On December 14, 2020, Francis X. Clooney, S.J., HDS Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology, discussed his recent publication, Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics: Why and How Deep Learning Still Matters.
Jon D. Levenson (HDS) and Sarah Coakley (Australian Catholic University) served as respondents.
My name is Charles Stang. And I'm the Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions here at Harvard Divinity School. Welcome to this evening's event, a panel discussion of Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics: Why and How Deep Learning Still Matters, a book by my colleague and former director of the CSWR, Professor Frank Clooney. This series was established by Professor Clooney as an opportunity for the Divinity School community to gather not only to celebrate faculty publications, but more importantly to learn from them by engaging with them both appreciatively and critically. To that end, we're grateful to our two respondents, Professors Sarah Coakley and Jon Levenson, whose comments will kick off what I'm sure will be a very spirited conversation.
We have an hour and a half together. And I will keep my remarks brief so that we will have plenty of time for Q and A. So permit me a brief word about the book and its author and then our two respondents. We live in an era of unprecedented growth in knowledge. Never before has there been so great an availability of and access to information in both print and online. Yet as opportunities to educate ourselves have greatly increased, our time for reading has significantly diminished. And when we do read, we rarely have the patience to read in the slow, sustained fashion that great books require if we are to be truly transformed by them.
In this book, Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics, Frank Clooney argues that our increasing inability to read in a concerted manner is particularly notable in the realm of religion where the proliferation of information detracts from the learning of practices that require slow and patient reading. Although awareness of the world's many religions is at an all time high, deep knowledge of the various traditions has suffered. Clooney challenges this trend by considering six classic Hindu and Christian texts, dealing with ritual and law, catechesis and doctrine, and devotion and religious participation. Showing how in distinctive ways, such texts instruct, teach truth and draw willing readers to participate in the realities they are learning. Through readings of these seminal, scriptural and theological texts, he reveals the rewards of a more spiritually transformative mode of reading and how individuals and communities can achieve it.
This book was awarded the Best Book in Hindu Christian Studies in 2018, 2019 by the Society for Hindu Christian Studies. And there will be a panel at the AAR, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion in 2021 devoted to this book, Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics. So the author, Frank Clooney, is the Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School where, as I said, he served as the Director of the CSWR from 2010 to 2017.
His primary areas of indological scholarship are theological commentarial writings in the Sanskrit and Tamil traditions of Hindu India. He's also a leading figure globally in the developing field of comparative theology, a disciple distinguished by attentiveness to the dynamics of theological learning deepened through the study of traditions other than one's own. In addition to the book we're discussing this evening, Professor Clooney has also recently published Western Jesuit Scholars in India: Tracing Their Paths, Reassessing Their Goals. And that is from Brill.
Our first respondent this evening is Jon Levenson, the Alpert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School. His work concentrates on the interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, including its reinterpretations in the, quote unquote, "rewritten Bible of second temple Judaism and rabbinic midrash." His latest book is The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism, published by Princeton University Press in 2016. In all his work, Levenson's emphasis falls on the close reading of texts for purposes of literary and theological understanding, which also makes him a perfect respondent to this book.
Our second respondent is Sarah Coakley. Professor Coakley is currently Research Professor at Australian Catholic University and Honorary Fellow at Oriel College Oxford. She was, from 2007 to 2018, the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge.
And before that, from 1995 to 2007, the Mallinckrodt Professor of Divinity here at Harvard Divinity School. Where, I might add, she had the dubious honor of serving as my doctoral advisor, my doctor [INAUDIBLE] as it were. She has been working on a four volume systematic theology, the first volume of which was published in 2013 as God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay on the Trinity.
So thank you all so much for joining us. Thank you, especially, to our panelists. Here's how the evening will unfold. Professor Clooney will say a few words about his book. Then Professors Levenson and Coakley will offer their remarks. We'll give Professor Clooney a chance to respond and open up a conversation among the three of them, and then to your questions and comments.
So without further ado, Frank, the floor is yours.
Thank you very much. I begin by expressing my gratitude to Charlie Stang for enabling this event to take place. It had been scheduled for April. And to have it take place, finally, now, despite all the disturbances, is wonderful. And I appreciate the warm welcome that Charlie has given me. I'm also grateful to Ariella Ruth Goldberg for her splendid skill in arranging events and putting this together so efficiently and giving us the guidance we need. Also Corey O'Brien, the Associate Director of the Center, Matthew Whittaker of the staff, and especially to Jon Levenson and Sarah Coakley, my two discussants, respondents tonight.
As Charlie said, it was when I was Director of the Center a few years back, I was really very happy. And I think, perhaps I enjoyed these events just about more than most events at the Center. Because it was so germane to what we do in education, what we do as scholars to see how books come about. Why authors write the books they write, where these books come from, where the ideas come from, and then how they carry through in the process. And it's always an exciting and interesting thing to be able to point this out and to hear our colleagues talking about their work in this way.
So this book, Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics, began in a somewhat accidental manner. I had finished the previous book that I had worked on for a long time, His Hiding Place Is Darkness. And some of you may know this book. It was a book exploring mystical poetry, theopoetic strain in theology, reading the Song of Songs in the medieval Christian tradition with the cistercian commentators, Bernard of Clairvaux and others and the Tamil Sri Vaisnava, mystical poetry of the Alvares of South India and the commentaries on them.
And it was very poetic and very mystical. And I decided I needed to do something different for a bit. And literally one day, I was sitting at my desk and looking up at the shelves and realizing, since I was a graduate student, a good number of years before, I had three volumes on my shelf of the Garland of Jaimini's Reasons, Jaimini-nyaya-mala-vistara. And that this text, crumbling, a 19th century edition, was a book I had always intended to work on. And it's actually quite different, a text of legal reasoning, a text of case studies. Approximately 900 cases taking up a voluminous amount of older material in a very kind of legalistic fashion, blending together the logic of law, the logic of ritual for the sake of understanding the true order of the universe.
And so I had this book. I'll just show it to you for a brief moment on the screen. You can see-- and I'm showing it to you mainly for this, not to show the Sanskrit particularly. But to show that this is the first volume, and you can see it's crumbling, the edges giving away, little words missing here and there. And this page from another of the volumes is literally falling apart. Luckily, early on, I was able to make a PDF of these pages and about 1,500 pages altogether and determined to read the 1,400 verses, 900 cases over a period of time.
And I did this first around 2013, 2014 when I had some time off and got into the text, into the translation of it. It had never been translated. Into reading these cases and exploring the texts that were being commented on and drawn together in the text. And realized in a way that it's explained in the text, but I came to realize it in a more existential way, that it's both an introduction, because it covers a vast amount of material in what is relatively short, 1,300 two line verses.
But it's also, as often as the case with introductions, a masterwork. The author says in his introduction that this is meant for the instruction of beginners and for the admiration of the experts. To be able to take vast amounts of material and put them in a simple succinct order is really an exciting thing to be able to do. And this author, Madhiva from the 14th century in South India, was able to bring the material together in this way.
So during 2013, 2014, I worked on this. I wrote many, many notes. I translated perhaps 80% of the text and didn't have time, I didn't expect to in that sabbatical, to finish the work completely. But I was deep into a book project at that time, reading this material and making sense of it.
But as I read, and as I got deeper into it, on the one hand, it validated my sense that this is really disclosive. Reading a text like this, although it puts you off at first-- it's rather relentlessly technical at first. It opens up an entire universe of legal reasoning, ritual reasoning, the practices around it, the understanding of tradition and the understanding of Dharma, and as we might say in English, the understanding of the religion behind the text.
But I also realized, even as I was confirmed in this belief, that it also is somewhat I felt a project that is brilliant. The book is brilliant. It opens up so many issues. But are there readers for a book that I might write about it?
And it struck me that many, many books such as this can be written out of the vast [INAUDIBLE] of materials that we have around us, the great traditions of the world that, as Charlie said, are more available to us now than any time in human history. And to see all of these materials and realize so many books disclosing these great universes of religion and learning can be written, but are there readers for these books? And it struck me in the years after, as I pondered what to do with this project, that in many ways, we're in this paradoxical situation where the possibility as a potential for the reader are greater than ever in human history.
And yet, the idea that we'll have dedicated readers to sit down and read these books in translation or in the original is slipping away, partly probably for good reasons. Media have changed. New technology has brought all kinds of new knowledge to the fore. We move beyond text to ethnographic work and field work. We're dealing with a multiplicity of new possibilities.
But I think there's also a way in which the old traditions of learning, focusing on the text, reading it in a disciplined fashion are no longer inculcated in schooling. Even in graduate school, even in doctoral programs, students often complain that they don't have the time to read the text properly and to go through them in the depth that they wish. The leisure and the luxury of reading closely begins to fall away.
So I'm thinking about this, this problem, and realized I needed to explain not simply this text, The Garland of Jaimini's Reasons, Jaimini being the author of the original text that's being summarized here, not simply to explain the text, but to explain why one would bother reading such a text in the 21st century when there is so many other issues of concern. I identified a number of issues that came to the fore. Learning such a text, as I was learning it, as I was translating it and writing voluminous notes on it and so on, it's a great instruction. And it immerses you in a tradition. It teaches you the vocabulary. You begin to think according to the grammar, the categories, the ideas and the arguments of the tradition. They inform you and they instruct you.
But that is not only what happens. It's not simply learning for its own sake. Because in this text and certainly in many other texts in many other religious traditions, there is a sense that if you understand the grammar, if you understand the vocabulary, if you understand the teachings and all the details about it, you begin to see the truth of the tradition, both in its doctrinal form, but also in a larger sense, the universe of the religiosity that holds together in a very compelling way. So you're instructed by the text. You learn the truth of the text.
And then, I think, you are drawn as far as you can be, as far as you think you should go into participating in the world of the text. You begin-- you're invited to be a participant, not simply an observer. But what you know, what you understand, the truth you consult and see and encounter draws you in that you become committed to sharing this truth, as well.
So the multiple level reality here that I was pondering how I would talk about this, 2017, I was honored by an invitation to give the Richard Lectures at the University of Virginia. And so I was down in Charlottesville for a delightful semester in the fall of 2017 and was told that there are three lectures to be given three nights in a row. And since I'm a comparativist, it would be nice if it was comparative.
So I took up the three themes I just mentioned, instruction, doctrine and participation, and wanted to make the case that reading text deeply instructs you, teaches you the truth and draws you into participation. And so I took, for the instructive level in my first lecture, The Garland of Jaimini's Reasons, the text I was working on, having to present it of course in a fairly simple fashion. But also, I wanted to be a comparativist.
So I thought, what is this like in the west? And I drew comparisons with the catechetical tradition of Roman Catholic Christianity, and in particular, the great catechism of Peter Canisius, the 16th century Jesuit writing one of the most popular catechisms of history along with Luther's great catechism as well. So I went back and forth in the first lecture between these two texts as catechetical.
In the second lecture, when I moved to the level of doctrine, I took another text that ambitions to summarize this tradition, the great sentences articulated in four books by Peter Lombard, one of the great and most influential medieval theologians of the 12th century, and how his understanding of the truths of tradition put into place gradually teach the student the truth of the Catholic tradition. And I compare this, looking again east to my knowledge of India, to the great 16th century Hindu, nondualist Advaita Vedanta theologian Appaya Dikshita, his collection of the right perspectives on our position, Siddhanta Lesha Sangraha.
And again, tried to go back and forth and show how, if you read these texts deeply, you begin to hold the truth of both of them together in your mind. And you're instructed twice over. You're taught the truth twice over. And you begin to see this is all holding together. Because you've dedicated yourself to the process of reading.
And finally for the third lecture in the participation theme of being drawn in, I was looking for texts that would touch the heart as well as the mind. And thinking back and forth about my knowledge of South India and also, again, in Catholic tradition, I came up with two fairly improbable texts that are rarely, I think, read nowadays, certainly in the West. Louis de Monfort, a 17th century Catholic author and Saint wrote a little book called The Admirable Secret of the Most Holy Rosary. So the familiar Catholic practice of the rosary, but linking it to the great tradition and showing how the entirety of the Christian faith is engaged in the rosary with a piety, with a devotion, with a sense of the supernatural that constantly comes back to the point. If you understand the rosary, and if you repeat the rosary and if you do it with faith, you get drawn into the realities of the Christian faith.
And I compare this with a text called The 100 Linked Verses on the Holy Word of Mouth, Tiruvaymoli Nurrantati, by Manavalamamuni, a 15th century South Indian Tamil writer. And again, in struggling to do this in translation in English, tried to show readers how if you read a book, if you're instructed by it, if you allow it to speak to you the truth, then text also draw you in by their beauty, by their emotional appeal, by their effort to help you to understand and share the experience. And so the three sets of text, instruction, doctrine, participation, I went back and forth. And they became, indeed, unsurprisingly, the main chapters of the book that we're talking about tonight.
So that's a little bit of the book. If we were at a live session at CSWR at Harvard, I would pass the book around and people could look at the book. But I can't do that tonight. But I'd be happy in the Q and A and other times to explain more about the book.
But I close by three points about what I think I'm doing with the book. In setting this material out, dealing with these six great texts that are on nobody's bestseller list in the 21st century to be sure, I do admit and say to the reader in the last chapter, if these texts are not to your preference, if these texts are too difficult, you can read others. But you get the point.
And I think the first point I was trying to make is that this kind of close reading, slow reading, returning to the classics is still relevant. Even when we have many alternatives and many other options in the 21st century, even when we have concerns about elitism, even when we have concerns about hierarchy, even we have concerned about excluded voices. these great texts can still instruct us, can still draw us into truth and can still draw us to the point of participation. Are there other ways this can be done? Certainly. But that these great texts, which are more available than ever before in human history, pull us in.
And I think part of that, for me, was to not allow reading to be caricatured as simply sitting there, looking at books. Because sometimes we see the dichotomy drawn. There is the world around us, real life, all the issues that we're facing daily, lived religion, embodied religion. Or you can read a book. And I think when we know something about the authors of these books, when we know about the time period in which they lived as I try to explain a bit in the book, and as we figure out what went into these great systems that are being summarized here, they're very much part and parcel of a culture around them, a religious tradition, a way of practice, a way of being in the world.
And I think we know this from any of us in our own religious traditions. The holy books and the theological texts of our traditions open for us a far greater vista on the lived religion, as well. So to defend this, that it's worth doing, it can be done and it's not simply the book, but it opens up the world entirely. And therefore, I think lest we have a sense of amnesia and forget where we are, we really have to find ways both for ourselves, whatever our position is, but also find ways for our graduate students and our undergraduate students to read and to take reading seriously in a deep way.
Two final points. One, I have an odd little chapter that perhaps will be discussed a bit on Ludwig Wittgenstein and his understanding of reading. And I came to this point. I've always wanted to include Wittgenstein in a book that I would write at some point, finally did it. Because I found that his great text of philosophical investigations is almost impossible to summarize.
And he more or less admits this in the preface to the book, saying basically, this is a workbook. You need to work through this book. You need to read. You need to take my questions up. You need to take the examples. You need to think about it. You need to work your way through it. And if you just want to know what it means or what the answer is, that is not going to work.
And I found that there was kind of a kindred spirit in Wittgenstein, his kind of deferring theory in saying, do the practicality in thinking about language as it is practiced with my saying, if we do the reading, then we begin to understand what we're doing as we read. And instead of having large questions of methodology presuppositions, the hermeneutical background, the theology of religions and so on, rather to engage in the reading, be instructed by it. And then see what comes after it, rather than worrying all the time about what comes before it.
And my final point is that since I do define my field, as Charlie said at the beginning, as comparative theology, it's really an effort to say that while comparative theology certainly and rightly is differentiating in the 21st century and younger generations coming along-- I was at the American Academy of Religion in the last several weeks-- are doing this theology in many new ways and different ways over time. Nonetheless, I think a good way and a perfectly responsible way to do comparative theology is to take text as old and crumbling as the text that I showed you at the beginning. And read it, and go deep into it. Allow the world to open up.
Do that with another tradition. Do it with both. And then hold them together, saying, I'm not sure how I can be doubly instructed, but I am. I'm not sure how I can confront the truths of two traditions at the same time without denying one, but I do. And I'm drawn into both of them. Because I now understand them and see the truth of them. And to be able to hold them together, not because they have a theory about pluralism or relativism, but because, in fact, I've studied the two in some depth.
So I've gone on a bit too long perhaps. But I will stop there and now look forward to hearing from my discussants. Thank you very much.
Thank you, Charlie, and everyone who had a role in organizing this. It is an honor to be here and to appear on the same panel with two old friends and present and former colleagues, Sarah Coakley and Frank Clooney. Of course, I mean old in the rabbinic sense of one who has acquired wisdom.
Frank's new book, Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics: Why and How Deep Learning Still Matters, is by any measure an extraordinary work. It exhibits great learning in classical and medieval Hindu tradition, as well as in medieval Latin Christianity and it's modern Roman Catholic successor. For its breadth of scope and philological precision alone, it would be noteworthy.
Just to give you a sense of the linguistic excellence of this volume, I can honestly report that I did not spot even a single mistake in Professor Clooney's translations from Sanskrit and Tamil, not one. What is more, I strongly suspect that would still be the case even were I not totally ignorant of both languages. But Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics is hardly dry if impressively learned exegesis or even a highly creative venture in comparative religion.
Rather, Professor Clooney's personal investment in his method of religious reading pervades his book, an investment appropriate to enterprise he calls comparative theology of which, of course, he is a founding figure. Whether in his evocations of memorizing a Roman Catholic catechism in his childhood or his candid acknowledgment of his difficulty with reciting the Rosary today, the author's own spiritual life is unabashedly on display throughout the volume. That alone sets the genre of this book apart from more familiar genres of the historical investigation and comparison of religious traditions.
To be sure, it is not unusual for scholars of religious history or comparative religion to have undergone a thoroughgoing formation in a religious tradition in their youth. But many are reluctant to acknowledge this or, and I think this is increasingly the case, eager to distance themselves from their own formation so that to one degree or another they define their current scholarship in opposition to it.
Those are fields that seem to me to share in the growing tendency in the humanities more generally to prize disenchantment over affirmation. Not so Frank Clooney's work. For Father Clooney, his formation in the Roman Catholic Church is not a biographical curiosity or the embarrassing antipode of his mature labors, but rather their foundation and a continuing source of their energy.
"But as catechesis instilled church teachings into my young mind and memory," he writes, "also inculcated with the idea that the ultimate truths were complex but always harmonious if understood within the life and practice of the church. This was a serious and solid grounding on the basis of which I could later proceed from the Catholic to a host of other orthodoxies found globally", unquote. And advocating a mode of reasoning that seeks to inculcate ultimate truths, Clooney proposes something that is, again, very different from the modes of reading that dominate in most of contemporary culture, including the secular academy and even the humanities as they're now generally pursued there.
In his preface, for example, and again just now, Clooney advises his readers to quote, "seek to be instructed and transformed by sustained acts of reading that take as long as they need to take, do not cut corners or settle for the general ideas that excuse you from reading", unquote. This stress on the particularities of the text as opposed to the general ideas is at odds with the increasing focus in the humanities in general and religious studies in particular upon theory.
It is not that attention to theory has no legitimate role, of course. My point is simply that it cannot substitute for or take precedence over what Frank calls slow learning. Or at least, that is how the matter seems to the communities that esteem and inculcate that mode of processing their sacred texts.
Whereas the focus on theory is increasingly characteristic of critical scholarship and religious studies, a fairly new discipline in the history of human learning, slow learning has been around for millennia and characterizes what we might call the native scholars. By this, I mean teachers instructing fellow practitioners within the traditional framework and therefore subordinate to the authority of the religious community in which masters and teachers alike find themselves. I should concede, however, that in my own teaching over many years in the modern religious studies framework, I have encountered more than a few slow learners myself.
In important ways, Clooney's model of study is not only different from that of the modern secular university. It is also in contradiction to it. I think, for example, this two fold observation, "as we study", Frank writes, "we become more deeply rooted in the traditions to which we belong. But it is also true it is those who remember the complexity and integrity of their own traditions who are better equipped to recognize and learn from religious others in similar depth", unquote. To be sure, the second part of his observation conforms to the high estimation of diversity, multiculturalism and the appreciative encounter with the other, actually only certain others, now regnant in most American education.
But what about the first part, the notion that study deepens our rooting, quote "in the traditions to which we belong", unquote. And what I believe, mean at best with severe qualifications, for one thing in the modern multicultural setting, many individuals have nothing they can call their own traditions. And the educational institutions have no basis upon to recommend one or even to recommend that the students find one.
In the case of those who do identify with religious traditions, one must also confront the conflict between traditional claims of authority and modern ideals of scholarship. In which arguments from authority are, to put it mildly, not accepted. Clooney quotes the 16th century Hindu thinker, Dikshita, who wrote, "granting that there is no injunction regarding proper ways to study, what is enjoined is the need to approach a guru for that study", unquote.
Although some professors may aspire to be gurus or regard themselves as prophets, self-appointed, the traditional religious and modern academic roles are really quite distinct. And do understand, again, intention. According to Clooney, Dikshita was of the opinion that quote "proper study is study done by a proper student with a proper teacher", unquote. When I read this, I immediately thought of a saying of two proto rabbinic teachers quoted much later in the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish law assembled in the land of Israel early in the third century of the Common Era. Get yourself a teacher. Acquire a companion. And give everyone the benefit of the doubt.
For our purposes, we can ignore that last clause. This is, after all, modern academia. And concentrate on the terms teacher and companion. Teacher, Hebrew, rav, could just as easily be rendered as master. Companion, chaver, in this context is also an academic term, deriving from the expectation that learners will form a community of their own and challenge each other, sharpening their wits as they progress in Torah. In the traditional Jewish context then, study is a social process in which teachers and students stand in a relationship of master and disciple. Quote, "proper study is study done by a proper student with a proper teacher", unquote to encourage a diction in his words.
The point is not to learn about Judaism. It is rather to learn Judaism. And this enterprise has prerequisites that surpass those in any modern university catalog that I've ever seen. A somewhat later rabbinic text tells us, in fact, that the Torah is acquired by 48 virtues. The Torah is acquired by 48 virtues. I won't list them all here. But here are a few. Study, attentive listening, well ordered speech, intuitive understanding, awe, reverence, humility, joy, purity, serving the wise. That is, the rabbinic masters themselves. Debate with students, a kindly heart, faith in the sages. The rabbinic authorities, themselves, again. Acceptance of suffering, knowing one's place and being happy with one's lot.
These are moral, character, logical and spiritual virtues and needless to say, very different from the criteria for admission to the modern university. Imagine turning applicants away because they were insufficiently reverent and joyful or because they were not good enough at accepting suffering. Why, our classrooms would be empty. And right now, I'd be sitting in this room alone.
My point is not only that the mode of reading that Frank Clooney seeks to retrieve does not sit well with modern assumptions about higher learning as he recognizes. The deeper point rather is that the interreligious framework, intrinsic to the enterprise of comparative theology, is very much indebted to those same modern assumptions and just as much at odds with the assumptions in which the slow learning and deep reading originated. In Frank's own words, "readers are not faced with incompatible truths between which they must choose. Rather by careful study, readers begin to know two truths twice over in some depth, though never enough depth", unquote.
It is significant that in two sentences, the word readers is italicized both times. It is the readers who don't have to confront the issue of incompatible truths or make the momentous decision such a confrontation evokes. But can this mode of reading be so easily detached from the rest of the traditional religious life and pursued as a spiritual exercise independent of the larger structures of tradition, authority and practice in which such reading developed?
I strongly suspect that neither the Hindu nor the Christian thinkers Clooney discusses would say yes. I understand, then, when he tells us that his Roman Catholic education inculcated in him, quote, "the idea that the ultimate truths were complex, but always harmonious if understood within the life and practice of the church", unquote. And I understand how that has enabled him to understand that same thing can be true of other religious traditions.
But one authorizes the further claim that the same harmony obtains even across religious boundaries, what is the wider context, more universal than the Catholic church, that renders the ultimate truths of various religious traditions harmonious. Or perhaps they aren't. For Clooney, the answer obviously does not involve a minimization of doctrine. In his pairing of the catechism of the 16th century Jesuit, Peter Canisius, whose last name I prefer to pronounce "knishes," and The Garland of Jaimini's Reasons, a digest of Hindu ritual from around 1,400 of the Common Era, Clooney concludes that, quote, "doctrine as content precedes catechesis. Catechesis as pedagogy precedes doctrine", unquote.
Personally, I need him to instruct me, I didn't say catechize, on what doctrine can mean if a choice between competing truths can be endlessly avoided. It is one thing to say that we should all strive to understand messages from religious traditions other than our own fairly and to avoid caricaturing them or describing them, at least initially, within a framework that is untrue to them. That is the method of comparative religion at its best.
It is a method that, indeed, excuses its practitioners from having to choose between incompatible truths, but only because it presents all together from the judgment of what is ultimately true and what is not. Of course, many of its practitioners are not the least bit hesitant to impugn the truths of religious traditions in other ways, for example, by interpreting religious phenomena as mystifications of power relationships.
But when Frank speaks of knowing two truths twice over, he is clearly abandoned the comparative religionists' epoche or suspension of judgment in favor of the constructive or normative role of the classical theologian. But on what basis can the classical theologian affirm that another religious system is true? Surely it cannot be on the basis of its overlap with his or her own system. For that would not represent two truths at all, but rather the one truth of the insiders, aspects of which happen to appear to some degree among outsiders. A very different possibility, and one that various religious traditions, including Frank's own, have long recognized and appreciated. There's another problem with the notion of equally valid religious traditions among which no choice is necessary. Often over the course of history, religions have developed substantial critiques of each other.
Now, I would be the first to acknowledge that such critiques are frequently thoughtless, uninformed, and circular. And have too often resulted in persecution, forced conversion, conquest, expulsion, and murder. But does that mean that all interreligious critiques are invalid, and that all negative judgments are based on misunderstanding? Must we assume, in other words, that if the practitioners of religion A truly understood religion B, they would fully approve of it, and regard it as an equal worth to their own?
If the answer is yes, what does that say about the members of minority religions who make enormous sacrifices-- sometimes even in their lives-- in order to remain distinct from the more convenient and less costly majority religions? Ironically then, the claim that no choice between ostensibly incompatible truths need ever be made proves to be self-refuting. It casts grave doubt upon the truth of the religious traditions that teach otherwise.
I don't mean to minimize in the least the import of those happy moments, when texts from different religious traditions seem to reinforce each other. And to deepen our awareness of a common, underlying truth. But when I read Frank's book, I wondered whether his Roman Catholicism also helps him sort out these three different occasions.
Number one, those when Hinduism complements Christianity. Number two, those moments when it is different from Christianity, but in a totally benign way. And finally, number three. The occasions when Hinduism presents a dangerous misdirection of which the Christian must be aware.
If the Catholic church does offer such guidance, and Frank obediently accepts it, then I think he needs to acknowledge that this is an important limitation on his advice to quote, "seek to be instructed and transformed by sustained acts of reading," unquote. If it does not offer such guidance, or Frank rejects it, then I think the result is something closer to relativism or to subjectivism with little public relevance.
In his preface to this important volume, Kevin Hart contrasts Frank Clooney's work with that of his fellow Jesuit Carl Reiner. Quote, "comparative theology does not seek the eschatological grandeur of Reiner's theology of religions," Hart writes. "It remains modestly and solidly on the ground," end of quote. He is right, but at the end of the book Frank does get a little eschatological.
Quote, "later on in our shared human history, we will be on surer ground and settling upon a recognized canon reaching across traditions," he predicts. "Now it is too soon," he goes on, "given the uneven ground on which traditions are heard or ignored, studied or neglected, and taken seriously or trivialized," unquote.
To be sure, as Yogi Berra is reported to have said, it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future. But for a variety of reasons, I find this vision of a recognized canon reaching across traditions unlikely. In the religious sense of the word, at least among the so-called Abrahamic traditions, a canon is not in the first place a judgment on the aesthetic value of the literature, or its ability to elicit a religious experience, or to make people socially responsible.
Nor is it something that people settle on, at least not so in the adherence of the minds. Rather, a canon is a response to divine revelation. Perhaps as Frank does seems to suggest, a new divine incursion into history, this time a super traditional one, is on its way. If so, I wonder what comparative theologians will then say to and about the communities whose scriptures and classics don't make the cut.
In my view, the enterprise of comparative theology-- to which Frank Clooney has contributed so splendidly in this, and his many other valuable studies-- is most credibly pursued with a robust appreciation of the enduring diversity of the world's religious traditions. The comparative religionist may regard that diversity as only a source of delight. Of the comparative theologian, as I understand the term however, it must eventually require some hard choices. Thank you.
First, let me express my thanks to Charles Stang for the honor of this invitation to respond to Frank Clooney's most recent book. In some ways, I think the most subtle and complex and intriguing of his many published volumes on comparative theology. And to Frank himself for the pleasure of my own. My trust, appreciative, slow reading of it.
And then too to Jon Levenson for the chance to enjoy some more quasi-rabbinical jousting with him as well in my days of HDS. I'd like to raise three clusters of issues for Frank this evening, in which a leading question will in each case then subsume under it one or two related sub-issues. And there is going to be some overlap with Jon Levenson, because we didn't collude and we tend to think along certain similar lines. I offer these reflections and challenges then under the following three headings.
First, why these texts? The hermeneutical question. Two, is the notion of slow reading systematically ambiguous? And does that matter? The theoretic question. And three, where in this comparative theological framework does truth finally reside? The philosophical question. This is where I intersect most directly with Jon Levenson's thinking.
So first, why these texts? Professor Clooney himself shows great sensitivity about this first question. Because obviously, it is the one that has attended all his work in comparative theology. But he admits that the choice of text in this particular book is a particularly quote, "odd sextet," having first ultimately arisen from his personal immersion from the years 2012 to 2017 in the very arcane Sanskrit text, The Garland of Jaimini's Reasons, that he will, quote, "not therefore be surprised" if this particular choice of text is seen quote, "not to belong together," close quote.
And then most revealingly, page 154 at the end of the book, that if these chosen texts prove too demanding for the average reader, then we might do better to substitute some simpler ones, which cover at least some of the same ground. The ultimate rationale for the text chosen it seems is that they represent pairings which accord with the triad of quote "instruction, doctrine, and participation."
A useful heuristic which, however, should surely not be seen as representing finally destructive alternatives in our traditions. So here's my puzzle. To what extent is this choice of texts from very different genres and contexts and periods, let alone religions, to some degree arbitrary? And does this finally matter?
It is possible of course, that the whole adventure of comparative literature, whether religious or not, is in general, an end in itself with its own manifest fruits. Such that reading, say Middlemarch in the light of Don Quixote delivers its own existential goods and fruits. And overall, I have no personal adverse reaction to that literary insight.
But I think that something much deeper is at stake in Professor Clooney's religious undertaking than that, which is why the whole question is so alluring. So what exactly is at stake in this comparative textual analysis? One core issue that occurs to me is this-- and I'd like to press Professor Clooney on it.
Is it not the case that within complex, religious traditions, certain hierarchies of texts, and authoritative assessment already in here, such that when we choose to give preference or authority to a particular text-- and to spend a lot of time with it-- we already adhere to this choice of textual traditions in some way? And then, in the course of our reading either reaffirm or adjust or even radically rethink that chain of authority?
I'm struck, therefore, that within this fascinating book, and on the Christian side, that chain from primary authority from the Bible through patristics to scholastics to spiritual teaching is not really focused upon or commented upon. And so I wonder whether the upshot of this comparative theological assessment is somehow meant to shift that Christian hierarchy of texts? And if so, whether within the specifically Roman Catholic view of the magisterium, to affect some sort of subterranean transformation of our understanding of textual and indeed magisterial authority? Is that the case?
And so-- and here's the nub of my first question-- how would Professor Clooney answer the charge that his choice of six texts in this book is ultimately rather strange and odd and autobiographically charged. And in a way, he rather charmingly admits that. And that the motivations for this may not be entirely on the surface given the text of the [AUDIO OUT] themselves in the face of it, seemingly disconnected.
Is he aiming to unsettle some supposedly subtle Roman Catholic presumptions about the hierarchy texts, whether conservative or liberal? And if so, what is going on here? Is he aiming to shift the canon or archive of tradition on either side of the Hindu Christian divide? And within this set of questions about choice of favorite texts, its existing hierarchy.
Is he hoping to opt for some kind of critical autonomy over mere authoritative heteronomy at certain points? And if so, are these points actually somewhat occluded within the subtext of his own text? So that's the sort of hermeneutical [AUDIO OUT].
Question number two. Is slow reading, so-called, systematically ambiguous? And does this matter? The concept of slow reading is one to which I'm immediately drawn and support wholeheartedly as a theologian, and indeed as a priest, a teacher of spiritual practice.
I think I know what it means-- if it means mulling in the sense that Philo and then his Christian successor Gregory of Nyssa meant-- that is, leaning deeply into a text in order to allow unexpected and interruptive spiritual states and insights to occur. What both these authors famously called "the state of sober intoxication."
In contrast, speed reading, let alone multitasking, has taken its toll on all of us in the postmodern age, if by that, we mean a kind of stressful form of interlocked intellectual compression. Even though, I also have to say, that this too has its benefits and capacitance. For a particular kind of insight, which is even now capable of being charted neuroscientifically.
So I'm not romantically drawn to slow reading for the sake of it. Or for the sake of a supposed bygone age of slow moving, wonderful religious wisdom. I'm just truly interested in what it really connotes. And whether it may not be an entirely clear concept in this particular monograph. And in Professor Clooney's work as a whole.
So what is it exactly? If it simply means taking one's time with a text, then that at least is relatively clear in an academic sense. Especially if it is a text in a difficult language and idiom. That is merely a scholastic necessity.
But if it means some other sort of slowness-- perhaps an initial principle of charity about the unfamiliar and even potentially offensive wisdom of what I'm encountering in this text-- then we are in more interesting territory spiritually. And are forced back on the issues I've just raised on my first point. Who exactly is the authority for textual readings ultimately? And whom can I, as a now lonely reader, challenge.
Further, I wonder whether some of the most salient queries raised by Professor Kevin Hart in the fascinating introduction to Frank's book would also have application here. Would it be possible to include under the appropriate slow reading category, as Hart suggests, a really quite disturbing, deconstructive account of reading, such as Derrida's, or a Philocodian reading that tends to reduce all readings to power readings?
Or as briefly mentioned at the end of Professor Clooney's own monograph, would it include the important phenomenon of contested rabbinical readings of texts. In which, almost by definition, there is no one authoritative reading. Because the whole point is the contestation of these readings. Of such readings, these three that I've mentioned-- Derrida's Philocodian, rabbinical-- are these ones slow or fast, I ask myself.
They are certainly not unconsidered or uncontested. We can't be romantic about them. We have to discuss what they mean. In short, what finally is the slow reading that Professor Clooney suggests we should really embrace? And if it's so important for the comparative theological task in hand, what exactly does that mean?
I don't doubt that it is spiritually and theologically important, but I want to be clear overall what this actually means. Thirdly and finally-- and this is where I interact most obviously, but more briefly with Professor Levenson's final points-- where in this comparative theological framework does truth finally reside? Here of course, we finally cut to the chase. Because what all of us want to know-- and not without passionate reason-- is how long term comparative theology will deliver the very subtle practice of reading-based wisdom?
That will take us where we need to get to be in a world of hostile meaning contestation, violence, and political indecisions that now surround us in the religious and political realm. The message of Professor Clooney's book is, of course, that this problem cannot be rushed. And with this conclusion, I heartily concur.
But I am slightly puzzled-- like Professor Levenson-- and intrigued by the philosophical undertow of what he offers in this monograph in homage to the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. And the very fascinating chapter four the book. Which by the way, leans heavily on the interpretation of the Oxford scholars Baker and Hacker. Themselves, as you probably know, controversial interpreters of Wittgenstein himself.
But what I note here is a dissonance between Wittgenstein's own insights about the contextual and linguistic-related aspects of our truth claims. And the very clearly absolutist claims of the text the Professor Clooney is himself negotiating in both Hindu and Christian traditions. So what is his ultimate theory about the truth claims of the differing text he is drawing into such a fascinating interrelation in this wonderfully suggestive monograph?
Is it, as he suggests at the very end of his book-- and Professor Levenson has also drawn attention to this point-- that the canon for this dissertation is not even available yet. And that thus, we are still tilting our windmills to decide what texts and criteria will ultimately be authoritative for truth in the great interreligious dialogue that continues to unfold before us.
Or is there some other practically and politically-oriented program of action that might help us right now to confront the urgent problems of interreligious truth? That fracture our world and threaten to undermine our capacity to live together. I don't have the answer to this, but I know that Frank Clooney is in the midst of trying to answer it, and I deeply respect what he has attempted to lay before us. Thank you.
Now it's my turn to respond briefly. I know many people are listening, and there are many Q&A questions. And I'm sure there may be more. So let me run through a number of the points that Jon and Sarah raised, and then we can open it up.
And I should also point out that they also-- rightly, and I'm glad-- didn't show me their text in advance. I didn't get to think about it since the spring. So this is perfectly fine and makes it so interesting.
So I thank them both for their exceedingly kind comments about the book and exceedingly generous overall evaluation of it and appreciation for the work I'm doing. So thank you very much for that. That's wonderful, both of you in that way. I think to getting to the basic questions that come up then, let me take a couple.
So the way Jon puts it at one point-- I just jotted down notes as going along-- knowing two truths twice over in some depth, how can this be done? Does the Roman Catholic tradition allow for this? Does the Hindu traditions I'm referring to allow for this? But as he points out at one point in one of the quotes he gave, I keep referring to the reader.
And I think part of my strategy is-- and it has to do with the deferral of final judgments as well-- if you're not doing this, then in a sense, you disqualify yourselves from making judgments on it. And I don't mean our context tonight, but I mean people who do want to know what is true. And who do want to know where does this end.
I want to know if they've paid the price. Have they done the work? And I think it's a matter of a certain kind of practical learning that makes a big difference for me. And I'm always raising this with people, at least in my mind. Do they know what they're talking about?
And sometimes people don't seem to know what they're talking about, because they haven't done the work and something like that. And I we all run into that. But in this case, it's particularly hard. Because what I'm trying to say is that even if-- as I insist, and I think sincerely that there is doctrine, there is truth. There are truths to be held in each of these traditions that are fairly absolute and radical.
Nonetheless, one can be talking about them without really understanding them. And that the traditions I'm dealing with are going to pains. And these six texts which are all kind of introductory catechetical in their own way-- all six of them really-- are trying to draw the reader into the world such that the truth can be apprehended. And if one hasn't done that, then one isn't going to be able to make judgments about which is true or which one excludes the other.
And it ends up being a matter of certain-- of a very few people-- even in this single example of certain Hindu and certain Catholic truths-- who are going to be in a position to have held them together sufficiently that they can begin to move back and forth. Or move toward a judgment. And this I think comes up both in what Jon was saying and what Sarah was saying in different ways.
In a tradition like the Roman Catholic Church-- which has a teaching authority and the magisterium, and that's very clear-- in some sense kind of putting off the voice of authority by not speaking the language of relativism or the language of pluralism, which I never use. Rather saying, all I'm doing is reading the text. Could you possibly object to my reading the text unless you put back in an index of forbidden books and forbid most books of most religions in the world? And say, don't read them, because you'll be better off if you don't.
If you do read them, where does that leave you, and what kinds of questions does that open up for you? And so in some ways, it's a very secure position to be in. It's like saying, well, I don't know Chinese. But if I say, well, you don't know Chinese so you can comment on this. Or you don't know Persian, you can't comment on this. Or you don't know whatever language, you can't comment on this. You haven't been there.
In some ways that can also be self-serving. Because in some sense, you're not communicating to your public, you're not teaching, you're not helping this to be opened up. So as Jon puts it, I think in some ways I'm trying to dance on the line between the Academy and the Church-- or the faith community and the Academy-- by not wanting to be a relativist. And not by saying issues of truth no longer are able to be taken up in our midst.
But rather to be able to say that again, if one is in the position where one has entered deeply into understanding of the two and being attracted by them and pulled into them, then is that relativism? Or as I'm trying to say, it's a doubling of truth. And one is standing, observing the two truths without making judgments and without allowing one to cannibalize or colonize the other.
And I think if one reaches that position, that it's not relativism. But rather one is at a point of saying, well, I don't know what to do with this. I don't know how to do anything with this now. But nonetheless at this point, I reached a point where I see these things together.
And then how-- again, back to where I started, reading my arcane text in 2013, '14, how do you talk about something so complicated to people who haven't had the opportunity or the desire to practice it? You end up in a position saying, well, now I've written this book. And unless somebody reads the book carefully and then reads everything around it, who is the audience with whom I can talk about this? Tonight we are talking about it, so that's why it's great.
So I did not do justice to Jon's comments. And he can point that out if he wishes. But on Sarah's points-- briefly again, because we have other people want to get in I'm sure-- the idiosyncratic and odd choice of text. One of the recent reviews of the book in The Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies raises this point and I think does talk about the idiosyncratic nature of the book using these texts.
And I think I-- as Sarah kindly points out-- I mean, I admit this. I admit that it's idiosyncratic. And I told that anecdote at the beginning about looking at these crumbling books on the shelf and saying, well, those would be different. And they've been there since I was a grad student, so why don't I pull those off the shelves. And as they crumble, read them before they crumble entirely.
And then making great mileage all the time and probably getting away with things that maybe I shouldn't all the time. Saying, well, this reminds me of something in my Catholic tradition. Or this reminds me of something I learned a bit when I was doing my Master of Divinity degree. Or something I ran into when preparing a homily or something like that. And start pulling other things in, put them together, and see what happens.
In some ways, that requires a great trust, I suppose in the author. That the author knows what they are doing and has a certain ability to hold these things together. But I'm afraid that if it's not idiosyncratic, then it's going to be governed by some kind of a system which predicts the outcome before you start the work.
So I will look for texts that talk about nondualism. Or I'll look for texts that talk about a personal deity. Or I'll talk about two texts on incarnation. Or two texts that talk about grace.
Then the theme or the concept comes to the fore, and the texts are its service of the concept. And one can do a word search nowadays and read through them and pick out the relevant passages, and still never read the text by the time one book has been done. My idea was to start ideally postponing those kinds of decisions and reading the text. And seeing what kind of questions arise.
And I had to do it, because the requirement of the lectures in Virginia come up with three things to say on three nights. And so I had to make this work [INAUDIBLE]. And then the press kindly published the book. But otherwise, to let it flow and not to allow the expectations of my tradition to predict where things will go and where they will end up.
On that point of slow reading as being systematically ambiguous-- and does it matter? I mean, that's a wonderful point. Thank you, Sarah, for raising that point. And I think obviously, I need to think more about that. Because I have great-- I've always had great interest in the early [INAUDIBLE].
I have not ever learned Hebrew, and I have no expertise in rabbinic tradition. But that also has always fascinated me. And that's why I gesture to it in the last chapter. Is that in some ways this seemed to be-- and there are Hindu and Muslim and other traditions of slow learning-- and in some ways I'm just being pragmatic.
And saying, this takes a long time. Since the Academy-- especially now in 2020-- are telling people finish up, hurry up. You don't have time to learn your languages much less read the text in any great fashion. But I find it very interesting. And you refer to Kevin Hart's wonderful introduction about how to make this all hold together. Is there ever a finality to it? Is there ever a horizon?
And I will casually say things that I've said in other works too. Well, maybe in 200 years we'll know where this is heading. Or maybe down the road somewhere, long after I'm gone, this will be worked out. But I don't see what the alternative to saying that would be. Because it seems when we start talking about this qualitative slow reading-- which opens up with this kind of charity for the unfamiliar-- I don't see how one can say, well, we've got to decide now.
I'm not a bishop, I'm not an archbishop, I'm not the pope. I have no magisterial authority. I don't have to make those decisions. I'm the scholar, and I'd be delighted if the bishop or the pope read my book. But since they don't, as far as I know, they can make the decisions and they can make the pronouncements and defend the tradition. But that's not my job.
My job is to keep insisting that the reading can be done. And that may, in fact, unsettle the tradition. And it's kind of this-- I think both of you refer to this is it's kind of an unsaid stream under the book of disturbing everything about hierarchical ways of forming canons.
So to come up with this idea of a new canon-- I think both of you point to this-- it's not a neutral idea or just a friendly idea, but rather that in fact, we're forming canons. We all have our bookshelves, our books behind us. And in some sense, there are canons being formed.
But then a thousand other combinations-- I mean, all the religions that I don't study begin to come into play. And in some sense, it may be in the Academy-- the study of religion does this one way-- but I'm saying that one can do this and has no choice but to do this, even if one is a faithful, believing participant in one's tradition. And that it's nothing to God to be offended by the fact that I do all this study.
And I do what I can with it, and then leave it to others to push back. And so I'll end there, because I think maybe that's enough to thank you both for these incredible responses. And I've taken many notes, and I'd love to see the written versions if you have written versions because I'll think about it a lot more. Over to you, Charlie.
Well, thank you so much, Sarah, Jon, Frank. This was wonderful. There are a lot of questions, and also a lot of familiar names on the Q&A. So this is going to be fun. So I'm going to go first to Joseph Prabhu Hi, Joseph, it's lovely to have you joining us.
Joseph is certainly known to Frank. He is a former resident of the CSWR. So here's Joseph's question. "Is the dispute between Frank on the one hand, and Jon Levenson and Sarah Coakley on the other, somewhat resolved by suggesting that it is not we as humans who should try to grasp and resolve truth--" that's what Joseph takes Levenson and Coakley to be saying-- "--but rather the other way around? That the truth grasps us?" That's Frank's view on Joseph's construction.
"If the latter, then Frank's enterprise can be seen spiritually and methodologically as a perpetual and unresolved openness to truth." So first of all, I feel as if-- maybe Frank, do you feel that that's a fair characterization of the stance you're trying to?
Yeah, I wouldn't stress the oppositional part of it. So I don't see it's like oppositional, two against one is not fair after all. But I think it's part of the conversation. I guess I would say that in part-- I mean, if I think of analogy, what do I do a lot of? I do a lot of preaching in church on Sunday and so on like that.
And it seems you're never done with the readings. You're always opening into the readings. And every time you preach on this gospel or that passage from the prophets, whatever, you're always starting again. You're always opening-- and if you say, well, I preached on this three years ago, and now I'm done with it. Well, that fails. And so in some sense it's this opening.
And I like the idea-- Joseph's idea of it of it's somehow grasping us. And I think that's-- if I said that's simply about a Catholic reading, the Catholic tradition, people wouldn't like that. But if I say, well, how can you not do that with the other tradition as well? But Sarah and Jon I guess can jump in.
Hi Joseph, lovely to hear your question. Yes, I think that disjunction is not fair to the interlocutors. Because I doubt that Jon and I would feel that we had truth in our grasp and we're not open to transformation from either of our religious perspectives. But I think there remains a kind of underlying theoretical, philosophical question about how truth is being perceived here.
And I think actually, there might be a lot more agreement between the three contestants than might have appeared. But it remains the issue, of course, for this intellectual endeavor. And I'm struck in Frank's wonderful response to Jon and me about the issue of truth and power that remains between us.
It's an enormous issue for me, because I'm writing on things at the moment that are-- well, the problem of racism and sin, for instance, within the Christian tradition. Which raises all these questions of whether there is a kind of esoteric or elitist insight into the nature of God and truth that can only be accessed through certain kinds of practice. Certain kinds of reading, certain kinds of habitus.
And if we don't engage in those, we don't get there. And that's deeply problematic for our Democratic, secularized culture. It's unbearable elitism. And I think all three of us in this intervention are probably on the same side of this problem, actually, in our different ways. From our different perspectives.
So the question really fundamentally is not Frank versus Jon and Sarah, it's a question about metaphysical truth and its connection to practices. Some of which practices are not being engaged in by everybody. And that's the problem, right?
Well, here's another question-- Jon, did you want to respond? I'm sorry.
I would just say that I understand the point of the question, which I think is a good one. And I thank Frank for his gracious response and Sarah for her response. I think something called truth will inevitably have to be addressed.
In other words, it's when they say truth grasps us, truth is beyond our comprehension, truth is transcendent. The more we know, the more we realize we don't know. All this is true. But notice I said, all this is true.
In the last analysis, somebody's got to be false. I wonder in this whole enterprise-- it sounds irreverent, probably is to say this-- but I sometimes wonder, what is the conception of the relation between these different religious traditions and the texts that represent them at work here? Is it the old-- in other words the old song that you say either, I say either. You say tomato, I say tomato.
It's really, weren't we all just saying the same thing. Is there some deeper, harmonious truth to which these different, superficially discordant voices are actually pointing to? Ultimately harmoniously? Or is it the case that there really are differences there?
In other words, maybe there really is diversity in a deep, spiritual sense that needs to be acknowledged. And no matter how much we try to put off the subject of truth, eventually even the radical postmodernists who can't say truth without using sign language-- "truth," that's the "truth"-- even the person that does that expects that the next word out of his or her mouth will be taken seriously as true, and not just written off by the people that are tuning out.
So at some level, I don't think the issue is however much intendedness we want to incorporate into our thinking about this epistemic humility and so forth. At some level, the question too, I still think does come up in these conversations.
All right, here's a question from another familiar face, Mark Massa. Thank you for joining us, Mark. "How is the close reading of texts your proposing different from the Catholic monastic tradition of Lectio Divina? Or is it substantially the same thing?"
I think that's to me. So Mark, thank you for--
That predated Sarah's question. He posted that question before Sarah's remark.
OK, OK. I think it's very much in that tradition-- I mean, the Lectio Divina tradition-- and taking the time with the text. And the repetitive nature of the Lectio Divina. You go back to the being again and again, and I think you find deeper meanings in them. So I think there's a great similarity.
I do have a section in the chapter where I talk about what Lombard is doing as sometimes shifting away from the monastic reading toward what might find with Thomas Aquinas and so on later on. I'm not a medievalist, but a Rosemann work, Philipp Rosemann's work, I think I found very helpful in this regard. I guess the difference would be-- and it may have something to do with preferences in a strong sense-- can you only do that devotionally, spiritually in the tradition you belong to? Or can you do it twice over?
But I think I believed for the last 40 years at least, you have to be able to try to do it with the other tradition too. Because Lectio Divina-- where I take seriously and go deeply and meditatively into my tradition, and then I look at the other one through a area studies lens or through a study of religion lens only-- seems to ruin the process from the beginning. So if one could do it twice over, then it's very much Lectio Divina.
I have a question for you, Frank, and I'm curious about Sarah and Jon wish to field it as well. And that is, what about the vast diversity within tradition? So one can read texts within the Christian fold that raise the very questions of religious truth that are perhaps highlighted more by crossing into ostensibly another religious tradition.
But are there different procedures for this sort of reading across your narrowly defined tradition? So let's say for instance, Frank, as a Jesuit. If you were to read in certain Byzantine texts or Aramaic Christian texts, you might find things that would be as other, as things you find in Hinduism. How do you navigate that? The internal diversity of a tradition.
And the question of-- well, you can do it through instruction, doctrine, participation. Or the concluding question of what does this raise about religious truths?
Let me give a first stab at it, and then I'm sure Jon and Sarah might have points to raise. Thank you for raising it. And I think this goes back maybe to the choices I made about the texts I use in the book, and in previous books. I mean, in many ways, the Christian side of this project is much more coherent than the Hindu side. Not that there's any incoherence in the Hindu text, but just that I choose a Roman Catholic catechism.
Peter Lombard's work, which remains very important in Roman Catholic tradition by hundreds of years-- although I think Martin Luther also wrote a commentary on the sentences. And then certainly, Louis Dumont's work is entirely known in the Catholic world, and perhaps not much outside it.
On the Hindu side, I'm doing-- back to my grad school work of being able to work on Hindu ritual theory, the [INAUDIBLE] tradition. And then I'm working on the Vedanta tradition of Appayya Dikshita, which I think is incredibly indebted to the ritual tradition. But is different and has different views of the world.
And then the devotional tradition of Vaishnavism of the self, wanting to bring in something in the vernacular, just as Louis Dumont is writing it in French not in Latin. Then we have Tamil text of Manavala Mamuni. So it's crisscrossing around in the tradition. But I think it's perfectly fair.
And I think sometimes about, oh, I just can't go into that. So what about something Byzantine Christian? Or what about something Lutheran Christian? Or something, United Church of Christ? I mean, the different views that one would run into, changing the dynamics of the project. And then likewise, the innumerable other Hindu traditions one might look at that disagree with the text that I put forward.
I think in some ways, saying to my reader, go and do likewise. Make your choices about-- so if you are of an Anglican background or a Lutheran background or a Byzantine background-- then by all means, do the project in a way that makes sense for you genealogically. But this is the way I got into it. And I had to stop at a certain point because the lectures were over and the book was already big enough.
But I don't want to erase the fact that you're raising an incredibly important question about again, the choices that are made and then the questions that are not dealt with when I make the kinds of choices I make. But maybe Sarah and Jon want to jump in.
I think as someone who-- in my very first job at the University of Lancaster under Ninian Smart-- was told to teach the course on Christianity. He said, I'm doing the course on Buddhism, you teach the course on Christianity. And I was 23.
And I mean, I was immediately up against this internal complexity of a vast tradition. And I rapidly came to the conclusion that in teaching for instance, a seminar comparing Gregory Palamas on The Triad's, written at the same time as The Cloud of Unknowing, for instance. That just to unpack the differences of context and influence and background of those two was as complex as comparing a Buddhist and the Christian tradition.
And then I also rapidly came to the conclusion that there were parts of Christianity that were closer to forms of Buddhism and Hinduism than they were to forms of fundamentalist, modern American Christianity. So I think we're dealing with a set of complexities here, which are not bound by the categories of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism. I mean, it just is more fluid than that.
And once we get more relaxed about that, we can probably come up with some more interesting typologies, which will help us negotiate the differences.
I agree with both Frank and Sarah. These terms are as well, for [INAUDIBLE] Smith and others said, abstractions. Maybe useful abstractions. On the other hand, if people say as [INAUDIBLE] that there's not Judaism, there's Judaisms, I think it's fair ask, in the spirit of [INAUDIBLE], I don't know. Well, why do you call all those things Judaisms? Why not just say four of them are Confucianisms?
You must see some-- I hesitate to say, essence, that would be unfair. So there are internal disputes within all these Christians galore. On the other hand, the question is, is there a deeper grammar that keeps those terms like Hinduism, Buddhism, Buddhism? Is there a deeper grammar that keeps those centrifugal forces under check? Is there also a centripetal force-- something that's moving these moons back towards the planet around which they're circling, the planet is itself, a kind of abstraction or idealization? Or does it actually have a historical instantiation?
I'm inclined to think that if there isn't, if those terms are completely conventional, then I think the whole discourse simply deconstructs and decomposes and becomes impossible to say anything. If terms like Hinduism and Christianity don't have all the qualifications-- all the historical qualifications that we all should make don't mean anything. And then in fact Hindu-Christian dialogue is also impossible.
Well, I certainly didn't mean to suggest or take Sarah to suggest that those names don't mean anything, those categories. But that they're-- to borrow your language, Jon, that there are perhaps a variety of grammars. And according to certain grammars of certain streams within Christianity and streams within Hinduism, could be constellated meaningfully. And from that point, other Christian or other Hindu texts would seem very distant.
So I think that's the sort of typology invitation that Sarah was offering. There's different ways of configuring this, because I feel as if there's a tendency at times to suggest that the only meaningful crossing that happens is from one tradition to another tradition, another religious tradition. And that is a meaningful crossing. That's Frank's life. It's an enormously meaningful crossing.
But there are fords-- we ford rivers all the time within these traditions. And that there are, as I said, grammars that make some of these corners of the traditions closer to others.
Distinguish between institutional distinctions and spiritual traits. So that I'm pretty clear that I'm a Christian, I'm not a Jew, I'm not a Hindu. If I wanted to be one of those other forms of religion, there would be very major implications for me. But at the same time, I often feel through spiritual loutre more attracted and au fait with dimensions within those other traditions than I do within other dimensions within my own religion.
And I think that complexity is something that we live with, and if we don't take account of it, we're sort of in denial.
I was going to just add there, Charlie, in regard to what you're saying. Two things-- several things. One is it's notable that I deal in most of my work with premodern texts. So I'm not dealing with 20th century-- even 20th century Catholic theologians for the most part. I'm going back to the 17th century, 16th, 15th, 14th, and so on. Because that works better with these Hindu traditions.
As hard-- if you come to the 21st century thinkers, well, who are the thinkers you would put in dialogue? The West is already conquered. And the West-- everybody's now writing and talking to each other in English. And that is a different kind of dynamic. But I think deep down, it goes back to what Jon is asking about, well, what does this mean?
I think in some ways, how is it possible for somebody like me to learn Sanskrit? Or how is it possible that one could learn Japanese? Or Wolof in the Senegalese context in Africa? The mystery of learning languages and crossing over-- I was early on very influenced by George Lindbeck's book, The Nature of Doctrine. And I thought the cultural-linguistic model opened up rather than shut down the possibility of learning, because we learned other languages all the time.
But it doesn't necessarily then get theorized as essentially this or essentially that and so on. But there's something about the human. And one of my Jesuit mentors way back Bernard Lonergan, he talks about the invariant structures of knowing. That human beings know in certain ways, and that's going to be manifest in their languages, even when they're denying that they're doing the same thing. So those issues are too-- also moving around.
That's very interesting, Frank, because I think in this book is a kind of Lonerganian undertow of the anthropological. And you've just acknowledged that.
And that's-- I'm not critical of that.
I think it's fascinating. It is of course, contentious, but I think it's very revealing for what you're doing.
Well, we've come to the end of our time. And first of all, I want to say to Frank, Sarah, and Jon, of course, a word of thanks for your participation this evening. I also want to let the participants, the audience members know that your questions that we didn't get to, we will pass on to the three of them. So you at least will know the sorts of questions that this prompted in the audience, even if you won't have a chance to answer them.
So Frank, congratulations once again on another book well done. It's impossible to keep up with you. I'm not even going to try. Jon's trying, I've given up. But it's wonderful to see this book in print and to have a chance to engage it then.
Sarah, it's lovely to have you associated with something at Harvard Divinity School again. Welcome back. We miss you. And Jon, thank you as always for your wise and insightful comments. And thank you all for joining us. We had a huge crowd. It's thinned a bit as we've gone on, but we had almost 200 people here for your book, Frank, which is a obviously a testament to your following. So thank you all again, and happy holidays, and happy new year.