Author: Lefebure, Leo D
Date published: March 1, 2012
COMPARATIVE THEOLOGY AND THE PROBLEM OF RELIGIOUS RIVALRY. By Hugh Nicholson. New York: Oxford, 2011. Pp. xxiv + 320. $74.
Nicholson offers an insightful overview of the origins and development of comparative theology in its historical and political context, demonstrating that recent comparative theology shares more with its 19th-century namesake than is often acknowledged. N. argues convincingly for the unavoidable political dimension of the disciplines of theology, comparative theology, and comparative religion. He laments that in the aftermath of the Wars of Religion, liberal theologians such as Schleiermacher sought to depoliticize religion by identifying a nonsectarian, conflict-free common essence of religion. N. claims that this endeavor to depoliticize religion has contributed to the present-day marginalization of comparative theology.
N. draws on the thought of Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt to refute this approach as a vain, counterproductive effort to deny the essential element of conflict in identity formation. Given the problematic history of JewishChristian relations and the horrors of Nazism, one may question the wisdom of shaping a comparative theology under the guidance of a leading Nazi thinker. To be sure, N. does seek to "reassure the reader here at the outset that I personally find many aspects of Schmitt's political thought . . . repugnant" (7); but N. trusts that he can neatly separate these repugnant elements from Schmitt's critique of liberalism, which he praises highly. He tries to soften the harshness of Schmitt's theory by changing the opposition between "friend" and "enemy" to a kinder, gentler opposition: "I thus define the political in terms of an adversarial relation between 'us' and 'them' that stops short of declaring the 'them' an enemy" (8-9). The result is that N. recognizes religious identity only in terms of an adversarial contrast between "us" and "them."
This adversarial stipulation shapes what N. recognizes in the history of religious identities. In citing Daniel Boyarin's important study of "the partition of Judeo-Christianity," N. focuses solely on the efforts to distinguish between Judaism and Christianity (90-92); the communities studied by Boyarin and his colleagues, who for centuries practiced Judeo-Christianity, do not neatly fit N.'s criterion of religious identity and thus apparently have no importance in themselves; they serve his discussion only as the foil against which the adversarial process can be demonstrated. N. privileges the efforts of the border-makers and neglects communities that have not been so scrupulous concerning boundaries. Native Americans who participate in Catholic life and ritual while continuing to practice traditional rites are not easily assimilated into N.'s adversarial definition of religious identity. Nor do East Asian traditions, which for centuries have embraced multiple religious identities, tidily fit N.'s "us vs. them" model.
Perhaps the most important assumption of the book appears unobtrusively in N.'s contrast between traditional understandings of Christian doctrines and his view of them as "essentially relational, constructed, and contingent" (82). His endnote clarifies that this contrast is "simply a particular instance of a broader tension between an understanding of religious discourses, practices, and institutions as human constructions, on the one hand, and the traditional theological representation of these elements as grounded in eternal, transcendent, and divine reality, on the other" (233 n. 12). There is a major difference between N.'s reductionist approach to doctrines as simply human constructions and those theologies of religion and comparative theologies that continue to view Christian doctrines as human responses to divine initiative. Thus N.'s own use of the term "theology" for his own proposal remains somewhat ambiguous, involving a major shift in meaning from many of his interlocutors; many would see his proposal as belonging more to the sociology of religion than to theology.
Nonetheless, there is much of interest and importance in N.'s discussion. N. develops his historical overview Ulto a thoughtful critique of both modern Uberai theology and George Lindbeck, as well as of recent leaders in tbe field of comparative theology, including Francis X. Clooney and James Fredericks. N. illustrates his own proposal in a perceptive revisiting of Rudolf Otto's classic comparison of Shankara and Meister Eckhart. In this discussion N. demonstrates his detailed knowledge of both these figures, his awareness of the medieval Hindu and Christian contexts, as well as his skill in Sanskrit and his command of the secondary literature on both figures. Both Shankara and Eckhart pose major interpretative challenges and have been the subject of extensive hermeneutical debates; N.'s interpretation of these figures in terms of a Bakhtinian "double-voiced discourse" is persuasive and insightful.
Georgetown University, Washington LEO D. LEFEBURE