—the first of its kind—under the mentorship of Francis X. Clooney, director of the CSWR.
Clooney continues to be one of his primary doctoral advisers, for the methodology of comparative theology and for contemporary theology. Another adviser is Charles Stang, Associate Professor of Early Christian Thought at HDS.
Takács also studies broader Islamic philosophy and theology with Khaled el-Rouyaheb, in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard, and works with Boyd Coolman at Boston College in medieval Christian thought. James Morris continues to be his adviser for Ibn 'Arabi and his later interpreters and for Persian mysticism and the Persian poetic tradition.
"What's great about Harvard and the program I'm in is that I'm able to work with so many different people with different expertise," Takács says. And, as a comparative theologian, the CSWR is an ideal place in which to be living and studying. Not only do two of his advisers have offices right at the Center, but it is a central location for study sessions, meetings and events, for other colleagues and classmates as well as for the residents.
"Being aware of studying Christian theology, medieval Christian history, the idea of living in a community of scholars reminds me of a very loosely formed community, as you'd find in a monastery, perhaps," he says. "That's not really what is happening, but there is the feeling that I can wake up and there's a garden in the front, a forest to the back, a vegetable garden. There's a library I can read in, a common area where we can gather."
Now that he is reading for his general examinations, Takács appreciates the Center community environment even more.
"I'm sitting here, reading for 12 hours a day, but I can go out, and with this combination of people around me, it creates a great atmosphere, very conducive to studying."
—by Kathryn Dodgson
This article appears in the Spring 2014 edition of CSWR Today.