Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics

Why and How Deep Learning Still Matters

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Francis X. Clooney
  • Charlottesville: 
    University of Virginia Press
    , October
     2019.
     224 pages.
     $29.50.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780813943114.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Francis X. Clooney develops two arguments over the course of his book Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics. First, the author argues for the value and necessity of what he calls “deep learning,” a slow, meditative, and thoroughgoing approach to religious texts. Second, he articulates the value in interreligious learning—reading across religious traditions for the sake of deepening one’s own practice. Clooney develops these arguments not by deduction or a careful exposition of theory, but rather by a series of case studies. Over the book’s six chapters, Clooney demonstrates the brand of deep learning for which he advocates in close readings of six religious texts, three Hindu and three Christian, loosely presented in pairs organized around instruction, doctrine, or practice.

Clooney admits that the structure of the book is “ill-defined” because of a “refusal to allow theory to predict before or apart from reading” the conclusions (20). In this light, rather than attempting a summary of Clooney’s readings of the six religious texts he chooses—perhaps an imprudent endeavor in light of Clooney’s insistence that his method of reading should not translate into a bite-size consumable—what follows traces the development of Clooney’s two primary arguments in the book.

First, the presentation of deep learning. Clooney expresses an anxiety regarding what he sees as an erosion of the skill of slow reading in contemporary culture, and he is eager to showcase the invaluable gifts slow, religious readings might bestow on an attentive reader. The first text for which Clooney offers a close reading, The Garland of Jaimini’s Reasons, is a Sanskrit text on ritual Hindu law from the 15th century. Clooney notes that “almost all readers lack the interest and probably the patience” to read a text like the Garland, but he worries what might happen if humanity as a whole “loses hold” of classic religious texts (13). Slow reading “rarely sees benefits in the short run” and so requires a certain faith in its worth in the long run (157).

The other texts Clooney chooses in his “odd sextet” are likewise a bit obscure. He reads a 16th-century Hindu doctrinal text alongside Peter Lombard’s 12th-century articulation of Christian doctrine; the Garland is in conversation with a 16th-century Jesuit catechism; and a French 17th-century devotional on the rosary in Catholic tradition is paired with a Tamil-language 14th-century devotional distillation of an earlier, 9th-century Hindu text. None of these six texts seem to urgently require a contemporary close reading, by Clooney’s own admission: “They are difficult: serious, meticulous, subtle, and in some case more than a bit boring, too” (25).

There is nothing particularly special about these six texts per se, but rather the object of value is the practice of reading Clooney demonstrates. And this matter of slow reading, Clooney writes, “is urgent,” because “God is known through study,” and knowledge of God is something “we very much need again today” (157). Boring as it may be at times, a text such as Jaimini’s Garland yields its bounty only to those willing to endure a long, slow, deep practice of reading without immediate reward.

The second argument Clooney develops in his book is related to the first and is an iteration of arguments Clooney has been making in his publications for more than three decades. Namely, the book presents a case for the urgency and necessity of interreligious learning. Indeed, Clooney writes, “the entirety of Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics may be taken to be an assertion of the fundamentals of comparative theology” (21). The kind of reading Clooney advocates does not result in a comparative religions approach, a tally of similarities and dissimilarities. Instead the “trick” is “to go deeper into one’s own tradition, even while at the same time beginning to be instructed in the vocabulary, practices, and logic of another” (77). The slow reading of another tradition alongside one’s own allows for insights “neither tradition can yield on its own” (152). Clooney does not suggest reading religious texts neutrally, as if one had no vested interest in their truth or value, but presses readers to become open and vulnerable to the alterity of a religious text, its unique claim made on the reader.

Clooney’s proposal for comparative theology is demanding, as it requires the reader to neither blend nor nullify either tradition, but to instead “be smitten twice over by beauty” (150). The matter of truth should not be wholly bracketed, but at the same time “concern for that truth cannot be so important as to thwart the learning that must take place first” (31). Moreover, there is no clear telos to the program Clooney describes: “We must instead keep traveling in what may seem a stubbornly wrong-headed direction: back to the text, again and again, that we might keep reading” (116).

Clooney’s irenic approach to religious difference is laudable, though it is admittedly a form of “elitism,” even if of a “most democratic” kind (25). The obsequious posture required toward texts outside one’s own tradition cannot be expected from average readers, and so the approach Clooney describes is available only to those of a certain privilege and disposition. Moreover, the approach is made more demanding by its slippery methodological and theoretical underpinnings. Midway through the book, Clooney offers a reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, a clear outlier among the other texts analyzed here. And yet, as Kevin Hart notes in the foreword, Clooney “is no card-carrying follower of Wittgenstein”—in fact, Hart suggests Jacques Derrida as a more apt theoretical interlocuter (xii–xv). The ill-defined theory behind Clooney’s methodology becomes taxing as more and more texts are brought into play, and the engagement with Wittgenstein would have been better served by being either more fully developed or left off completely.

Reading the Hindu and Christian Classics will be of interest to students of comparative theology and theologians engaged in interreligious learning. Clooney rightly notes that “readers risk and gain everything” (153). The practice of slow reading and deep learning in texts from outside one’s own tradition may indeed be risky business, but the central insight of Clooney here shines even through the ill-defined theory: genuine reading always includes a genuine risk. Clooney’s book is sure to help readers risk boldly.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric D. McDonnell Jr. is a PhD candidate at Emory University.

Date of Review: 
December 30, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Francis X. Clooney, SJ, is Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology at Harvard Divinity School and the author of His Hiding Place Is Darkness: An Exercise in Hindu-Catholic Theopoetics, among other books.

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