Professor Francis X. Clooney, S. J. – The Transformation of the person through reading sacred texts

Professor Francis X. Clooney, S. J. – The Transformation of the person through reading sacred texts

Harvard Parkman Professor of Divinity and director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University, Francis X. Clooney, gave a talk at Peking University today on:

Comparative Theology and Interreligious Dialogue

The event took place in the Moonlight Hall of the Yingjie Center of Peking University on June 16, 2013. The following text is a brief extract from the talk.

Welcome to Peking University

Following the invitation of The Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies by its director and Confucian ethicist Tu Weiming, Professor Clooney shared with Peking professors and students his life-long experiences as a Jesuit, priest, and academic who early on engaged in Hindu studies and comparative theology.

Two principal methods to study otherness

Outlining the two principal approaches to study foreign religions, Professor Clooney confessed that he preferred the classical one: the reading of the religious text, the study of the foreign language and culture, and the textual analysis. Only after having done this, after knowing the sacred texts in detail, a dialogue with representatives of the other faith is meaningful.

“I was reading Hindu scripts as a Roman catholic, of course; that’s how it started. But I ended up with a Hindu perspective, too, afterwards.”

Father Clooney continued that he always studied the texts, and wasn’t particular active in the international dialogue scene, which is the second approach to study foreign religions, he said.

“I do not engage in interreligious dialogue so often. Often, those who engage in dialogue meet and talk and then bid farewell again, but they don’t know the other tradition very well. It is all peaceful and friendly, but there is no real connection. I studied Hinduism as a Christian, so the main dialogue is already going on in my own head.”

Intensively studying another religion and facing the radical otherness can be a very liberating experience, Prof. Clooney explained: “My heart and mind go back and forth all the time.”

Read the books

Comparative theology is a form of reading. You do not depend on other people: “You read the book; you study on your own. You will get all those fascinating and elucidating views, insights, and surprises.”

Interreligious dialogue is a form of talking. You talk to each other about faith and shared values. You part again. This is important as far as any conversation goes, but it cannot substitute for reading and comparative theology:

“No matter how much your talk, if you want to really understand the foreign tradition, as a scholar you have to read the texts. There is no way around it.”

On Translation

“People of different traditions have always been in contact, not necessarily in person, of course, but they translated each other works. This method of ‘crossing the boundaries’ has been undertaken for thousands of years. It is a continuing process.”

On Difference

“I didn’t think that the various cultures that exist are the same, but I also didn’t think that they are totally different.”

On Future Dialogue

“We have no choice. Those of us who studied the text, we now also need to engage in dialogue. I explain that: It was very common that scholars could reside at Harvard, Oxford, or Princeton University, and so on, and we would never meet someone [of the Orientals]. We would talk to each other about them. This is the past.”

Today’s university campus is diverse

“In the past, scholars could do what they want; their authority was hardly ever questioned, and there was little or no accountability. Now it’s different. I go out and see people of all backgrounds at Harvard. They can come to me and ask me what I am writing, what is my idea on this etc. Scholarship is very open now. I have also found that even when I write and publish a book with a Christian audience in mind, it will almost inevitably read by Hindus, and maybe not even read but at least the word of existence of such a book spread around the world, and it is not uncommon that a reader from India will comment on it, or write me an email, or even criticize me.

This brings us to the crucial question in this internet age: who has the right to give an “expert opinion” in the absence of [academic] accountability? Who is the expert, the practitioner or the scholar? For example, many practitioners of Hinduism who are not academics may come to me and say: This is not what we do. Or: You don’t know that, because you are not a real Hindu. How should I reply; do I just say: Thank you, but I do what I want?

This ‘insider versus outsider’ problem is very real. We don’t like it if other people know too much about our religion. If they know just a little, that’s alright. But we might know more than them. That makes them upset.”

Transformation of the Scholar of Other Religions

Comparative Theology always promotes the transformation of the person. My view is that studying another religion for so many years – you will stay a Christian, but you will also become someone who engages deeply with Hinduism – you will become both.

The Future of Comparative Theology

Increasingly, scholars will do a ‘crossing-over the boundaries’ of their own religion and culture. We have no choice for the reasons I just mentioned. At the same time we have also a responsibility to our own tradition. You see, as a Jesuit and catholic priest and scholar, I have to be recognizable as such. An advice to young scholars is to go slow and read a lot. Eventually it will get inside you. Are you still the same person? Yes, it is still you, but you have also become something more.

China, America, and Religion

I am in China for the first time and thus cannot make any predictions. I was told that China and America both share a love for the same kind of secular materialism. But I still believe that their histories are different. Religions are not going to die out anytime soon, neither here nor there, this is what I believe.

How did I become interested in Hinduism

It all started in 1975 when I finished my B.A. and traveled to Kathmandu in Nepal to teach students who happened to be all Buddhists or Hindus. I found that maybe I had learned more from them than they from me. I knew that I needed to study more about Asian traditions. 40 years later, I am still a Jesuit, priest, catholic. But I also had the Hindu knowledge coming in. It was a change of quality and color of my life, and I am grateful for this experience.

Have I practiced Hinduism

Have I practiced Hinduism? I love going to Hindu temples when in India. Do I worship in them? Maybe yes; maybe no. Temples are sacred. Chanting is sacred. Meditation is sacred. You do it but you are still not doing it the same way people do.


Oh yes, I did yoga.