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Are all religions inherently the same?

By Trisha Elliott

Canada is more religiously diverse than ever. As of 2011, roughly seven percent of Canadians identify as Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist, a two percent increase in just a decade. If Statistics Canada’s projections are right, the proportion of Canadians affiliated with a religion other than Christianity will rise to 14 percent by 2031.

The growing pains are evident: there’s wrangling over public funding of faith-based education, and debate over religious clothing such as turbans and niqabs.

“Individual religious traditions are under internal and external stress as they are challenged to engage an array of religious others,” writes Francis Xavier Clooney, a Jesuit priest and comparative theology professor at Harvard University, in Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders. “Some find themselves under siege, threatened by a bewildering range of religious possibilities.”

Comparative theology is one antidote to the modern impulse to claim that all religions are inherently the same, retreat into private spirituality or hammer other religions with one version of the truth. At the same time, it doesn’t mean giving up a particular faith stance.

“Comparative theology is not the same as comparative religion,” Clooney explains in a phone interview. “In comparative religious studies, scholars can be believers but they take a neutral stance in their work. Comparative theology literally is faith seeking understanding. It means you are a believer but have an open mind.”

Clooney began studying Hinduism in 1973 when he moved to Kathmandu, Nepal, to teach English. Since then, he’s written multiple books on comparative theology, an expanding field of study with scholars like Marianne Moyaert and Michelle Voss Roberts applying a comparative lens to religious ritual and body and gender issues.

The term “comparative theology” has been used since the late 1600s, but the focus has changed. Clooney explains: “Historically, the approach has been to compare religions in order to prove that Christianity is the most complete religion. I’m not taking a position on the truth of Christianity. The point of comparative theology isn’t to prove something about one’s own religion, but to learn what religions have in common and to develop a deeper faith of one’s own.”

How does the average person practise comparative theology? Clooney says it’s fairly mundane but more demanding than meeting someone of another faith and adopting a benign attitude of respect. “You can start by picking up another sacred text and actually studying it. Get a copy of the Bhagavad Gita or the Qur’an and study it. Ask questions: How does studying this other religious tradition affect me personally? How does it affect my community? It’s a back-and-forth process of learning from similarities and differences and allowing them to change you.”

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.

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