Teaching God at Harvard: My Spring Seminar


Cambridge, MA. In my last contribution to this blog I wrote about my lecture course, God: Hindu and Christian. This time, still the comparative theologian, I would like to tell you about my seminar, a course dedicated almost entirely to one Hindu text, the Vedarthasamgraha (“The Summary of the Meaning of the Veda”) of Ramanuja (1017-1137), a great theologian of the south Indian Hindu tradition known as Srivaisnavism. I have referred a number of times to Ramanuja in this column, and readers may remember him. The idea of this seminar, and the cycle of which it is a part, is to read a Hindu carefully and in detail over the semester, taking it seriously and giving its ideas time to sink in. An added element is some cross-reading with a Christian text, and to this dimension I will return below.
     Ramanuja’s Vedarthasamgraha, written in the Sanskrit language, is a treatise on the right way to read the Upanisads, and thus too on the right notion of ultimate reality (Brahman) and thus too of God (Narayana). In particular, Ramanuja is exegeting Chandogya Upanisad 6, in which the original Self is portrayed as the source for all of reality, material as well as spiritual. He is arguing against two groups of opponents: those who hold that ultimate reality is one only, with no duality or plurality in it; and those who hold that reality is somehow subdivided, that ultimate reality being divided into the many things that comprise the world. His view, a middle way, argues that everything indeed is derived directly from the one ultimate source, the Self, but that this Self does really differentiate into all conscious and non-conscious beings. His view is therefore a “differentiated non-dualism” that rejects both creation ex nihilo and pantheism. The order of the text is simple:
     1. An introductory exposition of the right and wrong ways of viewing God and the world;
     2. The refutation of rival views of creation;
     3. The right reading of scripture;
     4. Lord Narayana, God properly named, is the ultimate reality of whom scripture speaks;
     5. Arguments against the view that scripture is merely about ritual and ethical matters and does not communicate the truth;
     6. How God is properly taught in the scriptures;
     7. The nature of God, and how scripture tells us about God;
     8. The way of devotion and service that leads to God.
Its teaching is rather complex, however, given the density of its arguments and how Ramanuja insists on interweaving arguments about material and spiritual reality with arguments about how language works and whether words and concepts can really tell us something about God.
     What we do, then, is read the Vedarthasamgraha, once a week for two and a half hours, using the four available translations of it; I meet separately with a few students interested in reading the Sanskrit. This slow and careful reading is a luxury of sorts, since graduate students are often pushed to read a book or more a week per course; my view has always been that less reading, more carefully done, is a better option for true learning. We also have time to look up some of Ramanuja’s opponents, such as the nondualist theologian Sankara, and to check out Ramanuja’s scriptural quotations.
     While at times the text is heavy going, rich in detail and subtle argument, there is pleasure in the reading of it, and our main problem this semester will be that there is not enough time. Beyond that, there is not much more I can say here without getting into detail that may be too much for a blog; but I can indicate in four ways why such a course matters, why I teach it. First, students learn a theological system in detail, and thus begin to understand what it means to be a theologian. This is what I do, after all, as a teacher who is a theologian. That Ramanuja is a Hindu theologian is not a major difference or obstacle; rather, indeed, that he is a theologian who is not a Christian can help students to appreciate better what theology is. Second, his refined theological positions of course raise questions for the Christian theologian who takes seriously both the similarities regarding God, humans, and the world, and likewise differences, about the nature of creation and the world, the way in which God is the source even of material reality, and the way in which the Upanisads, so different from the Bible, generate different kinds of questions about the world, the meaning of life, and relationship to God.


     CalvinThird, this exercise in the study of theology forces us to seek analogies — which Christian text is this like? who among Christian theologians is like Ramanuja? By a process of elimination, I decided finally that John Calvin (1509-1564), the great Reformer and Reformed theologian of Geneva, stands as an interesting close parallel to Ramanuja, and so every other week I give my class a chapter from his Institutes of the Christian Religion, to read alongside Ramanuja, drawing comparisons and contrasts. Indirectly then, reading a Hindu theologian draws fresh attention to a well-known Christian theologian and, indeed, prompts me, the Catholic, to take seriously and learn from a great Protestant thinker. Indeed, I was privileged just today to be part of a special Harvard Divinity School seminar on John Calvin in this year that marks the 500th anniversary of his birth - not because I am a Calvin scholar, but because I have found energy in his wisdom, to do my comparative theological work better.    

     Finally, all of this matters, I suggest to my students (and to you, my readers), because interreligious dialogue and learning are often lacking in deep roots, as if encounter is somehow an easier or necessarily more superficial exercise than theological reflection within my own tradition. But it is not so: unless we learn to listen carefully and patiently to the ideas and experiences of people of other traditions, and read their texts carefully, we may end up treating our own Christian religion, and their religions, superficially. And yes, I also believe that even in reading a Hindu theologian, I am learning about God, as my faith seeks to understand, and comes to a bit more understanding.

     The course is not yet half over, and so I cannot predict how it will go for my students, though the 15 of them are thus far brightly engaged in this study. I am fortunate to be able to teach such a course, with such students!


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9 years 5 months ago
Thank you for this interesting and detailed description of what you are (in part) doing. The question that kept popping into my head as I read this was whether we are doing theology or philosophy when we do your seminar or read this description. Is thinking about God theology? I actually think not, but you think it is so. I think theology is when one accepts (faith) the religious writings and then seeks to understand them. To just try to understand them as rational thought and compare them to other systems of thought seems to be something else which I would call philosophy. Does it make a difference? Yes. Philosophical freedom of thought in academia is quite different than theological freedom of thought and it seems the two get mixed up most of the time such that some theologians feel free to question doctrine and think their positions theologically valid whereas they in fact have philosophical validity of sorts but as Rome points out to their dismay, they are in error. The lack of realizing this distinction results in whole schools of confusion and in organizations of the confused like the Catholic Theological Society! Ha, Ha.
9 years 5 months ago
I know very little about John Calvin. The little I do know I have learned from the writer Marilynne Robinson. She wrote a very interesting and insightful piece for the Spring 2008 Harvard Divinity Bulletin titled Credo. Here is a quote from Credo: "My habit for a long time has been to consider disputed and in some cases discarded doctrines on the theory that if in the past thoughtful people have found them meaningful, they might in fact be meaningful, though, of course, meaningful is not the same as wholly sufficient or correct. Take for example the two terms in that venerable controversy, free will versus predestination. There are problems associated with both of them, but in such great matters problems are to be expected, and problems have their own interest and their own implications. In the universe that is the knowledge of God, opposed beliefs can be equally true, and equally false, and, at the same time, complementary, because contradiction and anomaly are the effect of our very limited understanding. As a writer it is important to me to remember always, or as often as I can, that we inhabit a reality far larger and more complex than our conception of it can in any way reflect. I am speaking not only of time and causality, but also of the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts. . . ." http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news/bulletin_mag/articles/36-2/robinson.html
9 years 5 months ago
Dear Fr. Clooney, I want to thank you for these reflections on Hindu thought. I hope in a future posting you might help us better understand how we can apply the word ''God'' to the Hindu deity. I meant that respectfully. What is the Church's teaching on where this word can be applied when considering Hindu thought? Unlike Islam, Hinduism does not hold to the ''God of Abraham'', and in fact rejects many core beliefs about our standard views on monotheism. This is not to deny the obvious--that we can learn something from Hindu tradition--but to wonder how we can appropriately use the word ''God'' when talking about Hinduism. It's an honest question and not meant to be derogatory.
9 years 5 months ago
I appreciate your posts about Hinduism. I became interested in it when I was a teen and I still have a lot of affection for it, though I'm now a Catholic. I've also been reading some of the lectures of Keith Ward, who writes of other world religions, including Hinduism.


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