On Francis X Clooney’s, Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics – AAR 2021

Mario Aguilar
Sunday 21 November 2021

My contribution to the panel organised by the Hindu-Christian Society at the AAR 2021 annual meeting in San Antonio, TX that celebrated the prize awarded to this book by Professor Francis X Clooney SJ (Harvard Divinity School).

AAR 2021 Panel on FX Clooney, Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics: Why and How Deep Learning Still Matters. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2019.

(c) Mario I. Aguilar

First, my congratulations to Francis Clooney for his award, well deserved because of his writing of a book that gave us an insight into the delights of devotion and action. Being a series of distinguished lectures, the book sits within the ongoing spoken human word that then becomes shruti, what is heard, and finally what is read. For it is here that the contribution of this book comes clearly to us: its nature is as complex as the tensions between action and devotion within Indian religions. In preparing these few words I am aware that all speakers could give a summary of the book and create a kind of lectio divina in which meanings are aloof and contributions sweet. Thus, following Mikael Bakhtin sense of reading a novel and celebrating a carnival I have decided to share some of my own re-readings of the text following the Bakhtinian possibility that the reader recreates the text in a completely different manner.

Deep learning comes out of a process of slow reading and therefore of experiencing the text in a way that contradicts the fastness of information theology in which very quickly we know the superficiality and generality of a text but rarely know the long, well-savoured depth of the text that seems to change with age, positionality and generationality. In his own words, Clooney’s goal ‘has been to win over willing readers to the great work of reading religiously and interreligiously, in a way that satisfies and nourishes mind and heart’.[1] For it seems to be a truism that readers and scholars of texts that become religious in the way they dictate canons of experience have set paths of understanding and experience such as that of Clooney in ways that have surprised others with their variety and sub liminality. For example, Romila Thapar on reading texts on the figure of Śakuntalā has argued that ‘underlying this exercise is the suggestion that an item of literature, as a narrative, relates to history, not for what it says which is anyway fictional, but for what it might indicate as being historically significant’.[2] For Thapar there is a constant dialogue between the past and the present, outlined by contemporary readings and commentaries taken by Clooney on Hindu and Christian texts and their interpretative diversity.

One wonders if regional variations on text as outlined by Cezary Galewicz for 19th century India could be considered ‘deep learning’. For the text as a book evolved out of a diachronically developed sense of learning so that Galewicz has argued that ‘the Veda commenced as a memorized book and, in time -though reluctantly- incorporated its written and printed avatars, yet never broke the link with sound, the rhythm, and the performance.[3] And it is in these variations of materiality that I choose one part of Clooney’s book in order to outline the magnificent consistency of the writings of a scholar and a practitioner of such parallel truths that become object of the material connection with the Divinity.

For the materiality of religion is taken for granted and texts seem to deliver truths and doctrines that aim at an other-worthily world in which everything will be revealed and understood. Materiality becomes one of my favourites parts of Clooney’s work: The Admirable Secret of the Most Holy Rosary (French) and One Hundred Linked Verses on the Holy Word of Mouth (Tamil). These are experiential works that according to Clooney ‘expect for their readers a heightening of experience and a participation in revered words arising from experience.’[4] Of my particular interest is the rosary, not only because it is a widespread Catholic devotion, but it is also a material object present in other world religions such as Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. In Catholicism has a significant place because in Clooney’s explanation ‘what is taught by way of instruction in the catechism and investigated in doctrine is now enacted in the recitation of the rosary’.[5] The slow reading´s effects, according to Clooney, ´take their time´, and he still could be persuaded to return to its daily recitation.[6]

The reading of texts proposed by Clooney opens avenues of further reading described as ‘unrelenting, because it expects no closure in the short run, only a series of smaller moments of completion, as each book is read and put aside for a moment, before it is opened again.’[7] Thus, returning to the materiality of the rosary could one suggest that every Hail Mary, or OM, or name of God recited is only a material and sensorial way of writing? For discussions on orality and literacy as opposed categories have created an uneasy colonial hermeneutics of worlds opposed and worlds disposed. Indeed, Christianity proposes such dichotomy in a post-reformed manner between the experiential of the sacramental mystery and the material ownership and reading of the biblical texts. Hinduism proposes an immaterial sense of post-material order through karma and samsara but with the same tension and unavoidable devotional challenge of stressing one or the other.

It is within such tension that Clooney brings the light of scholarship to such slow reading by conferring an intimate and forgotten secret: that in such slow process Truths are revealed and that they can be different one from the other. There is a remnant of Raimon Panikkar here, in that at least as a reader, one can partake of the experience of being a Hindu and a Christian, and a Buddhist, without upsetting the path of somebody else. Thus, Fr Clooney argues that ‘we no longer read the great books that have formed our traditions, and because we no longer have the patience, humility, and dispositions to read slowly, for as long as it takes, without any craving for immediate results’.[8]

Clooney brings out the plausibility that scholarship is a heroic slow reading of what we don´t know, the need to assert who we are not, with the social fruits of ‘unbordering religion’, following the challenging work by Navjet K. Purewal and Virinder S. Kalra on India and Pakistan.[9] Indeed, there is a certain universality on such caution that goes back to monastic rules of ancient times and the Rule of St Benedict: ‘the meals of the brethren should not be without reading. Nor should the reader be anyone who happens to take up the book; but there should be a reader for the whole week, entering that office on Sunday.’[10] For it is plausible if not impossible to dwell among the diverse voices of those devoid of authority within knowledge such as the poor and the excluded when in ‘the formation of enunciative modalities, Michel Foucault articulated the first question to be asked to 19th century doctors and that could be asked to all speakers in the text as well as to Fr Clooney: ‘who is speaking? Who, among the totality of speaking individuals, is accorded the right to use this sort of language? Who is qualified to do so?’.[11]

The qualified in 21st century is not the one who does not challenge but the one who acquires wisdom and truth. Thus, Fr Clooney’s proposal ‘is to balance depth and conviction by a serious engagement in learning deeply and in a sustained fashion from another religion’.[12] Dialogue then takes place between traditions through the reader and the wisdom that seems parallel provides an enrichment, one through the other. And the act of reading and studying is also complemented by writing, so that in the words of Fr Clooney ‘we write, but none of our writings can be the final word. Books lead to more books.’[13] For can one end a eulogy or a commentary of this prized book and prized author without referring to a comparative theology and reason? Indeed, I feel the temptation of doing so but I better relent from such exploration, known to those readers of Fr Clooney’s writings. I prefer to return to the sensorial and even the emotional reading of a classic, for example, the Gita in which the questions of life and death, of karma and kinship seem eternal through an ongoing relentless slow reading. For Fr Clooney is correct in assuming that the future depends on such slow reading because the past is gone and the present going while the future brings the realisation of the slowness of reading and writing. For these insights and a book to be read again and again my greetings and congratulations to Frank Clooney.


Mario I. Aguilar

University of St. Andrews

November 2021

[1]  FX Clooney, Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics: Why and How Deep Learning Still Matters. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2019, p. xx.

[2] Romila Thapar, Sakuntala: Texts, Readings, Histories. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

[3] Cezary Galewicz, Kingdoms of Memory, Empires of Ink: The Veda and the Regional Print Cultures of Colonial India. Krakow: Jagiellonian University Press, 2020, p. 31.

[4] Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics p. 119.

[5] Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics p. 121.

[6] Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics p. 135.

[7] Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics pp. 158-159.

[8] Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics p. xix.

[9] Navjet K. Purewal and Virinder S. Kalra, Beyond Religion in India and Pakistan: Gender and Caste Borders and Boundaries. London: Bloomsbury, 2019.

[10] The Rule of Saint Benedict. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2001, Chapter 38.

[11] Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge. London and New York: Routledge, 1989, p. 50.

[12] Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics p. 16.

[13] Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics p. 159.

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