In Adelaide to present the annual public lecture for the local ACU campus, the Professor of Divinity and Comparative Theology at Harvard Divinity School said despite immersing himself in the Hindu culture and faith for most of his life, he had never considered converting.
“I’ll be 50 years a Jesuit in 2018. I’m still a Jesuit, still a priest, still say Mass in the parish on the weekends and I think I am a better Catholic because of studying Hinduism,” he told The Southern Cross.
“This does not disappoint the Hindus I know. Christians believe in conversion, but many of my Hindu friends are happy that I’m not a Hindu – because if you can’t find God in what you were born into, why do you think switching to another one is going to make such a big difference?
“Besides they believe in reincarnation and so if you’re in a Western, Christian body, just live there, find God where you are now.”
A leading figure globally in the developing field of comparative theology, Prof Clooney said people of all faiths had much to learn – and gain – from knowing more about each other’s beliefs and traditions.
“As Pope Francis is saying, we do have a lot in common, we are spiritual people and there are very large issues facing us in today’s world that we need to bond together and face. For example the big ones of ecological degradation and the plight of refugees… you don’t say Hindus stand over there, Jews stand there and Catholics here to fix it. Francis is saying let’s do it together.”
While his interest and university studies have embraced Hinduism – he’s published several books on the topic and has a PhD in Indian Studies – he said the whole raft of faiths, including indigenous Aboriginal traditions, had much to offer.
“As you learn your own faith you should have the patience to learn other faiths in a similar way and not let differences become an obstacle to learning.”
His interest in Eastern religions began when he spent two years as a teacher in Nepal in the early 70s.
“All the boys I taught were either Hindu or Buddhist and that’s when I began learning – going to their shrines and temples and festivals.
“Some Hindu traditions are strikingly alike the Catholic ones. The devotion to one single god, devotion of great intellectual tradition, mysticism, piety.
“There is a feel in certain Hindu temples like being in church. They are full of statues, there is chanting and music, flames and flowers – all familiar to me from my growing up Catholic in New York City.”
Since those early days he has visited India nearly 20 times and said during that period his Hindu friends had gained a better appreciation of Catholicism.
“In general, Hindus have learnt that not all Christians are the same, not all are zealots condemning Hinduism. They see that we can believe in Christ yet also have an open mind. Very importantly, what they’ve also learned from people like Mother Teresa is the incredible Christian drive towards charity and love of your neighbour.”