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Francis X. Clooney, S.J.October 26, 2010

Cambridge, MA. I was at first relieved, when Jim Martin’s typically excellent entry, “Catholic Bloggers Aim to Purge” was pointed out to me, to realize that whatever attacks are made against me by the Purgers, they are so mild that I do not notice them. But then I was alarmed to realize that it may be more to the point that the Purgers do not even notice what I write in this space. Alas.

Cleverly, this ambivalent reaction brings me to the long-awaited (that is, since Saturday) addendum to my first and second entries on “A God Real Enough to be Absent.” Once we get beyond the fact that I am a professor and write like a professor, it may be hard to tell whether I am saying something pious or something radical. As one commenter observed, my line of argument is hardly likely to change the minds of the new atheists, who will not find it stunningly insightful to think of God as not non-existent, but simply absent, not returned, hidden for reasons known only to God. So my reflections may seem to manifest the piety of the Catholic of certain age who is not ready for the media wars about God. (Though one of these days, I suspect, my Center for the Study of World Religions will have some event that takes up the debate on God’s existence.)

Yet the point of my two reflections - not just the first, and particularly the second read after the first - is that we need to free up our imaginations to enter upon a more dramatic apprehension of the living God, who is free to come and go, whose absence as well as presence can be powerfully felt. One way to do this very well is by venturing across religious boundaries.

The woman in the Song of Songs has her own tumultuous relationship with her beloved, and commentators Bernard, Gilbert, and John addressed it within the frame of their medieval Christian consciousness, and offer us a very rich understanding of a vividly alive God, Jesus within the Church and in the heart. We could stop there. But it is also true that in his Tiruvaymoli, Satakopan brilliantly reimagines the motifs of ancient Tamil love poetry, finding there the resources to imagine the overwhelming presence and devastating absence of God. Commentators Nanjiyar and Nampillai address his themes within the frame of their medieval Hindu consciousness, and offer us a very rich understanding of a vividly alive God, Krishna alive in the community and in the heart. The mystery of God is such that, doctrine notwithstanding, we do not need to limit our learning to what our own tradition teaches us.

My approach can be confusing, perhaps more than a blog can bear. I admit this. When John of Ford struggles to make sense of the woman’s final command - “Flee away my beloved!” and when Nampillai struggles to make sense of the woman’s fear that Krishna may finally go away, we are confronted with two women, two divine lovers, two departures, two traditions into which the dilemma of divine absence has been received - and it is not clear what we are supposed to think about all this. Which God are we talking about, and does this comparative reading actually help the practicing Christian or Hindu? Is God’s location more or less certain after this study?

But this lack of certainty is a good thing, insofar as we are thrown off balance at a deeply personal level, since the immediacy of the two songs is no longer safely swaddled in the answers of tradition; for neither of these traditions knew of, or took into account, the other’s words about God’s coming and going. Good: we may for the moment be as confused as the women were, not sure where God is.

So while it is probably a blessing not to be bothered much by the Purgers, I would be secretly disappointed - so don’t tell anyone - were readers to overlook the possibility for good, holy upset latent in the cultivation of an interreligious imagination I am suggesting by reading the Song and Tiruvaymoli together. No? 

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Marie Rehbein
11 years 8 months ago
I would say that what elicits a large number of comments is something that can be perceived as personal criticism.  Were you to say that God is objectively absent to some people because of some shortcoming in them, you might get more comments, but you might also undermine your larger goal in exploring this topic.

As you might have noted from my comment to your previous article, I am not in disagreement.  My comment was motivated by the lack of comments, but took some contemplation to put together, as opposed to those comments I make in reaction to someone else's absolute certainty on some controversial issue.

Response by FX: Marie - thanks again - certainly my approach does not allow for absolute certainty!

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