Theorizing Modernities article

Toward a Common Respectful Attentiveness to Religions

Offering of ghee into Yajna Agni, the sacred sacrificial fire.
Offering of ghee into Yajna Agni, the sacred sacrificial fire. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Religion is a richly textured and rightly complex book, in which Smith seeks to talk about religion as it functions in societies and individual lives; the five major chapters are wide-reaching, exploring the what, why, how, and future of religions.

Smith’s approach is to focus on practice and the practical, seeking out what motivates people to read the human condition in light of powers beyond it that they can relate to, powers such as can be approached with discernible benefit to humans. This is a wise approach; while the book is erudite and conversant in current conversations in the social scientific study of religion, his return again and again to what people do in specific circumstances is wise. He is also insistent on the openness of his approach, which refuses to settle for a divide between those who are religious and those who study religion. In a page-long footnote (on page 18), he points out that it is helpful to see the social scientific approach as compatible with the internal perspectives of traditions, neither in conflict, nor the one replacing the other. The social scientist, in other words, now finds herself in a public space where she does not have a higher, privileged viewpoint, only a viewpoint that is to be honored, but within a strategic frame of having to build compatibility with religious people.

While admitting that he is not an expert in all religions—but who would be?—Smith is diligent in bringing in examples from various traditions along the way in his major chapters, and a diverse range of illustrations appear throughout the volume. Each chapter begins with two epigraphs: the Indian Sama Veda and a Christian hymn, the Guru Granth Sahib and the Gospel according to Matthew, etc. Smith explains in his preface that by these citations he is showing his awareness of the diversity of traditions, which stubbornly refuse to be reduced to religion in any simplistic way. Still, these epigraphs are a bit of a puzzle. What does the opening hymn of the Sama Veda have to do with the hymn, “O God Our Help in Ages Past?” We are given no clue. My instinct though would be that once the hymns are cited, they lead to some particular kind of chapter, not the one that Smith gives us. I return to this point below.

The questions posed to those of us contributing to this symposium were similarly thorough. We were asked to think about how far Smith’s understanding of religion might be extended in making a difference in the public sphere today: why does religion endure, and how significant is it with respect to ending or fomenting violence? How can we cultivate a public role for religions in an increasingly individualized age? In very diverse societies with many positive and negative attitudes toward religions, how can we foster an optimal public role for religions? Smith’s practical approach suggests that we look not to doctrines or controversial ethical issues, but to the motives for why people remain religious when we don’t have to; for there we will find common ground. This is a wise move; but it then turns us to the personal, discerning why people act in certain ways in certain situations, and for that, we need also to understand the truths and values of traditions. And all of this requires presence, spending time with people. Theory, such as Religion proposes to us, orients us in the right direction, to take seriously how religious people live, their choices, their personal and communal agency in being religious people.

In other words, we are then drawn out of our offices and libraries and conferences, into the realm of interreligious dialogue. Attending to the practical commitments of religious people leads then into the pragmatism of convening conversations where we listen as well as speak. Smith does this well, bringing different religious cases to bear in the course of his chapters. This also makes sense to me personally. I am a Jesuit and Catholic priest, and as such I have been involved in direct dialogues over four decades and more, and I have many Hindu friends. My study of the traditions gives me a wonderful vantage point, but this does not put me above the persons and communities I meet in the course of the dialogue. I have a clear and considered viewpoint, but it is not a higher viewpoint.

The “public square” is not a place where people leave religion behind—doctrines, ethical values, practices—but an extension of religious identity and disposition into a new context where basic practical religious attitudes now adjust, in encountering people with other such dispositions, and people who for whatever reason no longer enact the world in a religiously signified manner such as Smith details. The scholar, therefore, needs to rethink not only religion and the behaviors of religious people, but also the notion of allegedly neutral or secular spaces. Religious people don’t own the space, but neither need we tolerate a secular retelling of our public life, as if it were natural or even in touch with reality to imagine spaces somehow free from religion and religions, to which religious people may be admitted.

I would of course have written a quite different book. As a scholar, my work is primarily about the reading of texts, and of Hinduism and Christianity together, and I would have begun my work with the epigraphs, in order to see where they might lead; in other words, rather than adding in such quotations along with photos, to signal the author’s good will toward pluralism, my approach would be to begin with such passages and see where reading them gets us in textual and practical contexts. As they stand, that they float free of the chapters is not entirely surprising. If we attend to such texts and study them carefully, they turn out to be unruly, with a life of their own. They may support the point we were making in quoting them, or take us—as careful readers, believers or not—into ideas, emotions, and practices quite apart from what we anticipated. They will not serve neatly an author’s pre-established intent.

I can take up here only one example. Smith quotes the opening hymn of the Sama Veda, a very ancient set of Vedic hymns meant to be sung in the sacrificial context. It is the first of twelve hymns in a row dedicated to Agni, the god of fire, the deity central to the practice of sacrifices:

  1. Come, Agni, praised with song, to feast and sacrificial offering: sit as oblation-offerer on the holy grass!
  2. O Agni, thou hast been ordained oblation-offerer of every sacrifice, by Gods, among the race of men.
  3. Agni we choose as envoy, skilled performer of this holy rite, oblation-offerer, possessor of all wealth.
  4. Served with oblation, kindled, bright, through love of song may Agni, bent on riches, smite the demon Vritras dead!
  5. I laud your most beloved guest like a dear friend, O Agni, him who, like a chariot, wins us wealth.
  6. Do thou, O Agni, with great might guard us from all malignity, yea, from the hate of mortal man!
  7. O Agni, come; far other songs of praise will I sing forth to thee. Wax mighty with these Soma-drops!
  8. May the rishi Vatsa draw thy mind away even from thy loftiest dwelling place! Agni, I yearn for thee with song.
  9. Agni, the rishi Atharvan brought thee forth by rubbing from the sky, the head of all who offer sacrifice.
  10. O Agni, bring us radiant light to be our mighty succor, for Thou art our visible deity!

All of this promises complications, even beyond translation issues. (Smith fairly enough uses Ralph Griffiths’ 1895 translation, and I have not checked the original, though I’ve touched it up lightly, to make it easier to understand.) We would need to look further into the identities of the poet seers Vatsa and Atharvan, explore the myth of the smiting of the demon Vritras, and the connections/differences between Agni as sacrificial fire and Agni as invoked deity. We would need also to understand more richly the Vedic sacrificial world, to understand the dynamics of this plea to Agni to be present on earth, in this sacrifice, amid these uttered verses, on this day.

And only then would we move to reconsider the hymn by Isaac Watts, paired as an epigraph alongside the Atharva Veda text:

  1. O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home.
  2. Under the shadow of Thy throne Thy saints have dwelt secure; Sufficient is Thine arm alone, And our defense is sure.
  3. Before the hills in order stood, Or earth received her frame, From everlasting Thou art God, To endless years the same.
  4. Thy Word commands our flesh to dust, “Return, ye sons of men”: All nations rose from earth at first, And turn to earth again.
  5. A thousand ages in Thy sight Are like an evening gone; Short as the watch that ends the night Before the rising sun.
  6. The busy tribes of flesh and blood, With all their lives and cares, Are carried downwards by the flood, And lost in foll’wing years.
  7. Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all its sons away; They fly, forgotten, as a dream Dies at the op’ning day.
  8. Like flow’ry fields the nations stand Pleased with the morning light; The flow’rs beneath the mower’s hand Lie with’ring ere ’tis night.
  9. O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Be Thou our guard while troubles last, And our eternal home.

This text too is rich in theology. It draws us into a world of devotion and ecclesial practice. Though only 300 years old (rather than 3000, like the Sama hymn), Watts’ hymn has remarkable staying power, and may be heard on many a Sunday in Christian churches today. We could take a long while to unpack its theology, its music, the singing of it, and what it means to believing Christians.

Both texts are rich in theology, and it would be foolhardy to focus just on the singing or role in communal worship. Yet neither is the theology in these hymns free-standing doctrine, abstracted from real life. (But really, is doctrine ever entirely abstracted from the lives of real people?) We can learn to sing these hymns (here in the West, easily the Watts hymn; and with extraordinary difficulty, I fear, the Vedic hymn), visit sites where they are performed in a worship context, talk with practitioners. And then, after appropriation of both, we would begin the rich interactive process of knowing them together, what I call comparative theological learning. We might begin with the first lines of each: “Come, Agni, praised with song, to feast and sacrificial offering: sit as oblation-offerer on the holy grass,” and “O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home,” and ponder the problems and possibilities of singing them one after the other. And then, we would go back to the two communities, to one of which we may belong, and find ways of speaking of the realities—the what, why, how, and future—of interreligious learning.

All this in the short run turns out to be quite different from what Smith is up to; as I said, I would end up writing a quite different book if I studied the epigraphs for all five chapters. Yet it ends up in a place not entirely different, by way of a common respectful attentiveness to religions as they are practiced, lived, thought intelligently, shared. Practitioners, scholars, and social scientists who study religion; theologians and comparative theologians; people who no longer believe or never believed: we all share the same living spaces. Smith helps us to see that people who are religious can with more confidence lay our claim to a public sphere which turns out to be no longer a neutral, secular space where religious people are at best politely received. It is rather where we who are religious and we who study religion are at home too.

Francis X. Clooney, SJ
Francis X. Clooney, S.J. is Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology at Harvard Divinity School. His primary areas of Indological scholarship are theological commentarial writings in the Sanskrit and Tamil traditions of Hindu India. Professor Clooney is also a leading figure globally in the developing field of comparative theology, a discipline distinguished by attentiveness to the dynamics of theological learning deepened through the study of traditions other than one’s own.