Teaching God at Harvard, Spring 2009

Hindu and ChristianCambridge. One of the nice things about having a blog with America is that in my bi-weekly piece I can write about anything I want — including less talked about topics, such as what I, a professor, actually teach. We devote a lot of time, energy, and thought to our courses and hope that students profit from them; but it is relatively rare to speak about the what and the why of what we teach, what drives and nourishes our intellectual lives.* So I hope you bear with me as I devote two entries to my courses this semester.
     My lecture course this semester — twice a week, 90 minutes each time, about 32 students — is God: Hindu and Christian, described in the catalogue as follows: "This course reflects on God in historical, theological, and spiritual terms, attending to classical Christian and Hindu traditions. Issues include: the definition of God; proof/s for God’s existence; God’s relationship to the world, humans; divine embodiment; grace, revelation, way of knowing God. Treated also is the reflexive question: how might comparative study change our understanding of God? Paired with Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary (Fall 2009), this course does not specifically treat gender-related issues."
     In this God course, we read back and forth between the Biblical and Hindu traditions. After some introductory articles on “God” in the Christian and Hindu traditions, we read a series of Hebrew Bible texts: creation in Genesis 1-2, Exodus 3 (the burning bush), 19-20 (at Sinai), Isaiah 44 on God’s passionate love for his people and intense dislike for image worship, Hosea 12 on God’s tender maternal love, plus several New Testament texts (particularly the last four chapters of the Gospel according to Matthew — a powerful mix of images of Jesus and his Father, God seen in many ways). Alongside these texts we are also reading ancient Vedic hymns praising Indra, Visnu, Shiva, plus several Indian creation myths of the cosmic Person from whom the world comes forth, part of the Bhagavad Gita, and a famed myth of Shiva who shocks hostile sages by showing the true meaning of God.
     Next week, we move into a more conceptual course segment which addresses several large questions: Can the existence of God be proven? Can human words and images communicate to us something positive regarding God? What do we mean when we say that God is good, merciful, just, powerful? For this, we read some articles on Hindu and Christian views of thinking and speaking of God. Our focus then is on section I.13 of the Summa Theologiae (on naming God) and part of the “A Summation of Hindu Theology” (Vedarthasamgraha) of the Hindu theologian Ramanuja, in which he defends his view that the Ultimate Reality (Brahman) is none other than his God, Narayana. Yet even after defending the right and necessity of speaking of God, we can still ask: where do we draw the line between thinking we know something of God, and wisely growing silent because we cannot speak? A final part of the course therefore delves into that negative theology, with the Mystical Theology of Dionysius the Areopagite, and part of the medieval Hindu Siva Jnana Bodham (“Realizing Knowledge of Siva.”) The course ends with a chapter from Raimundo Pannikar’s recent small book, The Experience of God.
     The back and forth between the two traditions is in a way a double burden, trying to deal with two sets of complex traditions in a short space. Ideally, we should learn one tradition and then the other, in turn — but life is short and sometimes things need to be done more quickly. Yet it is also refreshing to read inside the Christian tradition and outside it. It is so very easy to become too comfortable or too angst-ridden when facing the prospect of several millennia of Christian reflection on God. To turn to the Hindu traditions (just as in another course one might look more fully to Judaism, or to Islam, or even to the religions of East Asia) opens the way for an infusion of new images and ideas, related to different practices, sometimes for different purposes — and certainly within a different, long history of religion that for millennia was quite outside the West and not burdened with our intellectual and religious problems (while India, of course, had its own history and problems). As everyone says nowadays, we learn our own religion much better when we learn another too.
     Our classroom discussions have been most interesting. At Harvard Divinity School — a great mix of every approach to religion, with a very diverse group of students, conservative to liberal, Christian and not, believer and not — every intelligent view, rooted in study, must be taken seriously; and very many views do indeed arise in the classroom, not all of them reconcilable. As ever, I learn a great deal from my students, just as I hope that they are learning from me and from our readings.
     As I have told my students, the title of the course — “God” — is more important than the subtitle — “Hindu and Christian.” My hope (it is only the 4th week of a 12 week course) is that we can find ways to deepen and energize God-talk, tradition-specific and yet too across traditions, in a world where even in religious studies circles “God” seems to be a problem, question, option, remnant, rather than a recognition and testimony that is both spiritual and intellectual. I make it clear that I myself am intending a strong retrieval of God-language, in resistance to the tendency to reduce it to matters of history, hermeneutics, postmodernity, postliberalism, Eurocentrism, etc. I would not press my views on my students, but I want them to think carefully about what they read, and settle for no easy or stereotypical answers about Christian or Hindu beliefs in and about God.
     While it might seem easier to learn of God entirely from Christian sources only, I think not: we need a larger, more inclusive language of God that is not entirely indebted to the Christian West, even if in faith and by grace I and most of my students will still find the center of our lives within the Christian community. We do well to learn from India’s very long history of reflection on God and gods, Goddess and goddesses, if we are to speak intelligently of the God in whom we believe and to whom we pray. Faith ought to be single-minded, but theology has a duty to be broad and ever more open to new learning.
     Next time I write, I will take up the seemingly esoteric subject of my seminar: Ramanuja’s Vedarthasamgraha.
(*Book plug: For more extended and biographical reflections by Jesuits on their research and teaching, take a look at the 2006 book I edited, Jesuit Postmodern: Scholarship, Vocation, and Identity in the 21st Century)

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9 years 11 months ago
This sounds like a very interesting course and study. I took a somewhat similar course called, "The Philosophy of God". This was in the 1970's from Fr. J. Reichmann, SJ, a Thomist philosopher mainly. The course looked at God from the point of view of philosophical speculation by Christians, Muslims, and Hindu points of view, plus some "process and other philosophers. All a very worthwhile program of study.
9 years 11 months ago
Thanks for all these suggested books. My friend Thomas Matus, OSB Cam has written a book and it has just been published. The title of the Book is "Ashram Diary". It is a diary Matus kept while he lived with his friend the late Bede Griffiths, OSB Cam at Shantivanam (Forest of Peace) Ashram in Tamil Nadu, India. http://ashramdiary.gaia.com/blog/2009/2/reading_from_ashram_diary (cut and paste on browser)
9 years 11 months ago
Prof. Clooney, As always very instructive! As a Hindu myself who follows articles on this website intermittently, one aspect of mimamsa that may serve this article well is the discussion by mimamsakas on the non-provability and non-disprovability of God. Best, MMK


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