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Father Clooney discourses on inter-religious dialogue

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This renowned theologian claims understanding is the key, reports CHITRA SUDARSHAN

Those familiar with Comparative Theology – or even remotely aware of the Indian theological scholarship, will know Father Francis X Clooney S.J.  He is a Professor of Divinity and Comparative Theology and the Director of the Centre for the Study of World Religions at the Harvard Divinity School, having earned his doctorate in South Asian languages and civilizations.  His primary areas of scholarship are theological commentaries in the Sanskrit and Tamil traditions of Hinduism.  He has written numerous books and articles on comparative theology – especially involving Srivaishnava theological texts.  His book Beyond Compare: St Francis and Sri Vedanta Desika on Loving Surrender to God (Georgetown University Press, 2008) looks at the works of St Francis de Sales and the Srivaishnava theologian par excellence, Vedanta Desika, who has written a corpus of works in Sanskrit, Prakrit and Tamil. He has written other books and articles on Gandhi, the Bhagwad Gita, the Upanishads, Yoga Sutras and Srivaishnava texts.

Father Clooney was in Australia recently at the invitation of the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, where he was conferred an Honorary Doctorate.  Shortly before the ceremony hosted by the Centre for Inter-religious Studies, Father Clooney spoke about ‘Engaging the Inter-religious Possibilities of the Twenty first Century’ on July 25, at the Christ Lecture Theatre. The eclectic audience consisting of academics, religious scholars and practitioners, and lay people. He emphasised the need for inter-religious dialogue, the importance of the study of one’s own traditions as well as others’ which, he said, will sharpen and enhance the appreciation of the faith and tradition to which one belongs. Father Clooney is a Roman Catholic priest who understands deeply the faith traditions of India, and the wisdom contained in them.  His book Hindu Wisdom for All God’s Children is a testament to that belief, and it is a wonderful anthology of stories from Indian epics and Puranas for children all over the world.

Father Clooney cited the epochal Vatican II declaration that, he said, changed the way the Catholic Church viewed other faith traditions forever.  “A study of other faiths, far from undermining our beliefs in our inherited faith, will help us understand it better,” he stated.  “As long as one keeps an open mind – and is grounded in one’s faith at the same time – the search for truth can lead to the learning of wisdom from other traditions.”  He spoke about his own early experience as a young Jesuit scholar in Nepal, when his curiosity about Eastern religious traditions drew him towards a study of Hinduism. He began studying Sanskrit and the Vedanta; later, when he delved into the works of Nammalwar – the great Srivaishnava Tamil saint who wrote more than a thousand verses expressing his unconditional loving devotion to Lord Krishna – Father Clooney realised how similar they were to the Song of Songs in the Bible. It led him to write a comparative discourse on both the works.

Father Clooney has spent considerable time with other scholars of Srivaishnava theology, and still cooperates with them.

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