As Iron Sharpens Iron: Comparative Theology Today
Third, because religion eludes easy definition, its boundaries are notoriously ambiguous and porous, interweaving issues from anthropology, archaeology, the arts, cosmology, ethics, history, literature, philosophy, politics, psychology, sociology, and even theoretical physics. According to Christopher Dawson, "The great religions are the foundations on which the great civilizations rest." Thus, Comparative Theology equips us to appreciate richness in history and culture we might otherwise miss. From the poetry of John Donne to the majesty of the Taj Mahal, to the intricacies of Indian dance:
One cannot study themes of art or forms of architecture without some reference to the impetus provided by religion . . . one cannot learn about music and poetry without somehow noting the influence of religious inspiration. History, sociology, and anthropology cannot be taught or interpreted without consideration of religious customs and practices . . . psychology without reference to religion as a force that motivates, regulates, influences, and even directs . . . behavior . . . is almost impossible. (Dawson)
Comparative Theology in this sense is worthwhile even for atheists, since it does not automatically entail endorsing the theologies it compares any more than researching racism makes one racist, or taking art history necessitates daubing paint to canvas ourselves. Will Deming elaborates:
For the religious, the study of religion can give one a deeper appreciation for his or her own religious tradition . . . It also enables a person to articulate his or her tradition better to others, either to edify one's own group or for purposes of evangelism or interfaith dialogue. For both the religious and the nonreligious -- the atheist, the agnostic, or the comfortably uninterested -- an appreciation of religion gives one insight into dealing with religious people of all sorts.
Gary Kessler recognizes religion as "a force that influences for good or for ill, the lives of practically everyone who is alive. So much of human history and culture remains a mystery if we cannot comprehend the role religion has played and continues to play in the development of human institutions, values, and behavior." For example, "American culture . . . cannot be fully understood without knowing something about the role that Christianity played in shaping its political, judicial, and educational institutions, not to mention . . . individual freedom and human rights . . . religious ideas were used to promote the destruction of indigenous peoples and to end it, to promote slavery and to stop it."
Karen Farrington likewise extols, "In his darkest hour it has taken more than food and water to sustain benighted man. Religion has been his comforter, his prop, his reason for existing." Comparative Theology strives to ascertain why, in what way, and to what end.
Fourth, while it has been said one ought not to talk politics, sex, or religion in polite society, Comparative Theology concerns politics, sex, and religion! Studying themes that matter intensely is enlightening and invigorating, yet it can evoke strong emotions by touching on topics intensely personal.
Unlike some religion professors, I am repulsed by university and self-appointed faith-terminators who "shoot to kill" students' religious beliefs. Most students have few tools and limited time to winnow wheat from chaff flung by hostile, heavily armed authority figures. I hope religious and secular students alike find their preconceptions challenged by religious and theological inquiry (cf. James 1:2-5), but while spiritual depth is a worthy goal for Comparative Theology, spiritual death is not. In the words of Alex Shand and (purportedly) Cardinal John Henry Newman, universities and Comparative Theology within and beyond ought to be where, "mind clashes with mind, and sparks of brilliant intelligence are set flying, as from the sharp contact of flint striking upon steel." Or, to use two complimentary metaphors, Comparative Theology ought to serve as a womb for nurturing seeds of creativity and a marketplace for confronting, analyzing, and ultimately accepting or rejecting ideas.