Theology After Vedanta: An Experiment in Comparative Theology.
In his book, Theology After Vedanta, Francis X. Clooney writes with brave strokes, reflecting upon the nature of theological commitment within the context of Advaita Vedanta texts and their commentatorial traditions. No doubt this book will create heated dialogues amongst those who worry about the relationship between religious faith, scholarship and the post-modem world. In a scholarly environment where, for both informed and uninformed reasons, these three elements are often kept meticulously apart, Clooney attempts to draw relationships between them.
Clooney begins by arguing for comparative theology as a practice of reading - a movement back and forth between two different textual traditions. Such reading performs the "reflective practice of exegesis," but does not impose a static structure to the materials. Instead, if focuses more narrowly on "how believers compose read, and teach their own religious and theological texts, and how outsiders who are believers in another tradition are to read and write about another communities' texts in relation to theirs" (p. 13). The views of both outsiders and insiders are adjusted in the process.
Clooney's subsequent overview of Vedanta has three important strengths: its insistence upon defining Vedanta as a theological, not a philosophical discourse; its emphasis upon the importance of textual reading as a means of liberation, and its argument that Vedanta is dependent not only upon Upanisadic texts, but also upon Purva Mimamsa, a ritual philosophy that provides the epistemological prerequisites for Vedantan discourse. In later chapters, Clooney examines the ways in which reading and commentary are both salvific activities that teach knowledge of Brahman. In a particularly instructive section, Clooney shows the ways in which different statements within the Upanisads are organized by commentary through the strategies of "co-ordination" and "harmonization." As he puts it, "these strategies allow a unified approach to the reading of the texts, without obviating the need actually to read them" (p. 69).
Moreover, Clooney is not afraid to engage directly the truth claims of Vedanta: how can the intensely textual tradition move toward that post-textual truth-knowledge of Brahman, without ever becoming purely extra-textual? Drawing upon literary theorist Michael Riffaterre, he argues that Advaita, like fiction, possesses its own system of referentiality according to agreed-upon rules of writing. Thus, the truth of Brahman referred to in the text is also the truth of Brahman within the text. In a significant insight, Clooney explains how, to the Vedantan commentator Sankara, the two kinds of Brahman (saguna, "with qualities" and nirguna, "without qualities") do not reflect incompatibly different kinds of Brahman, but are designed for two different stages of reading. The same goes for explicit paradoxes (mahavakya) within the Upanisadic texts: they reflect statements geared to particular stages of reading and meditative practice.
In his fourth chapter, Clooney anticipates his potential critics in admitting that, no matter how clear the exposition of Vedantic truth, there is still the problem of access to that truth. How can Vedanta claim to be universally accessible through reading and at the same time circumscribe the identity of the reader, through caste, level of education, etc.? Clooney does not attempt to explain away or make these tensions, but accepts them as deeply embedded within the Vedanta tradition.
Clooney reserves his most creative scholarship for the last chapter of the book: his own comparison between Sankara's discourse on the qualities of Brahman and Aquinas' discourse of the possibility of different names for God. As he has argued that others do, Clooney reads the two texts together, employing the Vedanta methods co-ordination and harmonization mentioned above. In his intriguing comparative conclusions, Clooney demonstrates a "patient deferral" of the questions of truth, and instead, shows the value of the constant dialectical process of rereading one's own tradition instead of making premature judgements (p. 191).
Clooney's book is not simply an exposition to compare for the sake of scholarly comparison. It is also, and perhaps more primarily, an invitation to construct a new kind of theology based on scholarly reading. Perhaps because of the boldly practical nature of the book, Clooney's own text mirrors his subject, and reads somewhat like a Vedantan text itself: Its richly complex nature is somewhat overwhelming at first, but slowly engages the reader into an increasingly careful discussion of theological issues.
And yet the books's practical emphasis raises serious questions. If Vedanta circumscribes access to knowledge, how can "outside" readers respond to that closure? Clooney begins to respond when he states that the outsider's reading, as improper as it may be, does indeed intrude upon Vedanta's inner spaces; thus, the outsider can provide a rejoinder to the exclusivity and complexity which is Vedanta, while at the same time supporting Vedanta in its expression of the simple event of insight (p. 151).
Yet there are other questions related to this issue: Part of the exclusivity of Vedanta is its insistence upon the presence of a teacher to guide that right reading. While we have Clooney as our sagacious guide for the duration of the book, we are left with a question at its close: Whom do we seek to further our practice of comparative reading? Is it necessary to read in community, as the Vedantin would insist it is? Clooney again provides a partial response by asserting that the comparative theological community has its own standards for "preparing" its readers. He writes: "Even in comparison, therefore, the apprehension of truth retains its elitist dimension" (p. 191). Yet if we blur the elitist margins of both traditions, only to reformulate our own kind of elitism, have we not proceeded along lines that are incompatible with our own original motivations for comparative reading?
These kinds of questions cannot and perhaps should not be answered within the scope of Clooney's initial project. In fact, such questions only point to the thought-provoking success of his enterprise; Clooney has provided others with the scholarly basis from which to continue new comparative projects. And yet one hopes that, after such an eloquent first lesson, the teacher and commentator himself will return to say more.
LAURIE L. PATTON Bard College Annandale-on-Hudson, NY 12504, U.S.A.
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|Author:||Patton, Laurie L.|
|Publication:||International Journal of Comparative Sociology|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1998|
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