J.Z. Smith claimed comparison “is by no means an innocent endeavor.” Describe how this has been true in the history of religious studies, especially in the context of the analytical categories we have studied, including race, colonialism, and gender. Describe how you think we as academics, while never truly objective, can mitigate some of the worst ways comparison has been practiced (use the six guidelines for responsible comparison, reflectivity, and the insideroutsider problem).
A, B, C
Six Guidelines for Comparing Religions Responsibly
Comparing Religions is a how-to handbook. We have taught comparison primarily
through example in the course of the chapters. A set of abstract guidelines may help as well.
There are six such guidelines to consider when doing any responsible comparison. Here are the
1. Always keep sameness and difference in some creative and constructive tension.
2. Always be aware of your own perspective as your perspective and do not
confuse it with some universal human position, that is, strive to be as “reflexive”
as possible in your comparative practice.
3. Academic comparison works through comparing one historical religious
complex (A) to another historical religious complex (B) through a third term,
method, or comparative ground (C) that is derived from your own contemporary
questions and concerns (as in #2), which need not be found in either A or B.
A bit of explaining is in order here.
One large group of comparisons that we have engaged in our “Comparative Acts”
involved those that rely directly on the universality of the biology and anatomy of the human
body. The history of comparison is in fact fantastically rich here, with elaborate comparative
literatures on the symbolisms and religious uses of birth, food and drink, hair, eyes, feet, puberty,
right/left (that is, the two-armed form of the human), bodily fluids, emotional responses
(weeping or laughing, for example), pain, sexual coupling, orgasm, abortion, sickness, healing,
aging, and, of course, death. These are all very legitimate and very powerful Cs to choose as
one’s comparative base or ground precisely because they are universally shared human
experiences. Keeping in mind guideline 1, however, we cannot claim that these universal bodily
experiences are experienced in the same ways across cultures and climes. They are not. But we
can comfortably say that they are all experienced. In short, once we have chosen our two
historical religious complexes and our specific bodily ground, we have our sameness and our
difference (guideline 1), and we have our A, our B, and our C (guideline 2). We are in good
shape as far as the academic discipline of comparison goes.
Another large complex of comparisons that follow the guideline but that are a bit less
universal are those that in fact make up much of the history of the study of religion that we have
just narrated: myth, ritual, sacrifice, mysticism, initiation, divination, the sacred, miracle, the
saint, and so on. As Comparing Religions makes very clear, each of these terms is rooted in
western religious history, even as they carry a great deal of theoretical power outside those
It goes without saying—but we will say it anyway—that these guidelines invoke only the
simplest of comparative practices, that is, those involving just two religious complexes and a
single comparative ground. Comparison can, of course, also be done with multiple sets and even
multiple comparative grounds or foundations.
The fourth guideline goes like this:
4. The A and B should be chosen in such a way that they are roughly on the same
level of sophistication vis-à-vis your contemporary concerns and questions and do
not unduly privilege A or B.
Basically, what we mean here is that, if you are going to compare an A and a B, make
sure that you set up your comparisons fairly. For example, if one chooses to compare ethical
norms with respect to social minorities (C), one should not compare Adolf Hitler from Christian
Europe (A) and Mahatma Gandhi from modern Hinduism (B). One, however, might well
compare the lives and teachings of Martin Luther King, Jr., from modern African-American
Protestant Christianity (A) and Mahatma Gandhi from modern South Asian Hinduism (B).
These are, no doubt, ridiculously obvious examples, but they serve to make the point.
This guideline is especially important when one is using one’s own religious worldview as an A
to compare with another religious worldview as a B. It is all too easy to compare the seemingly
positive features of one’s own tradition to the seemingly negative features of someone else’s. In
actual fact, every religious tradition is filled with much to admire and much to be suspicious of
from contemporary ethical and political perspectives.
Our fifth guideline goes like this:
5. Do not choose a C that privileges the theological categories of either A or B.
Irresponsible comparisons might, for example, include a comparison of after-life
scenarios in Evangelical Christianity (A) and Tibetan Buddhism (B) that analyzes both religious
complexes according to their acceptance or denial of “salvation through Jesus Christ” (C). Or,
alternately, a comparison of Tibetan Buddhism (A) and Evangelical Christianity (B) that
analyzes both religious complexes according to their acceptance or denial of the doctrines of
“karma” and “reincarnation” (C). Obviously, this kind of game can be played either way, and
neither way is an example of academic comparison as we are practicing it here. Similarly, under
no circumstances can “the Bible” or “the Quran” or “the Veda” or any other local scripture
become the universal basis or ground for comparison. That is not comparison. That is special
pleading. That is not the comparative study of religion. That is religion.
This is not to say that comparative theology—that is, the comparison of religious truth-
claims, usually from one’s own theological or religious perspective—is illegitimate or
impossible. As we see in chapter 10, for religiously committed people such comparisons are in
fact inevitable and often result in real insights and rich nuances that other, more secular
approaches generally cannot provide. The question is whether such comparisons can be done
responsibly and with sufficient levels of transparency and reflexivity. The claim of Comparing
Religions is simply that to do comparative theology well, one must first engage in theologically
open and historically fair comparisons.
Finally, our sixth and final guideline for comparing:
6. Provoke and challenge universally. That is, if you choose to compare A and B through
some rational re-reading or reductive method (C), make certain that you are ready to apply the
same C to each and every religious tradition, including and especially your own worldview,
This, recall, was the “golden rule of comparison” we introduced in a number of places in
the textbook. No worldview—including secular and scientific ones—is complete and immune
from analysis and questioning. To compare is to question everything, including and especially
oneself. Reflexivity is everything. It is all about the mirror. Don’t believe everything you think.