Conclusion: Theological Engagement with Non-Western Philosophy

At the beginning of this chapter we noted a number of objections to contemporary comparative theology and to the engagement with non-Western philosophy it promotes. Part of our response has been to point to the continuity between Scholastic theology and such contemporary engagements.  In itself theological engagement with non-Western philosophy has for long been an accepted and valued part of the work of Western Christian theology. Contemporary comparative theology may be viewed just a modern application of this, widening the scope of such engagement to include further non-Western philosophies such as Hinduism and Buddhism.  Thus to object to Western Christian engagement with non-Western philosophy in principle is to object to the whole history of encounter with non-Christian philosophy and culture, including Greek philosophy.

However, even if the continuity of contemporary comparative theology with longstanding traditions of Christian theology is granted, this still leaves some major challenges that contemporary comparative theology must meet if it is to become a component of mainstream theology in the future.  Asine qua non is that the particular Christian community to which the comparative theologian belongs receives his or her work as a legitimate and useful part of its own theological reflection.  This depends on what the scope and task of theology are perceived to be within that community, and also on the exercise of an ecclesial responsibility on the part of a theologian who belongs to that community.   In the case of Clooney and Ward, they work in different Christian traditions and the divergence of their comparative theology reflects this.  Nonetheless, they do show a concern to locate their theology within the tradition to which they belong.  Yet the accountability of contemporary comparative theology in general to Christian communities is often weak because of the academic context in which comparative theology is done. The modern university setting makes comparative theologians immune to how well their theology is understood and received by these communities and can be conducive to the comparative theologian developing theological accounts that are fairly free-floating experiments in theological speculation, without any mooring in any particular ecclesial community.[^55]

When it comes to the wider issues of intercultural communication and the particular charge of Orientalism, the emphasis contemporary comparative theology gives to the dialogical aspect of such engagement is a helpful and important further development.  Any form of cultural or interpersonal communication would seem to involve an element of subjective interpretation and involves a fusion rather than simply a meeting of cultures.  What is at stake is not whether such interaction should occur, but what principles of good practice should govern it. There should at least be an attempt to develop an account of another culture that is recognisable as such by that culture.  It is such a commitment to good practice that is emphasised in the dialogical aspect of contemporary comparative theology. However, in order to gain fuller acceptance for their work they still need to address more fully the epistemological as well as the cultural objections to the interpretation and use of non-Western and non-Christian texts by Western and Christian theologians, as well the contested nature of assertions of common rationality or concepts across traditions.  One way forward is for comparative theologians to acknowledge more fully the ways in which any attempt to translate and use concepts from one tradition by another is in reality a transformation both of those concepts as used in their own tradition and a transformation of the new tradition in which they come to be used.[^56]

If Scholastic theology provides a precedent for contemporary comparative theology, the Thomist engagement with non-Western philosophy itself remains of considerable continuing interest and value for contemporary theology.   Indian and other Eastern philosophies have much to contribute both to contemporary Thomist reflection on doctrines such as the nature of God and creation.  The identification that there are non-Western forms of Scholastic enquiry may, likewise, contribute to the understanding and promotion of this theological genre in the contemporary academy.  The Thomist is committed in principle to such an encounter, open to disagreement as well as agreement, as good reasoning in the pursuit of truth demands. [57]