- Traversing the Heart: Journey of the Inter-religious Imagination
Studies in comparative religion can be as dry as hell. Phrases like “hermeneutics of cross-reading” and motifs like the “guha” or “cave of the heart” can die on the vine in a collection of conference papers. Traversing the Heart, however, is about a wildly alive and transformative cultural mélange that has been going on in India for (arguably) ever, and in which the method and motif are explored and tested with some fervor. This is not a book for skeptics. Kearney’s introduction peals with romantic admiration of this subject and of his fellow authors. An example is his fulsome portrait of Swami Joseph Smarakone, a Shaivite Catholic (a Roman Catholic devotee of Siva) and acharya of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, who opened his address to the conference with the Tamil chant to the Sacred Mother (differently immaculate), a chant taught him by his guru, the Benedictine Bede Griffiths, at the Christian-Hindu ashram at Shantivanam. We are given the impression that outside the frowning fundamentalism of the Hindu communal-ists, this religious remix/mashup is completely unremarkable.
Kearney’s “cross-reading” is not comparative close reading or hermeneutics but a method aspiring to interanimate faith traditions and transform the hermeneut. [End Page 144] Most of the essays are both examples of this cross-reading and exemplars of these transformations. They read as textual guha, caves in which one “welcomes the guest” and is changed. In short, the book works. The immovable obstacle to the enjoyment of alterity is always the wall of ego, the bonds of identity, the noise of fear. Here, readers encounter sages situated in India’s “spiritual laboratory” with its cultural frictions, gamely interreading and participating in the rituals and worldviews of others’ faiths.
Fuzzy? Yes. The opening essay, Siddhartha’s “Open-Source Hinduism,” outlines the interreligious legacy of many gurus and poets such as Kabir, “a child of Allah-Rama,” or Ramakrishna, a Hindu who claimed the experience of being also fully Muslim and fully Christian. Jyoti Sahi cross-reads the Surya Namashkar (sun salutation) with the Via Crucis, as well as G. M. Hopkins’s poetic “instress” with the psychosomatic effects of mantras. But strong fuzziness requires ground: Catherine Cornille describes religious empathy as presupposing “an absence of fear” that, arising from a deep grounding in one’s own beliefs, allows for an expansion of identity. Participation in other traditions opens the pilgrim to new symbolic and affective connotations that then resonate for both, and Smarakone relates his own story of just such a journey. Paired with this story of affective experience, Francis X. Clooney’s essay discusses the symbolic by means of an interreading of the Saudarya Lahari and the Stabat Mater, the one a Tantric hymn to Devi’s pleasure and the other a Catholic hymn to Mary’s lamentation, thereby expanding our relations to these universal mothers. And so on—between Sikhs, Baptists, Muslims, Buddhists, monks and historians and artists and an engineer turned guru (Raghu Ananthanarayanan), the conversation with whom is not to be missed (“And most forms of civilization are answers to fear of death”).
The book accomplishes some difficult feats. It combines methodical rigor with a complete lack of religious skepticism; it combines close reading and pilgrimage; it expresses personal enthusiasms without embarrassing the authors or (this) reader; and it demonstrates that, on the oldest questions, our best learning will come from our others. [End Page 145]
Simone Roberts is the author of A Poetics of Being-Two: Irigaray’s Ethics and Post-Symbolist Poetics, as well as coeditor (with Alison Scott-Baumann) of Iris Murdoch and the Moral Imagination.