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Q&A With Francis Clooney
Francis X. Clooney, S.J., is Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology at Harvard Divinity School. He 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) and The Truth, the Way, the Life: Christian Commentary on the Three Holy Mantras of the Srivaisnava Hindus (Peeters Publishing, 2008), which he wrote concurrently. Wendy McDowell recently sat down with Clooney to discuss both books and how they are representative of the kind of work in which he engages, in Hindu studies and in comparative theology.
You wrote The Truth, the Way, the Life and Beyond Compare at the same time, and you say that they are interrelated. How do these two books inform each other?
I more or less planned to write Beyond Compare, which grew out of a love of the Hindu sacred text that I was dealing with, The Essence of the Three Mysteries by Vedanta Desika. But I had also agreed to do a book for the series that Catherine Cornille (associate professor at Boston College) is editing, "Christian Commentaries on Non-Christian Sacred Texts," and I found that the Beyond Compare project opened up in that direction, also. It became an opportunity to fulfill my promise to Catherine Cornille, while also doing the book that I had intended to do.
So you were writing two books at once. What was it like to be going back and forth between two manuscripts? Was there anything that was difficult about it, or did it help your writing process?
It was possible only because in both I was dealing with Vedanta Desika's Essence of the Three Mysteries, and both projects revolved around reading that carefully. If they had been two separate projects, I would never have wanted to do this. Even as it was, it was a bit much at times, because I'd be working on one, and then for various reasons put it aside and return to the other. Then, finishing a chapter of that one, I'd realize the other project had been waiting for six weeks and I needed to get back to it. I truly went right down to the wire, and it was on the same day two years ago that I sent both manuscripts off to the press. I'd been working on them, refining them down and down, and they finished at the same time. In a way, that's what should have happened, but it was a bit complicated. Each book has its own distinct logic as a writing project, and you have to remain aware that you're not writing one book, you're writing two books for two different publishers and two sets of readers, and not everyone will read both. In order to keep the projects distinct, I had to learn how to track back and forth between the two.
In retrospect, I think these book projects really show the two directions in which I've seen my work going. One direction is deeper into the Hindu material, in these projects taking the medieval Hindu theologian Vedanta Desika as my teacher, reading the three holy mantras of his tradition as he read them, but also asking, "What do they mean?" and "What do they mean to me as a Christian?" That was the project that became The Truth, the Way, the Life.
The other direction is both for my sake and for a wider audience, and involves making some link back to the Christian tradition. I asked myself, "Can you connect back or pick up a theme that would make it easier for us Christians to understand?" I chose the idea of "loving surrender," and working with that theme, in Desika and Francis de Sales, led to Beyond Compare. The Vedanta Desika text was in the middle of both books, but one went deeper into his tradition, almost for its own sake—though making Christian reflections on it since I'm not a Hindu—while the other book drew it into the larger context so that Christian readers who aren't engaged in the study of Hinduism would still find a point of connection. It actually worked out well, and in the preface of both books I mentioned that they should be read together. The Truth, the Way, the Life should be read first, since it goes deeper and helps the reader get ready to engage in the comparative study that is Beyond Compare.
This seems a good time to ask about Vedanta Desika. Who was he, what makes him such a compelling commentator, and why is he the linchpin of both your books?
He lived in the fourteenth century, and was part of a tradition that was already centuries old at that point. He wrote voluminously in the Sanskrit language, which is the classical language, but he also wrote in Tamil and other dialects related to Tamil and Sanskrit, and in a mix of Tamil and Sanskrit. His vast corpus of works ranges from commentaries and philosophical treatises to plays and lyric poetry. Some of his works are very imaginative and impressionistic, and some of them are hard core and analytic.
He's one of the great thinkers of India, because of the range of things that he wrote and the sheer amount, and because he was able to do so much brilliant writing and composition and see it all as part of a single religious/spiritual project. I found that fascinating—he didn't simply undertake different projects and then leave them behind; there is a way in which all his writings were parts of a larger corpus of getting straight who we are, what we believe, and how we defend what we believe against criticisms and alternative views of the world that seem to leave no room for our own.
Back when I was in graduate school and learning the Hindu thinkers for the first time, Vedanta Desika struck me as a clear case of a great Hindu intellectual. He was somebody who held his own as compared with Augustine or Aquinas or Calvin or Luther in the West, in that he, too, was one of the great religious intellectuals of history. If you are trying to do comparative theological work and you come across somebody like him, that's somebody to grab onto! He was accessible to an outsider because he clearly believed in putting his ideas in writing—and presumably must also have believed in the intellectual and spiritual value of reading.
The Essence of the Three Mysteries, the particular text used in both books, is one which I learned about some 30 years ago. It is a nice combination of hard, theoretical reasoning—it's very technical at certain points—along with a more pastoral effort to pull the tradition together, trying to include as many views as possible, and in a way that is accessible to members of his community who knew Sanskrit and those who did not. It was both a brilliant intellectual work, and also a pedagogical, even catechetical work that was about reaching the widest possible audience in the community. So on many levels, both the text and the author are fascinating.
Plus, you say that he's both traditional and creative at the same time, as all the best commentators are.
He's interesting in that way because you might say he left a paper trail. We know about many teachers from the East, but often many of the greatest ones didn't write much, or you can't tell from what they wrote what they actually thought. Here, you have an enormous documentation of what the teacher was thinking, and how the teacher would take up different topics. Yet there's almost no serious Western scholarship done on this author. There've been some very good translations of some of his poetry, and some books written in India by Hindus there summarizing what he said, but he really has not been studied by Western scholars. It's a great gap.
You've told us about Vedanta Desika—tell us something about St. Francis de Sales.
Francis de Sales was a famous teacher, preacher, and writer who was for a number of years the bishop of Annecy, near Geneva, the stronghold of Calvinism, in a very strong Protestant area. He was very much a leader of Catholic renewal in the time of the Reformation. Though he lived his life during the Counter-Reformation and amidst Europe's battles around Christian identity, he was gentler, more positive and hopeful than many of his contemporaries; it is love that conquers all. He realized that part of the problem with the Roman Catholic Church was that it was failing in its responsibility to reach out to the wider population, instead sticking with tradition in a narrow, unimaginative sense. So as a bishop, he sought to bring the Church back to life, renewing spiritual life on the local level.
A famous preacher, he also wrote a classic of spirituality entitled The Introduction to the Devout Life—it has been in print since it was published in 1600, in multiple languages. His main point in The Devout Life is that Catholic spirituality is for everybody, not just for monks and nuns. He insisted on writing the book in French and not in Latin, opening it up to a wider audience. Later, he wrote the book I read carefully for Beyond Compare, and the bigger Treatise on the Love of God, and this too in French. He claimed that while the Treatise, less widely read than The Devout Life, makes great demands on the reader, anybody can pick it up and read it.
In many senses, Francis was very pragmatic, a church leader and reformer who realized that if we don't connect spirituality with the lives of the people and show that it's meaningful—and that all of the tradition matters (and not just going back to the Bible, omitting tradition and the saints), nobody would have to bother being Catholic anymore. So he had a kind of political agenda, as did Vedanta Desika in defending Srivaisnavism. But they didn't do it negatively by bashing their enemies. Rather, they did it by showing that there are positive reasons for remaining a Srivaisnava or Roman Catholic, because these traditions provide the same spiritual goals that others are offering.
That's the history. What's the connection to today?
These issues continue to be alive, as traditions are undercut and denied, even as people are looking for roots. People often say, "I didn't find any spiritual meaning in Christianity so I became a Buddhist, a Hindu." People are often happy in such choices, and it is not helpful to say, "You shouldn't do that" or "Those religions are wrong"—but there are ways of showing that we can also find at home what we are seeking. Traditions can grow, they can change, they can be constructively engaged, such that they become again more spiritual and relevant in fitting the times.
I think that's what de Sales was trying to do, and we can learn from him about how to do it today, if we read him seriously and with imagination. He is not condescending toward people. The radical idea of surrendering to God isn't just for the nun or the monk, but for many more than had previously been imagined. It is for chosen, select people—but the selection is not about clerics and religious versus laypeople. If you can travel this path, you can travel this path. And that seems to be what a Buddhist or Hindu might say: There is a spiritually demanding path, but it's not owned by certain people according to how they look or what their status is. Desika and de Sales wrote their books, so that people could progress on the path, with their minds and spirits both operating fully.
You write in The Truth, the Way, the Life that spending a lot of time with a single classic marks your deepest intellectual commitment. What, as a scholar, do you find so rewarding about that practice?
I think the challenge before any of us who take religious pluralism seriously is trying to treat other people's religious traditions in a serious, receptive way. That can be done in various ways: You can do it through friendships, you can do it through actual dialogues, and you might do it through going to a particular country and living there for some time. But given the fact that we're academics and we're reading books all the time, taking seriously what's written in another culture or religion seems to be extremely fundamental to learning. The attentiveness and the patience that it requires to learn the language and to read carefully is a shorthand way of being a student in that tradition.
With some of my projects, though not so much this one, I have spent time in India working with teachers, and they have explained the text to me. Even though I didn't do that for this one, it was very rewarding to be able to carefully read Vedanta Desika, the commentators on him, and the text he is commenting on. You may start with expectations about what you're looking for and what you think a text is about, but when you really get into the details, the author's not saying exactly what you might want him to say; there are always other perspectives involved. And so you begin to change in the process, and you actually learn something from being so close to these words. Once you've engaged in that practice, it's hard to be satisfied with generalities. There are all kinds of reasons, both in teaching and in scholarship, that indicate that you can't look at every text in such depth. But when you've done it with specific works, you begin to realize that this way of learning can be—must be—a lifetime commitment. So if you're going to take up somebody else's tradition, you have at least to be moving in that direction of a really deep, long-term engagement.
That relates to a question I had about your statement that "writing a Christian commentary about a text from another tradition is a delicate operation." Why is this the case, and what can you do as a scholar to make it a less dangerous operation?
I was especially conscious of this when I was deciding what to do in The Truth, the Way, the Life. In a series such as "Christian Commentaries of Non-Christian Sacred Texts," people expect you to take up texts like the Bhagavad Gita, but the very term involved in the text I chose, the "rahasya" ("the secret, the sacred knowledge"), made my project all the more delicate. When I was in India this past summer, one professor told me that I'm treading on dangerous ground because I'm really getting into the heart of what the tradition is. These mantras are fundamental—the most sacred prayers in the tradition. But they're not sacred in the sense of being entirely esoteric or hidden—I didn't have to steal them from a temple or something like that. They're published in books and so on, available to all who will take up the challenge of learning from them. It's one thing to talk in general of a "Christian view of Hinduism" or about a Christian view of Hindu deities, but when you start taking on this text word by word, it's so much more basic and so essential.
Given how much is at stake, one approach would be to not do this at all: because if you haven't been studying such a text and such mantras for 30 or 40 years, why would you publish something on it? But I think the result is a compromise, in terms of modern scholarship and the limits of what you can do in comparative learning. Can you actually take something so basic as the mantras of this tradition and talk about them as a very sympathetic outsider? It was my gamble that I could.
As for the reactions that I've had to the books already in India, there are people who object in principle, that believe you shouldn't do this or can't do this. But many more people—especially those who've actually read the books—don't have that negative reaction. They more or less say, "If somebody is going to do this, then this is the way to do it. If you're not one of us and you are an outsider, than this degree of seriousness and commitment actually works."
You do also openly acknowledge in your writing that this kind of project can be problematic in many ways.
Yes, and that's a big issue, because there are people in India who definitely resent the stance of the Western scholar who seeks to be seen as entirely objective, possessed of a higher level of knowledge, and who talks down to the Indians: "You have your way of looking at these things, but I actually know what the text is about." Any of us would resent that kind of condescending attitude. The fact that I explicitly tried not to put myself in that higher position, and also admitted in the writing that there are problems with writing so intimately about a tradition other than my own, seems to help readers to see both the virtues as well as limits of what I do.
You chose the three holy mantras which are at the heart of the Srivaisnava Hindu tradition. What is Srivaisnavism?
Anyone who engages in Indian or Hindu studies needs to pick an area, a language, and a tradition, because there's such a vast set of possibilities to study without any easily discerned common thread. There's a way in which everything is interlinking, but there's no obvious one book that everyone must read to be a Hindu. There's nothing analogous to the New Testament or a certain creed that everyone agrees on. So it's always a matter of getting local, and for various reasons, back in grad school I focused on Tamil Nadu, South India, and the Vaisnava tradition which worships Vishnu (Narayana) and Lakshmi as the god and the goddess. It's an old tradition—the literature goes back 1,500 years or more. It's a very interesting tradition because it has very strong connections to the all-India Sanskrit tradition and also to the Tamil tradition, so the writings cross over between both languages and both cultures—the Sanskritic tradition with the caste system, the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita and related matters, with specifically South Indian Tamil sentiments and attitudes toward life alongside and in various integrations with the Sanskrit tradition. It is really a mingling of two cultures and two religious sensibilities.
So, it's a devotional tradition, a theistic tradition, rooted in two languages, and it flourishes as such today. There are very large temples of Srivaisnavism both in the West and in India, and it has a vast corpus of literature ranging from popular stories to classical texts. There are a remarkable range of things that are worthy of study in such a tradition, even if you always have to keep stressing that this is not the only Tamil Hindu tradition.
What is also interesting to me as a Christian is that the Srivaisnavas are also strongly monotheistic. Hinduism is often seen as nondualistic, impersonal, or polytheistic, as if the Western religions are monotheistic and the Eastern religions are not. There is some truth to such a characterization, but it is also a convenience that justifies not paying attention to Hindu traditions that are monotheistic. This religion is very committed to having one true God, Vishnu. He has a consort, but that's within the unity of the single God, the male and the female.
And what are the three mantras?
They are three brief prayers: the Holy Mantra, "Aum, obseisance to Narayana"; the Double Mantra, "I approach for refuge the feet of Narayana with Sri. Obeisance to Narayana with Sri"; and the Final Verse (18.66 of the Bhagavad Gita): "Having completely given up all dharmas, to me alone come for refuge; from all sins I will make you free; do not grieve."
The mantras themselves are brief and seemingly clear, but you also explain that they "encode and encapsulate" a lot of the tradition and have generated voluminous commentaries. Can you talk about what these three holy mantras signify and mean?
As I studied the three mantras, they do actually give a satisfying, complete version of the spiritual path: the Holy Mantra with its active reverence in worship and its knowledge of who God is, the Final Verse with its invitation to surrender oneself and take refuge, and then the Double Mantra is actually offering the words of surrender. However you divide them up, there seems to be a satisfying flow that does in fact give you a pretty complete path.
It's a mysterious historical process, that a thousand years or so ago Srivaisnava Hindus identified these three prayers as the three mantras. They refer to other texts as being mantras, so it's not as if these were the only three they knew of. For some reason, these became the three that were thought to encapsulate the entire tradition. This is already an interpretive move that gives them great power: everything we believe can be found in these three great mantras. This also suggests that they do not have weirdly esoteric meanings. If you actually pay attention to the words and the grammatical structures, and the knowledge you have about who is Sri and who is Narayana, you can begin to elaborate or unfold the entire set of beliefs that come out of this. There is a very strong sense that the words themselves, when read by somebody who is educated, open up these truths.
For a Western scholar the obvious thing to do would be to read the Carama Sloka as a verse from the Bhagavad Gita, to talk about verse 18:66 in terms of the teaching of the Gita and the use of these words, but Desika doesn't do that. Clearly, he knows the Gita and knows that tradition, but he really believes that if you think upon the words one by one, about "giving up all your righteousness," "taking refuge with me alone," and so on, then each of these words will show its meaning, how it is there for the purpose of helping to disclose the truth of the goal of life. Each mantra marks part of the spiritual path and shows what you're to do with your life by which path. The idea is that you don't need to read lots of other books in order to go get it, because the words themselves can open up into the larger context, if you understand them with awareness and intelligence.
This is the opposite of what some of us tend to do today, putting the emphasis on contextual work, while spending less time in a careful and prolonged study of a text in itself. With Desika's approach, you know the specific thing in its place, simply by taking each syllable and word seriously: from there, everything opens up. It's kind of like a zip file—it all comes very compressed, into just these three mantras, but you open it and it expands. They call such mantras "seeds": if you let the seed grow, the rest comes forth.
I was interested in the way you structured The Truth, the Way, the Life. You offered a statement of the meaning of each mantra, drew on the commentaries, and then gave your own reflection. How did you decide on this structure, and does it say anything about who you consider your audience to be?
When I was pondering this project four or five years ago, I considered doing it the way many classical Hindu texts are structured. First the text, and under it a commentary, and then across the bottom of the page a more recent commentary. Sometimes you'll have even more than three down the page. By this style, the top is the original source, and then comments follow after it down the page. As your eye travels up and down the page, you see a conversation that extended across generations.
But I decided that those would not offer the best structure for modern readers, since they might not make sense in terms of current expectations about how knowledge is organized. So I tried to characterize the conversation around the work in various ways, for example by quoting authors he was reading, and commenting at times on how the later tradition read him. My goal was to give a sense of the conversation around Desika's text, while making the whole process accessible to a wider range of readers today.
Obviously, there needed also to be some sense of asking what does this all mean, but I was conscious that I was claiming this to be a "Christian commentary," so I was trying to put myself at risk at certain points by saying, "Here is a Christian reflection on this." At some points, these more explicitly Christian reflections flowed naturally, while at other points, I had to find places for such reflections, almost intruding on the text. I decided it's not a bad thing to make a space and stick a reflection in, because that's the process—at some point you have to break it up and say, "I'm going to stop the flow for a moment to add something, and then go forward."
If this was a video, it would be like stopping now and then, inserting a clip of a different but harmonious other film for a moment before returning to the main scene. But it's hard to anticipate what readers might find easy to understand, and I realize that my books are not easy reads. Yet, I do avoid technical jargon that would actually exclude readers.
Beyond Compare is about what you call two "spiritual classics," by de Sales and Desika. Why read these particular texts today?
I think we have to be candid and admit that with so many current events and new interreligious phenomena, it's not the most obvious thing in the world to go back to a text written in 1400 or 1600. But a return to the classics is by no means an idea that only theologians have: people in the humanities and arts believe that older texts can continue to have meaning today. Some books are forgotten as soon as they're written, but other books—be it Aristotle or Plato, or the Bible and other religious texts like the Qur'an—these are texts you go back to again and again. I belong to a Catholic tradition that believes that there are books we can benefit from learning from, stepping out of our time period and going back to their time period, with the common sense that we're still living in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, we might live differently in the twenty-first century because we invested ourselves in reading their wisdom, and seeing our times anew in light of theirs.
I also believe that both authors make rich, cogent cases for love of God, a whole-hearted and complete self-giving. That one is Hindu and the other Catholic does not lessen the urgency of their message that this love of God is central to human beings, then—and now.
Can you talk a little bit about commentary itself? How does it differ from other kinds of close reading, and what makes a commentary "Christian"?
I talk about that in the first chapter of The Truth, the Way, the Life. The general context or larger category is close reading. Commentators, along with literary critics, philosophers, and constitutional lawyers, are all committed to a careful study of texts. This means taking the word seriously, not simply grabbing an idea and running with it; it is about reading things in context, knowing the style of the author, and allowing your reading to be patient and open enough that you don't have your ideas all set before you start to do your reading, but you allow them to develop as you read.
Vedanta Desika himself makes clear the special features of a commentator in a religious tradition: he or she is not creating something new, and not coming up with his own ideas. Rather, she has gone deep into the tradition that has been given to her, learning from her teachers. She's not in a position to question a text in the sense of challenging its authority or truth—questions are fine, but not those questions—and therefore sees herself in continuity with an older tradition, acting as a current-day vehicle to pass the tradition on to the new generation. When you step back and take a look at some of the work of commentators like Desika, you can see that they're incredibly creative and they're doing something new and different that you can't find any precedent for—but they see the task as one of subordinating one's ego and idiosyncrasies so as to learn and transmit.
This is different than other kinds of critical readings, like literary criticism.
Right, because there you will be under pressure to advance learning by offering something "new," and publishers ask you what you are saying that has not been said before. If it's not new, why publish it? But certainly in most religious traditions, the idea of the commentator, particularly in the medieval West, offers an alternative value for learning: it has to do with explaining the work of the master and sitting at the master's feet as you learn the text. Even today, particularly across religious boundaries, it's a very wise way of learning a tradition that is not our own. And it is simply a good way of learning, because in some ways we've become unhinged today, we are floating all over the place without taking the time to be tradition-specific or tradition-committed.
And our egos are very invested in our critical work.
Yes, instead of being invested first in learning the basic steps. This is like learning artistic performance. If you're a dancer, you can't just make up the motions, because there is a stylized way of doing it. You have to learn all kinds of details before you can do anything original. Or if you're performing Mozart, you can't just do what you feel like doing, you have to follow the style of Mozart first, before you can respond to it creatively. So it is with a commentary: You have to learn commentary in the expected fashion in order to make something new come from it.
The twist in my work is that I'm attempting Christian commentary on a Hindu text. It would be much easier and more understandable if I was simply commenting on a familiar Christian text, in order to defend and continue my own tradition. So I'm at the same time doing something that is both traditional and untraditional, when I am claiming that you can cross over and read the other tradition.
This leads to the question of what is different about a "Christian" commentary. I say that 70 percent or more of the kind of commentary I have in mind isn't necessarily "Christian." It shouldn't be, because it wouldn't make sense to say that I find things in this text that nobody else has found, simply because I'm a Christian. Think of this: if two people are writing a commentary on one of the Gospels, one can be a total nonbeliever, say an academic scholar of the Near East, and the other can be a devout Christian preacher, but their work should overlap to a large extent, because they're dealing with a text that neither of them wrote and which they're obliged to read closely.
But once you start asking, "Who am I to do this? Why am I doing this? What is this for? What did I know before I came to reading this text?" then such questions suggest that there will be a difference in what you write based on your own religious background. There are so many things that Vedanta Desika knew that I don't know—but it is also true that I bring to my reading learning and experience quite unknown to him. And of course, Desika would not have had the intention of connecting his commentary to the Christian tradition!
Of course, some people might say that this is why Christian commentaries on non-Christian texts are a bad idea: you're doing something different with the text, it is out of context and does not fit its tradition, and therefore you're going to mess it up in some way. In Chennai this summer, somebody asked me about this, but, ironically, it was someone from a cultural organization that encourages global music and fusion dance and performances that translate Shakespeare into Sanskrit and so on. Perhaps interreligious commentary is like global music or fusions of various sorts. You're taking something traditional and you're doing something unexpected with it, and that is good, even if the price is that you must submit to the tradition first—to both traditions first—in order that something unexpected can be done. There's a lot of work involved in writing a Christian commentary on a non-Christian text. You don't get an easy pass because you're an outsider, you still have to do the work.
As well as being studies of texts, both books work with a profile of a certain kind of reader—careful, yet vulnerable, a person who studies religions with what you call "a 'post-objective' empathy and engagement." Can you explain what you mean by this? How does one become such a reader, why is it important, and what are the fruits?
I already talked about the value of reading closely and the practice involved. It's an ethics and a spiritual practice to stay attentive, to read carefully and vulnerably and think that this is worth doing. Both in ancient India and in the modern West, smart-enough people might not do this because they're too busy with other things, and/or they don't have the discipline or dedication. Therefore, Desika, Francis de Sales—whom I read along with Desika in Beyond Compare—and people who imitate their projects—people such as myself—know that we're writing really for people who are willing to spend the time, to stop and think, and be touched by what they read. All of this can open into a spiritual adventure for the reader as well as the writer, and hopefully we help people to do this by writing in an accessible but challenging way.
In writing Beyond Compare, it struck me that both Vedanta Desika and Francis de Sales want to impress upon their communities the theme of love of God and surrender to God. Both of these men were leaders in their religious communities—de Sales was a bishop and Desika was the equivalent of a bishop, a leading figure in a major temple community. So why didn't they just preach on Sunday about this, or give popular lectures? What would compel them to write 500-page books? They both made this choice in addition to their other duties, since there must be potency in religious writing which is generated out of religious reading.
This process of writing and reading is itself spiritual, and does something that isn't accomplished by sermons or conversations. That's really what chapters 2 and 3 in Beyond Compare are about: Why should we take spiritual writing seriously? The answer is that, in part, because these authors did, believing that their words were both intellectually and spiritually powerful. They wrote to teach, to question, to inspire, and to touch your heart.
So they model certain religious spiritual and religious practices in their writing?
Yes. We may at times contrast "mere" books and "mere" writing with actual spiritual experience and practice, and some would suggest that we should get out of our books in order to serve and to pray, or at least to observe religions "as they really are" in practice. But writing and reading are religious practices. With my courses, one of the things I always stress from day one is that there is value in spending time with texts. While there are other interesting things to do, it's not as if the reading of the texts is cut off or a failure. Reading is actually another kind of religious experience or practice. For academics, it should be one of the most potent, since we spend so much of our time reading and writing, so why wouldn't we take this work as a spiritual practice?
I'm very sympathetic to getting out of the office or the library. I went to India this past summer for about the 15th time. I love being in India and traveling about, visiting temples and the like. I tell my students that they definitely should go, be there and see everything. But still, if they want to learn Hindu traditions, they must also spend much of their time reading, because texts really do offer the single most efficient way into a culture, if you want to go deep.
At the end of Beyond Compare, you talk about how de Sales and Desika's versions of the spiritual life are alike and different. What did you learn?
They certainly did have much in common: deep learning in scripture and tradition, a humility by which they made their voices the vehicle of a truth larger and older than themselves, a devotion to God as single, true, graciously accessible, and a strong conviction that human destiny lies in love of God, surrender to God.
I was also always aware that these works I studied together are in some ways remarkably different. One might say that Francis de Sales and Vedanta Desika have nothing in common. There's no historical connection, and there's no reason to read these two together. If one is so disposed, one could write a lot about the differences between the two.
As I say in the book, my disposition and intention is to build bridges and to show that connections can be made. I explicitly admit that I'm favoring points of connection, points where they seem to be heading in the same direction. Since I was weaving it together in my own learning and my own consciousness, that's what I found—resemblances and convergences. That kind of comparison doesn't prove anything; it certainly doesn't prove that the religions are the same.
But this kind of comparative work is not meant to prove something on that level; it's meant to show how these thinkers and traditions converge and are connected to each other. The last part of the book, about the ethics and the way of life—the spiritual paths as set forth in these traditions and the spiritual patience you need for reading, learning, and writing that they exemplify—is meant to carry over to life. If you follow these paths, you become the kind of person who is able to be more patient, to listen, to let your ego fade into the background, to make connections where others believe connections cannot be made, and to believe that both tradition and commitment matter greatly. Neither closes the door when there's something new to be done, and we are living in a world where a lot of new things have to be done.
You write about what makes these texts potent for you personally, and you explicitly try to break down that distinction between the "personal" and the "academic."
This is the "post-objective empathy" you mentioned earlier. We've learned in the West that there is a value to being critical and objective, to not just taking things dogmatically. But we've also seen that such a stance can be quite inadequate if all we do is take things apart, tone-deaf to the continuities and enduring vitalities of communities. There has to be a way of saying, "We've been critical and are being as objective as possible, but we can also take seriously what we actually read."
Then, we are no longer encumbered by dogmatism, that something is simply true because it said it's true, or by anti-dogmatism, that it can't be true because none of this could be true. We are post-credulity and post-skepticism, too.
To make sense of texts in a richly spiritual sense, we have to be forthright about our own beliefs and what we have brought to our writing. I do this in my books. I always introduce myself at the beginning, so readers needn't guess. I am a Catholic, a priest, a Jesuit, a companion of Jesus. I think this clears the ground, and in the study of religion, it seems relevant to be candid in this way. Of course, one cannot make authors talk about things they do not want to talk about, if they are reticent, but it seems a normal, ordinary thing to ask, "Why did you spend so much time on this research?" or "Really, why did you write about this?" That is why I refer to my previous work in newer writings, since all this is relevant to understanding my various commitments, and where I take my work.
You include parts in the mantra book about praying as a Christian, and in all of your books, there are parts about practice.
Both these classic Hindu and classic Christian teachers, and others too, refuse to make the split between the written and the practical, or the theoretical and the religious—that is, the idea versus what you actually do with your life. To say that is just because you're a professor at a university and have to keep your distance from practice is not a compelling idea. We can do better than that—connecting or reconnecting spiritual practice and a twenty-first century understanding of the academic life. As a Harvard professor, I have unique opportunities, because saying these kinds of things here has a different edge to it than it might at another place. If we reconnect the spiritual and the material, then perhaps some at least will be more inclined to listen.
You describe doing this kind of comparative work as putting you in a place of being "betwixt and between," because you say "loyalties are more difficult after learning across religious boundaries," and "neither the home nor the visited tradition might be pleased by my 'unruly double readings'." Personally, you straddle living in a religious community and an academic community, and you're a practicing Catholic while immersing yourself in Hinduism. I think readers would be interested to hear a bit more about your own situation and journey.
On one level, my situation is simply the one we all find ourselves in today. Though the details work out differently for different people, it's very hard to be purely and simply of one religious commitment in a world where multiple religious possibilities are impinging on us all the time. Yes, traditions do exist and commitments do matter, but we are pulled in various directions by what we see and know of different religions and their possibilities.
As we find that most religions can be a benefit to us and not a danger, we also know that to try to be everything is not good either, so we're struggling between spreading out and being many things or instead striving to reaffirm and live by just one commitment—perhaps the religion of our parents or a religion we have chosen along the way.
Growing up in New York in the 1960s, I did see gradually that tradition was changing and that I would not be a Catholic in an idealized traditional sense. The world and Church were changing, and we had to change with it, learning to be more open. Since 1973, when I first traveled to Nepal and lived there for two years, I've been engaged in the study of Hinduism in one way or another, and if you study something deeply, it gets inside you as well.
Over the years, I have found myself asking, "If we hold on to our original commitment—for me as a Catholic Christian—how do we make sense of the other religion that gradually affects everything?" It seemed to me that one of the given answers would be to avoid the other, to stop learning about it and taking it seriously; another would be to convert and to join the other. Yet another way would be to give up on faith, instead studying religions with no commitment to any of them. But the way that I found was the best way for me is to keep deepening my commitment to Christ while still learning Hindu traditions, and to show that rather than closing a door, deeper faith can make it more and not less possible to understand and learn from the other.
By using terms like "comparative theology," and by claiming that theology does not exclude comparison and comparison does not exclude faith or theology, you can in fact be rooted somewhere and be seriously engaged in the other. This does indeed upset other people sometimes, as some Hindus have said to me: "We cannot really trust you because you're a Christian, and Christians are always trying to convert others. Please study your own religion, leave ours alone." Or Catholics who have told me that I'm wasting my time on false religions, on idolatry, and if I really was a Christian I wouldn't be able to take Hinduism seriously as a serious religion.
But there is another, better way: we can learn from our Others without losing our original commitments. You simply have to do your learning well, humbly, deeply, and in the long-term. You have to be rooted here and engaged there at the same time, and by your work and life show that this is spiritually meaningful and intellectually credible. The intellectual credibility is my professional goal, but that is simply part of my hope for a deeper integrity as a Christian who learns from Hinduism on every level.
It seems that for you, though engaging with the Hindu traditions may have challenged certain things, the predominant experience has been one of deepening your own commitments and the understanding of your own tradition. Would you say this is the case?
Definitely. The idea that if you want to be yourself pure and simple, you should go nowhere, interact with no one, and learn nothing from other religions, is faulty. Through education, through travel, through media, we're always engaging the other and always being changed. Maybe in exceptional cases this brings about a radical change in life or a break with the past, but most of the time, we fit these things in.
When we go to other parts of the world and see things that might change our lives, we still come back home. It is just that "home" is now a little different, too. Why can't we do that intellectually and religiously as well? Again, that's where the personal element comes in, but it is also an intellectual project to say that it's possible to cross over and learn from the other in a way that is academically and professionally credible, while still a journey in faith. It's a Jesuit thing, to follow Christ and still run with your mind as far as it goes, and then still farther.