Next Wave of Comparative Theology Will Be a Tapestry
By Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski
What does the future of interreligious dialogue and comparative theology look like?
On the last weekend of March, a graduate student conference at Boston College gave some clues. Students at Jesuit institutions with graduate programs in theology from across North America theology gathered for three days for “Engaging Particularities II: New Directions in Comparative Theology, Interreligious Dialogue, Theology of Religions and Missiology.”
Papers and discussions among these graduate students gave a foretaste of the direction in which the next generation of Jesuit formed scholars will take interreligious dialogue and comparative theology.
Four threads emerged revealing a tapestry of characteristics and concerns these young scholars share. Although participants remain indebted to the professors and theologians of previous generations that formed them, they gave voice to priorities, concerns and emphases particular to their experiences and contexts.
The brightest thread in this tapestry was the commitment to engaging particular religious and cultural themes. By definition, those drawn to discussing points of contact between Christianity and other traditions are open to diversity within theological discourse.
Yet at this conference, there was not just a notional openness to diversity. Rather, the participants themselves were a testament to the diversity to which disciplines like interreligious dialogue and comparative theology are open. Those present were Jesuit and lay, male and female, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Participants included people from South Asian, East Asian, African, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European contexts. Many also brought and shared a rich array of cultural contexts and encounters with other religions.
There was not just an acknowledgment that Christianity is a minority religion in certain parts of the world, but also discussions of what that reality looks like ‘on the ground.’ The richness of these contexts deepened conversations through the weekend.
For example, a paper titled “Remembrancing the Other: Historical Consciousness and Interreligious Dialogue” prompted a discussion of the role of ethics and theology in diverse global contexts. Moving beyond standard discourses framed by European or North American backgrounds allowed new visions of how Christianity can be articulated while retaining its integrity and vibrancy.
In tandem with the diversity of the participants was the sheer variety of disciplines engaged.
The presenters explored a range of fields and methodologies while considering questions of comparative theology, dialogue, mission, and ethics. Disciplines as diverse as biblical studies, feminism, eco-theology, and church history were entry points for discussing the intersection between differing religious traditions, the conditions for dialogue, and the effects of such encounters.
By drawing upon the variety of disciplines within the orbit of theology, the conference participants acted as pioneers. They spoke of the multiple ways in which religious traditions speak about common issues and allowed an appreciation for the diverging ways in which these issues are addressed.
Another feature of the conference was how participants probed the implications for the topics discussed. There were discussions of ethics, spiritual practices, evangelization, and the relevance of interreligious dialogue to global violence. In some ways, the presence of people from developing world contexts often led directly to engaging the implications of the theological views articulated over the weekend.
This was shown in a paper offered by an African Jesuit. “Building a New Humanity Without Fears and Tears: A Preferential Option for Peace and Dialogue,” opened participants to forms of indigenous African religions and solutions it offered for aiding Christian actions for peace and justice.
The final thread of this conference was the affirmation of a central element of the comparative theology method: that as one retains religious commitments, one finds one’s own beliefs enlightened by engagements with other traditions.
By sharing diverse perspectives and interacting with non-Christian theologies, the participants became aware of new insights into their own traditions, practices and beliefs. By openness to diverse traditions, the participants often found themselves affirming insights that were both inherent and new to their own traditions.
As a student of the medieval Christian-Jewish encounter, I have gained great insights from rabbinic interpretations of scripture and insights into the nature of God’s relationship with humanity.
The next generation of scholars in comparative theology, interreligious dialogue, missiology and related fields present at Boston College this March displayed a set of habits and commitments indicative of evolving ways of engaging theologically with other religions. By engaging various religious and backgrounds via a variety of disciplines and a concern for the implications of new theological expressions the participants revealed a new way of doing theology. Woven together these threads show Christian theology in new colors and images, both familiar and yet seen in a new way.
Anyone interested in attending and/or making presentations at a similar conference at Boston College next year are asked to contact me at email@example.com .
(Joslyn-Siemiatkoski is a Ph.D. candidate in the History of Christianity in the Department of Theology at Boston College.)
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