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ComparativeTheology

inSearchofaHermeneuticalFramework

MarianneMoyaert

Introduction

Comparative theology is presented as a genuinely adequate


waytounderstandandappreciatetheothernessofthereligious
other without losing sight of ones own identity. The propo
nents of comparative theology regard it as the future of theo
logy: Any theology in any tradition that takes religious plur
alismseriouslymusteventuallybecomecomparativetheology
(Tracy1987:454).Still,upuntiltodaycomparativetheologyre
mainsamarginalandnotwidelyunderstooddisciplinewithin
theologicalstudies(Nicholson2005:191).Evenmorestrongly,it
is being criticized as being a deeply ambiguous discipline
(Nicholson 2007: 229), lacking a clear scientific framework. Its
hermeneutical presuppositions especially remain underdevel
oped.
Thiscontributionaimstoovercomethiscritiquebysketch
ing the original research profile of the comparative theology
projectmoreclearly.Inthefirstpart,Iwillsituatecomparative
theology within the broader theological landscape, and in the
secondIwilldevelopahermeneuticalframeworkforcompara
tive theology. To that end, I will briefly explore its main her
meneutical presuppositions. Next, I will further elaborate on
thesepresuppositionsbyplacingthemwithinPaulRicoeursin
terpretation theory. I will point out possible interconnections
between the comparative theology project and Ricoeurs her
meneuticalphilosophy.Indoingso,IwillarguethatRicoeurs
text hermeneutics can function as the methodological frame
workcomparativetheologyneeds.
SituatingComparativeTheology
withintheBroaderTheologicalLandscape
Theoriginalityofcomparativetheologyshowsitselfindialogue
andinconfrontationwithalreadyexistingpositions.Inthefol
lowing,Iwillfirstlookattheclassicaltheologyofreligionsand

162INTERRELIGIOUSHERMENEUTICSINPLURALISTICEUROPE

explaininwhatsensecomparativetheologypresentsitselfasan
alternative to the socalled soteriological approach to religious
diversity.Next,Iwillexploretherelationbetweencomparative
theologyandpostliberaltheology.Ithasbeenarguedthatcom
parativetheologyisfoundedonthegroundworkofpostliberal
ism (Knitter 2002: 177). I dispute this point, arguing that com
parative theology displays its newness precisely where it de
partsfrompostliberalism.Boththeologicalprojectshaveavery
differentappreciationofreligiousdiversity.Whereaspostliber
alismembracesanintratextualhermeneutics,comparativetheo
logycanbeunderstoodintermsofintertextuality.
ComparativeTheologyanditsRelationtotheTheologyofReligions
Christiansarebeingchallengedtodaytoreflectonthequestion
ofhowtheirfaithcommitmentrelatestothecontemporarysitu
ation of religious diversity. Theologians respond to this chal
lengebyconsideringthetheologicalmeaningofreligiousdiver
sity. The whole of Christian theology of religions turns on so
teriological questions (Merrigan 1999: 339). What is the nature
and function of nonChristian religious traditions in light of
Christianfaithinthesalvificcharacterofthelife,death,andre
surrectionofJesusChrist?AreallreligionsvalidinGodseyes
all equally effective in putting people in contact with the Di
vine?DoesGodregardotherreligionsasacurseorablessing?
Inresponsetothesesoteriologicalquestionsthethreefoldtypol
ogy of exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism has emerged.
TheexclusivistmodelproposedthatonlyChristianscanattain
salvation. Inclusivism acknowledges that, although it is possi
blefornonChristianstobesaved,Christisalwaysinvolved
in this soteriological process. The pluralist view regards reli
gioustraditionsasdifferent,moreorlessequal,salvificpathsto
ultimate reality. Up until today, proponents of this soteriolog
ical approach are involved in an ongoing debate on the ques
tionofwhichoneofthesemodelssucceedsinformulatingthe
most appropriate theological answer to the challenge of reli
gious plurality. I do not want to repeat this debate, but I do
want to draw attention to the fact that this discussion defines
openness for the religious other or the lack thereof in soterio
logical terms (SchmidtLeukel 2005: 161). Hence, the depiction

INSEARCHOFAHERMENEUTICALFRAMEWORK163

ofexclusivismasclosed,inclusivismashalfopen,andplural
ismasopen.
In recent literature one can note an increasing dissatisfac
tionwiththetheologyofreligions.Thecriticismreadsthatthe
soteriologicalapproachamountstoaperversionofthevirtueof
openness. The threefold typology asks Christian questions
andsuggestsChristiananswers.Consequently,ittendstodress
theotherreligioustraditionsinitsownterms:
eitheronebaptizestheotherreligionsandclaimsthatthey
areimplicitversionsofonesownoronedevelopsaphilo
sophical standpoint from which one claims to be able to
evaluateallthereligions.(Placher1989:144)

More often than not, these models are abstract designs,


developed without reference to any particular religious trade
tion other than the Christian (Clooney 1993: 194). Within the
framework of soteriology what the religious other asserts, val
ues, practices, and hopes does not seem to be of real import,
andthevoicesofthosewhoarebeingdiscussedareabsentfrom
the conversation (Fredericks 2002: 15). Many theologians feel
that the soteriological threefold scheme is both insulting
(Placher 1989: 145) and patronizing (Barnes 2002: 15): the reli
gious other is understood without being heard. The soteri
ologicalfixationiscontrarytohermeneuticalopenness.
Comparative theology presents itself as an alternative to
the classic soteriological approach, avoiding the hermeneutical
biasesoftheclassicaltheologyofreligions.First,itmovesaway
from a priori theological interpretation schemes that disregard
theselfunderstandingofreligioustraditions.Next,itrejectsthe
theologicalassumptionofaglobal,metaperspectiveonreligion
that(implicitly)claimstoknowotherreligionsbetterthantheir
ownadherents,
whetherasthevainproductsofhumanpresumption,asin
Barths exclusivism, as various expressions of anonymous
Christianity,asinRahnersinclusivism,orasvariousforms
of Realitycenteredness, as in Hicks pluralism. (Nicholson
2009:619)

Rather, comparative theology claims that comprehension (her


meneutics)precedesjudgement.Third,itsetsouttounderstand

164INTERRELIGIOUSHERMENEUTICSINPLURALISTICEUROPE

themeaningoftheChristiantraditionbyexploringitinlightof
theteachingsofotherreligioustraditions.
Likecomparativereligion,itsharestheintentionofunder
standing other religions in the most objective and fairminded
mannerpossible.Itaimsatarticulatingaviableunderstanding
oftheotherinwhichtheencounteredotherisnotmanufac
tured to the comparativists prejudices and expectations
(Clooney 1993: 7). Instead of solving the problem of religious
diversitywithatheologicalmetanarrative,comparativetheo
logyacceptsthatlearningfromtheotherentailsdisturbingex
periences of alienation, disenchantment, and friction (Clooney
2001: 165). The other is the one who does not fit into our pre
conceptions and who challenges us to leave the realm of the
known.Comparativetheologyisnotthedomainofgeneralists
but rather of those willing to engage in detailed study, tenta
tively and over time (Clooney 2001: 164). This detailed study
entailsprimarilyaclosereadingofstrangereligioustexts.
Unlike comparative religion, comparative theology re
mains a theological project. The detailed study of other tradi
tionshappensbecauseofacommitmenttoGod.Inopeningup
to the religious other in and through a detailed study of his
texts,oneachievesafullerknowledgeofGod(Clooney2001:7).
Clooney emphasizes the unfinished nature of comparative
theology,notasfactbutinprinciple.Thetheologicalreflections
that follow from detailed comparisons can only be tentative
andshouldnotbetakenasprecludingwhatwillbelearnedin
further experiments (Clooney 2001: 164). Comparative theo
logy is an ongoing and neverending conversational process:
particular comparisons yield particular insights, insights that
might be revised in the future under the influence of other
particular comparisons. In this way, comparative theology re
mainspresystematicandpredogmatic.Itdoesnothavethe
ambition of leading up to a definite theology of religions
(Clooney 2008: 176). Those who are looking for clearcut an
swers to clearcut questions are likely to be disappointed, for
many questions will be left open after indepth study until
morecommentarialworkhasbeendone,bymoretheologians,
over a much longer period of time (Clooney 2008: 184). The
onlyacceptabletheologyofreligionswillbeaposteriori,con
structedfromthegroundup.

INSEARCHOFAHERMENEUTICALFRAMEWORK165

ComparativeTheology
anditsSocalledIndebtednesstoPostliberalism
In his book Introducing Theologies of Religions, Paul Knitter
situates comparative theology under the umbrella of what he
callstheacceptancemodel.Thismodelgrewupduringthe
lasttwodecadesofthetwentiethcenturybothasachildofits
timesandasareactiontotheinadequaciesofothermodelsfor
aChristiantheologyofreligions(Knitter2002:173).Insketch
ingtheprofileoftheacceptancemodel,Knitterclaimsthatitre
lies on the groundbreaking and foundationlaying work of
George Lindbeck, who has launched this model and soon at
tracted a wide following of other theologians and ordinary
Christianbelievers(Knitter2002:177).Knitterherebysuggests
thatcomparativetheology,thoughnotdependentonit,isin
debtedtopostliberalismanditsculturallinguistictheoryofre
ligion. At the very least, it resonates with postliberalisms
groundwork.
Although there are indeed certain resonances between
postliberalism and comparative theology, Knitters categoriza
tionstrikesmeasunfortunate.Itdetractsfromthefreshnessof
thecomparativetheologyproject.Postliberalismandcompara
tive theology share a deep concern for religious particulari
ties;however,theirhermeneuticaloutlookandtheologicalas
sumptionsdifferfundamentally.Itisworthexploringtheirrela
tionfurther,sincethiswillallowustooutlinethenoveltyofthe
comparativetheologyprojectfurther.
Underpinning postliberalism is a theory that understands
religions to be analogous to languages and cultures. For this
reason, Lindbeck, who first formulated this theory of religion,
talksaboutaculturallinguistictheoryofreligion.Religionisa
comprehensive cultural and/or linguistic framework that en
ables the description of reality, the formulation of convictions,
andtheexperienceofreligiousfeelings.Eachreligionhasaspe
cific vocabulary, which is both discursive and nondiscursive,
aswellasagrammardetermininghowthatvocabularycanbe
meaningfullyused(Lindbeck1984:33). Becomingreligiousisa
longprocessofinteriorization,inwhichpeopleacquirethereli
giouslanguageandlearntoperformthereligiouspracticesand
rituals in an appropriate way. Only when people speak a reli
giouslanguageandacquireparticularreligiousskillsdoesitbe

166INTERRELIGIOUSHERMENEUTICSINPLURALISTICEUROPE

comepossibleforthemtohavecertainexperiences.Fromthisit
followsthat
adherents of different religions do not diversely thematize
thesameexperience,rathertheyhavedifferentexperiences.
Buddhistcompassion,ChristianloveandFrenchrevolu
tionary fraternit are not diverse modifications of a single
human awareness, emotion, attitude, or sentiment, but are
radically (i.e., from the root) distinct ways of experiencing
and being oriented toward self, neighbor, and cosmos.
(Lindbeck1984:40)

Evenifreligionsemploythesamecategories,suchasGod,
love, peace, or justice, these words mean something different,
preciselybecausetheyderivetheirmeaningfromtheparticular
religion in which they function. If there are similarities and
commonalities between the religions, then these are merely
superficial (Lindbeck 1997: 433). Religions are incommensura
ble. Lindbeck also concludes that religions are incomparable,
for there exists no common framework within which to com
parethem(Lindbeck1984:49).
The culturallinguistic model focuses on the interplay be
tweendoctrinalgrammarandaspecificvocabularyfromwhich
aparticularfaithcommunitydrawsitsidentity.Tounderstand
a religion, one needs to understand this interplay. Meaning is
immanent,derivedfromthewayaspecificlanguageisusedin
aparticulartradition.TodeterminethemeaningofGodim
plies investigating the way it functions within the Christian
religionandhowitshapesChristianrealityandexperience.On
ly by a detailed familiarity with the imaginative universe in
which acts are signs can one comprehend and describe the
meaning of these acts for the adherents of a religion (Geertz
1975:130).
In addition to the culturallinguistic model, Lindbeck de
velops an intratextual theology. Intratextuality means that one
setsouttoexplainandanayzetheworldoutsidethetextby
wayofintratextualcategories.Lindbeckspeaksinthisperspec
tiveofthemetaphorofabsorption:
Itisthetextsotospeak,whichabsorbstheworld,ratherthan
theworldthetext.Ascripturalworld...isabletoabsorbthe
universe. It supplies the interpretive framework within

INSEARCHOFAHERMENEUTICALFRAMEWORK167
which believers seek to live their lives and understand
reality.(Lindbeck1984:118)

For Christians, this means that they will not read the Bible in
lightofcontemporarychallenges,questions,orexperiencesbut
will read contemporary challenges, questions, and experiences
inlightoftheBible.Intratextualtheologyaffirms
first, that every humanly conceivable reality can be trans
lated (or redescribed) in the biblical universe of discourse
with a gain rather than a loss of truth or significance,
whereas,second,nothingcanbetranslatedoutofthisidiom
into some supposedly independent communicative system
withoutperversion,diminutionorincoherenceofmeaning.
(Lindbeck1997:429)

Thetheologianismostlyconcernedwithintrasystematiccoher
enceratherthanwithconnectingtotruthclaimsorexperiences
beyondthedefinedbordersofhisculturallinguisticcommuni
ty(Holland2006:75).
Toacertainextent,comparativetheologycouldagreewith
the central culturallinguistic thesis that meaning is imman
ent.Comparativetheologytoo,searchesforthemeaningofre
ligious beliefs by turning to their concrete embedding (Stosch
2007: 510). Only by becoming deeply and holistically engaged
inatradition,doesitbecomepossibletounderstandandevalu
ateareligious text ofanother tradition. Learning thelanguage
of another religious tradition is prerequisite to understanding
strange religious texts. Clooney also advocates reading reli
gious texts along with their formal traditional commentaries,
theirrelatedscripturesandinlightofnormativereligiousprac
tice.(Clooney1990:30).
AccordingtoClooney,however,thehistoryofreligionsis
far messier than Lindbecks culturallinguistic model acknowl
edges.Lindbecktendstoabsolutizethedifferencesbetweenthe
religions.Heseesreligionsasindependent,selfinterpretingin
commensurablesemioticsystemsandpayspracticallynoatten
tion to the overlaps and commonalities between the different
religiouslanguages(Slater1995:69;Ruparell1995:62).Theout
come of the culturallinguistic theory is a reified view of reli
gion, leading to the undervaluation of interreligious theology.
Over against a reified notion of religion, Clooney emphasizes

168INTERRELIGIOUSHERMENEUTICSINPLURALISTICEUROPE

that ones religion changes in response to the encounter with


otherreligions.
Verylittleofimportanceincontentbelongssolelytoany
one theological tradition or even one religion, even if such
concepts and themes, as one conceives them in actual cir
cumstances, remain deeply rooted in the particularities of
specifictraditions.(Clooney2001:8)

Thehistoryofreligionsisahistoryofencounter,interaction,in
terrelation,synthesisandconflict,adaptationandrejection,ex
clusionandinclusion.
Whereas postliberalism claims that religions do no more
than simply talk past one another, Clooney is convinced that
reason can provide a framework for dialogue among religious
traditions(Schmalz2003:135).
Thecommonfeaturesofhumanreasoningmakeitpossible
for believers in many different traditions at least to under
stand one another and possibly to agree on topics such as
the nature of God, the possibility that God might become
embodied, and the idea that God speaks to humans in
particular words. If faith is articulated in reasonable
terms and defended reasonably, then that reasoning pro
videsasharedtheologicalground,andintelligentdisagree
mentsbecomepossibleinaninterreligiouscontext.(Cloon
ey2001:89)

Theology itself is a human and religious activity common to


manytraditions.
Thewaysofcomparativetheologyandpostliberalismpart
ontheprincipleofintratextuality,whichseemstoimplyasec
tariantendencyatoddswiththedialogicalattitudeofcompara
tivetheology.Thissectariantendencyrevealsitselfinthemeta
phorofabsorptionespecially,whichLindbeckusestoillustrate
whathemeansbyintratextuality.
[This metaphor] worryingly suggests a rather unilateral
process whereby the world has nothing to offer to the
Churchanddoesnotinanywaydisruptandchallengethe
narrative traditions of the Church, its reading and practice
ofscripture.(DCosta2005:142).

INSEARCHOFAHERMENEUTICALFRAMEWORK169

The principle of intratextuality negates the potential creative


power and theological meaning of extratextual experiences
andinsights.ClooneyacceptsLindbeckspositionthat
ChristiansmustalwaysreadtheworldinChrist,finding
itsmeaninginhisdeathandresurrection,andmustinsome
way venture the claim that this meaning pertains to every
human being as the single, allembracing horizon for hu
manexperience.(Clooney1990:38)

However, he also emphasizes that the comparative theologian


takesonavulnerableandopenposture:strangereligioustexts
challengeand influence Christiantexts.According to Clooney,
the nonChristian is not a problem to be solved [intratext
ually], but rather a possibility that has been given to us
(Clooney 1990: 38). Clearly, Clooney does not associate com
parisonandencounterwiththepossibilityoflossofmeaning
althoughhedoesrecognizethispossibilityheemphasizesra
therthecreativetheologicalpotentialityofencounteringthere
ligiousother.Hebelievesstronglyinthepossibilityofcrossfer
tilization and transformation through theological comparison
and expresses the hope that comparative theology will widen
ourtheologicalhorizonsandourspiritualoutlook(Stosch2008:
512). Comparative theology entails a rereading of one theo
logicaltraditioninlightofanother.Thisrereadingconstitutesa
new creative context out of which creative theological insights
canemerge.Comparativetheologyisthuspicturedasacreative
experimentaltheologicalprocessinwhichthedialoguepartners
aremutuallyenriched.Lindbecksdichotomybetweenthetext
(Bible) and the world is overstated. Intratextuality and ex
tratextuality are not simply opposed to one another but crea
tivelyandconstructivelyimplyoneanother(Goh2000:237).In
viewofthis,Iwouldwanttoarguethatcomparativetheology
isactuallyaformofintertextualtheology.
TowardsaHermeneuticalFrameworkforComparativeTheology
Comparative theology is a hermeneutical enterprise aimed at
understanding the otherness of the religious other. However,
fundamentalideassuchasacreativeintertext,thetransform
ativepoweroftext,alienationandunsettlement,defamiliariza
tion, imagination and reconstruction (Lambelin 2008: 67) are

170INTERRELIGIOUSHERMENEUTICSINPLURALISTICEUROPE

notreflecteduponwithinamethodologicalframework.Cloon
eyactuallyadmitsthatheisnotthatinterestedintheories.He
even seems to reconcile himself with the possibility that what
heandothersaredefactodoingisnotpossibletheoretically:
manypeoplethemselvesarealreadyengagedinclosermore
intensely configured exchanges to which settled meaning
cannot be easily assigned or denied. Properly or not such
people have crossed religious boundaries so as to form af
fective attachments that are intelligent, liable to affirmation
and provocative of changes in their way of living. This af
fectiveconnectionrootedinpracticeisenormouslyimportant
andconvincing,evenifintheorythecomparativeprocessis
flawed, the learning incomplete, and the consequences il
logicalandunwarranted.(Clooney2005:36768)

Comparative theology attempts to shun frameworks and


constructs of interest of genuine dialogue (Hanson 2006: 89).
Theories are treated with suspicion. Comparative theologians
do not stand alone with their suspicion. Since the postmodern
turn,relianceonfoundationalismhasbeenrefuted.Theideais
that we should not stress navigation as much as the journey
itself (Stiver 2003: 170). Clooney is afraid that lingering too
long in theoretical discussions will detract from real interreli
gioustheology.Consequently,thecomparativetheologyproject
lacks a clearly developed hermeneutical framework in which
Clooney lays out its methodological principles. One can at the
most find hermeneutical fingerprints of various authors, such as
Foucault, Iser, Tracy, Gadamer, etc. (Hanson 2006: 3). This,
however, gives a somewhat eclectic impression, which streng
thens the critique of ambiguity levelled at comparative theo
logy. If comparative theology is to succeed in overcoming this
critiqueamorestronglydevelopedhermeneuticalframeworkis
necessary.Inatimeoftransitioninphilosophyandinatime
of flux in theology, being clear about ones [hermeneutical]
commitments and presuppositions continues to be desirable
(Stiver2003:175).
To that end, I will elaborate further on some of the her
meneutical presuppositions (Hanson 2006: 3) of comparative
theology by placing them within Ricoeurs textual hermeneut
ics. This may seem somewhat surprising after all, Clooney
does not refer to Ricoeur, and Ricoeur did not apply his her

INSEARCHOFAHERMENEUTICALFRAMEWORK171

meneutics to the area of interreligious dialogue. However, I


tend to agree with Jens Mattern that it is always possible that,
eventhoughanauthormaytreatthechallengeofreligiousand
culturaldiversityonlymarginally,histhinkingcannevertheless
implicitlycontainessentialfoundationsforanexplicitreflection
(Mattern 2008: 13). As I will show, Ricoeurs textual hermen
eutics entails such basic foundations. Many affinities exist
between the hermeneutical presuppositions of comparative
theology and Ricoeurs textual hermeneutics. Especially Ri
coeurs emphasis on the productive notion of distanciation
for textual hermeneutics is of the utmost importance. This
notion not only opens up religious texts for interreligious
readings,italsoexplainswhyRicoeur,likeClooney,doesnot
regardstrangeencountersintermsofapotentiallossofmean
ing but as a catalyst to discover new meanings that had not
beenpreviouslythoughtof.
LetmestartthisprocesswithaquotefromClooney:
Religiousliteratureaimsfortheaffectivetransformationof
the reader who pays attention to the clues available in the text.
Read attentively, the religious classic produces and renders
legible a particular instance a situation, opportunity, chal
lenge, etc. that begs for and provokes interpretive and af
fective response that enable the reader to fit intelligently and
affectively into the religious situation that has been presen
ted.Again,allofthisseemstruewhetherthereaderisamemberof
an intended religious audience, or is rather an outsider who finds
herorhiswaytothattraditionthroughtexts.(Clooney2005:307)

What is striking here is (1) the fact that strange religious texts
canbecomemeaningfulforthereader,whetherheisamember
oftheintendedaudienceoranoutsider;(2)religioustextspro
vokeanaffectiveresponsefromthereader;(3)prerequisitefor
thisisthatthereaderfindsawaytodecodetheinternalcodes
ofthestrangetext.
CrossingBorders:TheSemanticAutonomyofTexts
Comparative theology rests on the assumption that it is both
possibleandmeaningfultoreadstrangereligioustexts.Textual
meaningcancrossculturalandreligiousborders.Interestingly
enough,Clooneystatesthatcomparativetheologyentailsread
ingtextsthatoneisnotauthorizedtoread,therebyagainhigh

172INTERRELIGIOUSHERMENEUTICSINPLURALISTICEUROPE

lighting the fact that one is and remains an outsider (Schmalz


2003:136).
Comparative theologys basic faith in the meaningfulness
of crossreligiousreading gives risetoseveralquestions:What
ismeaning?Whodeterminestextualmeaning?Isittheauthor,
thereader,thetext?Whatistheretobeunderstoodwhenread
ingastrangetext?Whataretheprescriptionsforinterreligious
hermeneutics(Christopher2009:409)?Whodeterminesifanin
terpretationisacceptable:theauthor,thereader,orthetextit
self? These questions point at the necessity of a thoroughly
elaboratedtexttheory.InhiswellknownessayWhatisaText?
Ricoeur set out to develop the groundwork of such a text
theory,answeringsomeofthequestionsformulatedabove.Al
thoughRicoeurhasnotreflectedonhistexttheorywithrespect
to interreligious encounters, this text theory can ground com
parativetheologyasaviableproject.
Central to Ricoeurs text theory is what the French philo
sopher calls the productive notion of distanciation (Ricoeur
1998b: 13144). Within the hermeneutical tradition, distancia
tionisnaturallyseenassomethingtobeovercome,ratherthan
as something positive, let alone productive. The common as
sumption is that because texts are distanced from us, from
our context, from our outlook, they are strange, and this
strangeness should be resolved by removing the distance. Ri
coeur nuances this common assumption by saying that Ver
fremdung is not only what understanding must overcome but
also what conditions it (Ricoeur 1998b: 140). As I will show,
not only does this original line of thought open up religious
textsforinterreligiousreadings,italsoexplainswhyRicoeur,
likeClooney,doesnotregardstrangeencountersintermsofa
potentiallossofmeaningbutasacatalystfordiscoveringnew
meanings.
Ricoeur emphasizes first of all that distanciation or Ver
fremdung is not the product of methodology and hence some
thingsuperfluousandparasitical.Rather,itconstitutesthephe
nomenonofthetextasawrittenwork.Thereisathreefoldse
mantic autonomy: in relation to the authors intention, in rela
tion to the economic, social, and cultural circumstances of its
production,andinrelationtoitsreceptionbyitsoriginalaudi
ence(Ricoeur1998a:91).

INSEARCHOFAHERMENEUTICALFRAMEWORK173

First,writingrendersthetextautonomouswithrespectto
the intention of the author (Ricoeur 1998a: 91): what the text
signifies no longer coincides with what the author meant. Ric
oeurisreactingheretoRomantichermeneutics(Schleiermacher),
which claims that reading a strange text entails reading the
mindoftheauthor.Tounderstandthetextistounderstandthe
intentionoftheauthor.Notonlyhasthehermeneuticaleffortof
tryingtoreadthemindoftheauthorprovenunsuccessful,ital
soseriouslylimitsthecreativepotentialoftexts.Clooneywould
agreewithRicoeur.Heislikewiseconvincedthatthehermen
euticalfocusontheauthor
restricts texts by ordering them to a designated author,
whose intentions determine what the texts are allowed to
mean. Authors are used to confine the encompassing, un
bounded event of language within manageable limits.
(Clooney1987:675)

Clooney states that textual meaning is not determined by the


authorbutratherbythetextitself.Thetextyieldsmeaning.In
thissenseithascertainautonomywithregardtoitsoriginalau
thor.Themeaningofthetextactuallytranscendstheintentions
oftheauthor.Thetextpossesseshorizonsandscopesofsignif
icancewiderthanthosebelongingtoanygivensetofauthors
(Clooney 1987: 675). Thanks to the process of writing, what
Gadamer calls the matterof the text mayexplode the world
oftheauthor(Ricoeur1998b:139).
Ricoeur not only reflects on the notion of distanciation
withregardtotheauthorsoriginalintentions.Thesemanticau
tonomy of the text also holds true for the original sociological
cultural and economic conditions of the production of the text
(Ricoeur 1998a: 91). That is why the text opens itself to an un
limited series of readings, themselves situated in different so
ciocultural conditions. The process of distanciation also re
movestheaudienceaddressedfromtheoriginalhistoricaland
socialconditions.Textscancrossborders,regardlessofwhether
thelatterarehistorical,culturalorreligious.
Andlast,butnotleast,theemancipationfromauthorialin
tentionhasaparallelonthepartofthosewhoreceivethetext.
Whereasinadialogicalsituation,thevisvisisdeterminedby
thecontextofthediscourse,withregardtowrittentextstheau
dienceisextendedtoanyonewhocanread.Atextisopentoan

174INTERRELIGIOUSHERMENEUTICSINPLURALISTICEUROPE

indefinite number of readers and therefore of interpretation.


The text has a universal range of addressees (Ricoeur 1998c:
210). The opportunity for multiple readings is the dialectical
counterpartofthesemanticautonomyofthetext.
Ricoeurremindsusthatdistanciationisnotsomethingwe
shouldregret.Onthecontrary,thankstotheprocessofdistan
ciation,thetextenterstherealmofinterpretation.Theautono
moustextisnotahistoricalrelicoranarchaeologicalfossil,but
alivingentitywithpotentialrelevanceforcontemporaryread
ers. Thanks to its semantic autonomy, a text can be decontext
ualizedinsuchawaythatitcanalsoberecontextualized.The
most important question is no longer what the text used to
meanbutwhatitmeanstoday(Ricoeur1995a:219).
Ricoeurstexttheorychallengestheideathatinsidersare
the only true possessors of their tradition and hence the only
ones authorized to read and interpret their religious texts.
Thankstothethreefoldprocessofdistanciation,astrangereli
gioustextcandiscloseitsmeaningtoattentivereaders,evenif
theydonotbelongtothecommunityforwhichthetextwas
originally meant. In view of interreligious hermeneutics, the
importanceofthedistanciationofthetextshouldnotbeunder
estimated.Itisactuallypreconditionaltoaninterreligiousher
meneutics that presumes that one can also understand that
what one is not, cannot be, or does not want to be (Mattern
2008: 71). The process of distanciation makes strange texts ac
cessiblebeyondthebordersoftheircultural,religious,andhis
torical community. With his notion of distanciation, Ricoeur
counters cultural and religious ethnocentrism and counters a
merely intratextual hermeneutics. At the same time, compara
tivetheologysthrustinintertextualityisvalidated.
TransformationthroughReading
According to Clooney, reading strange religious texts entails
the disturbing experiences of alienation, disenchantment, and
friction (Clooney 2001: 165). Comparative theology highlights
thecreativepowertextshavetochallenge,interrupt,andtrans
form the reader. Close reading and deep learning of religious
texts has imaginative and affective implications. It offers new
opportunities of understanding ourselves. As Clooney puts it,
the real fruits of comparative theology are to be found in the

INSEARCHOFAHERMENEUTICALFRAMEWORK175

living interconnections even while reason is busy pondering


whethersuchaffectiveexchangeacrossreligiousboundariesis
possible at all (Clooney 2005: 389). In the end, deep learning
throughclosereadingopensupnewpossibilitiesofbeinginthe
world, the outcome of which is that ones religious identity is
transformed. That is why comparative theology is fundamen
tally a dynamic process, which not only presupposes that the
reader is open to new meanings but also that texts possess
transformativepower.
Whencethistransformativepowerofreligioustexts?How
can we understand the possibility of redescription through
reading?Comparativetheologyclaimsthattextshavethepow
er to refigure or transform the reader. But how does this
transformationtakeplace?Whencethepowerofreligioustexts
to interrupt what is familiar and to guide the reader into the
realmofthepossible?
Thesearecrucialhermeneuticalquestions,whichagainare
answered through reflecting on the particular nature of texts.
Ricoeur addresses the question of the transformative power of
textsinhistexttheory.Hebelievesstronglyinthepowerofre
ligious texts to interrupt what is familiar and to guide the
reader into the realm of the possible. It is one of the central
tenets of his hermeneutical philosophy. Ricoeur explains this
transformativepoweroftextsinthefollowingway.
Atextisfirstofallalinkinacommunicativechain.Oneof
lifesexperiencesisbroughttolanguage;itbecomesdiscourse.
Characteristic of any form of discourse is its referential func
tion: someone says something to someone about something.
Discourse always relates to an extralinguistic reality. Ricoeur
distinguishes between two forms of discourse: oral discourse
andwrittendiscourse.
Inoraldiscoursetheproblemofreferenceisresolvedbythe
ostensivefunctionofdiscourse,inotherwords,referenceis
determined by the ability to point to a reality common to
interlocutors. If we cannot point to the thing about which
wespeak,atleastwecansituateitinrelationtotheunique
spatiotemporalnetworkthatissharedbytheinterlocutors.
(Ricoeur1998b:141)

Ricoeurconnectstheostensivefunctionofdiscoursebothwith
daily language and with scientific discourse, which is actually

176INTERRELIGIOUSHERMENEUTICSINPLURALISTICEUROPE

inlinewithdaily,descriptivediscourse.Whatisreferredtobe
longstotherealmofmanipulableobjects.Heretruthisunder
stoodasempiricaltruth,assomethingthatisinprincipleveri
fiable.
Inwrittendiscourse,thereferentialfunctionismorecom
plex than in oral discourse. There is no longer a common
situation between the writer and the reader. And at the same
time,theconcreteconditionsfortheactofpointingsomething
outnolongerexists(Ricoeur1995b:42).Thus,theostensivere
ferential function is suspended within written discourse. A
literary text does not refer to the immediate surrounding con
text as is the case in dialogue, for example. Rather, it speaks
aboutpossibleworldsinwhichthereadercouldlive.Inwritten
discourse, the possibility arises of referring to a world that is
notgivenintherealmofwhatisknownandfamiliar.Thesus
pensionofostensivereferentialityopensthereadertotherealm
ofwhatisunknownandthestranger.ThatiswhyRicoeurwill
neverspeakaboutthehiddenmeaningofthetext,i.e.hiddenin
themindofthewriterorinthestructureofthetext.Heprefers
theideaofmeaningdisclosureinfrontofthetext.Aliterarytext
hasthecapacityofunfoldingaworldinfrontofitself.Ricoeur
callsthisthepoeticpowerofthetext.
Heobjectstotheideathatreferentialdiscoursestopsatthe
thresholdofpoeticdiscourseorthatpoeticdiscourseonlyrefers
to the deepest and most personal emotions of the author. Al
thoughpoeticdiscoursedoesnotaddtoourknowledgeofob
jects,thesuspensionofdescriptiveanddenotativediscourseis
theconditionofpossibilityforthe
liberationofamoreoriginalreferentialfunction,whichmay
becalledsecondorderonlybecausediscoursethathasade
scriptive function has usurped the first rank in daily life,
assistedinthisrespectbyscience.(Ricoeur1995a:222)

Poeticdiscoursedoesnotrefertotheworldofmanipulableob
jects;rather,itreferstothemanywayswebelongtotheworld
beforeweopposeourselvestothingsunderstoodasobjectsthat
standbeforeasubject.Heretruthisatstake,nottruthunder
stood in terms of adequatio intellectus at rem but truth as mani
festation, in the sense of letting be what shows itself. What
shows itself is each time the proposing of a world, a world
wherein I can project my own most possibilities (Ricoeur

INSEARCHOFAHERMENEUTICALFRAMEWORK177

1995a:223).Whatmustbeinterpretedinatextispreciselythe
type of beingintheworld unfolded in front of the text
(Ricoeur1998b:141).Throughreadingtextsnewpossibilitiesof
beingintheworldareopenedup.Thus,textsnotonlyhavethe
potentialtoexplodetheworldoftheauthor,theyalsohavethe
potentialtoredescribetheworldofthereader.Everydayreality
is metamorphosed by what could be called the imaginative
variations(Ricoeur1995c).
Ricoeurstextualhermeneuticsbacksupcomparativetheo
logys claim that reading strange religious texts can be enrich
ing. Ricoeurs textual hermeneutics explains how the worlds
cultural and religious classics can expansively figure rich and
fullprojectionsofanotherwayofbeingintheworldthatliber
ates what is essential by suggesting what is possible. Reading
strangereligioustextsisanopportunitytoentertheworldof
the other and explore the possibilities they present. As such,
theyhelpustoseeourselves,others,andoursituationsinterms
of a world that we might inhabit. In this regard texts have the
powertorefigureandtransformtheworldofthereader.
ComparativeTheologyandtheHermeneuticalArc
Religiousliteratureaimsfortheaffectivetransformationof
the reader who pays attention to the clues available in the text
(Clooney2005:307).Clooneyisconsciousofhowdemandingit
is to understand and appropriate strange religious texts. He
points to the fact that readers have certain obligations to the
strange text and expresses these obligations in ethical language.
Thereaderistodojusticetothetextandtobewareoftheher
meneuticalpitfallsofprojection.
Toavoidhineininterpretierung,understandingastrangetext
impliesaclosereading.Thecomparativetheologian
mustachieveacertaindistancefromherorhisownstarting
point, in order to learn from another tradition by under
standingitonitsownterms,andinawaythatcanneverbe
entirelypredicatedontheexpectationsofoneshometradi
tion, because it reformulates those expectations regarding
thehometradition.(Clooney1993:7)

Theappropriateattitudeofthereaderisoneofsubmissionra
ther than some sort of consumerist mining of texts in ser
vice of a preconceived agenda neglectful of the texts own

178INTERRELIGIOUSHERMENEUTICSINPLURALISTICEUROPE

purposes (Clooney 2008: 8). The relation between text and


readeriscomparabletothatofateacherandhisstudent.Texts
educatetheirstudents.Thereisaclearasymmetry.Forwhata
text means always precedes, exceeds, and even supersedes its
readers(Clooney2008:9).Understandingthetextimpliesacer
tainselfeffacementbeforethetext;patience,perseveranceand
imagination (Clooney 2008: 13). Only then will it be possible
forthereadertobedrawnintotheworldofthetext.
Comparativetheologyentailsahermeneuticalprocessthat
is quite similar to Ricoeurs wellknown theory of interpreta
tion. The latter consists of three phases, a first nave under
standing, critical analysis, and appropriation, which Ricoeur
also calls the hermeneutical arc. To understand a text requires
passing through these three phases. The hermeneutical arc is
driven by a dialectic between understanding and explaining:
explaining more to understand better. This, so it seems, is ex
actly what Clooney would endorse when he says that close
readingleadstodeeplearning.
The first phase of the hermeneutical arc is a preliminary,
precriticalreading.Inthisphase,thereaderapproachesthetext
fromhisownperspective.Everyreaderisalwaysfirstandfore
most someone whose identity is formed by a linguistic tradi
tion,aculturalcontext,ahistoricalbackgroundandareligious
commitment.Everyreaderispartlydeterminedbyhiscultural,
religious, historical background. The process of interpretation
starts from there. Every reader guesses at the meaning of the
text,basedontheassumptionofacommunityofmeaning.Ri
coeuralsocallsthisanavereading:itisaninterpretationthat
is content with the immediate meaning that comes to mind
whenreadingthetextforthefirsttime.Itisreadingatextasif
exegesis does not exist. Here the effects of culture and context
arefullymanifested;theydeterminethespacewithinwhichthe
readermakesthetexthistext.
That a strange text appeals to the reader and that the
reader can already understand something of it is due to the
horizonofthereader.However,thisfirstnaivereadingneedsto
bechecked,validated,and,ifneedbe,correctedtoprecludethe
readerfromprojectinghisowncultural,religious,orhistorical
backgroundintothetext.Agoodinterpreteravoidsreadinghis
or her own presuppositions into the text. Understanding im

INSEARCHOFAHERMENEUTICALFRAMEWORK179

plies following the inner dynamic of a text. For that Ricoeur


claims the necessity of a second critical phase, which he calls
lexgsesavante,whichsetsouttoexplainthetextinamoresci
entific way. The scientific reading places the text at a distance
(Ricoeur1993:28):itsgoalisobjectiveobservation.Criticalanal
ysistreatsthetextasastudyobjectinthehandsofthereader.
Thelattercanmakeuseofseveralmethodstodecodetheworld
of the text: the historicalcritical method, literary criticism,
structuralism, even psychoanalysis. Whatever method is used,
criticalanalysisanecessaryphaseinthehermeneuticalprocess.
It allows the reader to transcend a superficial and too general
firstreadingofastrangetexttoacloseanddeepreading.Un
derstandingthemeaningofastrangetextdemandssuchacon
frontation with the objectivity of the text. The alternative is
meresubjectivism:onereadswhatonewants.
Clooney would agree with Ricoeur. What the latter calls
critical analysis or exgse savante, Clooney calls close reading.
Clooney acknowledges that this close reading is a highly de
manding, intellectual process, requiring various critical skills,
such as language learning, as well as cultural, linguistic, and
historicalstudies.Inthissense,thecriticalworkofcomparative
theologycanalsoberegardedasaformoftextualexegesisthat
alsousesseveralcriticalmethods,suchasliterarycriticismand
the historicalcritical method (Schebera 2003: 15). Comparative
theologiansneedto
take seriously whole texts, not merely select ideas or the
moreinterestingpartsoftexts;weneedtonoticethespecific
characteristics of the whole literary documents before us in
any given instance, genre, manner of writing, and the in
tentions of the author (and redactor) are intrinsic to a texts
significance, in addition to any theses or concepts proposed
inside the text. Strategies for the use of poetry, scriptural
citations, anecdotes, allusion to divine and human spiritual
exemplars, rebukes to opponents and appeals to readers to
take the teaching to heart in practical ways these are all
substantivedimensionsofwhatwearereadingandwhatis
tobeunderstood,requiringofussomesimilarlycomplexre
sponse.(Clooney2008:6)

Without critical analysis, readers would project meaning into


thetextratherthantheotherwayaround.Closereadingisthe

180INTERRELIGIOUSHERMENEUTICSINPLURALISTICEUROPE

way to deeper meaning. In this process of close reading, the


reader fulfils the role of a commentator, highlighting the fact
thathispersonalandsubjectivecommitmentsarebracketed.
Critical analysis is but one step in the process towards
transformation;itis,however,anecessarystep.Certainly,when
religioustextsarereadacrossreligiousborders,thiscriticalan
alysis and commentary proves its importance for theologians
trying to make sense of the religious other. However, readers
who regard the phase of critical analysis as the final hermen
euticalstage,reducethetexttoadeadbodytobedissected.The
text loses its potential to speak, to challenge, to yield meaning
for a current audience. It becomes meaningless. After going
through the phase of critical analysis (explanation), the reader
needstoaskthequestion:Whatdoesthistextmeanformetoday?
This question is central to the last phase of the hermeneutical
arc,namelythatofappropriation,whichactualizesthemean
ingofthetextforthepresentreader(Ricoeur1998d:158).Ap
propriation is the ontological grounding of interpretation in
livedexperience.Onlywhenatextisappropriateddoesitre
alize its poetic power to transform the reader. Nowhere does
Ricoeur state this more clearly than in the following passage:
ByappropriationIunderstandthis:thattheinterpretationofa
text culminates in the selfinterpretation of a subject who
thenceforth understands himself better, understands himself
differently or simply begins to understand himself (Ricoeur
1998d:158).Itisnotamatterofimposingourfinitecapacityfor
understandingonthetextbutofexposingustothetextandre
ceivingfromitanenlargedself.Sounderstandingisquitedif
ferent from that in which the subject possesses the key to the
constitution of the text. Rather, it seems that the reader is
constitutedbythetext.Ricoeurputsitasfollows:asareaderI
findmyselfbylosingmyself.Themovementtowardlistening
requires giving up (desaissement) the human self in its will to
mastery, sufficiency, and autonomy (Ricoeur 1995a: 224). Ri
coeuralsospeaksaboutladpossessiondusoinarcissique[the
dispossession of the narcissistic self] (Ricoeur 1976: 94). Un
derstanding means to understand oneself in front of the text.
Or,asClooneywouldputit,beingtaughtbyastrangetexten
tailsundergoingaspiritualprocessthatchangesthereaderand
perhapsrevealsGodinanunexpectedway.

INSEARCHOFAHERMENEUTICALFRAMEWORK181

Conclusion
Thepasthasnotonlytaughtushowappealingitistorelatetoa
projectedotherbutalsohowdevastatingformsofinterreligious
hineininterpretierung can become. At the very least, they hy
pothecateinterreligiousdialogue.Inanoriginalandrefreshing
way, comparative theology sets out to overcome this problem
by addressing the religious other as Other. It distances itself
from thesoteriological fixation of the classicthreefold scheme:
exclusivism, inclusivism, and pluralism. Over against a priori
theological generalizations, comparative theology places a de
tailedstudyofthereligioustextsofotherreligions.Moreover,it
isconvincedthatthesetextshavethepowertochallenge,inter
rupt,andtransformoutsiderswhoundertakeaclosereading
of these texts. In this way, comparative theology dissociates
itselffromthepostliberalprincipleofintratextuality.Compara
tive theology emphasizes the reflective practice of being
educatedanewthroughanewcombinationofmaterials,drawn
from more than one tradition which are then to be read to
gether,inaprocesswhich(gradually)fashionsanewliteracy
(Clooney1993:19899).
However,theoriginalityofthecomparativetheologypro
jectisthreatenedbyitslackofascientificframework.Clooneys
suspicion of theories does not help to take away the aura of
ambiguitysurroundingcomparativetheology.Manyofitsher
meneutical presuppositions need further elaboration. In this
contribution I have argued that comparative theologians can
find an ally in Ricoeurs textual hermeneutics. I have high
lightedseveralresonancesbetweenthehermeneuticalassump
tions of comparative theology on the one hand and Ricoeurs
hermeneutical philosophy on the other. Ricoeur can provide a
hermeneuticalframeworkforthecomparativetheologyproject,
thereby giving the latter more credibility. This contribution
shouldbereadasafirststepinthedevelopmentofamoresys
tematic hermeneutical framework for comparative theology.
Moreworkinthisdirectionisneeded.
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