As Iron Sharpens Iron: Comparative Theology Today
Comparative Theology will also consider the musings of those who dismiss religion as nonsense. Sparring with atheists, agnostics, and anti-theists enlivens theological acuity. Cardinal Bonomi alleged, "The best way to beat the heretics is not to deserve their criticisms," but maybe the best way to engage "heretics" or "apostates" is to learn via reciprocal probing of merits and flaws.
Additional incentives for Comparative Theology are curiosity, enjoyment, awe, and the quest for beauty and truth. As Philip Novak indicates, "It is often upon an initial opening of the heart in wonder and delight that all further study depends." In performing Comparative Theology, we hone critical thinking, which helps us be less easily fooled by charlatans and differentiate "sick religion" from faith that is healthy, good, and true. Comparative Theology is "faith seeking understanding," which inquires into the truth, consistency, and explanatory power of the belief systems it interacts with. At the same time, it reveals resources for building empathy, tolerance, and love in our career, family, and other relationships. "Instead of filling the gaps of knowledge with imaginary dragons or secretly looking down on the barbarians, let us get acquainted with our new neighbors in the global village and learn to love them" (Richard Wolff). Surah 49:13 (Al-Hujuraat) in the Qur'an congruently exults, "O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another."
Many Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others throughout history, have believed at some level that Christianity or Hinduism or Islam is not just a religion, tradition, culture, or one of many equally valid worldviews, but that the Torah, Qur'an, the teachings of Buddha, or the person of Jesus, convey or embody more fully than anything (or anyone) else the truest insights about Ultimate Reality, what it means to be fully human, and how to best live our lives relating to each other and the Divine. If any of these faiths or none are essentially or partly true, the implications are enormous. To simply dismiss the question with a yawn, "who knows what is right?" or "we all basically say the same thing," is paternalistic and epistemologically lazy. Comparative Theology will not allow it.
Theodore Ludwig concludes, "Religion has to do with fundamental human issues and concerns. Who am I? . . . How can we find the life that is real and fulfilling? . . . Does life actually have any meaning -- any real meaning -- or do we just live and die in the small frame of a pointless, accidental cycle of the universe?" Because these deliberations are not confined to one tradition, Comparative Theology provides the opportunity to ponder "the distilled wisdom of the human race" (Huston Smith).
But lest we forget, "Comparative Theology Today" is first, finally, and foremost about God. C.S. Lewis in his provocative essay, "Learning in War-Time" puts it this way, "the pursuit of knowledge and beauty . . . for their own sake . . . does not exclude their being for God's sake . . . We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so." Francis Clooney maintains:
Theology, deep learning across religious borders . . . will always be a journey in faith. It will be from, for, and about God, whose grace keeps making room for all of us as we find our way faithfully in a world of religious diversity. That for me the work of comparative theology finally discloses a still deeper encounter with Jesus Christ only intensifies the commitment to learn from . . . religious diversity . . . In Christ there need not be any fear of what we might learn, there is only the Truth that sets us free.