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Book Review: From Rome, in Tibet: Interreligious Learning

November 9, 2010

Francis X. Clooney, S.J.
America -- The National Catholic Weekly
November 6, 2010

Cambridge, MA. -- I spent a bit of time on this
quiet Saturday rearranging books, in the vain
hope that by moving them around and to hitherto
unnoticed corners and book-case bottoms, I might
find more space. [For the rule is sure: if the
graduate student spends a lot of time
accumulating books with an eye toward a long
scholarly career (any book gotten now might serve
well in the decades to come), it is equally true
that the professor accumulates books more than
she or he wants: books kept from  grad school,
bought for this or that writing project or
course, gifts from friends, and a good number of
books that arrive unsolicited, sent by publishers
who hope we will notice them, use them in courses, write about them.]

One good result: In the midst of my
reorganization, I did give due attention to two
recent books deserving notice — by way of
academic review, of course, but also here, in
this blog, simply by way of special mention:
Catholic Engagement with World Religions: A
Comprehensive Study, edited by Karl Becker, SJ,
and Ilaria Morali (Orbis Books, 2010), and Jesuit
on the Roof of the World: Ippolito Desideri’s
Mission to Tibet, by Trent Pomplun (Oxford
University Press, 2010). Both are fine books that
instruct the reader profitably; and while they
are largely unrelated in theme and focus, they
nicely converge to raise an important issue of
interreligious import: how does fidelity to the
Church and Catholic tradition affect learning
from other religious traditions? Or, more
directly, how far can a “conservative” Catholic
go in interreligious learning? How do we keep the
faith and actually learn something at the same time?

The book by Becker and Morali (both professors at
the Gregorian University in Rome) is a massive
work of 600 pages, with many distinguished
contributors. It deals from a variety of angles
with how Christianity and other religions are
alike and different, focusing on the post-Vatican
II period. Not claiming to be a work of global
theology, it is also notably Eurocentric, not
dealing much at all with what’s happening in
North America. In this instance, this is probably
a good thing: over here we do not give sufficient
notice to what European theologians are saying,
and it is fair enough that this book has its
center of gravity in Europe, offering a nice
balance to our sense here that we are on the
cutting edge of thinking about religions.
Catholic Engagement makes a good effort to
include information on religions other than the
Christian, to give at least some depth to the
subsequent assessment of what Christians are to
think of those religions. It also has some good
survey chapters on the history of encounters over the past 400 years.

It was only when I turned to the second book,
Jesuit on the Roof of the World, that I figured
out a key element that might be added to the
Becker/Morali book — namely, a still deeper, more
intense, and more intellectually and
existentially complex engagement with other
traditions: “going there” and “learning from
there.” This very fine book by Trent Pomplun
(professor at Loyola University, Baltimore) tells
us the story of Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733),
one of those intrepid and amazing early Jesuits
who traveled to a far-off part of the world,
witnessed to Christ and the Gospel, and — without
any of the easy resources available today —
learned deeply from Tibet’s rich and deep
traditions. Desideri spent the better part of a
decade in Lhasa and thereabouts, when that
Himalayan land was barely known at all to
Westerners. He was a pioneer in describing the
geography and social customs, studying the
Buddhist practices and beliefs of the lamas
close-up, and working out, with full attention to
cultural and political issues, an engagement
between Tibetan Buddhism and Western
Christianity. His works are invaluable even today
for understanding Tibetan history and the
East-West encounter, and his Notizie istorische
del Thibet (perhaps, “Historical Narrative of
Tibet”) is an erudite work of scholarship that
finally, with Pomplun’s book, receives due
attention in English. The back cover comments by
distinguished scholars of Tibetan culture and
religion testify to Professor Pomplun’s
erudition, and likewise to his commendable grasp
of how theological encounter worked itself out in
the 18th century. Fr. Desideri was no more a
liberal (in our terms) than was Matteo Ricci in
China, Roberto de Nobili in India, or Joseph
Lafitau in French Canada. For him too, missionary
zeal and firm Christian commitments seem to have
served as both a counterweight and energizer for
deep cross-cultural learning. Pomplun studies the
rhetoric of Desideri’s letters and reports, and
notes how a certain stylized zealousness —
overcome the pagan! — did not stop him from
living respectfully and learning deeply during his years in Tibet.

As readers of this blog will know, my own
instincts lead me more in the direction of
Desideri’s work, and not just because my first
exposure to Hinduism was in the Himalayas, in
nearby Kathmandu. The survey and theological
reflections offered by the many contributors to
the Becker/Morali volume are valuable and
necessary; and yet I cannot help notice, the
essays seem far more sensitive to the cultural,
political, and theological complexities of
Catholic thinking in Europe than to the
comparable complexities of other religious
traditions and cultures, which never fit neatly
into the patterns the traditional theologian
might wish. Desideri’s life and work were a bit
untidy, more questions raised than answered by
his life and writing; he trod a dangerous path —
icy, cold, unhealthy, way up there in the
mountains, and full of insights that no one in
the West can fully digest, then or now. It is
right that volumes such as Catholic Engagement
try to make good Catholic sense of that messy
learning of and from other religions, in both its
historical and contemporary versions. But reading
Pomplun’s book alongside that of Becker and
Morali is a necessary help, forcing us to notice
the concrete and even sacramental details of the
world’s religious history — a stubborn
concreteness that endures, beyond our control,
and gives life and deeper purpose to theological reflection.

It is notable, finally, that both volumes put
forms of traditional, even conservative
Catholicism before us: the Becker/Morali volume
is, as I have said, carefully, cautiously
Catholic; Desideri did not treat his Jesuit and
Catholic beliefs loosely, no matter what he
learned. Together, these volumes remind all of us
that neither being-liberal nor being-conservative
predictably facilitates or bars interreligious
learning. However we frame our faith commitment,
we still have to learn, and we have to keep the
faith and make sense of it in our Church and our
experience; neither faith nor learning is an excuse to be lazy about the other.

But both books deserve real reviews -- best left to the reviewers!
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