“I am happy to hear of efforts to promote interreligious respect, harmony and solidarity in Azerbaijan”, he says. Dialogue is first of all a basic human practice and way of being; we are social beings, we become ourselves and we grow by dialogue with other people.
Interviewer: Khayala Mammadova and Aygun Babazade
International Multicultural Network
Francis X. Clooney, S.J., joined the Divinity School in 2005. He is Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology. After earning his doctorate in South Asian languages and civilizations (University of Chicago, 1984), he taught at Boston College for 21 years before coming to Harvard.
His primary areas of Indological scholarship are theological commentarial writings in the Sanskrit and Tamil traditions of Hindu India.
He has also written on the Jesuit missionary tradition, particularly in India, on the early Jesuit pan-Asian discourse on reincarnation, and on the dynamics of dialogue and interreligious learning in the contemporary world. He has published numerous research papers, articles and books. From 2010 to 2017, he was the Director of the Centre for the Study of World Religions here at Harvard.
What is the meaning and your perception of interreligious dialogue?
Dialogue is first of all a basic human practice and way of being; we are social beings, we become ourselves and we grow by dialogue with other people. Interreligious dialogue reminds us that the sacred truths and values of our faith traditions too are part of our way of being in the world; truths and values can be shared, and we can learn by dialogue on our deepest beliefs.
What do you see as the role of people of faith coming together to promote interreligious dialogue?
In a divided world, where harsh economic and political forces seem to be dividing people and causing great suffering, and where religions too often become tools in the hands of people wishing to use religions to divide rather than unite humans, it is essential that people of faith, because we are human and because we are religious, come together to promote dialogue and harmony. We cannot leave the public presentation of religion to the violent, the extreme, and the cynical.
In a pluralistic culture such as ours, can we also define secularism, humanism, materialism, and so on, as faiths?
We can certainly recognize the spiritual insights and motivations present in the worldviews of people who choose not to affiliate with a religion, and who emphasize the human, the secular, etc.; and in any case, we need to be able to be in dialogue with all people of good will. But I do not think it helpful to label all worldviews as “faiths,” since faith suggests more strongly a conviction about the transcendent, the divine, immortality (of some kind), revelation, and similar convictions.
Can interfaith dialogue make a contribution to the issues of peace, social justice and the building of a world community?
Yes indeed. While religious people can be fanatics and try to force their views on others, much more often the wisdom and virtue of venerable traditions, engaging the contemporary world and issues facing us today, can be major contributors and even leaders in facing issues of common concern – regarding justice, the environment, poverty, violence and peace-building, etc. Religious people ought not to be passive, but to recognize their duty to contribute actively to a better world.
What is the nature of students and the learning process, and how should learning experiences and relationships be organized on this issue?
We learn from experience, from personal reflection, from what we hear and read, including from our direct encounters with wise people, such as teachers, and ultimately from encounters with God; we learn religiously by thinking and praying, by attending to our feelings, and by what we do. Moreover, to learn religiously is not necessarily different from learning interreligiously, since interreligious dialogue can open up the same possibilities — learning from experience, from personal reflection, from what we hear and read, including from our direct encounters with wise people, such as teachers, and again ultimately from encounters with God.
What are your views about reflections of interfaith dialogue education on social life?
Interreligious dialogue needs to be part of faith formation in communities. People need to learn their own faith traditions well, but this need not exclude learning from the other. If well educated, as whole embodied and spiritual beings, people will be much better citizens and contributors to social life.
What are your current research interests?
I am finishing a book related to Purva Mimamsa, Vedic ritual thinking in relation to how we think and read and learn today; I am starting a small project on Ramanuja, the great Srivaisnava Hindu theologian whose 1000th birth anniversary we mark this year. I am just publishing a book on the future of Hindu-Christian Studies.
What motivates you to do your best?
Love of God, love of your neighbour, thankfulness for life itself.
Can you please reflect on your experiences of interfaith dialogue—the various meetings and seminars, etc. that you might have attended. What do you feel about the efficacy of such encounters?
I have engaged in interfaith encounters in India and Nepal, and in the West, for over 40 years. I have many Hindu friends, and have benefited greatly from the wisdom of Hindu traditions. And yet I am still a committed Catholic Christian. The efficacy lies in the fact that if we are open to God everywhere, then God will reach us and teach us in all things.
As everybody knows, interreligious dialogue and multiculturalism has failed in a number of countries around the world. Azerbaijan’s tradition of tolerance and interfaith dialogue is “home grown” and a long-time feature of the country’s culture. The tolerance and inter-religious dialogue has historical roots that predate Azerbaijan’s statehood traditions. The “Mother of all Churches in the South Caucasus,” located in northern Azerbaijan, sacred to Azerbaijani Christians but also highly regarded by the country’s Muslims. Azerbaijan policy towards religions is to “do no harm” and to treat all faiths equitably while maintaining the state’s distance from any one particular religion. Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev declared 2016 a “Year of multiculturalism” in Azerbaijan to maintain, further develop and popularize the traditions of multiculturalism. President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev has declared 2017 the Year of Islamic Solidarity in the country. Azerbaijan’s approach to religion is more relevant and more successful than a secularist model that lacks religious dialogue and tolerance. Islamic solidarity is a natural extension of the multicultural environment in Azerbaijan. Do you have further views and suggestions about this issue?
I do not know the details of the situation in Azerbaijan, but am happy to hear of efforts to promote interreligious respect and harmony and solidarity there.