From Rome, in Tibet: Interreligious Learning

Cambridge, MA. I spent a bit of time on this quiet Saturday rearranging books, in the vain hope that by moving them around and to hitherto unnoticed corners and book-case bottoms, I might find more space. [For the rule is sure: if the graduate student spends a lot of time accumulating books with an eye toward a long scholarly career (any book gotten now might serve well in the decades to come), it is equally true that the professor accumulates books more than she or he wants: books kept from  grad school, bought for this or that writing project or course, gifts from friends, and a good number of books that arrive unsolicited, sent by publishers who hope we will notice them, use them in courses, write about them.]

One good result: In the midst of my reorganization, I did give due attention to two recent books deserving notice — by way of academic review, of course, but also here, in this blog, simply by way of special mention: Catholic Engagement with World Religions: A Comprehensive Study, edited by Karl Becker, SJ, and Ilaria Morali (Orbis Books, 2010), and Jesuit on the Roof of the World: Ippolito Desideri’s Mission to Tibet, by Trent Pomplun (Oxford University Press, 2010). Both are fine books that instruct the reader profitably; and while they are largely unrelated in theme and focus, they nicely converge to raise an important issue of interreligious import: how does fidelity to the Church and Catholic tradition affect learning from other religious traditions? Or, more directly, how far can a “conservative” Catholic go in interreligious learning? How do we keep the faith and actually learn something at the same time?

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The book by Becker and Morali (both professors at the Gregorian University in Rome) is a massive work of 600 pages, with many distinguished contributors. It deals from a variety of angles with how Christianity and other religions are alike and different, focusing on the post-Vatican II period. Not claiming to be a work of global theology, it is also notably Eurocentric, not dealing much at all with what’s happening in North America. In this instance, this is probably a good thing: over here we do not give sufficient notice to what European theologians are saying, and it is fair enough that this book has its center of gravity in Europe, offering a nice balance to our sense here that we are on the cutting edge of thinking about religions. Catholic Engagement makes a good effort to include information on religions other than the Christian, to give at least some depth to the subsequent assessment of what Christians are to think of those religions. It also has some good survey chapters on the history of encounters over the past 400 years.

It was only when I turned to the second book, Jesuit on the Roof of the World, that I figured out a key element that might be added to the Becker/Morali book — namely, a still deeper, more intense, and more intellectually and existentially complex engagement with other traditions: “going there” and “learning from there.” This very fine book by Trent Pomplun (professor at Loyola University, Baltimore) tells us the story of Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733), one of those intrepid and amazing early Jesuits who traveled to a far-off part of the world, witnessed to Christ and the Gospel, and — without any of the easy resources available today — learned deeply from Tibet’s rich and deep traditions. Desideri spent the better part of a decade in Lhasa and thereabouts, when that Himalayan land was barely known at all to Westerners. He was a pioneer in describing the geography and social customs, studying the Buddhist practices and beliefs of the lamas close-up, and working out, with full attention to cultural and political issues, an engagement between Tibetan Buddhism and Western Christianity. His works are invaluable even today for understanding Tibetan history and the East-West encounter, and his Notizie istorische del Thibet (perhaps, “Historical Narrative of Tibet”) is an erudite work of scholarship that finally, with Pomplun’s book, receives due attention in English. The back cover comments by distinguished scholars of Tibetan culture and religion testify to Professor Pomplun’s erudition, and likewise to his commendable grasp of how theological encounter worked itself out in the 18th century. Fr. Desideri was no more a liberal (in our terms) than was Matteo Ricci in China, Roberto de Nobili in India, or Joseph Lafitau in French Canada. For him too, missionary zeal and firm Christian commitments seem to have served as both a counterweight and energizer for deep cross-cultural learning. Pomplun studies the rhetoric of Desideri’s letters and reports, and notes how a certain stylized zealousness — overcome the pagan! — did not stop him from living respectfully and learning deeply during his years in Tibet.

As readers of this blog will know, my own instincts lead me more in the direction of Desideri’s work, and not just because my first exposure to Hinduism was in the Himalayas, in nearby Kathmandu. The survey and theological reflections offered by the many contributors to the Becker/Morali volume are valuable and necessary; and yet I cannot help notice, the essays seem far more sensitive to the cultural, political, and theological complexities of Catholic thinking in Europe than to the comparable complexities of other religious traditions and cultures, which never fit neatly into the patterns the traditional theologian might wish. Desideri’s life and work were a bit untidy, more questions raised than answered by his life and writing; he trod a dangerous path — icy, cold, unhealthy, way up there in the mountains, and full of insights that no one in the West can fully digest, then or now. It is right that volumes such as Catholic Engagement try to make good Catholic sense of that messy learning of and from other religions, in both its historical and contemporary versions. But reading Pomplun’s book alongside that of Becker and Morali is a necessary help, forcing us to notice the concrete and even sacramental details of the world’s religious history — a stubborn concreteness that endures, beyond our control, and gives life and deeper purpose to theological reflection.

It is notable, finally, that both volumes put forms of traditional, even conservative Catholicism before us: the Becker/Morali volume is, as I have said, carefully, cautiously Catholic; Desideri did not treat his Jesuit and Catholic beliefs loosely, no matter what he learned. Together, these volumes remind all of us that neither being-liberal nor being-conservative predictably facilitates or bars interreligious learning. However we frame our faith commitment, we still have to learn, and we have to keep the faith and make sense of it in our Church and our experience; neither faith nor learning is an excuse to be lazy about the other.

But both books deserve real reviews — best left to the reviewers!   

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