The ACU Faculty of Theology and Philosophy recently hosted a two-week visit by Professor Francis X Clooney, Parkman Professor of Theology at Harvard University and, until June this year, Director of Harvard’s Centre for the Study of World Religions (CSWR).
Professor Francis X Clooney
Professor Clooney’s wide-ranging body of work grapples with a pervasive and robust feature of the third millennium, religious pluralism. “Religious diversity surrounds us and is within us,” he observed at a Sydney interview with ABC Radio National’s, Dr Rachel Kohn, “and this fact influences our identity.” Clooney’s unfailing counsel through each of his lectures, seminars and media interviews in Australia was to become involved with comparative theology, a project he has described as, “A mode of enquiry that engages a wide range of issues with full intellectual force, but ordinarily does so within the constraints of a commitment to a religious community, respect for its scriptures, traditions, and practices, and a willingness to affirm the truths and values of that tradition.”
ACU Luminaries Series: Living Interreligiously: Experiences of a Lifetime (an interview with Dr Rachael Kohn and Professor Clooney (view more photos from this event online)
This approach, in keeping with documents issued since Vatican II, by no means flattens out differences between religions, but rather seeks common ground through study and dialogue. As Clooney explained at the Catholic Education Melbourne (CEM) sessions, “This is neither exclusivism nor pluralism as relativism, but involves learning from one another while remaining true to the beliefs and practices of one’s own religious community.” Although his own field of expertise is Hindu India, and especially sacred Sanskrit and Tamil texts and commentaries, the project of Comparative Theology encourages interreligious literacy across all religious borders.
A stunning highlight of the Harvard scholar’s visit was a two-day Asia-Pacific Comparative Theology Conference held at the Melbourne Campus. The occasion attracted some sixty-five participants from a variety of religious backgrounds – Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Indigenous Australian, Anglican, Baptist, and one observer who described himself as “spiritual but not religious.” Keynote speakers included Dr Bagus Laksana from Indonesia, Professor Joseph S. O’Leary from Japan, and Dr Amy Yu Fu from China. Several internationally acclaimed scholars of theology and philosophy from ACU and other Australian universities further energised the proceedings, highlighting the significance of the Asia-Pacific context and exploring new and creative ways of learning from and with other religions. We were also delighted to welcome to the conference Bishop Pierre Vien Nguyen of Vinh, Vietnam.
Participants at the Melbourne Asia-Pacific Conference on Comparative Theology
Conference keynote speakers (left to right): Bagus Laksana, Amy Tan, Anita Ray (ACU), Francis Clooney and Joseph O’Leary.
Professor Clooney also delivered two lectures as part of the ACU Luminaries Series; one in Adelaide (From Theology to Worship in Interreligious Studies) and the other in Sydney (Interreligious Learning in the Papacy of Francis). These lectures, as Professor Dermot Nestor, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy pointed out, “Engage with challenges facing contemporary Australian society, shining a light upon rather than shying away from contentious issues.” (Read more in Lindy McNamara interview with Professor Clooney for the Southern Cross, Adelaide).
ACU Luminaries Series: Annual Adelaide Public Lecture: Professor Clooney with Dr Michael Trainor, Professor Denis Edwards, Mary Camilleri, Associate Professor Stephen Downs, and three members of the Adelaide Swaminaryan community.
One of the truly remarkable features of Professor Clooney’s visit to Australia was his generosity in reaching out to other faith communities on their home ground. Above and beyond his busy ACU schedule, he found time to meet members of the Hindu Swaminarayan community in Adelaide, and address more than a hundred members of the Hindu Vedanta Society in Sydney.
As is quite clear to all who met him or had the opportunity to hear him speak, Professor Clooney is not a scholar who works alone, confining himself solely to the hallowed halls of learning at Harvard. He travels extensively, assists as a Catholic priest in his local parish on Sundays, and collaborates widely across religious boundaries. A distinctive hallmark of his work is his respectful listening, meticulous learning from other traditions, and where necessary, a willingness to modify his own understanding.
Image: Professor Dermot Nestor presenting Professor Clooney with a token of thanks in North Sydney.
Not surprisingly, the ACU Faculty of Theology and Philosophy has received wonderful feedback from these many events. For instance, a delegate from Eastern Health Melbourne has written, “I felt nourished and challenged by the two-day symposium and grateful for the opportunity to attend.” Similarly, an attendee at the Catholic education seminar attested, “Our day was inspiring and of enormous value in our work together and for the schools we serve.”
The question now uppermost in our minds is, “Where do we go from here?” With the encouragement of our Faculty Dean, and with the blessing of Professor Clooney, discussions are already under way to formalise postgraduate units in interreligious learning and to expand the existing ACU Comparative Theology Focus Group into a hub for comparative theology and world religions that can establish networks, develop collaborations and help position ACU as a major contributor to the project of comparative theology across the Asia-Pacific region. The vision is ambitious but achievable and of inestimable worth.