Beyond our life of Pi: Encountering multiple religious belonging and comparative theology with Francis Xavier Clooney, S.J.

I remember reading Life of Pi by Yann Martel several years ago and how my heart would resonate with each experience of the sacred by the story’s brave protagonist, a Tamil boy from Pondicherry, through his adventurous openness to spirituality beyond the borders of one religion. This story that became the Oscar-winning movie is more than the fantasy adventure. It is a beautiful interpretation of our reality, of human imagination, and of hope, deliverance and salvation. Today, multiple religious belonging is not just a concept and an interreligious dialogue may no longer remain an event that we approach as a token of recognition for the other’s religion.  We do not need scholars to notice a rapidly increased human migration across the borders that have brought us closer to experience the religious other. Yet prominent scholars and wise religious leaders, who dedicate their lives to a deeper understanding of faith beyond one’s tradition, can help us with insight into our neighbor’s religion through their comparative and contextual understanding. Recently, I participated in the XIth Engaging Particularities conference at Boston College and met several young emerging scholars from the United States, Germany, Austria, South Africa and Rwanda, dedicated to what some of us may call theology for and of interreligious dialogue.  The presence of professors Francis Clooney, S.J., and Catherine Cornille, two leading voices in the contemporary field of comparative theology, was truly a gift for many of us who have been influenced by their revolutionary work.  I have to admit that reading Clooney’s Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders[1] in our class on Christian-Muslim dialogue with Sr. Marianne Farina at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley has opened to me a new and exciting world of opportunities to know the other, including their devotional practices. It has also helped me understand my own identity, as someone who is taking a great but rewarding risk of trying to “live on the border of the holy”, to borrow Rev. William Countryman’s phrase, by entering what Catherine Cornille calls “many mansions” of multiple religious belonging.

I invite every student of theology and religion to read Clooney’s book Comparative Theology, which I am quoting below, so we can better engage with the complexity and beauty of various religious identities. He moves away from previous methods of comparativism, such as Replacement, Fulfillment and Mutuality models. Clooney does not claim his solid definition of Comparative Theology nor does he require one to have a PhD in order to pursue it, but argues that it is a discipline that has ethical implications and, therefore, takes “wise practitioners who know by experience the power and limits of words.” He emphasizes that it requires our individual choices, honest study, broad curiosity in religion and yet narrow focus in such comparative undertaking, humility and courage “to find a way to be unthreatened by what is new, unsettled and unsettling, without being enamored by novelty or disrespectful toward tradition.”

Francis Xavier Clooney, S.J., a professor at Harvard University and a Jesuit Priest, whose expertise includes South Asian languages, history of civilizations, and the Jesuit missionary tradition, in his scholarly work uncovers theological commentarial writings in the Sanskrit and Tamil traditions of Hindu India and compares them to the Christian scriptures and contemplative practice of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order to which Clooney belongs. Although his work is not focused on Christian-Muslim dialogue, it offers great insight and tools that can be used across many religions. Arguing that conceptual theology is not enough, Clooney challenges us to explore the borders of religious citizenships through attentive study of the particularities of other religious traditions, their texts and, perhaps, as we are able to encounter them, our participation in their sacred rituals and prayers. In reflecting what he has learned over the years from Vedanta, Clooney builds a bridge, or perhaps rediscovers an ancient one, on the path of knowing his own faith through the eyes of the other. In his Comparative Theology, Clooney leads us through the intertextual connection of the Bhagavad Gita, Mutal Tiruvantati, the Gospels, Pauline literature and Christian prayers. He encounters similarities of divine embodiment, including being in the presence of Hindu Goddess Laksmi during his visit to her shrine and parallels his rediscovery of Mary, mother of Jesus.  Clooney says that revelation happens only as a reflection after the event, enriched by careful exploration of textual parallels, and he calls us for “an attentive reading” of the primary religious texts in each tradition, so we may see the parallels that would bring new light. I tend to agree with Clooney that we are what we read, and “if we read in complex ways, we become persons with complex religious identities.” It is the risk we take as beings endowed with reason and conscience. He also calls for “an attentive emptying” through contemplative practices of such traditions that help open space for our true encounter with the Divine, while leaving the traditions unobstructed by one another. This is not to suggest that by attentive reading and emptying one acquires multiple religious belonging. While this may be possible if one is inspired to gain such identity, the intention of comparative theology is to help us better understand our own religion through the eyes of the religious other.

Clooney’s ideal comparative theologian, at least in his book, is his female counterpart. Perhaps, this gender differentiation is an indication of Clooney’s inclusiveness. Yet, it is his metaphorical indication of possible marginalization that a comparative theologian may encounter. Clooney points out that no one can predetermine the conclusions “to which her encounter with other religions will lead,” suggesting that such “bountiful yet untidy learning can be personally uncomfortable.” The author is very open about the fact that this honest exploration has its price for a comparative theologian. While a theologian is by definition a person of faith, she needs to acquire all the fine tools of scholarly expertise, including linguistic proficiency and historical attunement. He shows possible shortcomings of a comparative theologian’s work that must be open to criticism, and that this work may fail a few times, including within their own communities, “before she would be able to refine her methods and ideas.” Clooney warns that a comparative theologian would possibly cultivate a double identity, where she may not be at ease in the world of academia that requires a more clinical and detached attitude toward the results of comparison and what honest scholarship might imply for religious traditions. Yet, Clooney affirms that it is where “God wants her to be” in order to understand faith across the borders.  Perhaps the hardest and yet an adventurous prescription the author leaves for her is to become “insider-outsider” several times over, unwilling to distance herself from her tradition in any definite way.  For a faithful explorer, this is a step similar to the one a scientist takes when she boards a spaceship to explore the outer horizon beyond her research papers, or an anthropologist risks in making her research field an applied discipline. Journeying through the interreligious map is not an easy task and it is not for everyone, but all of us can learn from those who share with us their intelligent exploration. As far as those may identify themselves to have a multiple religious belonging, Clooney suggests that they find one home to return to, as difficult as it may be, and to see the straightforward guidance of a particular tradition, while visiting many mansions of others. Clooney is not hiding the obvious that the traditions would remain different in their features and may seem contradictory, while being positive that they should not cancel our common spiritual expectations.

I find both Martel’s and Clooney’s books extremely rich, theologically and pedagogically. Martel’s Pi may suggest an irrational case of never-ending representations, including taming of a Bengali tiger by the boy on his solitary journey through the ocean, but many can also relate to it as a true story of deliverance enriched by faith beyond one religion. Clooney’s encouragement is that believers, who imagine and remember in more than one religion, will find that God responds accordingly “agreeing to meet humans who find God differently.” While Clooney hardly addresses non-theistic traditions, like Buddhism, he encourages those with strong interest in it to take their own foundational knowledge in such traditions toward attentive steps of learning across religious borders. Stepping with an open heart and “inquiring mind into providential diversity” is not an easy task, yet for Clooney and his comparative theologian, who dedicates her deepest passion to this exploration, this may be a prophetic journey in the encountering of intelligent faith.

Image: By Deutsch: Indischer Maler um 1650 (II) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

[1] Francis X. Clooney, Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

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