By A. J. Watson
Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, Issue 5 (2011)
Introduction: This paper looks at two thirteenth century accounts, the Itinerarium by the Franciscan William of Rubruck and the Syriac Church of the East text Tashīthā DemārYaballāhā (the History of Mar Yaballaha), and examines the models of comparative theology both present. While acknowledging that comparative theology is seemingly redundant between different denominations of Christianity, the ecumenical dialogue presented in both of these accounts occurred at a time when these two branches of Christianity had been separated for almost a millennium and had developed within completely different cultural backgrounds. Subsequently, both underwent dramatic changes to their worldviews: one European, the other Middle Eastern and Asian. As a result of the expanding Mongol Empire, both “Christianities” reestablished contact and were forced to examine internal conceptions of the “other” and “dialogue” as they related to their own unique cultural location. This paper examines the ways in which the authors of these accounts relate the ecumenical dialogues they record, and pays particular attention to the language and imagery by which they negotiate cultural difference, thereby establishing what Richard White terms a “Middle Ground.” It also evaluates the comparative theological framework that evolves through its contrast of two different thought systems that, while both Christian, evolve along two very different theological and cultural paths. Finally, it uses these two accounts as historical case studies for examining the role of inculturation in comparative theology and interfaith dialogue.