On Comparative Theology: Religion Specific or Trans-Religious?

March 9, 2017
Professor Robert Neville
Professor Robert C. Neville/ Photo: Ariella Ruth Goldberg

We were happy to host on Monday, March 6, the annual Comparative Theology Lecture. This series, funded by the Luce Foundation and reaching back now about ten years, explores through various disciplinary lenses and from the perspectives of various traditions, the process of learning across religious boundaries, as faith—seeking understanding—learns interreligiously. The series has, in recent years, been supported by a generous grant from the Luce Foundation, for which we are very grateful.

This year’s distinguished lecturer was Robert Cummings Neville, who for many years was Dean of the Boston University School of Theology. He is the author of over 25 books, and numerous articles and book chapters, in the fields of philosophical and natural theology, comparative methodology, and comparative theology as engaging Confucian tradition. One of his signal contributions was the Comparative Religious Ideas Project that was convened at BU in the late 1990s, culminating in three important volumes, The Human Condition, Ultimate Realities, and Religious Truth (all published in 2001 by the State University of New York Press). You can read here the interview staff member Dorie Goehring had with him before his visit on Monday.

Professor Neville’s topic on March 6, “On Comparative Theology: Religion-Specific or Trans-Religious?”, discussed the nature, purpose, and reach of comparative theology, but in doing so raised fundamental questions about the nature of theology that has often sought to be both a faith-grounded activity and yet too as an academic discipline. To what extent does interreligious learning require—or even tolerate—an explicit insistence that such learning arises from and returns to a specific religious community, shaped by its beliefs and practices? To what extent must theology move beyond confessional boundaries, if it is to flourish as a true interreligious learning that contributes to the study of religions today?

These questions are of great personal interest to me as Center director, but in consultation with Professor Neville I had decided that it would be more interesting to hear them discussed from the perspective of a new generation of comparativists—namely, current doctoral students engaged in comparative studies. Hence the lecture was followed by responses from Bin Song (BU), who is writing on “Creatio ex nihilo” and “Sheng Sheng” (生生, Birth Birth): Descartes and Zhu Xi on creation;” Shoshana Razel (Harvard), whose tentative dissertation topic is, “On Persons and Objects: A Comparative Theological Study of Legal Agency and Ritual Efficacy;” and Won-Jae Hur (Boston College), who is writing on embodiment and transformation of suffering in Edith Stein’s spiritual writings and Tibetan Buddhist Lojong texts. You can see the lecture, the responses, and the ensuing lively discussion here.