On the Scholar's Work

Cambridge, MA. -- I am still deciding how to blog, and it will take a while to figure out what I can write -- that America readers will find interesting. But I am sure that I must write of and from what I know; and central to this has to be also my teaching and my scholarly writing. I will have ample opportunity in the months to come to talk of my courses -- for example, my lecture course for the spring, on interreligious dialogue, and my seminar on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali read along with St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises -- but I would like to begin 2008 with my scholarly work, that takes so much of my time, and too often scholarly work is overlooked in public discussions of religion. Most of my writing has first of all to do with classical Hindu thought, in the Sanskrit and/or Tamil (south Indian) language traditions; by interest, or theme, or instinct, I identify a text worth reading, and then devote an inordinate amount of time to studying the text with its commentaries (for I never read alone; I always want to learn from how ancient and modern Hindu commentators read the text, long before me). The texts vary a lot: at any given time, my choice might be a medieval interpretation of a verse from the Bhagavad Gita, or a medieval scholastic exegesis of Upanisadic verses on the true meaning of bliss, the soul’s fate after death, or how properly to ask a question; or, as was the case several years back, I studied three very long hymns -- two of them 100 verses, one 61 verses -- praising Hindu Goddesses in direct address. The Srigunaratnakosa ("Treasury of Her Auspicious Qualities") by Parasara Bhattar, for instance, praises the Goddess Laksmi in her own person and as consort of Lord Narayana. Less often my writing is thematic, touching for example on Hindu understandings of creation, or the nature of the divine bodies that Lord Krishna assumes in times of incarnation. Occasionally, some phrase or verse catches my eye, such as verse 44 from the Mutal Tiruvantati by Poykai Alvar, an eighth century south Indian poet saint: "Whichever form pleases His people, that is His form; Whichever name pleases His people, that is His name; Whichever way pleases His people who meditate without ceasing, that is His way -- Narayana, who holds the discus." I found numerous traditional commentaries on the verse, all seeking to spell out how divine grace anticipates and accommodates human need, meeting even the simplest of human imaginings. As I studied the verse and traced parallel texts, commentaries and dictionaries piled up on my desk; in the end, I learned both the meaning of the verse as understood in its tradition, and also how Hindu theologians came to terms with seemingly unlimited divine accessibility. Once I start reading very closely and making sense of texts like this, I find myself drawn into their world; I find no easy comparisons, no obvious similarities nor overwhelming differences that prove or disprove something immediately: rather, it is I who change, as I read, learn, and see more. I then need to ask myself, as a Christian theologian, How am I to make sense of what I am learning, for myself and other Christian readers? Not in general or theoretical terms, but with respect to whatever I’ve been studying at a given time; not by asking, "Can Christians learn from Hinduism?" but, "How do we learn from the Bhagavad Gita or Srigunaratnakosa or Mutal Tiruvantati, verse 44, as these texts are understood in their traditions?" The learning process of my research is then also a re-learning of my tradition, as I go back to Genesis and St. Paul, Augustine and Aquinas, Ignatius Loyola and Francis de Sales, trying to retrieve familiar ideas and texts, now in light of what I have learned from Hinduism. Usually I can make a connection that seems to work, as intellectually and spiritually satisfying, edifying; but usually too, I have a sense that much more can be said than I manage. All of this is terribly time-consuming; primary research is daunting, the languages difficult, and new ideas, deciphered in context, demand careful reflection over a long period of time. It is a kind of interreligious dialogue that occurs across religious boundaries, to be sure, but also deep within the person who ventures to learn with an open heart and mind; it is an interreligious encounter devoid of the drama of conservative and liberal pronouncements on the meanings of other people’s religions. It is a small-scale learning, pursued in reverence for both my own faith and that underlying the texts I read. Is the work and its results worth rising before dawn and working until late at night, weekend and holiday, summer as well as winter? Why bother? Part of it, to be sure, is the fascination ideas and words have for the professor/scholar -- we could not spend our lives on such things if we did not enjoy them. But there is also hope that scholarly work, though taught in small classrooms and then tucked away in books and academic journals, matters in the long run. About a year ago, a very senior Hindu scholar, who has spent a great part of his life translating texts for the sake of younger Hindus who cannot read the originals, asked me if I thought our work was worth the effort: I responded that in my view the scholarly work of religious people is worthwhile, but in ways that first humble us and test our faith -- as the slender insights and accomplishments of the scholar only slowly reach some readers, banish some misconceptions, changing the minds of just a few readers, teachers, and students, in ways that are quiet but that will, in the long run, speak more eloquently than loud, intrusive declarations that easily capture headlines by expressing "our" opinions about "them." Or, more simply: when Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," these are first of all words that invite openness and learning, enabling virtues and practices that provide inspiration and energy for the hard work of study. I will talk occasionally about my research in the year to come, with some particular examples that may, I hope, be of interest to my readers. Francis X. Clooney, S.J.
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