John Paul SYDNOR. Ramanuja and Schleiermacher: Toward a Constructive Comparative Theology. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2011. Pp. 226. $26.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-60899-308-6. Reviewed by Hans GUSTAFSON, Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at Saint John’s University (MN) and the University of St. Thomas (MN)
John Paul Sydnor sets out on a project of constructive comparative theology by immersing into the theologies of Ramanuja, the eleventh-twelfth century Hindu advaita theologian and philosopher, and Friedrich Schleiermacher, the nineteenth century so-called “father of modern liberal Christian theology” with a pietist background. The method employed is that of comparative theology, a discipline in which one seeks to understand his or her own tradition by crossing over into a tradition (and/or thinker of a tradition) other than his or her own, and then returning to their home tradition with new insights and perspectives that shed light on their home tradition. In this manner, Sydnor cross over into the theology of Ramanuja in order to better understand his own Calvinist/Reformed heritage represented here by Schleiermacher. His foundational premise is that “any constructive theology executed in the tradition of either theologian is better executed comparatively” (3).
After laying the necessary groundwork in the foundational theologies of both thinkers set within their respective historical contexts, Sydnor sets the scope on understanding, in particular, the theological question of dependency; that is, he argues that “comparing the theologies of Ramanuja and Schleiermacher on the doctrine of absolute dependence is warranted” (65), and hopes that “we may gain some insight into Ramanuja’s project by utilizing Schleiermacher’s categories of analysis” (70). After an examination of dependency in both thinkers in chapter two, the remainder of the book investigates how it plays out between God, world, and human devoting a chapter to each.
God: Chapter three turns to the concept of God, being that upon which we are dependent, by examining the process as such of attribution to God followed by both Ramanuja’s and Schleiermacher’s attribution of the ultimate. Sydnor’s hope is that by placing the two in conversation, “critical insights will arise that would not have arisen” (114) if the two were studied in isolation. Further, the hope is that from these insights, new questions and answers are generated. The self-implicating aspect of this chapter, Sydnor confirms, is that in Ramanuja’s questioning of Schleiermacher, he is questioning Sydnor who self-identifies as a “twenty-first century Reformed Christian” (114). In the conversation, the main points that arise fall under differentiation, anthropomorphism, the concept of the Ultimate, knowledge, and love. Although both thinkers’ concept of the Ultimate converge in certain ways (e.g., both conclude that the Ultimate can be understood as personal), Sydnor carries out the task of each posing questions to the other such Schleiermacher inquiring of Ramanuja “how the ultimate in a humanlike, personal form could bear such divine attributes as omnipresence (sarvagata), omnipotence (sarvasakti), omniscience (sarvajnatva), and infinitude (ananta)” (130). Sydnor recognizes that for Ramanuja, the proper form of the Ultimate as Narayana consists of “pure (amalatva: ‘unstrained’) knowing/knowledge that coincides with bliss,” while for Schleiermaher “the only word that can be substituted for the word ‘God’ is ‘love’” (137). Thus, Sydnor suggest that “if knowledge is love, and if Narayana’s proper form is knowledge, then Narayana’s proper form (svarupa: essence) could in fact be interpreted as love” (138).
World: Chapter four focuses on “that which is dependent: cosmology.” Both thinkers make a distinction here: for Ramanuja it’s between cit (sentient beings) and acit (insentient matter), and for Schleiermacher it is between Mensch (human persons)and Welt (world). This chapter examines the acit/Welt category, while the next examines the cit/Mensch category. Both understand the former (matter) to have, in some manner, “the capacity for sublimation by the divine” (152), however they perceive this in different ways. Sydnor suggest that while Ramanuja’s emphasis is ontological, Schleiermacher’s is phenomenological. In other words, Schleiermacher avoids cosmological metaphysics and simply posits that one’s perception of God via the world comes through feeling whereas Ramanuja “sees the divine in matter because the divine is matter and matter is divine” (153). Schleiermacher certainly retains more room for God’s otherness and transcendence, while Ramanuja’s emphasis clearly highlights God’s radical immanence in, and identity with, the world. However, this does not entail that Schleiermacher denies God’s immanence nor does Ramanuja deny God’s transcendence. Their respective views entail further implications for their view of suffering in the world and ultimately their views on soteriology (redemption and salvation), which Sydnor examines in the following chapter.
Human: After providing an overview of both thinker’s anthropology, soteriology, and eschatology, Sydnor compares the two thinkers these categories firmly committed to the position that “we will learn more from Ramanuja and Schleiermacher in conversation than we could have learned from Ramanuja and Schleiermacher, studied alone” (187). For instance, Syndor suggest the possibility of amplifying Ramanuja’s arguments for individuated moksa by appealing to Schleiermacher’s claim that “embodied existence provides boundary and clarity to the feeling of absolute dependence” (188). Sydnor does not gloss over differences. He recognizes where appropriate parting of thought surfaces in the two (e.g., their soteriologies). One critique that could be levied against Sydnor’s project (and perhaps the whole of constructive comparative theology in general) is that when carried out in a certain manner, it becomes overly speculative and rests largely upon conjecture (although ultimately I do not see this as a hindrance to the comparative theological method as such). For instance, Sydnor creatively imagines the two thinkers entering into a dialogue posing questions to one another: “For Christians there is always some residual resistance to God-consciousness. Ramanuja, it seems, would ask: What causes this hindrance to God-consciousness? … What hinders Christians from receiving the perfect God-consciousness of Christ?” (189-190). The chapter succeeds in drawing lines, both parallel and perpendicular, between the two, and concludes that the differences between the two ultimately “pale in comparison” to their agreement that “humans are created for and find fulfillment in the love of Narayana/God” (196). For the two, persons are not ultimately captivated by matter but are rather sustained by Narayaan/God (as that upon which they are ultimately dependent), and divine “love is the key” (196) to ultimate liberation/release.
The final brief chapter furthers defines and defends the method of “constructive comparative theology.” Sydnor also investigates the relationship between ontology and phenomenology by asking “to what degree could Ramanuja’s ontology inform Schleiermacher’s phenomenology, or vice-versa?” (199) He concludes, however, that Ramanuja’s ontology and Schleiermacher’s phenomenology are incompatible. Sydnor is clear that what he is up to in this text is not a project in syncretism, however he does recognize that syncretism, if one were to engage in it, should not negate nor disqualify the legitimacy of one’s theology. Rather time and again Sydnor properly points out that syncretism is not “necessarily undesirable” (204), his “aversion to syncretism in this very specific case does not bespeak a general aversion to syncretism on the part of comparative theology” (205). Finally, this chapter constructively demonstrates the inherent interdependency between interreligious dialogue and intrareligious dialogue. It shows how Ramanuja might assist in more clearly articulating Schleiermacher’s doctrine so as to adequately defend against Hegel’s critique that in Schleiermacher’s world, “a dog would be the best Christian” (without altering Schleiermacher’s thought), and also demonstrates how Schleiermacher might be placed “into productive conversation” with Jean-Luc Marion on conceptualizing God as love.
Sydnor’s text exudes the technical sophistication and rigor that we’ve come to expect from perhaps a doctoral dissertation and for this reason, the work is not suitable for undergraduates, but rather is for specialists in systematic theology and advaita – or advanced graduates. For non-specialists, the text demonstrates the effective carrying out of the comparative theological method in so far as it generates new questions and insights for one’s home tradition (in this case, Sydnor’s Christian Reformed tradition). Further, it demonstrates the value of doing theology comparatively not as just one theological sub-field among many, but rather as a pervasive method to be done across the disciplines of theological study.