On the way to Hangzhou. I am beginning this blog on the bullet train from Beijing down to Hangzhou, a large city to the south and closer to Shanghai. The trains are impressive, beginning with the very fine South Station in Beijing, the efficiency of information, and (most of all, for those of us familiar with Amtrak), the speed of the train, over 300 kilometers an hour – more than 180 miles an hour. I could have flown to Hangzhou, but knew that the train would offer me a panorama of the countryside – from the terribly smoggy (or foggy?) environs of Beijing to industrial complexes, areas of bucolic countryside, and any number of large cities where the train stopped very briefly to discharge passengers and pick up new ones. It is interesting, on this first trip to China, to compare it all to India, now nearly as populous a country, and ever the slightly chaotic and unwieldy democracy. The terrain is different of course, and so too the architecture and the languages overheard on the train; while my oral and aural language skills are not great, at least I can read the signs in India, which are in any case often repeated in English as well; I remain surprised how little English is in evidence here, even on trains and major stations, and in big cities. It is hot here – summer after all – and we are currently experiencing a heat wave (99 in Hangzhou).
In Hangzhou. I arrived safely, was met by a very kind and helpful student, and settled in very quickly before heading to dinner with Professor Wang Zhicheng and some of his colleagues and students from the Institute of Christianity and Cross-cultural Studies. The Institute is well known, and part of the prestigious at Zhejiang University. Those gathered around the table had many different research interests, ranging from Biblical Wisdom literature to gnosticism, the works of John Cobb, process theologian, Thomas Merton, John Hick, and Raimon Panikkar, and method in the philosophy of religion. One of the remarkable works of the Institute under Professor Wang’s leadership has been his concerted work to have translated a variety of modern theological and philosophical works from the West, as well as an array of classic religious texts from non-Chinese traditions. I am honored that he chose one of my works for this a few years back, Hindu Wisdom for All God’s Children, and is planning now to translate another. Much of this work is, as I understand it, supported financially by the university and the Chinese government. This officially Marxist and communist state sees, apparently, the promotion of religious and cultural exchange as beneficial to the state as well as scholars. (I had noticed in Beijing the claim at many religious sites, including Matteo Ricci’s grave, that it was by government support that hitherto neglected sites of religious significance were saved and restored.)
Last evening I have my lecture on comparative theology – my own general field – as related to and distinct from comparative religion, the history of religions, the theology of religions, and interreligious dialogue. I have spoken on this topic many times over the years, but as always, the questions were fresh and unpredictable, and I learned from the exchanges. That we are having these conversations in China of course makes a difference, since there is no reason to think that my work, American and Catholic engaging Indian and Hindu, could or should translate exactly in the Chinese context, where the religions and philosophies, and the students themselves, come from a wide range of backgrounds. This younger generation of scholars and graduate students in places like the Institute of Christianity and Cross-cultural Studies has to find its way in today’s China and with mindfulness of Chinese traditions and culture; and I will be satisfied – more than satisfied – if my brief visit and small insights may be of some use.