Beyond CompareSt. Francis de Sales and Sri Vedanta Desika on Loving Surrender to GodFrancis X. Clooney Georgetown University Press, $34.95, 288 pp.
In the fall of 2000, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a declaration titled Dominus Iesus, reaffirming the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the centrality of the church in the plan of salvation. The declaration criticized “the eclecticism of those who, in theological research, uncritically absorb ideas from a variety of philosophical and theological contexts without regard for consistency, systematic connection, or compatibility with Christian truth.”
I have no quarrel with criticizing the breezy relativism that sometimes passes as tolerance today or the superficialities of those who dabble in “Eastern religions” without sustained study and devotion to serious spiritual practice. The Vatican congregation’s complaint about eclecticism, however, prompts an important question: What about Christians who are in fact absorbing truths from other religious traditions with great regard for “consistency, systematic connection, and compatibility with Christian truth”? I am thinking of Catholics who have been engaged in serious dialogue for many years with those who follow other religious paths—Buddhists and Jews most prominently, but increasingly Hindus and Muslims—learning their languages, studying their sacred texts, and, in some cases, sharing in their religious practices. The seriousness with which these Catholics are responding to the diversity of religions cannot be dismissed as “eclecticism.” Francis X. Clooney’s new book is a case in point.
Clooney, a Jesuit now teaching at Harvard Divinity School, has immersed himself in the study of Hindu texts for many years, incorporating the spiritual riches he has found there into his own spiritual practice and theological ruminations. His book is a work of spiritual theology that follows a close reading of a Christian spiritual classic, the Treatise on the Love of God by St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), in tandem with a Hindu classic, the Essence of the Three Auspicious Mysteries by Sri Vedanta Desika (1268-1369). This makes Clooney’s book an example of comparative theology. Clooney is not interested in fitting Hinduism into the framework of Christian salvation by means of a theology of religions. Neither is he offering an example of “comparative religion,” if this means taking a standpoint outside both Christianity and Hinduism and working out “objective” comparisons. Instead, Clooney is exploring his own Christian spirituality by carefully reading a Christian text alongside a Hindu text. How to do theology comparatively is a question still very much in play these days. With this new book, Clooney continues to put his own mark on comparative theology.
What makes for a good comparison? Neither de Sales nor Desika uses the phrase “loving surrender to God.” Desika writes about “taking refuge” in God. De Sales writes about a “self-giving,” modeled on Christ’s death on the Cross. Both texts, however, engage Clooney’s spirituality. Reflecting on “loving surrender” is a practical way to push the texts into a lively conversation. Clooney’s goal in this “double reading” is to be enriched by the wealth of two religious traditions. He also wants us to be disturbed and disrupted by the comparisons he makes. He abandons the comforts and certainties of a comprehensive Christian theology of other religions in favor of a careful and patient reading of the two specific texts as they converge and diverge.
Clooney has much to say about the one who engages in this double reading. He wants those who read across religious boundaries to become entangled in more than one religious tradition. But there is no call for abandoning Christianity. In fact, Clooney’s double reading has drawn him more deeply into his own Christian faith. Vulnerability to the transformative power of the “other” is an important feature of Clooney’s spirituality. De Sales makes Desika familiar, but Desika makes de Sales strange. Clooney, therefore, must read the Christian saint with new questions.
Clooney is also aware that what he is up to will be met with suspicion in some quarters. Becoming implicated in another religious tradition will likely be misunderstood as syncretism, infidelity to established doctrine, or religious relativism. And here Clooney does not tread lightly: he asks us to surrender our exclusive allegiance to Christianity in order to become vulnerable to the truths of Hinduism. In doing so, a new kind of community takes shape. This is an important insight. In some respects, I have more solidarity and spiritual kinship with my Buddhist friends and teachers than I have with some Christians. Clooney can say the same thing about his Hindu friends and teachers.
This leads to a practical problem that Christians, especially Catholics after the pontificate of John Paul II, must face today. John Paul consistently taught that the Holy Spirit is present in every human prayer. This belief was the theological basis for his famous meeting with religious leaders at Assisi, which was given a decidedly chilly welcome by some members of the curia. Clooney believes that Christians can integrate Desika’s Hindu devotions into their own spiritual practice. But I have to ask: What does it mean for a Christian to pray using a Hindu mantra? Similar questions can be raised about Christians practicing Zen meditation, for example, or even praying the psalms with their Jewish neighbors. Clooney recognizes that interreligious prayer poses important theological questions for Christians today. He has little to say about how these problems might be addressed.
The great Buddhist scholar Edward Conze is reported to have spent an evening reading Butler’s Lives of the Saints. There was not one Christian saint, he claimed, that a Buddhist could admire, let alone emulate. Not all Buddhists share this view. In fact, Buddhists regularly come together with Christians for mutual enrichment. Clooney certainly sees much to admire and even emulate in Hinduism. By no means can his appropriation of Hindu truths be equated with the “eclecticism” derided by Dominus Iesus. His book is about an encounter of great depth and should receive wide attention.
Funding for this review was provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.