The story of ten lepers in Luke's Gospel suggests a number of issues for a comparative and critical approach to Systematic theology. To take just two, there is the issue of miracles and their significance and there is the role of faith in the story. Both of these issues tend to divide theologians in ways that are fascinating for students today.
There has been much discussion within theology about the meaning and coherence of the concept of "miracle" (albeit the term itself is not used within this story), especially following David Hume's provocative definition of a miracle as "a violation of the laws of nature." In the fast developing literature on science and religion it is often argued that such a definition now appears anachronistic in a context of post-Newtonian physics. Physicists today are far less likely to talk about fixed "laws of nature" than they might have been in the past. As a result some theologians argue that those who dismiss the miraculous element in stories such as that of the ten lepers are simply the products of outdated philosophy of the Enlightenment. Others remain skeptical but argue that the story still has theological significance even without primitive notions of the miraculous. Much depends here upon the different understanding of God's "actions" in the world and upon how far Christians in the modern world can sustain a world-view thoroughly at odds with prevailing culture.
Within the story the role of faith is clearly important. Yet there is an ambiguity here that has puzzled and divided theologians. The normal expectation within healing stories in the Synoptic Gospels is that faith necessarily precedes healing. So, for example, in the story of the woman with a hemorrhage (Mark 5:34, Matthew 9:22, Luke 8:48), she too is told that "your faith has made you well." But in the story of the ten lepers only one of the lepers is told this, when all ten had been healed. Why is he alone told this? One explanation is that all ten had faith and were therefore healed, but only one was specifically commended because he gave thanks. A more conservative explanation is that the tenth differed because he alone was "saved": the others were healed of their leprosy but not actually "saved." Neither explanation is particularly satisfactory (the second, for example, does not account for why this story uses the phrase "your faith has made you well" in a different way from other stories). Yet the two explanations do suggest very different traditions of theology behind them.
A further process of refinement is possible for those who are prepared to compare and contrast their own faith with that of non-Christian religious traditions. Sometimes termed comparative theology (rather than what was once termed "comparative religion"), Christian theology is set within a broader context of, say, Jewish theology or Islamic theology, in an attempt to identify and perhaps evaluate points of convergence and divergence.
Such an approach is not without its critics. Some, following Karl Barth, would reject it on the grounds that Christianity is not "a religion." The uniqueness of Christian faith means that it is always mistaken to compare it with any other so-called "faith," whether this faith is a secular form of "faith" or one drawn from one or other of the world religions. On this understanding Christian faith is wholly incomparable, so any attempt at such comparison inevitably involves serious distortion. Christian faith is based solely upon the Word of God made known uniquely in Jesus Christ, not upon some shared religious experience common to humanity or upon some knowledge of God derived independently of Jesus Christ.
In contrast, some within the academic discipline of religious studies argue that comparative theology is mistaken because it is too fideistic. They argue that Religious Studies differs from comparative theology in that it is "value-free" and independent of any faith commitment. So, whereas comparative theology, or traditional theology in any form, is viewed primarily in confessional terms, "religious studies" is seen as a detached, scientific discipline concerned with describing and analyzing religious phenomena without any existential commitment to them. The very term "religious studies" rather than "comparative religion" is often preferred for this reason: the latter is considered to be too value-laden and judgmental. On this understanding, theology in any form is a discipline suitable particularly for those training for ministry within churches, whereas religious studies is a discipline more suitable for those training to be teachers in a non-confessional setting. Or, to express this differently, theology aims to promote and refine faith whereas religious studies seeks rather to promote greater knowledge and discernment about religious issues. Theology is thus a fideistic discipline suitable for ministers, whereas religious studies is a detached discipline suitable for diplomats or civil servants.
It is not too difficult to show that both of these criticisms hardly match the disciplines of theology and religious studies as they are now typically taught and studied in Western academies. In their different ways they present caricatures of both theology and religious studies.
In the light of the understanding of systematic theology already outlined it is difficult to maintain the sharp contrast between theology and religious studies in the second criticism. It is simply not the case that in the West academic theology is invariably a confessional discipline taught in faith to people who share that faith. Even those training for ordained ministry in many mainline denominations will be expected to study a wide variety of approaches to theology which they do not personally share. It is also misleading to imagine that all of those studying religious studies in the Western academy have no prior religious commitments and approach their subject in a detached rather than fideistic manner. On the contrary, many are likely to engage in religious studies precisely because of their existential interests and concerns. It is quite possible for those, say, with defined Christian commitments themselves to wish to relate these commitments to those within religious traditions outside Christianity. Some distinguished Jewish and Islamic scholars have chosen to study Christian theology for similar reasons. A desire to study differing religious traditions does not in itself exclude a commitment to a particular tradition. Indeed, on analogy with the study of art or music, those who study a particular subject might typically be expected to have a strong attachment to at least some aspects of that subject. Religious studies, in practice, often has a balance of faith and critical detachment very similar to theology as it is typically taught and studied today in the Western academy.
The first criticism, based upon the dogmatic claim that Christian theology is wholly incomparable, ignores the considerable body of scholarship that has been concerned to analyze the Jewish, Roman and Greek roots of Christian theology. It also ignores the family relationship of Christianity to Islam and the fact that the Koran itself contains sacred traditions about Jesus Christ. The relationship between Judaism and Christianity has received particular attention in the Western academy. In part this has been stimulated by the growing awareness that some forms of Christianity have acted historically as bearers of anti-Judaism and may even have contributed to the culture of European anti-Semitism that made possible the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust. However, it has also been stimulated by Jewish and Christian theologians reading each others' works and sometimes training and studying together. Such study reveals how much early Christianity derived from Judaism and that they still share many theological precepts today.
Some scholars have also studied the extent to which early Christianity borrowed concepts more widely from the Mediterranean world. For example, the New Testament scholar Wayne Meeks has argued at length that the Pauline virtues have much in common with contemporary Graeco-Roman virtues. Or, to take a later example, Augustine in the fourth century consciously borrowed from Cicero in his understanding of both natural law and just war theory. In turn, Aquinas was later to borrow directly from the newly rediscovered ideas of Aristotle (preserved, ironically, by Islamic scholars) in writing his own systematic theology.
None of this contradicts the distinctiveness or uniqueness of Christian theology, or specifically its central focus upon Jesus Christ, yet it does question the claim that Christian theology is wholly incomparable. On the basis of this considerable amount of modern scholarship, there do seem to be solid grounds for the claim instead that Christian faith does have a clear relationship with other forms of theistic faith outside Christianity.
But what about those forms of faith that are not theistic? Theologians again soon divide on this question. Some, like Hans Küng, argue that on global issues such as international peace or the environment there are points of contact across many different forms of religious faith - whether theistic or not - and that such issues require us urgently to recognize these. However, others remain unconvinced, arguing that attempts to supply a comprehensive definition of "religious faith" have been remarkably unsuccessful. Whatever the outcome of this debate, it is difficult to maintain convincingly that Christian faith, let alone Christian practice, is wholly incomparable. Both systematic theology and religious studies in the Western academy have a similar tension or paradox. On the one hand, those who study and teach in these areas still show considerable evidence of faith and religious practice. Yet, on the other, they also seem to value critical detachment.
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