'Loving God Is Always a Risk'

April 9, 2015
Frank Clooney
Professor Francis Clooney. Photo: Justin Knight.

Ahead of his book talk on April 20, CSWR director and HDS professor Francis X. Clooney, S.J., opens up about the importance of comparing religious traditions, the difficulties of academic writing, and if loving God is harder today than it was centuries ago.

HDS: Your work and writings often draw on examples from Hinduism, which is a religion you study but is not your own. As a comparative theologian, why is it important for one to study and learn from religions other than one's own?

Clooney: It is commonplace to point out that "those who know only their own religion, know no religion at all." Indeed, most of what we learn, we learn through comparisons.

We see with two eyes, not one, to get two perspectives. Today in particular we live with an acute consciousness of the religious people of other faith traditions all around us—both to learn from them and to learn better who we are in relation to them.

HDS: In your latest book, His Hiding Place is Darkness, you examine the biblical Song of Songs alongside the South Indian Srivaishnava Holy Word of Mouth. Why did you choose these two texts for comparative analysis?

Clooney: I've been reading the Bible most of my life, and the Song of Songs—that most beautiful love poetry in which God is nowhere or everywhere—has already stood out as singular and inviting.

And, since about 1980, I have been reading the 1,100 verses of the Holy Word of Mouth (Tiruvaymoli), the ninth-century devotional masterwork of the Hindu saint Shatakopan, known also as Nammalvar.

After all these years, this is surely my favorite Hindu work, and it is blessed with generations of commentary as well. My sense was simply that the Song and the Holy Word "belong" together, in my study and my imagination, and then as deserving words that speak of them together: poetic tellings of the drama of lover and beloved, the intensity of word and touch between the lovers, and the pain and distress of their separation—and all of this transposed into the relation of the divine and human lovers. Commentators and preachers have done this with each for many centuries; I wanted to do it with both of them together.

HDS: You write that the theme of the book is the "reality of God as more intensely experienced in the absence of the Beloved." How did you arrive at this theme? Had you been thinking about this idea even before you began to delve more deeply into the texts you used for comparison?

Clooney: Much of the academic and public debate over God has, in recent years, been about God's existence, the very meaningfulness of "God," and new and inclusive ways of reimagining the referent of ultimate meaning with or without "God," with or without religions.

I am a Catholic, a priest, a Jesuit, and however many questions I have, I do not step away from the language and practices of my faith. I am a professor and do not dodge the acute intellectual issues, either.

So my way forward in His Hiding Place is to stay close to powerful stories of love told in poetic form, stories that speak of the absence of God, a world without God. But this is a different kind of absence, the hiding of the real, once known and loved divine lover who recedes, withdraws, and hides from those who love most.

This is the larger story. Our campus and cultural debates about secularism and post-theistic society can be seen as moments in God's love affair with the world, punctuated by moments or eras of divine presence and absence. This is what the book tries to communicate by telling its own tale of love in hiddenness across the two poetic traditions.

HDS: What were the bigger challenges you faced in doing your research and writing? Was there ever a moment where you wanted to quit or change focus? 

Clooney: The challenges in writing any book are many and complicated, and this book had its own version of the difficulties facing any scholar: translating ninth-century Tamil poetry; reading and translating for the first time commentaries from a few centuries later, from a mix of Sanskrit and Tamil; working my way through the Song of Songs in the Latin and English, even while relying on secondary sources to glimpse the Hebrew; reading medieval Christian commentaries in very helpful translations but checking every word against the original Latin; using secondary literature without making His Hiding Place into a professor's book about other professors' books.

It was also a challenge to make sense of the texts and dynamic of love and the hiddenness of love for readers who haven't done all that research themselves. I wanted to make it simple and straightforward, but not flat and obvious.

To do this, I had to seek outside my original project for like-minded readers and writers, hence my turn to the theopoetics and theodramatics of the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, to draw on his insight that the Christian story—and in my words, the Hindu story as well—is lyric and poetry and drama before and after it is doctrine and rationalized truths.

HDS: Why did you also use the poetry of your Harvard colleague Jorie Graham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet? It must have surprised readers to find her in your book.

Clooney: As I said, the challenges of the book included finding a way to write that was both disciplined and yet not chained to ways of writing that would drain the project of its energy.

I suppose one might write poetry after the Song and Holy Word; one might teach and preach after reading the medieval commentaries, Hindu and Christian. But we tend to write in academic prose.

I was seeking a writer who, in poetry and prose, was alert to the material problems of our reading and writing, and who wanted to break out of expected patterns. That Jorie Graham is a brilliant poet drew me to her highly intelligent, wildly disciplined, and spiritually vulnerable poems.

To highlight the intensity and falling short that I hoped for in my book, I used two of her poems. Early in the book, I make use of "Le Manteau de Pascal" (in The Errancy), a poem that explores the failing yet necessary utterance of words that would hold onto certainty about God.

Near the book's end, I use her Holy Saturday poem "The Taken-Down God" (in Never), which was written with a certain desperation on the edge of faith and loss, death and love, and literally on the steps of a small Italian church. My hope is to show that the theologian, to a different rhythm, likewise stands on the edge of faith and unbelief—in one's own tradition and near to stepping outside it—but in a way that can be written back inside, for the believer.

HDS: Much has been commented about the unique structure of the book. (It is divided into three acts, each separated by an entr'acte.) What was the inspiration for structuring it this way?

Clooney: Writing academically on intense religious texts is always difficult, but this book in particular was a challenge: the difficulty and subtlety of the texts, in the original and in translation; ways to balance responsible contemporary scholarship and the need to enter into the world of medieval commentators; the problem of writing prose about poetry; and the problem of structuring a book by way of a new narrative, that of myself as author, that readers can follow step by step, as participant observers.

In all of this, I wanted to do justice to the intensifying dramatic structure of the texts I was dealing with, rather than flattening them out. "Chapters" and "subchapters," the apparatus of modern academe, lack dramatic form and intensity, so I needed an alternative way to structure my writing to lead readers differently into this drama of the absence and hiding of the beloved.

Hence, the reading of the poetry across three acts, interspersed with the prose reflection and analysis as entr'actes, and with "for meditation" interludes still allows readers to spend time alone with the poetry itself.

HDS: What does success looks like when you publish a book like His Hiding Place is Darkness? Do you measure by units sold, the way a publisher might? Or can you measure success in another way? For example, since its publication a little more than a year ago, the book has received high praise. Are plaudits a way to measure success?

Clooney: Good reviews are most desirable for many reasons, but particularly since the judgments of competent reviewers will confirm that the book is not terribly flawed in some obvious way.

I suppose like anyone else I would enjoy a best-seller, but in fact I have always had in mind a smaller and more focused audience—those willing to stay with a book for a longer time, finding their way into it, thinking it through, slowly.

I do not expect of my readers lots of technical knowledge (that's why I hide much of the academic detail in the notes), but I do expect attentiveness and seriousness. I suppose that the commitment I expect of readers means that I lose the fast-reading audience.

I do not write for the quick read. If some readers, even a smaller number, find their way into Hindu traditions and into a Christian's reading of those traditions, and wander back and forth on the margins between both—and in the course of all that understand a little better how God is near even when not seen—then that is quite satisfying to me.

HDS: You place an emphasis on silence, contemplation, and self-reflection in the absence of the beloved. Can you describe what this silence is? Is it meant to make absence more bearable or allow more room for love?

Clooney: You put it very nicely. Like any professor, I talk a lot, and my book is comprised of many words, but it is important to take a deep breath, come to a halt, and realize that even in academia, there need to be gaps, interludes, and silences.

The most essential things, like love and encounter and God, require that we stop, watch, and listen. One of the worst things we can do is to fill up the silence with the chatter of ideas and words that theorize and explain things to death.

Words are crucial to life, of course, but at some level we are simply witnesses, required neither to explain nor to prove the existence of the beloved that she seeks after in the Song and Holy Word.

For this, we need then to maintain ourselves in the gap, like the woman who in both poems lies awake in the night. And so it has the double edge to it that you indicate: to make the absence more bearable, and to leave the space open, empty, for love to come in. This again is marked in the book by the quiet "for meditation" sections.

HDS: You write: "Ours is an era that both celebrates and tames religious diversity. It privatizes religion and shifts the deepest experience to the realm of inner life." That's a very powerful idea. Can you explain what you mean by "privatizes religion"?

Clooney: That the world is religiously diverse is a powerful truth—one that continually challenges those who imagine that only their own faith speaks of the reality of God.

We all have much to learn here. Yet the more subtle danger today is that of using "diversity" as a tool of privatization or as insulation to muffle the inconvenient truths and challenges of the religions around us. All differences are respected, but sometimes without even quite understanding what they are. Diversity is celebrated as long as it is personal and private and does not make a scene in public. Certainly, we are fortunate to live in a society where respect for the personal and private is sacrosanct, but it will help none of us if we end up with a public sphere that is devoid of the very possibility of God's arrival.

HDS: Piggybacking off of the previous question, when you mention "ours is an era," do you think it is more difficult to love God in today's times than it would have been for, say, St. Augustine?

Clooney: I grant readily that there have times when belief seemed easier—everyone was doing it, so to speak—and there are times such as ours, when it is very hard for people to know what to believe, or even whether to believe.

Our institutions of religion too often drive people away from God. Yet still, I doubt that it is more difficult today than it was in Augustine's time. Yes, 16 centuries after Augustine, we have had a lot more difficult experience and sad wisdom, if we have been paying attention, and we have had to learn to live in peace with good neighbors who do not live by faith or for God at all.

And yet, the basics of human experience—being, knowing, loving, and being loved, encountering the beautiful and the objects our desiring, and having that which we love slip away from us, as if in hiding—haven't changed much in a mere 1,600 years.

A basic point in my book, after all, is that the very ancient poetry of the Song, and the medieval poetry of the Holy Word of Mouth, still speak to us today, alive and fresh; medieval commentators and preachers still get at the heart of our human condition. We gain nothing by imagining that the drama of love and longing, God present and hiding, belongs only to the past.

HDS: You conclude the epilogue with the phrase: "Loving God is always a risk." Could you explain what you mean by that?

Clooney: I was trying to reaffirm the link between what I study, what I write, and what I actually find to be the case.

The Song of Songs, the Holy Word of Mouth, the commentaries on them, and the poems of Jorie Graham all testify powerfully to the risk and the real likelihood of going astray; the chance that learning may unsettle the faith one started with, and leave you neither here nor there, neither conscious of a nearby Beloved nor successful in denying the very idea of such.

It is safer to talk about loving God than actually to love God. It is easier to write about religion than to write religiously, yet in a way that is chastened by every intellectual test. It is safer simply to adhere to one tradition that offers a familiar path, or to none, rather than to go out on one's own, as do the women in these songs. So the book is really about trying to write, with more immediacy of a God who might well hide in one's own tradition and in others, too. In its own quiet way, it is meant to be an unsettling, even dangerous book, though I think it also ends in a moment of quiet insight.

HDS: Over this past winter recess you were invited to deliver the prestigious Westcott-Teape Lectures, a serious of three lectures delivered across India. The theme of your lectures was "The Future of Hindu-Christian Studies." How were your talks received, and what is the state of interreligious relations in India today? 

It was a privilege to give this distinguished lecture series, thrice over, at three prestigious institutions: Loyola College (Chennai), Bishop's College (Kolkata), and St. Stephen's College (New Delhi). It was also a challenge, giving the same three lectures more than once, yet to audiences of different composition, in the three cities.

My theme was "The Future of Hindu-Christian Studies." I wanted first to look back—what has worked, or not, in the long history of Hindu-Christian learning—and then to the current situation in the study of religions with special attention how Hinduism and Christianity have been studied, in order to estimate honestly why we study each other's religions and what promotes or hinders mutual learning.

The lectures seemed to go well in each venue, though the lecturer himself can hardly be the judge!

HDS: What did you learn from the questions posed to you?

I learned a lot from the questions that followed each lecture. Of course, some questioners simply raised points I hadn't raised, pointed me to other books to read, etc. But I also found that I had succeeded in touching upon themes and concerns that both Indian Hindus and Indian Christians are sensitive to.

So I had to stop and listen to how they talk about the very issues I was raising—both our readings of the past and our predictions of the future. Are Hindu-Christian relations getting better, or in decline? Does the Indian interreligious scene, as lived and a field of study, have strengths that cannot be rivaled in the West? Can a Western scholar really speak to realities on the ground in India? Is the study of Hinduism a luxury, necessary only for foreign Christians who come to it somewhere in the middle of life? Is theology an antique discipline, already swallowed up by religious studies?

HDS: At HDS, you are also the director of the Center for the Study of World Religions, which seems like a natural fit for a comparative theologian such as yourself. What does the future look like for comparative theology and what do you think the CSWR's role will be in fostering interreligious dialogue and understanding?  

Clooney: In its nearly 60 years of existence, the Center has explored the study of religion, the religions of the world, and the implications of this study for scholars in universities and in communities of faith.

The several directors have brought to the life and community of the Center and to its programming their own insights and dispositions as scholars and, in many cases, as theologians.

His Hiding Place Is Darkness lies near the heart of my service as director. It is not simply the book that I happened to be writing when I became director of the Center. Rather, I intentionally drew attention to this project in my opening lecture as director in October 2010.

After the lecture, a colleague asked me why I was bringing my research into the lecture—wasn't that something altogether different? No, I insisted. Right at the start, I was wanting to make clear that the Center, however contemporary and cutting edge it may be, is still going to be also about mystical poetry, love and longing, old ideas and passions that shake up the twenty-first century, and slow learning with a long memory.

In writing the book while director, I wove it into the work of the Center, as an instance of the kind of scholarship the Center wants to support: in faith, grounded in tradition yet attentive to multiple traditions, and academically rigorous yet neither reductive toward nor immune to the religious power of what we study.

Discussing the book on April 20 will be a great pleasure, making public the research that too often seemed hidden, off stage, during my early years as director.

—by Jonathan Beasley