Introduction to Comparative Theology in Australia and Asia

In: International Journal of Asian Christianity
Francis X. Clooney S. J. Parkman Professor of Divinity, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA

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Comparative theology is a form of theology, and as such, a matter of “faith seeking understanding.” Like other forms of Christian theology, it is indebted to scripture and tradition, attentive to texts, and also to images, ritual practice, piety, and experience. Like other forms of theological reflection, it also needs to be contextually nuanced, lest it be too much identified with the North American and Western European academic contexts. The growth of comparative theology in Asia and Australia over the last decade is one of the most exciting developments in the field. These essays, the majority of which were given at an international conference at the Australian Catholic University in July 2019, signal the ways in which comparative theology benefits from its clarification and adaptation in Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea.


Comparative theology is a form of theology, and as such, a matter of “faith seeking understanding.” Like other forms of Christian theology, it is indebted to scripture and tradition, attentive to texts, and also to images, ritual practice, piety, and experience. Like other forms of theological reflection, it also needs to be contextually nuanced, lest it be too much identified with the North American and Western European academic contexts. The growth of comparative theology in Asia and Australia over the last decade is one of the most exciting developments in the field. These essays, the majority of which were given at an international conference at the Australian Catholic University in July 2019, signal the ways in which comparative theology benefits from its clarification and adaptation in Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea.

Comparative theology is fundamentally a form of theology, and as such, a matter of faith seeking understanding. It has grown up as a discipline in the Christian context. Like other forms of Christian theology, comparative theology is indebted to scripture and tradition, attentive to texts, but also to images, ritual practice, piety and experience; it has characteristic features, but unsurprisingly changes over time. As comparative, its distinguishing feature is that here faith, though grounded in a particular tradition and enacted for the sake of a particular community, seeks understanding across religious borders, learning with respect and humility from one or more other religious traditions and theological traditions. Its dynamic can usefully be imagined in terms of John S. Dunne, csc’s metaphor of crossing over and returning home, as the comparative theologian ventures to learn deeply in another tradition, and brings that learning back, to include it in some way in a refashioning of her or his home identity. 1

Comparative theology holds a distinctive place between mainstream theology and the comparative study of religions, but it is hardly a young field. Even aside from its connections to the long history of Jewish and Christian engagements with religious and cultural others, as a named discipline comparative theology has roots in the 18th and 19th centuries: as a manner of mystical and even perennialist learning (e.g., James Garden’s Comparative Theology [1700]); as a quasi-evangelical project proving the finality of Christianity over the religions compared (e.g., Clarke’s Ten Great Religions); as a quasi-scientific project (e.g., F. Max Mueller’s use of the term occasionally in his writings). 2 But in recent decades comparative theology has taken on a new life and new vitality due to the pluralization of societies hitherto rooted in a single tradition, swift-moving changes in interreligious attitudes, an unprecedented influx of knowledge about the various religious traditions, and given the discipline’s insistence on learning in the particular, case by case, impatience with theories and theologies of religions.

In its current growth period, the field regularly shows itself to be complex. Even as I was publishing my own Comparative Theology (2010), I was at the same time editing The New Comparative Theology (2010) which sought to make room for comparativists a generation or two younger than myself. 3 Catherine Cornille’s Meaning and Method in Comparative Theology (2019) thoroughly covers the array of current views on what comparative theology is and is supposed to be, and the issues facing the field, particularly regarding its relation to mainstream forms of theology. With Klaus von Stosch, I edited How To Do Comparative Theology (2017), a volume replete with different models and different understandings of what counts as good comparative work. The students I teach remind me by their questions and hesitations that if theology and comparative theology are to survive, they will keep changing in light of the insights and questions of each new generation. I have thus very much appreciated in particular Teaching Comparative Theology in the Millennial Classroom (2017), edited by Mara Brecht and Reid Locklin. This volume reaches out to still younger and “newer” generations of teachers and students. Recent studies by Paul Hedges (2017), Julius Lipner (2019), and S. Mark Heim (2019) have also noted the growing complexity of the field.

All of this dispels the idea that there is a single, unified way of doing comparative theology even in the West. But there is much more to be done, since comparative theology must be geographically diversified, lest it be identified too much with the North American context. With John Berthrong, I edited an issue of the journal Religions, which later became Comparative Theology in Europe (2014). For reasons of history and due to the nature of academic theology in Europe, it was clear that comparative theology in the United States and comparative theology in Europe had different disciplinary expectations, and raised different critical questions. But the promise of the field should be still larger and more widely dispersed. It is heartening then to see the new ground broken by the essays in this issue of the International Journal of Asian Christianity. “Comparative Theology in Australia and Asia.”

The opening of the field to the Asian and Australian (henceforth “Australasian”) contexts has occurred mostly in the last decade. In collaboration with Dr. Anita Ray of the Australian Catholic University (acu), beginning in 2012 we were able to facilitate a series of meetings and conferences on the Melbourne campus of acu. As comparative theology gatherings multiplied, interest grew and deepened in Australia, with interest too from neighboring countries. The climax was a large international conference at acu in July 2019 that drew about 200 registered participants from Australia and abroad. This issue of the journal arises from that conference, which expands the geographical location of comparative theology to seven countries (Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea). I will now review each of the essays briefly.

Anita Ray’s provides us with context and also brings to the fore the opportunity to learn from the Indigenous peoples of Australia. As mentioned already, Ray has been the leading figure in the development of comparative theology in the Australian context, and a vigorous proponent of our efforts to expand the Australasian conversation. In cooperation with many likeminded people at acu, she created there a home base where between 2012 and 2019 fruitful conversations about comparative theology could take place regularly. The first pages of her essay offer a concise history of the recent development of comparative theology in multicultural Australia and is a good starting point for our essays. However, she does more, since after a bit of history, she turns to the interface of “Anglo-Celtic Christian Theology and Indigenous Australian spiritualities.” Her essay is distinguished by her particular sensitivity to how Australia, a “Western” country blessed with an at least sixty-thousand-year history of indigenous peoples, can and must negotiate religious and cultural exchanges on both a local and international scale. Sad and sinful histories must still be confessed and repented, even as the Indigenous people are respected and welcomed into the pluralistic conversations of today’s Australia. Issues of the land—respecting ancient traditions of the sacredness of the land, the orality of living religion, privacy and secrecy within familial traditions, and broader differences in ways of thinking (for example, “the dreaming” and a sense for the “life force”)—create challenges for comparative theological learning in Australia that turn out also to resonate with similar tension among ways of learning across Australasia. Ray ends with a challenge that is also a note of hope: “Our endeavor also shows that comparative theology need not be exclusively textual. Oral and textual cultures can engage productively with each other, provided that the textual dialogue partner is prepared to allow time for conversation, is willing to make greater use of the senses and is ready to engage in prolonged intervals of silent reflection.”

Paul Hedges proposes a comprehensive theoretical frame for learning in a pluralistic environment. Writing from Singapore, he confesses himself to be “a Western-born and trained scholar who is seeking to theorise an Asian perspective.” While noting that he has “lived in Asia for many years (and has a half-Asian family),” he admits that he “will still be perceived (legitimately) as a Western scholar.” His “Theorising a Decolonising Asian Hermeneutic for Comparative Theology: Some Perspectives from Global and Singaporean Eyes,” deconstructs models of comparative theology that depends on solid, stable conceptions of “religion,” “as textual, elite, cognitive, and defined by discrete and isolated traditions.” Hedges is not alone in this sentiment: most of our authors return to the same point: a neat, academic notion of religion does not fit the Australasian context. The point is well-taken. If there are contemporary practitioners of comparative theology who depend on essentialized notions of religion and religions, then this critique of “religion” is a worthy corrective. Hedges problematizes too the notion of “crossing over and returning.” In Singapore and neighboring countries such as Indonesia, he says, the realities of religion and culture are far too complicated to postulate a “here” and a “there.” As he puts it, “What does ‘crossing’ mean when no ‘natural’ border is perceived to exist? To which community does this relate?” But Hedges wants also to move things forward and so, in order to show how a new still newer comparative theology might arise as appropriate to Australasia, he then draws on the thought of an Indian Buddhist scholar, Nagarjuna (2nd-3rd c. ce), using his highly refined and expert epistemological and linguistic positions to sketch a way of thinking about interreligious realities not so heavily indebted to Aristotelian logic and its exclusory forms. There is potential here that may even in the long run pay off in richer theological work.

Yesudas Remias’ “Cognitive Metaphor Theory in Comparative Theology: Possibilities and Challenges in the Multireligious Context of India” is grounded in the realities of his native India and refined in accord with his doctoral studies at the Catholic University of Leuven. He too brings a strong theoretical perspective to the current and future work of comparative theology in India. His essay builds on the work of his Leuven doctoral work to show a way of engagement that suits the India of today: the need for interreligious learning, but without the pretence of comprehensiveness or universality. Comparative theology opens up rich spaces for interreligious learning while cognitive metaphor theory reminds us not to dwell too much on identities or commonalities. While there must, of course, be similarities sufficient for metaphors to work, Remias reminds us that metaphors likewise require that differences be recognized. Total identification of the religious other with one’s own tradition fosters bad comparisons that undercut true learning, and alienates the other religious community that is being studied. Comparative theology works best when it allows for select and limited comparisons that honor the differences among traditions. All of this has a practical effect: “combining Cognitive Metaphor Theory and Comparative Theology has proven to be more effective and constructive with respect to interreligious learning in India”, a land where in the political and social realms differences need to be honored, and moderate distances maintained. This manner of careful exchange within a frame of greater respect, exemplified by comparative theology, will avoid a “lapse into hostility and antagonism, particularly in the religiously-led conflict-ridden context of India.”

In “The Early Buddho-Daoist Encounter as Interreligious Learning in the Chinese Context,” Fu Yu adopts a historical approach. To think about comparative theology in contemporary China, we do well to pay attention to Chinese history. Careful not to blur East-West differences or homogenize all ways of interreligious learning, she nevertheless contends “that the methodological tool of comparative theology, arising from and developing quickly in Euro-American academia, resonates strongly with the historical interreligious learning praxis of China.” By way of example, she focuses on the early Buddhist-Daoist interaction that occurred long before any significant Western or Christian influence in China, and finds in that interaction a model of comparative learning that has worked and may still work in the Chinese context. Fu Yu shows us how Buddhist-Daoist learning took place, particularly by way of the strategies of geyi (“matching the meaning”—transferring ideas from one language to another) and deyi (“grasping the meaning”—“realizing the truth through wordless teaching and resorting to the substance rather than its manifestation”). These practices offered two ways of accommodation by which it was possible for Buddhism to become Chinese, and both may still have something to teach us. Toward the end of the essay she introduces Erik Zürcher’s image of two pyramids: they share much of the same base, yet each rises to its own distinct apex. Similarly, Buddhism and Daoism have much in common in their basic popular practices and cultures, but at another level are still possessed of concepts – such as rebirth (Buddhist) and post-mortem quasi-bureaucratic other worlds (Daoist)—that are unique to each tradition. Now too, she proposes, comparative learning in China might best proceed with tolerance of and respect for levels and kinds of exchange. Her advice at the end of the essay is more broadly applicable: a broader range of comparativists can seek “terminological, conceptual and cultural parallels,” “soft areas” in each religion that can be “filled in by elements from religious others.” In doing so, comparative theologians can create systems that “remain true to the distinctive quality of their orientations.” Most fundamentally, what is needed is a “spirituality and the hope of salvation, pertinent in our time just as it was in the past.”

In “Being Theological in a Comparative Manner in Today’s Indonesia,” Albertus Bagus Laksana, sj, draws us into the realm of politics, since even well-intentioned interreligious learning has to be reassessed in terms of the contemporary tensions in society. The well-known modern Indonesian commitment to pancasila (“the five principles”) has been tested by the rise of orthodoxies that want to formalize the many faiths alive in Indonesia as neatly distinct religions. Such orthodoxies tend to be less tolerant of non-uniform minorities, and expect all faiths to systematize their beliefs in accord with a national commitment to “belief in the one and only God,” whether or not any given tradition actually holds such a view. The challenge for a comparative theologian is to go deeper into the commonalities among the traditions, while yet broadening the horizon of exchange, “to make it less an inter-Abrahamic religious discourse and more reflective of the reality of Indonesian pluralism,” which includes now the indigenous local religions that are often ignored in national calculations of harmony. Laksana draws on his own earlier work on Muslim and Christian sainthood and pilgrimage practices in his native Java, to detect in certain faith claims and practices the medium of commonality in which Muslim-Christian exchanges can take place. Both Muslims and Christians can, for example, confess that “God is merciful;” both traditions understand pilgrimage, and the disciplines related to going on pilgrimage. The cultivation of basic insights and practices that can be recognized in common can be of considerable relevance in today’s politically charged Indonesia, where mercy and benevolence toward the other are not always evident in public discourse. More generally, Laksana hopes that if intense comparative learning is coupled with a sense of the common good, then comparative theology can in Indonesia be a catalyst for “more creative theologies of nationalism, homeland, hybrid identity, and other pertinent topics of common concern.”

In “Salvation through Saving Others: Toward a Tenrikyo-Muslim Comparative Theology for Japan Today,” Makoto Sawai aims to make sense of comparative theology not only in the Japanese religious context, a country with deep Shinto and Buddhist roots, flourishing newer traditions such as the Tenrikyo faith to which he himself belongs, but also in an increasingly secular social climate. He thus turns our attention away from the prospect of doctrinal exchange or narrow conceptions of interreligious dialogue, and leads us toward more practical matters relevant to the Japanese context. His example here is the great Japanese earthquake of 2011. Practitioners of the Tenrikyo tradition and Muslims both work with the terminology of “the path,” and both see their charitable works as evidence of progress along that path. Tenrikyo and Islam teach their adherents the importance of voluntary activities such as hinokishin in Tenrikyo and ṣadaqah in Islam. The desire to aid victims, Sawai suggests, points to deeper harmonies that resonate in the Japanese context. By paying attention to the relationship between religious doctrines and voluntary activities in Tenrikyo and Islam, Sawai seeks out a deep practical commonality shared by Muslims and Tenrikyo adherents, such as might be missed in a theology focused only on doctrines. “Careful attention to Islamic understandings of the path and of action sheds new light on Tenrikyo understandings of the path and of action,” since “the voluntary activities of adherents are derived from their reverential attitudes toward God.” If comparative theological sensitivities can indeed draw these two very different traditions into a deeper exchange, and in a way that works in today’s Japan, then comparative theology is closer to a real prospect of having a place in today’s Japan.

The most directly personal of all the papers is that of Yongho Francis Lee, ofm, “Becoming a Christian and Practicing Comparative Theology for a Korean Theologian.” Like other contributors, he puzzles over the notion of “religion” and the problems arising with its import into East Asia. But Lee, a convert to Catholicism at age 20 and now a Franciscan priest, goes further, building his essay on an autobiographical foundation. He reflects on the difficulties his mother experienced at the notion of identifying with just one religious tradition. He admits that he himself has faced a similar challenge. It is not that he seeks to integrate Korean culture with his received Christian faith; rather, he puzzles more fundamentally over what it means for a Korean to be a Christian: “Influenced by Buddhist thought and practice, I communicate using words in their Buddhist connotation, my eyes appreciate the aesthetics of Buddhist art, and sometimes I see even the world of Christianity through a ‘hermeneutical framework’ of Buddhism.” Confucian norms still affect Korean society is structured, and Shamanist views of life and death still resonate within Lee regardless of deep theological differences. The matter is subtle: “These religions may not be visible on the surface of my religious life, but they run through the veins under my skin. Thus, learning about other religions is a way of getting to know who I am…” Given the enduring foreignness of Christianity in Korea, his approach to comparative theology cannot be like that of a typical Western scholar who from a Christian faith perspective strives to learn an Asian tradition in some depth: “Although all of us study religions other than Christianity, for most western and some eastern comparative theologians, Christianity is their home tradition, but for me Christianity was foreign and the Buddhist worldview felt rather familiar from the beginning.” In this situation, comparative theology has an unexpected role: “practicing comparative theology as an Asian theologian is a way of learning about oneself. It helps the comparative theologian appreciate innate religious multiplicity and enables a proper learning of the native religious–cultural tongue. In the process of practicing comparative theology, theologians first relocate Christianity as something foreign, but then bring it back inside their experience, enriched through communication with another religion.” Lee thus draws us into a new and rich way of thinking about the starting and ending points of theological comparison, now to be imagined in a distinctively Korean way.

Where do these fine and diverse papers leave our understanding of comparative theology? Our essays do the hard work of opening up the Australasian context for comparative theology, with theoretical, historical, social and political, and personal perspectives. Their main contribution is the localization of comparative theology in Australasia, by theological experiment pursued with imagination and a sober sense of history, hegemony, and the vast amount of work to be done. As I said at the beginning of this introduction, the field is increasingly diverse, and it is no surprise that Australasia, so vast and varied, is a most fertile ground for still further variations. As editor, I am grateful to each contributor for such fresh and distinctive contributions that promise to prompt a whole range of new discussions in the Australasian context.

These essays also make clear that the discipline is still facing growing pains, particularly with regard to its (over)identification with the West, its indebtedness, in many cases, to Western notions of religion, its (thus far) characteristic textual focus and relatively underdeveloped attention to practices, orality, and the arts. Such concerns of course pertain to theology in general; a textual focus characterizes academic studies in general, while the power disparity between institutions of learning in the West and those everywhere else is hardly a problem unique to comparative theology. But a greater burden is placed on comparative theology perhaps because the expectations are higher, given the field’s determination to venture forth, not content with one home culture or even with the very important conversations in global and contextual theology that are largely Christian or even largely Catholic. Since its hopes are greater, it has to pay a higher price if it is to be taken seriously and to heart in Australasia. This issue of the International Journal of Asian Christianity gives us hope, since we see here how scholars in seven different countries have taken up the challenge and made the case for comparative theologies that have a chance of flourishing in various Australasian contexts. Crucial now will be the task of constantly re-weaving these conversations together, both in Australasia and more widely, the local freshly encountering the global.

Changing and reimagining comparative theology in these countries and at a deliberate distance from the West is surely beneficial, as long as we then still do the work of reconnecting the variety of comparative theology played out globally in a way that brings back into focus commonalities that justify seeing the discipline as a theological discipline: however expressed and lived out, the discipline must remain a matter of faith that seeks understanding beyond the bounds of one’s religious tradition, going forth and returning home again.

One may also be concerned, if thinking from a Christian perspective, whether a theology so diversified and interreligious can still maintain its Christian roots. But this too is a problem for any Christian theologian who engages in conversation with people of other faiths or no faith at all. The trick is a balance, a simultaneous effort to go deep into one’s own tradition while yet, from that depth, engaging religious and secular others all the more authentically and vitally.


  • Berthrong, John , and Francis X. Clooney , eds. Comparative Theology in Europe (Basel: MDPI Publishing, 2014).

  • Brecht, Mara , and Reid Locklin , eds. Teaching Comparative Theology in the Millennial Classroom (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017).

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  • Clarke, James F. Ten Great Religions: An Essay in Comparative Theology (London: Trübner & Co., 1871).

  • Clooney, Francis X. Comparative Theology. Deep Learning Across Religious Borders (Malden: Wiley Blackwell, 2010a).

  • Clooney, Francis X. , and Klaus von Stosch , eds. How to Do Comparative Theology (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017).

  • Clooney, Francis X. , ed. The New Comparative Theology (London and New York: Continuum Publishing, 2010b).

  • Cornille, Catherine . Meaning and Method in Comparative Theology (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell 2019).

  • Dunne, John S. The Way of All the Earth: Experiments with Truth and Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1972).

  • Garden, James . Comparative Theology (Printed and sold by the booksellers of London and Westminster, 1700).

  • Hedges, Paul . Comparative Theology: A Critical and Methodological Perspective (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017).

  • Heim, S. Mark . “Comparative Theology at Twenty-Five: The End of the Beginning.” Modern Theology 35 (1) (January 2019), 163180.

  • Lipner, Julius . “Comparative Theology in the Academic Study of Religion: An Inquiry.” Interreligious Relations 6 (July 2019), 121.

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See for instance John Dunne’s The Way of All the Earth: Experiments with Truth and Religion (New York: University of Notre Dam Press, 1978).


See Clooney 2010a, Chapter 2.


This occasions a small clarification of terminology. As far as I can recall, I have never referred to my work—from the 1980s until now—as “the new comparative theology.” Which theology is not new in some way or another? It was rather due to the use of the term “the new comparative theology” by Hugh Nicholson in his essay in the 2010 volume, by himself elsewhere, and by others after him that comparative theology of recent decades has been more broadly characterized as the new comparative theology. But as theology, this new ct cannot be entirely new, faced as it will inevitably be with what it means to understand and interpret other religious traditions in light of one’s own.

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