At the San Antonio meeting of the American Academy of Religion (Nov 17-21, 2016), I heard the following story.
At some recent confab, Clooney was challenged by a number of younger theologians. He is, of course, defender and exemplar of the two-tradition (and usually two-text) way of doing comparative theology. At issue was his insistence that the insights gained by reading parallel texts in another tradition must be brought back to one’s “home” tradition. Comparative theology must remain confessional theology – in his case, Catholic theology.
The younger theologians are said to have protested: We cannot do theology that way. We do not have a “home” tradition in that sense. We have many “homes,” or none. Some of us have multiple belonging. Some of us are seekers drawing on multiple sources of insight. We theologize in an interreligious world.
Yes, many of us do. However, even as we search beyond confessional boundaries, which I believe we must, we should recognize several important achievements of the Clooney paradigm.
First, the paradigm enables the theologian to make good use of insights from other traditions without unsettling the theologian’s religious identity and earnest commitments. In my own view, Theology Without Walls is compatible with adhering to a confession and maintaining one’s religious identity. Whatever divine voice one encounters in other traditions, it surely the same divine reality, even if not in the same vocal register, as one encounters in one’s own. Whatever truth your faith now provides will remain as part of a larger understanding. Your confessional theology might even expand sufficiently to give full articulation to insights from other traditions. We can theologize “without walls,” as I recommend, or you can radically expand the walls. Or carefully and judiciously expand them, which Clooney’s paradigm permits.
Second, in the Western academy, theologians are scholars, not monks or gurus. They must produce “contributions to scholarship.” What they write must be subject to scholarly standards. The Clooney paradigm provides a template, exemplified in his many books and in dissertations he has directed. There are well-known scholarly standards for demonstrating competence with regard to the thinkers and texts from the traditions compared. Theology Without Walls does not offer a template (and may well remain uncongenial to doing so). Without a template, the relevant scholarly standards may vary from one work to another. This remains a challenge, though a manageable one, for TWW.
Third, the Clooney paradigm is not just a scholarly model, or even just a way of doing richer theology. Comparative reading is itself a spiritual discipline. It is a form of lectio divina, of the prayerful reading of the scriptures. The meticulous care with which Clooney insists on entering into the second tradition is, in my understanding and perhaps his, a way to hear the divine voice in its texts. He is not trying to pluck ideas out, but to listen attentively. Hence the tender care with which he explicates passages. Returning to the “home” text allows one to hear the divine voice there, but in a slightly different register. I don’t know if Clooney ever explains it in exactly these terms, but this is surely its most spiritually sensitive use. So understood, as an instrument for divine attunement, it is available to TWW theologians as well.
As we break out of the mold of “exclusivist” theology, it would be a shame to think that there is “only one right way” to theologize beyond the boundaries. For some of us, the Clooney paradigm would distort our starting-point, limit our search, and prevent us from understanding the divine reality as fully as possible. But, for many theologians, the Clooney paradigm will be the right fit. As my folks used to say, find your row and hoe it!