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Studying Our Religions in the Particular and Meaning Something By It
On October 20, 2010, Francis X. Clooney, S.J., Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology at HDS, gave this lecture to mark his appointment as director of the CSWR. A response was given by CSWR managing director Susan Abraham, Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies at HDS. The text of the address follows.
Studying Religions, in the Particular: Reflections on Becoming Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions
Address by Francis X. Clooney, delivered October 20, 2010
Thank you all for coming. I know that this is a busy time of the year (isn't that always the case at Harvard?), but I thought that at the beginning of this new era of the Center, its second fifty years, it is important for us to reflect together about how we should think about the study of religions and where we can best direct our energies in the next few years. So I appreciate the opportunity to begin with you today this conversation that I hope will continue in the months to come.
A Glance at Our History
It is somewhat daunting to become director of the Center, considering the impressive figures who have preceded me. I'm deeply grateful to Donald Swearer, my immediate predecessor, who for six years was a fine leader of the Center and builder of community; he left the Center in such wonderful shape that I could take up this position with a certain level of assurance. I have known Lawrence Sullivan, director before Don, over the years, first when we were both at the University of Chicago, and then while Larry was here at Harvard and I at Boston College. Larry instilled deep research commitments as distinctive to the Center, and fostered global conversations across a variety of themes and disciplines.
John Carman, Larry's predecessor, is an old friend. Our fields overlap in South Indian Hindu studies, while we share some common interests in comparative theology. In so many ways, I find it wonderful both to occupy his chair, the Parkman Professorship, and now too to be director of the Center, thus having the opportunity to renew his legacy. I had the honor of meeting Wilfred Cantwell Smith only a few times, and I remember him as a perfect gentleman, a respected scholar, and by all reports, a wonderful builder of conversations. I appreciate how in many ways his leadership shaped the Center even as we find it today.
Of course, it was Robert Slater who led the Center in its first several years. He gave it a sense of direction still relevant to the Center's planning even today—what is, as the title of the 2005 history of the Center puts it, a dedication to "community and colloquy."1 While I never met him, I am delighted that his son, Dr. Peter Slater, is our guest today. (My secret hope: that in the near future we may have a director who is a woman, an Asian, or an African, someone from one of the many traditions other than the Christian that are so vividly present in our culture and at Harvard today!)
There is moreover a history older and richer than that of the directors themselves. Just fifty years ago, on November 21, 1960, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Vice President of India, and a renowned scholar and Oxford Professor, inaugurated the Center with a distinguished lecture, "The Fellowship of the Spirit." We can still cherish his reflections on the meeting points of cultures and religions, the emerging postcolonial coming together of India and the West, and the role of a university in advancing an insightful and worthwhile understanding of religions. Here is just one short passage from his address:
In every religion we have people who do not believe in provincialism, who emphasise religion as experience to be attained by self-conquest and self-transformation, appreciation of other faiths, and a sense of loyalty to the world community. . . . A study of the different forms of religious life may give us some idea of the deep significance of religion for the life of man. The different religious are to be used as building stones for the development of a human culture in which the adherents of the different religions may be fraternally united as the children of one Supreme. All religions convey to their followers a message of abiding hope. The world will give birth to a new faith which will be but the old faith in another form, the faith of all ages, the potential divinity of man which will work for the supreme purpose written in our hearts and souls, the unity of mankind. It is my hope and prayer that in this Center for the Study of World Religions unbelief shall disappear and superstition shall not enslave the mind and all those who meet here shall recognise that they are brothers, one in spirit and one in fellowship.2
Though specific to his time and place, these are words that can still usefully be heard fifty years later; they highlight a goal of mutual understanding, furthered by intellectual and spiritual means, that can still be ours today.
I reviewed recently the original deed of the Center, and was impressed by the vision of the donors who made the Center possible, their conviction that the intellectual and spiritual, the theoretical and practical, are deeply and necessarily interconnected. In 1957, they expressed in this way their hopes regarding the director of the proposed venture:
[We intend] the appointment of one man who would be responsible for encouraging the study of the great religions of the world, who would teach and do research in the field of religion, who would relate the work done under this Fund with other courses and research programs in the University. The donors hope that such a man would be able to encourage the cooperative use of all the available resources of the University to make Harvard an outstanding place for the study of the religions of the world. In selecting such a man and others who might work with him, academic competence is, of course, required but is not considered by the donors to be sufficient in itself; there must also be a dedicated faith and life, and that concern for the spiritual life which makes a sympathetic and inspiring teacher of religion.3
This vision has remained relevant over the decades. My predecessors sought, each in his own way, to implement it in accord with his personality and interests. Today too, we do well to remain committed to expertise in the study of religions, to intellectual and spiritual learning across religious boundaries, and to bringing mutual understanding to fruition as an academic and religious value. This is no easier now than in 1960—probably harder—but the challenge is no less relevant or urgent today.
Even earlier, in his 1941 Guns through Arcady (a memoir of his Burma years), Robert Slater foresaw the coming together of religious intellectuals in a vision that anticipated how he would lead the Center in its first years:
I sometimes dream of a University formed by graduates and leaders from all these different Eastern Centers, combined with men and women from similar centers in the Christian West. People who would hold hands, not because they hold their faith lightly, but because they hold them as deeply convinced Muslims, convinced Buddhists, convinced Christians, each loyal to his own tradition, but anxious to understand others. Deriving from their own religious convictions a charity that sees beyond nations, beyond continents, to a new world. In such a way, the religions of the world which harness the ideals of such people may serve to advance the greater unity that is already in sight for mankind.4
For us at today's Harvard, bringing religious visions to reality in an integral religious and intellectual fashion may seem arduous or even impossible, and to many of us inappropriate. Some may still think that religions are to be studied on campus and lived off campus, talked about here, but talked through in living dialogue elsewhere. But in my view, even today we do well not to give up entirely on the hope that crossing such boundaries is a distinguishing feature of academic work that really is intellectual, interreligious, and spiritual.
As I take up the role of director, it will also be useful to recall that my own lineage in the study of religions is older than the Center and older than Harvard itself. I am a Jesuit, and have as my heritage a tradition of interreligious and intercultural exchange nearly five hundred years old. Some of the first great Christian and European scholars of the religions of India and the East were Jesuits, missionaries like Matteo Ricci in China, Robert de Nobili in India, Ippolito Desideri in Tibet, and Joseph Lafitau in French Canada. Their ideals, though deeply intertwined with theological positions that not all of us share, still echo purposefully today: go deep into the culture you want to learn, immerse yourself in it, study, dialogue, debate, and learn by acute personal observation. Even if the specific motivations for interreligious learning have had to be restated—the gap between the missionary era and ours is enormous—this Jesuit missionary tradition was right in arguing that our various religious and cultural worlds are never entirely or irredeemably separate, and that religious motivations need not hinder scholarship, but can actually improve it.
Our context this evening not only reaches back in time, but also reaches toward a wider global horizon. The Center will never make sense as an insular think-tank. It is of course an integral part of Harvard Divinity School, and indeed is at its best at the center of the School. Both the Center and School suffer if separated from one another. In turn, the School itself—and thus too the Center—makes best sense when seen in the context of the University, in creative tension with its many other component parts. As faculty and students in theology, the study of religions and related fields, we need to be learning from conversations on religions across campus, even as we insist on speaking about religions in accord with our fields of expertise, in our own voices.
But once we notice this wider world, we must acknowledge the implications: the University, the School, and the Center are all places of great privilege and therefore responsibility in a world of suffering where even basic rights and decency are denied to so many. We should not avert our glance from what goes on around us, as if our necessary reflective work has a value obvious to everyone, when neighbors near and far are hungry, in captivity, forsaken, denied. Even as we look to matters related arising from our disciplines and in accord with the proper regimes of the intellectual life, we need to be thinking a more forthright public role for the study of religions and theology and for ourselves as intellectuals in a world that rightly expects much—intellectually, ethically, spiritually, practically—from Harvard, its Divinity School, and the Center.
This opening meditation on our history and living context is nothing startlingly new, and should be read as aptly in keeping with the goals stated in the Center's current Mission Statement:
- To advance interdisciplinary, international, and interreligious exchange, learning, and research on the world's religions;
- To bring together the rich intellectual resources of faculty and students at Harvard Divinity School and at other Schools and departments of Harvard University with an international scholarly network to explore issues of religion in today's complex, globalizing, and changing world; and
- To build a deeper and broader understanding of the histories and contemporary patterns of the world's religious communities by hosting scholars and practitioners at the Center as residents and program participants.
But all the preceding reflections are only a starting point, since I need to give concreteness to these general reflections. I wish to make clear how I myself engage in the study of religions, what I mean, in practice, when I designate myself a theologian who studies Hinduism, and how my own commitments affect my understanding of the Center's mission. So let me now back up for a moment and bring myself, the professor who becomes director, into the picture.
Getting Particular about My Current Area of Study
As I ease into thinking of myself as director in light of our history and our current location, I need to speak in my own voice, in accord with the commitments and energies that already guide me. There is no point in trying to be an ideal or generic Director, as if guiding the study of religion in some old-fashioned and self-evident sense that everyone can agree on. So bear with me as I tell you something of my current research project—at first sight only tangentially connected to matters that one might expect to concern the Center—and the motivation that drives my study.
I am a comparative theologian; I study Hindu traditions as a Christian theologian. I have been to India and Nepal many times in the past 40 years, benefited greatly from being there, observing and sharing ordinary, daily Hindu life, and I am grateful for valued friendships that have endured over the years. But as a scholar I have always preferred to dedicate myself to the close study of classical texts, Hindu and Christian, read together. From the beginning, I have found that reading is an intellectual and spiritual practice of great power. When it comes down to the basics even in one's own tradition, reflection on the holy text is key. When such reading reaches across religious boundaries—texts of the Sanskrit or Tamil traditions read with parallels in Hebrew or Greek or Latin texts, for instance—the insight into powerful sacred words and the world they evoke can be all the deeper and the results all the more effective, even if at the same time shaking up the familiar religious categories with which we started.
As a somewhat indirect illumination of my vision of the Center, I would like to share with you this evening my current book project. Tentatively titled "A God Real Enough to Be Absent," it is first of all a study in the biblical Song of Songs. I am reading it carefully as a primary poetic text, but then primarily as it has been received in one great medieval Christian tradition of commentary, that of Bernard of Clairvaux, Gilbert of Hoyland, and John of Ford; in over 200 sermons, each taking up where the earlier left off, they completed a full spiritual exposition of the Song. I have been reflecting on how these faithful Christian interpreters wrote in keeping with orthodox Christian theological expectations while at the same time resisting the temptation to reduce God to a perfect, static figure regarding whom there can be no surprises, no drama. In the Song and the love of which it speaks, drama is essential: the beloved in the Song, and God understood as that Beloved, may at one moment appear intensely present, but then at another as absent, gone away. Bernard, Gilbert, and John understand how the most powerful, intense moments of the presence of God are small and brief, passing away almost at the moment they occur. Even if one spends one's entire life on a contemplative path, going deep into monastic contemplation, meditation, reading, and study, that practice will not guarantee that God becomes an object of study that is familiar and easily understandable, to be affirmed or denied by impartial observers. As the spiritual life advances, it seems increasingly a matter of remembering where God was in the past, memories given power through living intensely that love lost, now recollected. The God who was there intensely for you could be gone for a very long time thereafter, yet such absences are quite different from what we think of as "the non-existence of God."
Although the poetry of the Song and the commentarial sermons comprise a marvelous meditation of depth and complexity, crossing several historical, linguistic and religious boundaries, nonetheless there is more. Even traditions as rich as that of the Song and its commentaries do not make other acts of study superfluous. However deep our faith commitments, our minds can no longer settle easily within just one or another tradition, free of questions, anxieties, and pleasures that arise in learning about and from the other. So what I have described is not enough, and I am also finding it necessary once again to learn across religious boundaries by studying a South Indian Hindu tradition with a similar prospect, an intensely present God, Vishnu Narayana—most often known as Krishna—who is also yet unpredictable, often absent. So I am reading the Song read alongside the south Indian Tiruvaymoli (Holy Word of Mouth), a Hindu poetic classic from the 9th century composed by Shatakopan, "our saint" (Nammalvar). Shatakopan's poetry vividly portrays the experience of God in terms of the relationship of him and her, the lover and beloved, yet here too, this relationship is fraught with uncertainties. There are moments of incredible intensity, and incredibly close-up vivid contact, and great loss, as the divine lover surprises the human by sudden arrivals and inexplicable departures. The lover and beloved enter one another, but then, very soon, he is gone, and she is alone in the night, not knowing whether he will return or not. This ardently faithful relationship with God is likewise a dark and difficult one. Reading this poetry with its own tradition of medieval commentators—Srivaisnava teachers like Nanjiyar and Nampillai in the thirteenth century—likewise clarifies, corrects, and in the end intensifies our engagement with all the texts we read.
Of course, one could write whole books or at least some spirited articles on how the Holy Word stands in a very different tradition from that of the Song; the texts raise distinctive questions, from different starting points, and one cannot take for granted that love or gender or God or memory or separation mean the same things to both. Nor are Nanjiyar's and Nampillai's commentaries of the same style or quite the same intent as the sermons of Bernard and his successors. But properly noticing differences does not make reading across the boundaries impossible or unadvisable. Something has to be done, now. Without ignoring the problems that comparison brings to the fore, over the years I've found it fruitful to read these poems and explications together. I see myself as beginning in the Christian tradition with the Song that is part of my biblical heritage, and learn from its dramatic possibilities, aesthetics and poetic imagination. I then re-read that rich tradition through the Tamil, Srivaisnava Hindu poetry of love and loss. Each tradition of commentary makes interpretation easier and yet more complex, and enables me to engage the respective traditions directly. My larger intention in this cross-reading work is in part an effort to do comparative work better, delving deeper and deeper into these two traditions. I trust that in the long run, things interesting, beautiful, and interesting arise from such close reading across religious boundaries. All this opens up for me new ways of understanding what it means to say not only that God exists, but that God is real enough to be sometimes present, sometimes absent.
But the insights gained in this process are not just pleasantly fruitful, they are also disruptive, compelling us to reconsider neat scholarly and religious procedures. By this double reading, two traditions not meant to be read together—each being complete unto itself and protective of its sacred boundaries—are now placed together, considered back and forth as paired intellectual and religious discourses. This intense double reading disrupts how we think about traditions and what counts as proper knowing, and even, eventually, how we write about religion and religions. We destabilize familiar discourses about God, yet without removing ourselves to a secular space where the original questions and the passions driving them are replaced by calm academic observations. By accentuating the gaps between the traditions and reconsidering how we find God by reading inside and outside traditional discourses, we tamper with the proper boundaries of proper contexts. Yet at the same time, without theologies and other professional methods placed at a disadvantage, we are also able to take very seriously the problematics of image and word that underlie the search for God—for the beloved—in both of the traditions at issue. In the complex world of comparative study, a God who is vividly real can come and go all the more uncertainly, present at very intense moments but then also entirely absent for shorter or longer periods of time—with neither tradition fully ready to account for the departure, as it were, into the openings between traditions, where neither tradition's narrative alone can be the adequate crossing point.
Such is my book, "A God Real Enough to Be Absent," at the early stages of its writing. Of course, I do not expect faculty or students to replicate my own research, nor even to be medievalists or text scholars. But I would like the Center to be a place where, among other things, this complex comparative reading can occur, its intellectual and spiritual problems and possibilities finding their due place. To make sense of all this, our study of religions needs to be flexible enough to take into account such imaginative and dramatic possibilities. Not all religious questions reduce to the question of God, but rethinking this important question in my double reading is a practice that is fitting to the Center and the Divinity School, that is unlikely to be replicated elsewhere in the University. My specific approach to the question of God also colors how I think about religions and the study of them at the Center. A key challenge that will mark my four years as Director is the effort to maintain the synergy between my specific, idiosyncratic research and the larger work of the Center. While some bifurcation of energies is inevitable, I do not wish to be a Director who merely splits his time, allocating great energy to the Center while in spare moments pursuing the research he would have done, albeit more leisurely, if not Director.
From My Research to Yours, Ours
If I may generalize the preceding personal narrative by moving from my work to our work: the things we most care about as scholars, and the things we do most intensively in our study, are resources, often highly individualized, private, even eccentric, that we must share if we are to enjoy intellectual community and make the Center and the Divinity School and Religion more than venues that in their hurry and preoccupations shed an unflattering light on the hectic dividedness of our lives. I also believe that what I have been saying about myself is surely in some way true of you too, your writing and research, your thinking about religions and theological and religious topics that engages you as persons and scholars. You too have your intense interests and intellectual passions. You too seek both the safe havens needed for study, and likewise shared space where we can converse across intellectual boundaries, thus achieving more, more interestingly, than any of us might do alone. Even more particularly, most of you too are invested in reading and writing that by various areas of common ground and analogies of question and method share the problematic of my research, even as the details of history or the subtleties of scripture or the oblique glances of postmodern theory shape how you understand the study of religions and why it matters. All of us share the challenge of moving from the very particular disciplines the academy and our religious traditions have taught us to the less certain postmodern places where particularity can again be more evident and potent, destabilizing our comfortable ways and making us think. But we need to enter upon this more general conversation without losing sight of the details and energy of profession and tradition that guided our research in the first place.
In and from the intensity of the study that we care about, we can find ways to engage in a conversation where particularities and their hard questions matter, on a common ground. For this, we must both respect but also transgress dichotomies that, while at first necessary, later on become bad habits that artificially compartmentalize our work:
- the insider perspective—the outsider perspective;
- the central—the marginal, marginalized;
- what is given over to words—what is best left unsaid;
- what is listened to—what is suppressed and ignored;
- the oral—the written;
- learning from prose—learning from poetry;
- analytic reading—religious reading;
- academic exchange—interreligious conversation;
- the study of religions—the study of theology;
- Center—School—University—living religious communities.
Such pairs mark real distinctions that need to be respected. We accomplish nothing of value by casually ignoring boundaries that wise men and women have taken centuries to construct. But my conviction, confirmed in my particular research as I have described it, is that none of these boundaries is entirely fixed or closed; as we like to say today, they are borders to be crossed.
In this way we can now return to the topic at issue this evening: the Center is best conceived of as a place where we center ourselves as an intellectual community that is inevitably interreligious, after and from and for our very specific research concerns. We are fortunate to have the Center as a place where together we can seek better ways to do our work, and better ways to share it.
What We Are Doing Along the Way
So there is a lot to think about, and thus far I have wanted to move slowly, watching what happens, seeing what emerges naturally, gradually, from the needs of our intellectual and spiritual community. In the past few months I've spoken of 2010-11 as adding up to "a grass-roots year." This is a year for going slow, for thinking from where we are rather than trying to impose grand schemes on the Center and its audiences. I want to see what happens, as we open the space, quietly, for the benefit of our intersecting intellectual communities.
Yet even as we wait for things to happen rather than programming vigorously right from the start, initiatives actually do arise. I am amazed how much we have been doing even when not trying to fill the calendar with events. Consider the following list of initiatives under way at the moment:
Working closely with the Committee on the Study of Religion on programs that advise our thinking about religions today.
Inviting the doctoral students of religion and theology to come to the Center for the intriguingly titled Academic Casual, to meet together and discuss issues of importance among themselves. My expectation is that in our space, they can better talk across disciplinary boundaries and explore together what's going on in their various fields. This is a worthy contribution we can make to the well-being of the next generation of scholars of theology and religions.
Inaugurating a series of MTS, MDiv lunches, in order to emulate the faculty lunches we've had at the Center, creating a space where at least once a month, MTS and MDiv students can come together to talk about issues of common concern.
Reaching out to the undergraduate concentrators, building bridges from the Center to Harvard Yard in all its religious and intellectual diversity, and, I hope, thus nurturing the intellectual development of the students who will form the still younger generation of theologians and scholars of religions.
Learning from teaching, since in most fields of theology and the study of religions, progress occurs implicitly and first in the classroom, where established scholars and the newest generation of incipient theologians and scholars of religions meet one another. Teaching is both the source and testing ground of our ideas. The Center can foster reflection on teaching, as we explore how issues of interreligious diversity are already being resolved in successful classroom lectures and conversations, at the Divinity School and in the University, and in the still wider range of educational settings in which young people first learn how to think about religious diversity.
Drawing upon the Divinity School's richly complex educational mission, honoring both the strictly academic dimensions of our programs and teaching and the more directly ministerial dimensions that stress practical engagement, field education, community service, and spiritual practice. I have already had conversations with the ministry faculty on ways to deepen our cooperation and the mutual benefits possible for the Center and ministry in all its forms.
Continuing cooperation with the staff of the Divinity School, noticing and enhancing the role of HDS staff in the Center. I want the staff to share their wisdom with us, and in that way enrich the work of the Center. The people who work in the library, in development, in human resources, in admissions and students services, those who maintain the buildings—are people with great experience, with great care for the institution, and experience here and in life that suits them well to help us think about the issues of lived religion and its meanings today.
Hosting faculty colloquia. At the moment, we are hosting one in comparative studies, and one on the material bodies of deities, in/visible gods. These two colloquia—and I hope for more next year—bring together faculty and doctoral students to discuss issues of importance that arise in our research, and cut across our disciplinary boundaries. My hope is that as such colloquia develop, they will also enrich our teaching and publishing, even collaborative writing projects.
Organizing an ongoing series of book conversations, to celebrate faculty publication. As new books come out from our colleagues, my plan is to have discussions of the books, inviting in experts from around the University and the wider academic community in order to discuss with us these scholarly contributions. The first, later this semester, will be a discussion of our dean Bill Graham's recent book, Islamic and Comparative Religious Studies.
Initiating an occasional series on translation. We had a wonderful session just recently on a new translation of the Psalms, and we talked at length about Hebrew poetry and its English renderings, as well as broader issues, such as the very idea of taking poetry from one language and rendering it in another. I would like it to be the first of many, and I am seeking other occasions on which we can study specific instances of translation, talk about how we translate, and assess what is gained and lost in any of our particular practices.
Sponsoring a cross-cultural film series. One of our current residents is very interested in visual media, and due to his hard work, in the spring we will begin (again, recovering an old tradition) showing films that have distinctive cultural and religious significance, enhanced by showing them in a series.
Celebrating and using well our fine building. The Center is a welcome space, with some good and attractive meeting rooms, and a lovely courtyard that serves us well in the good weather. As public space, the Center is a resource for all of us, a place to meet, share a meal, and discuss topics of interest. We have a wonderful staff that keeps the Center running and helps make it a home. I have worked with the staff in continuing the good work of previous Directors in refreshing the space in various ways, and I have been particularly interested in diversifying the religious art displayed in the Center.
Providing a safe haven for meditation and quiet. One enhancement that deserves particular mention is the fact that already I have turned the ground floor director's office into a meditation room. The idea of such a space is as old as the Center's first days—look up to the third floor, at the moment only an empty reminder of the beautiful meditation room it once was and can again be—but it has only been possible now to dedicate a small but prominent space to silence, prayer, and meditation (and all things quiet, including the taking of naps). This room is our gift to the School and to the University, and I look forward to your ideas on how best to use the room, making meditative practice more naturally a part of our lives.
Highlighting the residential community as a resource invaluable in fostering the distinctive identity and life of the Center. There are some 20-plus people living at the Center this year, and this community—now the Divinity School's only residential community—is crucial to what the Center is and might be. It is important to see that these students and visitors are not merely renting rooms at the Center, but companions integral to the mission of the Center, helping us to see better how the Center can flourish in its twenty-first century reality.
And so on. Such are some of the activities that, while small and particular and not decisive on their own, are the necessary steps toward making my and our hopes for the Center come to life in a concrete and grounded way.
The Substance of Our Reflection
I am nearly done, but there is one more piece to add this inaugural reflection on becoming director of the Center. I have recalled our history, talked about my research project and how a passion for detail discloses the widest of horizons, and I have noticed the many small ways in which the work of the Center is already under way. All of this formed a necessary background, because we need to be clear on how we work together at the Center.
But I do not wish to give the impression that there is no content to my vision. I am, as you know, a theologian, even if I conceive of theology in a rather expansive Catholic and catholic manner. As is manifest in my current writing project, I am seeking to make interesting, vital, and honestly difficult the question of God's elusive yet real presence. This is a project lies at the core of whatever I do personally as a scholar, and colors everything I do as director. So as I near the end of my remarks, I propose six values and consequent themes for research, such as I wish to cultivate and am willing to argue for as we go forward. These are my opening contribution to what I expect to be our lively debate about the purpose and work of the Center in these next years. I will go through them very briefly.
Mindfulness of Tradition: I am interested in highlighting the importance of tradition and traditions in our postmodern age. We need better to understand the power of religious traditions as spiritual and intellectual realities that have made and do still make claims on what we say about religions and how we study them. Here too, various questions arise: What does it mean to belong to a tradition? How, on what levels, should scholars of religions care about traditions? Is it more of a problem to be responsible to religious traditions in our research, or rather to stand free, responsible to no one but fellow academics?
The Text—and beyond the Text: I am as you now know committed to the slow and close reading of particular texts, and I believe that this patient study is a portal into the realities of which such texts speak, and into seeing differently our own world today. Yet we need also to be mindful of how reading is contested and purified by the fact of other ways of learning—ethnographic studies, and also visual and oral media, the practice of rituals and meditation, and the study consequent upon practices: how do we cultivate this wider, richer, more complex intellectual and spiritual learning, without losing the patience actually to take the time to read classic texts?
The Arts of Translation: Translation can be conceived of as a narrow linguistic practice or a necessary feature of what we do all the time, as we communicate across the borders of our private and professional spaces. It is all about words, and about the meaningfulness of our action in the world. "Translation" indicates an art and also an array of techniques, and stands as a deeply human, acutely intellectual, and profoundly religious activity manifest all the way back to the earliest traces of our human history. So let us reflect together on how we have translated and should translate, and how this is a feature of all our intellectual practices, and central to our study of religions.
Renewing Comparative Studies: Comparison has a long history at the Center, and each of the preceding directors in his own way insured that the Center would contribute to the actual practice of comparison, and to our understanding of its intentional and implicit dynamics. My own work testifies to my commitment to comparison as a theological practice, but I am by no means the only comparativist in our midst. Indeed, the impressive comparative skills of our faculty and students makes this era at Harvard opportune for highlighting comparison in theological and ethical, philosophical and religious studies, in its literary, anthropological, and theological implications. The Center will do well to recommit itself to the importance of comparative study and reflection on its meanings and foster conversations on comparison across our university community.
Scholarship in a World of Suffering: Like you, I also care about the responsibilities of the professor, the intellectual, in a world of suffering. What is the justification for being a scholar, when people are starving, homeless, deprived of basic human rights? Such questions ought to disturb our theology and our study of religions. If we have eyes and ears, if we read the newspapers or surf the web or just pay attention to our own neighborhoods, we know that there is enormous suffering all around us. While our proximate duty may be to do well the things we are paid to do here at the Divinity School, we must keep finding ways to be vulnerable to the world of suffering around us, letting it usefully change how we think and teach and write. What is the responsibility of the Harvard Professor as an individual person? What is the public role of this Center in the early twenty-first century? How will what we do here help people in need? I cannot answer these questions by myself, but we need to be in conversation about them, as the context for all else we do at the Center.
The Rediscovery of Theology: Finally, on the ground prepared by the preceding points, as director I want also to make the case that the retrieval of theology, understood constructively and interreligiously (for the category is useful in numerous religious contexts), is a key to the future of Harvard's thinking on religions. Theology—with its deeper commitments, with its concern for truth, sensitivity to the overflow from theory to practice, and even by its fidelity to boundaries that communities of faith care about—is absolutely necessary, even at Harvard, if we seek some comprehension of religious knowledge as a whole, and thus if the Divinity School and the study of religion are to flourish. The Center is not a theological think-tank, and mine is only one voice in the conversation, but I find it important to make clear that in my view studying religions requires a generously conceived theological context. My own project on the Song and the Holy Word marks the kind of theology I have in mind, reopening the borders between the academic study of religions and a more existential, meditative search for God, in tradition and now.
But even as I state these themes as signposts to our future work, several cautions must be kept in mind. First, the themes as described will seem large and inclusive, and that is my intention. But I have not arrived at them by theorizing about the study of religion and broad methodological issues current in the field. Rather, these themes have arisen in synergy with the kind of reflective study I described earlier, my double reading of the Song and the Holy Word, my quest to intensify my inquiry into God's presence and absence across the boundaries of literary genres and religious commitments. For them to become our themes and our program, the methods and sites of learning must be multiplied many times over.
Second, while over the next several years these themes will merit planning and programming—speakers, colloquia, conferences, etc.—I will remain deeply interested in what above I called "grass-roots" initiatives. My job is to set a direction, but not to preempt the ideas and energies of the community, as if I imagined you to be merely an audience for programs I devise. Rather, through the themes just mentioned, I wish to direct and intensify the flow of our energies. So whatever you think of my themes, I still need to be hearing from you on concrete ways to proceed.
I wish to close by emphasizing that theology as an academic discipline need not exclude theology as a first-order act of faith seeking understanding. As my current research on the Song and the Holy Word suggests, I hope for an open, imaginative theology that is marked by questions and disturbance as well as by doctrines and other efforts to state what is true. Consequently, for me—and perhaps for you too, at least insofar as you may decipher my plan for these four years—it is crucial to rediscover what it means to speak of God today, in words that have both intellectual weight and spiritual credibility.
To make this clear, and before turning things over to my colleague Susan Abraham, I would like to read to you a text that exemplifies for me the cross-over between the intellectual and spiritual, the shockingly particular and the amazingly broad. It is simply the text that is providentially one of the readings assigned for the Eucharist tomorrow in Christian churches, including our own Andover Chapel. It is from chapter 3 of the Letter to the Ephesians and indicates, from a Christian perspective, how a very particular commitment can nonetheless in the long run be universal in its reach:
For this reason, I bow before God, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that according to the abundance of divine glory, God may grant us to be made strong in our inner persons, by the power of spirit, that Christ may dwell in our heart through faith, that we be rooted and grounded in love, that we may have the power to see with all the saints what is the breadth and length, the height and depth, and to know the love of Christ surpassing all knowledge, that we may be filled entirely with the fullness of God.5
The broadest sweep and the most particular are portals opening into one other. What is most local can also be that which reaches out pervasively in all directions, touching the fullest extent of our world as we experience and imagine it. These old words of Ephesians are wise and powerful guides that can help us in creating a center in which we are to do our work, read, teach, write, converse and argue, at the University, in the School, and at the Center itself.
But there are always other words too, words from other traditions and words of your own that you might read to us as illuminating our mission. I want to learn those words too, by which you have thought through the study of religions in today's interreligious world. The deeper we wish to go, the more we need to be listening to one another.
Response by Susan Abraham
I want to respond to Professor Clooney's lecture with a simple question—what do a Jesuit and a postcolonial feminist have in common? I think we share at least three things in common. With specific regard to Frank's vision for the Center and in accord with the organization of his presentation I can say that first we share a common vision with regard to the academic project which I would describe as a commitment to reading and writing slowly as a transformative practice. A postcolonial feminist finds such a method quite suited to her savage tastes. "Savage" in the way that many postcolonial theorists do postcolonial theory. Postcolonial theory is "savage" in its attempts to be thoroughly interdisciplinary, counter-systematic, contestatory, and auto-critical. Postcolonial practice is therefore wild, defiant, and radically political. Postcolonial practice and thought deliberately stages itself in counter point to the modern European colonial move which was, among other things, to civilize barbarian and savage races. Why does postcolonial practice do this?
Given the critique presented in Edward Said's Orientalism, all academic practice is recognized to be political activity, embedded in discourses constructed and sustained by power. Knowledge is produced within parameters and boundaries implicitly assented to by the academy. As Frank explained, border-crossing between accepted dichotomies in the academy in a comparative framework is the heart of his academic project. Crossing such boundaries often results in severe reprisals by those policing disciplinary boundaries. For a savage postcolonial feminist, the unsettling (and the reaction) introduced in the traversing back and forth between borders feels thoroughly familiar. I would underscore that the unsettling has political value in that it helps us rethink the relations and distinctions between ideology, history, culture, theory, and knowledge.
When one reads and writes slowly, the possibility of critical interventions of method and positions coalesces into the savage, interdisciplinary praxis of postcoloniality. The unsettling induced by shuttling back and forth between texts breaches the barricades between disciplines, religious traditions, and cultural contexts. One refuses to be corralled by disciplinary boundaries; in fact, the boundary is revealed to be an argument in itself. Frank and I are savage. We are savage postcolonial academics. These academic practices provide for both of us, however, in different ways, to theorize spatial relations—between national identities or geopolitical realities, or temporal ones—antiquity, the medieval era, the modern era, and the contemporary one marked by compressed time.
Second, and consequently, we share a common political project. Frank asserts that in all our scholarships we rely on particularities. Each of us has particular commitments of language and method that place us in relation to living communities around the globe. Let's take the particularity of language and the scholarly activity of translating one language into another. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak alerts us to the politics of translation thus: "What does it mean to be a postcolonial reader of English in the 20th century?"7 Accordingly, even painstaking work such as the translation of a medieval text in a language different from one's own requires not simply the skills of grammar and vocabulary. It also requires a deliberately political stance in which one's intention is to address and alleviate suffering in the world presently. In a postcolonial context for example, one is acutely aware of the preponderance of English as the medium of global communication.
For the feminist translator, language operates in a rhetorical context which reveals clues as to gendered agency. And not just agency in the text; the feminist translator's agency also produces a translation in a rhetorical context. She must be doubly, triply, or quadruply sensitive to perpetuating race, class, gender, or sexuality privilege in terms of dominant paradigms. This is the passionate postcolonial work of commitment addressing and alleviating suffering in the world. Of course, says Spivak, we can only too easily produce translations which aid and abet globalized suffering by producing the inverse of colonial racism: "Without a sense of the rhetoricity of the language, a species of neocolonialist construction of the non-Western scene is afoot."8 Particularity here is to be understood in complex ways; it is on the one hand, what one brings personally to the act of translation, and on the other, it is also the history of the language being translated. It is the history of the author's own moment and the history of the language that one is translating into. Such attentiveness to particularity makes our academic projects resolutely political. What postcolonial practice underscores is attentiveness to the context of speaking, writing, and teaching in the academy because not all particulars are equal.
Finally, Frank and I share a common theological project. We are both committed to challenging the secular mindset of the academy in view of a differently constructed ethical subject. One concrete example that comes to mind in our discussion of borders and boundaries is the specifically postcolonial (and many would argue, the neocolonial) problem of migration and immigration. For postcolonial feminists, international boundaries are arguments solidifying the rhetorical construction of national and national identity. In other words, claims of particularity in such a context wield tremendous power. Spivak and a number of postcolonial theorists argue that nation-space is a historical alibi for colonialism. When immigration and migration are construed rhetorically within nationalism it becomes an occasion to examine the messy political claims of particularity. As I see it, messy particulars can be helped by a theological imagination. Whatever may be our academic successes in teaching, reading, and writing, the global migration of peoples, and the suffering it engenders, functions as a litmus test of our ideals and proposals for radical democracy as well as for our religious visions of communities of hope amidst suffering.
Rediscovering theology in the context of migration and immigration may lead us to read and reflect on the religiously particular arguments mustered to name self and other in the space of the nation. Such an idea is certainly not new for theology. Catholic theology, for example, defines particularity in a markedly different way than narrowly conceived nationalist or culturalist rhetoric. Particularity is related to a divine origin and is a quality of all created reality. In Catholic theology, a grammar that I share with Frank, the core principle of sacramentality guarantees the quiddity, the radical historicity of created reality. How can an issue as contentious and divisive as immigration be humanized by a recognition of sacramentality? Perhaps when a recognition of the sacramental nature of the particular, precisely in its relation to the divine, forms the basis of community instead of tribal and regional allegiances. Such an idea of sacramentality is not at all alien to a Hindu religious grammar; if anything, a Hindu view would radicalize sacramentality in creation. It would be true to assert that an interreligious framework of sacramentality points to many diverse ways in which the "vast" connects with us. In such a view, the migrant, the immigrant, the laborer of modern economic and political arrangements is a harbinger of divine presence. One can only respond to such a particularity with reverence and humble hospitality. What we have heard today is an invitation to imagine boldly, in grammars and languages of transcendence, and for the sake of this time, this place, this world, a theological, academic, and political commitment to address the great inequities of our time. This is a task that the secularized academy shies away from, but not a task that is alien to constructive proposals in much contemporary political theology.
In other words, I imagine, just like Professor Clooney, that the Center be a place of such conversation, transformation, and hospitality, for Jesuits and feminists alike.
1. John B. Carman and Kathryn Dodgson, Community and Colloquy: The Center for the Study of World Religions, 1958-2003. Center for the Study of World Religions, 2006.
2. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Fellowship of the Spirit. Cambridge: The Center for the Study of World Religions, 1961, pp. 39-40.
3. As cited in Community and Colloquy, p. 18.
4. Robert Slater, Guns through Arcady: Burma and the Burma Road. London: Angus and Robertson, LTD, 1941, pp. 66-67
5. Ephesians 3.14-19, New Revised Standard Version.
6. For readers interested in further reading on the Center and my approach to scholarship, the CSWR website will be of interest and, among my writings, "The Future of Harvard Theological Review in a Global and Interreligious Age'" Harvard Theological Review (101:3-4, 2008) and Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2010).
7. "The Politics of Translation," in Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge, 1993, p. 198.
8. "The Politics of Translation," p. 181.
Francis X. Clooney, S.J., joined the Divinity School in 2005. He is Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology and, as of July 1, 2010, director of the Center for the Study of World Religions. After earning his doctorate in South Asian Languages and Civilizations (University of Chicago, 1984), he taught at Boston College until coming to Harvard. His primary areas of scholarship are theological commentarial writings in the Sanskrit and Tamil traditions of Hindu India, and the developing field of comparative theology, a discipline distinguished by attentiveness to the dynamics of theological learning deepened through the study of traditions other than one's own. He has also written on the Jesuit missionary tradition, particularly in India, and the dynamics of dialogue in the contemporary world. Professor Clooney is the author of numerous articles and books, including most recently Beyond Compare: St. Francis and Sri Vedanta Desika on Loving Surrender to God (Georgetown University Press, 2008), The Truth, the Way, the Life: Christian Commentary on the Three Holy Mantras of the Srivaisnava Hindus (Peeters Publishing, 2008), and Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). He recently edited The New Comparative Theology: Voices from the Next Generation (Continuum, 2010). He is a Roman Catholic priest and a member of the Society of Jesus. In 2010, he was elected a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy.
Susan Abraham joined the Divinity School in 2007. She is Assistant Professor of Ministry Studies and, as of July 1, 2010, managing director of the Center for the Study of World Religions. Her teaching and research explore postcolonial and feminist theological practices invigorating contemporary communities of faith. She is the author of Identity, Ethics, and Nonviolence in Postcolonial Theory: A Rahnerian Theological Assessment (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) and co-editor of Shoulder to Shoulder: Frontiers in Catholic Feminist Theology (Fortress, 2009). Her publications and presentations weave practical theological insights from the experience of working as a youth minister for the Diocese of Mumbai, India, with theoretical perspectives from postcolonial theory, cultural studies, and feminist theory. Ongoing research projects include issues in feminist theological education and formation, interfaith and interreligious peace initiatives, theology and political theory, religion and media, global Christianities, and Christianity between colonialism and postcolonialism.