Longing and Letting Go

Christian and Hindu Practices of Passionate Non-Attachment

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Holly Hillgardner
AAR Academy Series
  • London, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Holly Hillgardner provides us with an excellent text that can creditably take its place alongside the many works of comparative theology that are increasingly emerging in this new and developing field. Comparing the medieval European Beguine Hadewijch with the medieval Indian bhakta Mirabai, Hillgardner provides service to the field by extending both feminist reflection and coverage of female figures, rather than the standard repertoire of “distinguished men” who are often the subject of such studies.

The text is divided into eight chapters, starting with an introduction, aptly titled “The Paradox of Longing and Letting Go,” that frames the main theoretical issues. It also makes clear that the text is “unabashedly autobiographical,” a concept not picked up again directly but which seems inherent—especially in the final chapter that addresses ethical concerns. Then two chapters are given over to, respectively, both Mirabai and Hadewijch. In each case, the first providing an introduction to their lives, concerns, and main themes, and the second delving in more depth into a close reading of specific texts. The sixth and seventh chapters engage in a comparative reading of the two figures, which actually begins in the second chapter on Hadewijch (chapter 5). The final chapter, as indicated, looks at what we may learn ethically from contemplating the themes of these two writers. Here a variety of theorists, most particularly Judith Butler, are brought in to help think about the way that the passionate attachment that opens us to the Other, and makes us vulnerable, may help us think ethically.

The themes and discussion are extremely rich and it would be impossible to touch on all of them. For the purposes of this review it would be useful to consider two methodological aspects that may be of interest to those in the field of comparative theology. First, textual analysis has often been seen as the mainstay of comparative theology and a mark of academic competence in this has been seen as the reading of texts in the original language. Hillgardner, though, cites both Hadewijch and Miribai in translation. While some may see this as a potential weakness, I believe that Hillgardner has shown very ably the ability and potential to do the kind of comparative work that is required without recourse to first language expertise. Certainly, it must be considered that not every scholar of religion is a linguistic expert, nor is that necessary; religion is far more than ancient texts. Indeed, the range and quality of both translations and secondary literature which now exist make it possible for scholars whose attentions have been focused elsewhere to engage in comparative theology without necessarily attempting to master every facet of the languages engaged. Indeed, without addressing this directly, Hillgardner provides something of a rationale. On the one hand, these are living texts which are transmitted and changed over time, and as such, any idea of working solely from some pure original source is, in itself, an imaginary act. On the other hand, every interpreter comes to these texts as part of a tradition of interpretation, and they speak to us as much today as they did to readers of past ages or in their original context, and so we are able to make our own use of them. Although not drawing on Gadamerian hermeneutics, this is certainly one way such an argument could be made. Nevertheless, the main point for our concern is that Hilldardner has shown us that very sophisticated and rigorous comparative analysis and study is possible without recourse to extensive engagement with original languages.

Secondly, and on a somewhat more critical note, in chapter 6, Hillgardner claims to be reading Mirabai through the lens of Hadewijch’s thought. This mirrors her aim in the previous chapter to use Mirabai’s viraha bhakti as a lens to help shed light on Hadewijch. However, in this section I was not convinced that we were really seeing Hadewijch’s notions as the lens through which we gain greater insight to Mirabai. Rather, we seemed to see simply a comparison along themes perhaps inspired by Hadewijch but which appeared to be more areas that both had in common. The complaint is somewhat minor as the comparison overall is well made. I think the author felt the need to claim this second hermeneutical lens in order to show equal treatment, and suggest the way each was being read comparatively in the light of the Other, but it did not come through.

In conclusion, this is a welcome and useful addition to the literature on comparative theology, as well as being a very good general introduction to both Miribai and Hadewijch, though I imagine experts on either of these two would not find much new insight, except through the comparative lens. Hillgardner’s most constructive work comes, I feel, in the final chapters—especially in the eighth chapter—that looks at the way that these figures, especially when read comparatively, can illuminate new ethical insights. However, the way she drew significant themes throughout the book made this especially compelling, and showed a strong command of the concepts and comparative approach. In the final chapter I would have welcomed more depth and a longer discussion on some parts, but perhaps that was the author’s aim to leave the reading with a sense of longing for something more?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Hedges is associate professor of interreligioius studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technical University in Singapore.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Holly Hillgardner, a comparative theologian, teaches religious studies and philosophy at Bethany College. She splits her time between New York City and Bethany, West Virginia. An inveterate traveler, she can be found between semesters surfing small waves and practicing triangle pose in locales far and wide.


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