I AM EVANGELISING CHRISTIANS
An Interview with Prof. Francis X. Clooney, S.J.,
Divinity School, Harvard University

Frontline, Volume 22 - Issue 19, Sep 10 - 23, 2005
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU



Fr. Francis X Clooney, S.J.
Photo Credit: V. Ganesan


Jesuit Fr. Francis X. Clooney began his academic career as an instructor in English at St. Xavier's High School in Kathmandu in 1973. Thirty-two years later, he is Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology at the Divinity School of Harvard University in the United States. The journey, however, is striking not only in terms of the distance covered and the distinctions earned. For a Roman Catholic priest like Fr. Clooney, it has also been a spiritual journey with a mission - re-discovering and re-presenting to the Western world the rich traditions of the Indian subcontinent. In a sense, he is part of a long list of Christian missionaries and Western scholars - Hermann Gundert, Rev. G.U. Pope, Max Müller, Fr. Johann Ernst Hanxleden (better known as Arnos Pathiri to Malayalees), Fr. Heinrich Roth and others - who pioneered the systematic study of the region's religious, philosophical, linguistic and cultural treasures. Yet Fr. Clooney is different, too, because his main audience is the Christians back home, whose hearts and minds he wishes to influence.

A native of New York, Fr. Clooney joined the Society of Jesus in 1968 and was ordained in 1978. He taught theology at the Boston College from 1984 until he joined Harvard in July this year. He has been a visiting professor at the University of Chicago and the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley and Fellow at the Centre for Theological Inquiry at Princeton, and was Academic Director, Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, at the Oxford University in the United Kingdom during 2002-04. Fr. Clooney held the post of the Jesuits' Coordinator for Inter-Religious Dialogue in the U.S. from 1998 to 2004.

A distinguished theologian and a scholar of Indian religious traditions, especially Sri Vaisnavism, Fr. Clooney is one of the pioneers of the relatively new discipline of comparative theology. His important books include Hindu Wisdom for All God's Children (1998), Hindu God, Christian God: How Reason Helps Break Down the Boundaries Between Religions (2001) and Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary (2005). He translated and introduced, along with Indian Jesuit Fr. Anand Amaladoss, a collection of essays written by the 16th century Italian Jesuit missionary to India, Fr. Robert de Nobili - Preaching Wisdom to the Wise: Three Treatises by Robert de Nobili in Dialogue with the Learned Hindus of South India (2000). Fr. de Nobili's life and work - adopting the lifestyle of a Hindu sanyasi, sticking to a vegetarian diet, learning and writing in Sanskrit and Tamil, engaging Hindu scholars in philosophical and religious dialogues - is of considerable interest in contemporary debates in the Catholic Church about "inculturation" (indigenising Christianity) and inter-religious dialogue. Fr. Clooney is a prolific writer and many articles and book reviews by him have appeared in various Western and Indian journals of theology and philosophy.

In Chennai recently to attend the inaugural seminar of the Institute of Dialogue with Religions and Cultures and the De Nobili Research Centre at Loyola College, Fr. Clooney spoke to Nandagopal R. Menon. Excerpts:

How did you come to develop an interest in Indian culture and Hinduism?

My background is very traditional Catholic American. Basically an Irish Catholic, I grew up in New York City with no real exposure to other cultures and religions until I finished college. After college, I went to Kathmandu for two years to teach at St. Xavier's High School. All the boys in the school were either Hindu or Buddhist. I found that to teach them I needed to learn from them first. So, for the first time in my life I was reading the Bhagvad Gita, the Ramayana and the stories of the Buddha in order to discuss them with the boys. I would go with them to the temple, to hear bhajans and so on. In that context, I found that I was growing more interested in both Hinduism and Buddhism and very much wanted to keep that as a part of my life as a Jesuit priest.

So after ordination in 1978, I did a doctorate in Indian studies at the University of Chicago. At this point I had to learn two languages, one of which had to be classical - either Persian or Sanskrit or Pali - and I took Sanskrit; and then one Indian language, for which I chose Tamil. This gave me the range of possibilities of reading the Darsanas in Sanskrit, the Upanishads, the Bhagvad Gita and so on and in Tamil, the [works of the] Nayanmars and the Alwars, Sangam literature and so on. I became very interested in South India, in the Sanskrit and Tamil traditions. Sri Vaisnavism became a focus for me.

What is comparative theology? Is its objective similar to or different from comparative studies done in the fields of, say, literature or culture? In the latter the primary aim is to identify contrasts and similarities. Does comparative theology go beyond this?

It does. There are two disciplines that are fairly well established. One is comparative religion. It is more or less like being a scientist in a laboratory, where the scientist studies different religions looking for common interests, sorting out the differences and then writing objectively about them. The other is theology of religions, which is a Christian theological discipline of trying to make judgments about other religions in the light of the Christian faith. For instance, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger [Pope Benedict XVI] writing Dominus Iesus [a 2000 Vatican document that reaffirmed the uniqueness and necessity of the Catholic Church and Jesus Christ in achieving salvation]. But the theology of religions is usually vague because it talks about "the religions" in general. The subject could be Judaism, Hinduism, or any other religion.

So what I tried to do with comparative theology - which is an old term from 1700, but which I was reinventing - was to use "comparative" and "theological" together. This discipline deals with one's own faith and background, but also then comparing across religious boundaries. My ideal is that somebody in one religious tradition would take time to study another religious tradition in some depth and then ask the question: How does studying this other religious tradition affect me personally, my community, my Church and so on? So it is a kind of back-and-forth process of learning from similarities and differences, but basically taking them to heart - learning from the other and allowing it to change your life.

Can you elaborate with reference to your latest work on the Blessed Virgin Mary and three Hindu goddesses?

I have done different projects over the years - in the Darsanas, Purva Mimamsa, Advaita Vedanta, Ramanuja's Vishista Advaita. Then I did Hindu God, Christian God, on themes in Christian theology and how they were developed also by Hindu theologians. It dealt with technical themes showing that theologians exist both in the Hindu and Christian traditions. But in that book I did not talk about gender, I did not talk about male-female issues, or about the ideas of god and goddess - in the U.S. context today these are hot issues... . So too, women in the Church and in religion, what God is like and so on. And I decided that what I wanted to do was to take up the theme of goddesses in the Hindu religion in order to make Americans understand the goddess traditions of India.

So, the first part of it was simply to choose three goddess texts. I chose three hymns - Sri Guna Ratna Kosa, Saundarya Lahari and Abhirami Andhadhi - and wrote a chapter each explaining the goddess hymns to a Christian, Western audience, which often has a very superficial understanding about goddesses. I explained them in some depth in the tradition and then, as a comparative theologian, explored what these goddesses can mean for Christians. My book does not say that a Christian should worship Abhirami or pray to Lakshmi - which would be difficult for a Christian. Instead, it compares the goddesses with the Virgin Mary in the Catholic tradition. It does not say that Mary is the goddess or the goddesses are Mary, but rather that there are interesting ways in which Mary has a place of reverence just like one of the goddesses.

In what ways? Can you give some examples?

These goddesses are supreme mother figures, supreme women; they are beautiful, gracious; they are purusakara (mediator), they are the vehicles of grace for the world; people often find salvation by going to the goddess, by praying to the goddess. In the Christian tradition, in theory, you can go straight to god, or to Jesus. There is no need for goddesses. But in fact, so many Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox pray to Mother Mary. And Mary is the beautiful one, the gracious one, the Mother. For many people it seemed easier to pray to Mary than directly to Jesus or to God. So you pray to Jesus, then you pray to the Mother of Jesus.

But it is basically for intercession, or mediation... .

Yes. So it is not exactly the same because Devi in the Saundarya Lahari is supreme Goddess. Mary is not supreme that way, but for many Christians Mary is Number 1, or seems to be so.

Apparently, your study has important implications for the debate about gender and the divine - God seen and understood in exclusively masculine terms in official theology and popular imagination - one of the important concerns of feminist theology.

In the first chapter of the book I take up explicitly the issues of feminist thought and feminist theology because of the great concern expressed by many women today in the West. They are concerned about changing language, changing thought patterns in order to think from the perspective of the woman instead of just that of the male. So there is a great debate in the West now about the female image, the female way of thinking, the female body as opposed to the male body in culture. Many feminists go back in ancient Europe looking for the goddesses before Christianity. But very few of these feminists ever pay attention to India. They act as if only searching in European ground for statues of goddesses is a way to understand. Whereas my point is that you have thousands of years of hymns, puranas and other texts in India that talk very intelligently about God and Goddess, male and female, how to think about the similarities and differences, and what does it mean to be male and female. I hope to get Western feminists, religious or not religious, to pay attention more to India and what we can learn from the Indian traditions.

You primarily work across two traditions - Hinduism and Catholic Christianity. Christianity is a coherent whole (all Christian denominations agree on the Nicene Creed, the Bible is the religious book), whereas Hinduism is best understood as a culture with a religious dimension to it. Moreover, there is practically nothing that unites the innumerable schools of thought, and gods and goddesses of Hinduism. Does this pose any particular challenge to doing comparative theology?

Modern scholars often ask where the word "Hinduism" came from. It is so much of a modern word. If you read back in the ancient texts, people were not calling themselves "Hindu". And I think there is a great diversity in the Indian traditions, such a variety of theistic, non-theistic... So any comparison between Christianity and religion in India is only imperfect, or partial. But what I do is, therefore, try to narrow it down to some text, to some period of time, to one tradition. For instance, the Sri Vaisnava tradition is not all of Hinduism by any means, but reading Ramanuja, reading Nammalvar, reading Vedanta Desika, you have a coherent piece of Hinduism, a piece of Hindu tradition. And that is similar to coherent pieces of Christian theology, Christian religion. But also, particularly when I am teaching, I try to help my students understand that there is much greater variety in Hinduism, that there is no figure like the Pope trying to establish the identity. But if one merely says "Hinduism can be anything", that would be too much, since then you could say almost anything. One must be specific. I never claim to speak all about Hinduism, I try to be much more selective. That is why in writing Divine Mother, Blessed Mother, I picked only three hymns. I could not speak about all goddesses, but I picked three texts with their commentaries.

You seem to concentrate on the Brahminical traditions of Indian religion. Have you studied the non-Brahminical ones as well?

Actually I have done it very little. Examples might be in the Tamil context, ancient Sangam poetry, or Silappadikaram. Great texts like those are not Brahminical texts, they are classics of Tamil literature. But for me as a Western scholar who only visits India sometimes, the problem in dealing with non-Brahminical traditions is that many of them are often not written in books. You have to spend much more time in the villages, spending time interviewing people, observing rituals, festivals and so on. Whereas if you are dealing with written traditions then you can use the texts, the commentaries. So it is actually easier for me to deal with Tamil texts, Sanskrit texts, and these tend, though not always, to be more Brahminical, or at least within the Brahminical tradition. I think I would need a different set of skills to do field work among other communities in India. I do not write about non-Brahminical Hinduism, though it is important, because as a scholar I do not think I have the skills.

If comparative theology draws inspiration, methods and concerns from other traditions, does it not undermine the uniqueness of the faiths in question? In your case, Catholicism. Does it not lead to religious relativism?

I want to remain a Catholic. You have to understand that when I write about India or make comparisons I am basically writing for a Christian audience. I would not presume to write for a Hindu audience, or explain to a Sri Vaisnava what is Sri Vaisnavism or to a Saivite what is Saivism. So I am basically trying to teach my own people and speak in the Christian tradition. I think relativism - the danger that Pope Benedict XVI is worried about - comes in when people remain on the generic level and say all the religions are the same or everything is as good as everything else. But when you get specific and spend your time studying certain texts, reading certain traditions, you notice very clearly that another tradition really is a coherent tradition, and not the same as one's own. It is good to notice this.

I have spent a lot of time reading Sri Vaisnava texts and my respect for the tradition keeps going up. But I think I can also point out ways in which it is not the same as being Roman Catholic. The relativist would be the person who says Sri Vaisnavism and Catholicism are basically the same, or there is no difference. But I am aware that both traditions have great claims to make, they are deep faiths. And as a visitor to the South Indian traditions - I can only be a visitor because it is very hard to worship God in two different ways - I come back to my own tradition bringing in great respect and learning. But I think at the end of the day, I am still a Roman Catholic.

Is assimilation possible?

I think it is always imperfectly possible. If I was a perfectionist I would probably stop doing what I am doing because to assimilate a Hindu tradition perfectly I would have to be Roman Catholic and Hindu at the same time. I cannot do that. A reader who reads my work - a Vaisnava reader, a Saiva reader - may find things that I did not get correct, or things I missed. But I think in today's world we have such fragmentation that it is worth the effort for people to cross over to the other religious tradition. Even if you do it imperfectly, you still are building bridges, even if they are not 100 per cent perfect bridges. But you are making connections, you are helping people talk to each other.

Ignorance is the great danger. People are caricaturing others, they are hating others without knowing them. So building up knowledge and making the connections is worth the effort even if it cannot be done perfectly. Again, that is my goal - to make the bridges, make the connections. And I hope that other people would do the same in other contexts. So if I am doing more Brahminical work, somebody could go and do something more at the popular level that I cannot do. If some Sri Vaisnava would like to read the Catholic tradition closely, that would be wonderful because that would be the reverse of what I am doing. So you need other people to do more, but I am doing only what one person can do.

Do you think Fr. Robert de Nobili's approach to "inculturation" and understanding the "other's" faith has relevance in the contemporary Indian context, given its overt and controversial links with Brahminical Hinduism?

Fr. de Nobili was a great pioneer. Coming to Madurai in 1606, 400 years back, he was trying to figure out what to do to be a Christian in Indian society. And there was no book, no guide. So he was inventing as he went along. To some extent I think he does show the way, trying to argue that we should not overwhelm India with European culture, and that European culture is not better than Indian culture. And that is why he dressed like a sanyasi and did not eat meat and did not drink alcohol, learned Tamil and wrote books in Tamil. He was trying not to be a colonialist or an imperialist nor, once you read his writings, can you say that he was hiding his identity.

But when you go to the next step - what did he learn from the Hindu traditions? - he does not show great openness to learning from Vaisnavism or Saivism or Vedanta. He was a missionary very much aimed at ultimately converting people. I think that in today's world people still need to witness to their own faith. But we need a more positive attitude to other people's religious traditions than Fr. de Nobili showed. In his time, his solution was to argue: find a Brahmin, sit down and argue about which is the true religion. Today that is very hard to do, and I think it is much more necessary that before you argue, you first begin to understand. I think he is a model to some extent, against colonial imperialism. But when it comes to true religious openness we should go much further than he did.

How do you strike a balance between the demands of dialogue and evangelisation?

That is a hard question. John Paul II kept saying in his papacy that both are important. At least I can say that preaching the gospel, witnessing to Christ, and dialogue, both have to be the work of Christians. Some people, possibly even Pope Benedict XVI, will say that dialogue is only a part of evangelisation. But I do not agree with that. I think both are important in themselves. So too, when I say "evangelisation" I mean that I have to be honest about what I actually believe. I have to be able to speak to people about what is most important to me. So to bear witness to Christ means that I should be able to get up in an assembly and talk about why Christ is important to me. I do not believe that one has to go further and say the main thing is to figure out how to get Hindus or Muslims to become Christians. The person I keep converting is myself, not the people I meet.

I realise some people will disagree with me. But the main thing is to be honest about the riches of Christ, the beauty of Christ in today's world. But if that turns into a programme of getting more members for the Church, I am not eager to do that. And I think some of the Protestant Churches are much more evangelical in the sense of converting people. The Catholic approach, in general terms, is running the school, the hospital, working with the poor... . It is not necessarily aimed at converting a few people, but rather at acting with love, as Jesus would act.

Preaching the gospel should not overwhelm the importance of being in dialogue with other people. But it is very hard to keep the balance between the two because it may seem to people who are not Christian that all you really want to do is make them Christians. I think to some extent they are right in being suspicious; there should be some suspicion in the light of the long history of Christians trying to convert people. But my job is to convert Christians, to open their minds and hearts to learn from the other traditions. In a sense, I am evangelising the Christian population. Luckily, I am not the Pope, so I do not have to solve the problem of how to balance everything exactly.

What are your current research interests?

I am now writing a little book on a Jesuit from the 18th century, Fr. Jean-Venance Bouchet. He was a missionary in Madurai and Karnataka; he was also a scholar, who did research on the Hindu traditions, wrote little books in Tamil and so on.

Fr. Bouchet came to Asia to go to Thailand. But as soon as he got to Thailand, about 1690, there was a coup and the king was overthrown and the Jesuits were expelled from the country. So he came to Pondicherry, stayed in Tamil Nadu and built some churches. Then he was sent to Andhra Pradesh and to Karnataka to build churches.

But he was also in a sense one of the first anthropologists. He would write 50-page letters to France describing the customs of Indians and Indian beliefs, the Indian legal system, Indian views of religion, Indian views of reincarnation and so on, trying to communicate to the Europeans what the Indian people believed. Fr. Bouchet was part of the beginning of the tradition of Europeans studying India - something like Indology. He is kind of beginning of the modern study of Hinduism, which is critical but also tries to learn as much as possible about India and communicate it to the Europeans.

My other major project is on Vedanta Desika, the great Sri Vaisnava theologian of the 14th century. I am reading one of his greatest works, the Rahasyatrayasaram, which is one of his last works, written when he was over 90 years old and living in Srirangam in Tamil Nadu. In it he wrote a complete Sri Vaisnava theology stressing prapatti (perhaps, surrender to God). I am trying to study the text, and through it to understand what he meant by prapatti, how he interpreted the Tirumantram, the Dvaya Mantra, and the Carama Sloka, and what he saw the Sri Vaisnava theology and practice to be.

As I develop the book, I intend to draw a parallel with one of the classics of Christian spirituality and study how a Christian theologian like St. Ignatius of Loyola [founder of the Society of Jesus] or St. Francis de Sales tried to inspire people to love God. Here too, the goal is how a Catholic can learn from Vedanta Desika. I want to ask, can Vedanta Desika inspire Catholics to love God more than they did previously?

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