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.