Cambridge, MA. For some time now, I’d been thinking of writing this incidental reflection in early July, but I did not imagine that Cambridge would be 60 degrees and soaking in a cold rain as I write. So much for summer idylls. But I do still want to give you an idea of what a professor actually does in the summer when, as is my case, there is no need to teach summer school. My summer this year is divided into four major parts.
Part One was a bit of travel north and south from Boston. After Harvard’s commencement at the beginning of June, I was off to the Catholic Theological Society’s Annual Convention in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I heard a number of interesting papers, gave a paper on Hindu-Christian relations in light of new developments in Jewish-Christian relations, and was happy to see David Burrell, SCS, receive the John Courtney Murray award for his distinguished theological career, which has included some very interesting explorations of Christian-Jewish-Muslim theological exchanges in the time of Thomas Aquinas. Then I headed to Union Seminary in New York, where I was part of the team running a week long seminar for professors from around the country on issues of religious pluralism, the theology of religions, and comparative theological learning. This was a fascinating opportunity to explore with colleagues a wide range of issues related to research and teaching, as we all faced together the very large fact of religious diversity. (It was a bonus that Corpus Christi, where Thomas Merton was baptized during his Columbia days, was just across the street.)
Part Two, back in Cambridge, was a three-week period of finishing and starting some writing projects. I first tidied up my book manuscript, Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders, before sending it off to Wiley-Blackwell in the UK, for a hoped-for publication date of the spring. It is nice to finish a manuscript, but there is also a sense of vague unease at such a moment: given that I could keep revising it more a few more months, what will I think of the final version that appears in print? Authors themselves can be among their own harshest critics: we know the weakest points of our own work.
But with that done, I have also had time to putter about with the very beginnings of my new book project: reading Bernard of Clairvaux’s famous Sermons on the Song of Songs, together with the influential medieval Hindu theologian Nampillai’s sermonic commentary on the love songs from Nammalvar’s Tiruvaymoli. I am interested in the dramatic intensity of such texts, how specific, particular and even physical love for God as expressed in such texts creates a powerful force and energy of love in the readers. Discovering this love expressed so vividly in two texts with their commentaries creates a drama appropriate to our own time: as readers we find ourselves torn between two specific and vivid centers of divine love, seeking God on both the rightly familiar ground of our own tradition, yet too in the new, uncharted space of the other.
Or, more basically, this is a matter of pondering together powerful words from the two traditions: On the one hand, “After this, is there any way to protect my life’s breath? / My breasts became soft, my slender waist trembled when he hurt me, / mingled with me, blended inside my body, / but now my Krishna has abandoned me, left me, that thief; / the solitary young lion, my marvelous one, he does not come; / but his lotus eyes, radiant mouth, dark cool hair, four shoulders, / still pierce my sinful mind, alas.” (Tiruvaymoli 9.9.3) On the other, “Upon my bed at night / I sought him whom my soul loves; / I sought him, but found him not; / I called him, but he gave no answer. / ‘I will rise now and go about the city, / in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.’ / I sought him, but found him not.” (Song of Songs 3.1-2) If we read well, the drama of the texts becomes our own drama. Or so I think. Now if this new project seems a bit sketchy, it is: I am merely brainstorming, reading around, getting started on a project that will come to fruition only in a few years. But my instinct is basic: if we cannot make sense of such texts heard together, then none of us, liberal or conservative, will be able to speak of God in a world where religions mingle across their most precious borders.
Part Three of my summer begins on Saturday, when I head to India for five weeks, from rainy and cold to the hot and mostly dry. I will be based in Chennai (Madras) in the south, among friends and in neighborhoods I have known for the past 30 years. I will do some teaching at Satya Nilayam, the Jesuit Philosophate in Chennai, and give lectures around Chennai and in nearby cities. I will also be giving some lectures at the Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth in Pune, the old and distinguished Jesuit seminary, and I will also attend a Sanskrit conference in Jaipur, up northI will also have a chance to visit and give some classes at Shantivanam, the Catholic ashram in the deep south, made famous particularly by Fr. Bede Griffiths.
But at the heart of my time in India is the follow-up to the books I published last year, Beyond Compare (Georgetown) and The Truth, the Way, the Life (Peeters). My hope to discuss them further with Jesuit and other Catholic theologians, and particularly with Hindus of the Srivaisnava tradition which I studied in both books. Writing books is one thing, but it is also important to share them with people who care deeply about the same texts and ideas; it is crucial, when writing about other people’s religious tradition, to hear what they say in response to our writing.
I return to Cambridge in the middle of August, for Part Four to my summer — recuperation, catching up on neglected business, last minute preparations for the fall semester (though things are in pretty good order at the moment), a week’s retreat, and a trip to NYC for a family visit. Then, as September begins, the school year is under way.
The summer already seems too short, but its pieces do add up to a very rich and interesting opportunity. I am aware how lucky I am to have the luxury of this free time when, though busy, I am doing what I want, need to do. Protecting a summer like this confirms what I have stressed several times before in this space: to be a scholar, theologian, comparativist, thoughtful religious person, requires times of less doing and more thinking, reflection that is decidedly uneventful, unfolding only over a long period of time. While the urgent crises and needs shaking up our world add up to a long and loud list of things to be done, now, it is still the case that stopping, thinking, reading, writing, talking are also necessary.
If I can, I will try blogging from India — but if not, I will report back to you in August. Have a dry and sunny July!