Theology in a community of believers in methodology? (On Ram-Prasad 2014)

Can one speak of theology without partaking a given faith and belonging to a given community of believers? Religious texts can be read as historical or literary documents, but can they also be read as theological ones outside a community of believers?

Following Ram-Prasad’s own advice, I just read his Reading the Ācāryas: A Generous Conception of the Theological Method (2014). The topic of the article is quite interesting, since it opposes Śaṅkara’s and Rāmānuja’s diverging commentaries on the same verse of the Bhagavadgītā, thus discussing their different theologies, i.e., their approach to Sacred Texts. Ram-Prasad notices that theirs is an exegesis (deriving meanings out of the text) rather than an eisegesis (putting meanings into the text —but Ram-Prasad does not define the term), since

The ācāryas would reject eisegesis in the Gītā commentary. […] Of course, exegesis itself it an exercise in agency, but one disciplined by receptivity to what the text seeks to yield. Śaṅkara may braodly take such receptivity to be defined as a self-conscious search for non-duality and Rāmānuja as a prepared openness to God’s gracious teaching […] (p. 11)

However, even more interesting is the methodological discussion which follows the bulk of the article. Driving from F.X. Clooney and Rowan Williams, Ram-Prasad discusses about the possibility of theology. Clooney and Williams seem to agree, in Ram-Prasad’s depiction, that theology presupposes a living community which enlivens the texts it deals with. However, Ram-Prasad contends, such a community can also be based on a shared methodology, instead than being based on a shared faith:

I want to suggest that the community can also be defined by a methodological commitment to treating the text as having such unity and conveying meaning (p. 13)

What do readers think? Is the community of the readers who are commited to the unity and meaningfulness of the texts comparable to the community of believers? Can it work like it as a legitimate actor of theology?

(As a side note, I was pleased to read fn. 3, where Ram-Prasad writes that “The most systematic criticism of Buddhist positions by a Viśiṣṭādvaitin is much later, by Vedānta Deśika, when Buddhism is even more of a distant memory than in Rāmānuja’s time. Clearly Deśika engages with those positions purely for their philosophical value, elegantly combining various realist arguments that are consistent with his own reading of Rāmānuja’s metaphysics”. This is exactly the position I upheld during my paper at the IABS conference and I am pleased to read that I have Ram-Prasad’s independent support for it.)

(As an even less important side note, which does not regard Ram-Prasad’s scholarship nor the content of his article: the article as it has been put on line is fraught with typos. It is a pity that journal editors no longer have the time and the ease to assure good editorial quality).
For my short review of Clooney’s book on Comparative Theology (Clooney 2010), frequently referred to by Ram-Prasad, see here. For a post on Clooney’s way to approach theology, see here.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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2 thoughts on “Theology in a community of believers in methodology? (On Ram-Prasad 2014)

  1. “Is the community of the readers who are commited to the unity and meaningfulness of the texts comparable to the community of believers? Can it work like it as a legitimate actor of theology?”

    Scholars are also a “community of believers”, they just believe in something else. The difference between those who read the texts and those who practice what is in them is not about belief or non-belief. To me the distinction you are trying to draw is a false one. If there is a distinction it is in the actions one takes as a result of reading the texts.

    To me religion is primarily an experience. It’s only secondarily about what you believe, and only then because what you believe affects your approach to practice. In most of India religious practice, the texts are aimed at developing certain kinds of experience. Without having had that kind of experience one is simply a side-line commentator (or a back-seat driver) whether one believes or not (this includes me btw). Arguing over the interpretation of the experience, philosophy, is a side-show. It always has been.

    Which means, btw, that the last thing I would want for “Indian” philosophy is parity with “Western” philosophy. I’d hate to see Indian practices become that irrelevant; to to see practice and doctrine become so divorced as they are in the “West”.

    • Thank you for this VERY interesting comment, Jayarava.
      As for its first part, I guess that the distinction Ram-Prasad was aiming at is the one between a self-styled community which works as one and aims at being one (the community of, say, believers in the Roman Catholic Church, or in the Vaṭakalai form of Śrivaiṣṇavism), and the community of scholars. The latter can have similarly beliefs, which are however often not explicitly regarded as such (most scholars believe they have no “commitment” to any belief, that they are open to any new approach), and it is often not kept together by a feeling of community. In this sense, seeing the community of scholars as a real community is more a utopia than the description of reality, I am afraid.

      As for the other part of your comment, thanks again for it. You are right, I might doing my best to include Indian philosophy within philosophy tout court, just to end up having to realise that it has become through that irrelevant (In fact, I am not sure that relevance or irrelevance, and link to real experience or not depend on the philosophical status of a given speculation.) To me, thinking about problems is a urgent need, something unavoidable and somehow even more “real” than an allegedly more actual practice. I see that this does not need to apply to everyone, but I could not engage in any practice if I had not thought about it beforehand.