John N. SHEVELAND. Piety and Responsibility: Patterns of Unity in Karl Rahner, Karl Barth, Vedanta Desika. Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2011. ISBN 1409409958. 217 pp. HC. $89.95.
Reviewed by Peter C. PHAN, Georgetown University, Washington, DC 20057

Comparative theology is a growing discipline, and this book by a professor at Gonzaga University is a landmark contribution to the field by both its scope and its methodology. A study of any of the three authors under consideration—Karl Rahner, Karl Barth, and Vedanta Desika— is a forbidding enterprise by itself, and even a lifetime occupation, both because of their voluminous productions and the intricacies of their thought systems. By comparing a Catholic, a Protestant, and a Hindu, Sheveland engages at one stroke in ecumenical (Rahner and Barth) and interreligious dialogue (the two Christian theologians and the Hindu Desika), two theological activities that have often been kept apart, to the detriment to both.

Sheveland carries out this tour de force with a masterful hand and enviable elegance. The book is divided into three chapters, with one on each theologian, sandwiched between a brief introduction and a postlude. The consistency and unity of the book is provided by two series of tropes, one theological, the other musicological. The first series consists of two theological themes, love of God and love of neighbor, or to use Sheveland’s “vague categories,” namely, “piety” and “responsibility.” The musicological tropes of “melody,” “harmony” and “polyphony” highlights the progressive yet unified development of Sheveland’s exposition of the similarity-in-difference among the quite diverse thought systems of the three theologians.

Among the many challenges of theistic theologies is no doubt how to understand the relation between the apparent opposites if not contradictions that are often couched in terms of transcendence and immanence, God’s prevenient grace and human freedom, love of God and love of neighbor, or in Sheveland’s terms, vertical “piety” (one’s consciousness of vulnerability, dependence, and gratitude in front of God) and horizontal “responsibility” (the practical, active, and relational duties toward one’s neighbor). The thesis of the book is that “the Christian life is constituted by two mutually inclusive dynamics, one vertical and the other horizontal: a response in piety to God in God’s revelation, and a responsibility to render that response consistent with life in the world with others” (3).

Sheveland unfolds this basic thesis by examining its “melody” in Rahner’s axiom that love of neighbor is love of God and vice versa. While the second part of this principle is uncontroversial, it is its identification of love of neighbor with love of God that is much disputed, but Sheveland ably shows how it is rooted in Rahner’s transcendental anthropology and Christology. From this melody Sheveland moves to its crescendo in the “symphony” as composed by Barth. In his finely nuanced exposition of Barth’s intricate teaching on the relationship of love of God and love of neighbor—the latter not identified with the first, as in Rahner—Sheveland contrasts with great care the different, albeit not discordant, notes of the Protestant Barth’s harmony and those of the Catholic Rahner’s melody. Sheveland traces these differences in Rahner’s melody and Barth’s harmony not so much to their conclusions with regard to the unity of love of God and love of neighbor as to their basic theological methodologies, that is, “from below” in Rahner and “from above” in Barth.

Using the same theological method, Sheveland moves to the “polyphony” of Vedanta Desika (Venkatanatha), the foremost fourteenth-century exponent of Visistadvaita (“qualified non-dualism”) concerning the relationship between the self (jiva) and the Absolute (Brahman). In the tradition of Ramanuja, Vedanta Desika sees the relation between the selves and the Self as that between sesa and Sesin, the former as created selves and the latter as the Lord (Narayana), the former existing as slave for the latter as master. This polyphony of sesa-Sesin is explicated in the vertical relation to God as piety and in the horizontal relationship to the community as responsibility. This sesa-Sesin relationship is then compared and contrasted with Rahner’s understanding of humans as “hearer of the Word” and Barth’s understanding of humans as “doer of the Word.”

Sheveland’s contributions are enormous not only in his theological comparison among three different theological visions but also in his theological method for carrying out this comparison. Using the large and usefully ambiguous categories of piety and responsibility, he discerns different but complementary insights on the unity between love of God and love of neighbor. At the same time he shows how comparative method—from melody to harmony to polyphony—can be a highly productive new way of doing theology in our religiously plural age. May this tribe of comparativist theologians increase and multiply!

TO ORDER BOOKS: - Continuum - Crossroad - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books