This spring I read John Thatamanil’s excellent study, The Immanent Divine: God, Creation, and the Human Predicament, An East-West Conversation. He chooses Sankara and Paul Tillich for theological comparison. But, somewhat under the radar, there is a third, methodologically instructive, theology present, sotto voce — that of the author himself. This voice is heard mainly in side comments and adjectives suggestive of approval or disapproval as he goes along.
In a similar way, T.’s explanation of why he choose these two thinkers to compare is instructive. He finds these two thinkers suggestive with regard to the question: “Might it be possible to frame a non-dualistic Christian theology in which a stronger account of human possibilities (such as those offered by Sankara) is combined with a realistic assessment of the depth of estrangement? Is it possible to remove the element of distance that Tillich felt compelled to preserve and thereby mitigate the note of inevitable tragedy that hangs over the whole of Tillich’s theology?”
One sees, as the book goes on, that T.’s desiderata for an ideal theology include, roughly speaking: (a) recognizably Christian theology (since that is his own faith tradition), (b) non-dualism (which seems to offer some solace), (c) a stronger (more optimistic) account of human possibilities, (d) a “realistic” account of the “depth” of estrangement from the divine, and hence (e) a non-tragic vision. He believes that (d) estrangement results from human “distance” from the divine and that (b) non-dualism is the way to overcome that distance.
Toward the end (pp 170-171), T. addresses “the constructive task of assessing the meaning, importance, and truth-value” of theologies compared. “Theological conclusions have to be argued out.” Discovering similarities and differences cannot compel conclusions. A variety of sources will go into this assessment: “Antecendent commitments, creative readings of figures and traditions, … personal transformations …” And also: “Much will depend on what transpires in the life of the theologian ….” Once one moves outside one’s home tradition, “the very criteria for theological construction may be transformed ….” “Does it even matter whether a position is recognizably Christian, or does it matter only that a given position appears to be reasonable, attractive, compelling, and true?”
T. himself reshapes a Tillichian understanding by incorporating ideas from Sankara, as well as Robert Neville and Joseph Bracken. What are T.’s theological desiderata? Foremost, it seems, is to avoid a soteriology that has a “tragic” dimension of sin, the fall, and alienation from the divine reality. These are seen in terms of “distance” and “non-identity” with the divine. He wants both unity with the divine and the human freedom of the Fall. He wants immanence without forgoing transcendence. He does not want to “define away the world of experience as Sankara is tempted to do” or to give up all desires.
T. asks (173), “Is the resulting theology Hindu or Christian?” Or is it a “hybrid Hindu-Christian theology” that “might appeal to both communities”? That question is important for participants in both traditions, but the ultimate question is whether it is the most adequate theology.
T. wants a theology that provides an understanding of: the human condition, with its failings, incompleteness, and suffering; a healing relationship with the divine; the way in which the divine is both transcendent and immanent; robust human freedom alongside our oneness with the divine; and how the foregoing can be achieved without having to reject the world of experience and loving desires.
My point is not to endorse these desiderata or to reject them, but to note that T. has used traditional comparative theology to go beyond it. In so doing, he has taught us something about the proper locus of transreligious theology, of Theology Without Walls. It is in the desiderata, which are usually subliminal in a work of comparative theology. We need to become more self-aware of our own desiderata and our reasons for preferring them and, in our discussions, to make them more explicit and subject them to candid, truth-seeking examination, elaboration, and mutual assessment. This Forum offers one venue for that exploration.