His Hiding Place Is Darkness Book ReviewLast modified: October 21, 2014
Review: Review of Francis X. Clooney’s His Hiding Place Is Darkness, by Jason W. Smith
In his latest book His Hiding Place Is Darkness: A Hindu-Catholic Theopoetics of Divine Absence, Francis X. Clooney takes his comparative work in exciting new directions. The book marks a continuation of Clooney’s significant contributions toward developing comparative theology as a robust and active subfield in religious studies, and Clooney’s extended exposition on the theme of “divine absence” across two texts from the Christian and Hindu traditions is his most intensely personal and remarkably poetic work to date. Reading closely across these historically disparate yet thematically intertwined texts, His Hiding Place Is Darkness offers a remarkably lucid analysis that both showcases the interpretive acumen of an accomplished comparative theologian and opens up new possibilities for the field of comparative theology.
Clooney’s prologue outlines some of the central tasks of the book. First and foremost, he sets out to explore the theme of divine absence in a close reading of the biblical Song of Songs and the Hindu Holy Word of Mouth (Tiruvaymoli). A second and equally important goal of the book is to argue that “more particular and specific faith commitments enable rather than deter our learning from the images and words, events and surprises, of other religious loves, in religious traditions other than our own, and in the gaps no tradition can quite manage.”1 He offers his book as an extended example of how such a project can be accomplished, noting early on that he writes from his own position as a Catholic Christian with a profound love for Jesus Christ, while at the same time from the position of a Christian theologian interested in exploring “the holy uncertainty afflicting those who love God most intensely.”2 It is here, in pondering the absence of a beloved divine, that Clooney turns to the act of comparative reading.
He defends his project by noting that, in spite of the fact that both the Song and the Holy Word share an intense devotion to their love’s particularity, both texts are poetry and “cannot resist the play of imagination,” and thus lend themselves to a close comparative reading. Clooney also buttresses his interpretations of both texts alongside their respective medieval commentarial traditions. His reading of the Song of Songs is guided by a single medieval tradition comprised of Bernard of Clairvaux, Gilbert of Hoyland, and John of Ford—three monks who together completed a series of sermons on the Song. Additionally, he reads the Holy Word with the guidance of several important medieval interpreters within the Srivaishnava tradition, most significantly Nanjiyar and Nampillai.
Clooney divides his book into three Acts, each divided by an Entr’acte. In Act One, Clooney offers an extended introduction to and reflection on the theme of absence. He brings us right into the act of comparison, juxtaposing two passages from the Song and the Holy Word before providing a more extended analysis of each text. In both the Song and the Holy Word, the author takes on the voice of a woman, desperate and helpless in love, vulnerable and uncertain in the face of the absence of her beloved. Clooney admits that it may be hard for some readers to imagine themselves slipping into the voice of a woman in such a state of desperation and helplessness, yet he argues that “reading each text, and the two together, should affect us, informing us, then unsettling how we see either side of this reading, either woman and her love.”3 By drawing the readers immediately into the tricky and complicated task of double reading, Clooney has imitated the wider dynamic at play in any act of comparative theology, noting that “we never start out in a pure and simple situation where one love is managed first and then later on we learn something about another.”4 Rather, Clooney argues that we are always implicated in a “double exposure,” a “first love along with other loves,” and it is this dynamic that he builds into his comparative reading.
Acts Two and Three continue the vision Clooney outlines at the beginning of the book. In Act Two, which is by far the longest section of the book, Clooney continues his analysis of the Song and the Holy Word by juxtaposing passages in which each woman yearns at the height of her abandonment in the middle of the night, waiting for a lover who will never arrive. Here, the paths of the women diverge, as the woman in the Song goes out in search of her beloved, while the woman in the Holy Word cannot travel to her beloved, even though she knows he is nearby. The result, Clooney observes, is that “in the depths of their inability to live apart from the beloved, these women become most eloquent in conjuring his presence by the power of their word, in desperate song overcoming the separation of these lovers.”5 Act Three completes the comparative analysis, juxtaposing the final passages of the Song and the Holy Word. As each of the women unites with her beloved, there is no definitive conclusion provided, “neither permanent union nor final rupture.”6 Likewise, Clooney notes that his book must end on a similarly ambiguous note, stating that “both the beloved and our destination will remain hidden, at times.”7
Clooney’s book makes a number of significant contributions to religious studies scholarship. One of the book’s most impressive accomplishments is the production of a lucid and accessible modern translation of the Tamil Tiruvaymoli and the accompanying Tamil-Sanskrit commentaries on it. All of the translations used throughout the book are Clooney’s own, and they are a tremendous resource for scholars of South Asian religions, particularly those interested in the literary culture and theological production of medieval South India. Although Clooney relies on previously published translations of the Song of Songs and its medieval commentaries, he reads them alongside the Latin Vulgate edition of the Song of Songs, making minor changes based on his own reading of the Latin. His efforts to provide readers with accessible translations to ground his theological reflections are impressive, and they highlight the ongoing need for comparative scholars to develop linguistic facility in the languages of the traditions under comparison. Indeed, the ability to work closely across multiple languages may be one of the best options available to comparativists who want to respond to contemporary critics who reject comparative work as superficial and lacking rigor.
Another major contribution of the book is its unconventional structure. Breaking away from the traditional scholarly mode of production, Clooney arranges his book as if it were a play. A Prologue and an Epilogue serve as bookends to the three Acts that comprise the majority of the book, as well as two Entr’actes that provide some critical reflection on the comparative process. In Entr’acte One, Clooney discusses his approach to reading interreligiously throughout the book, which builds upon the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar to appreciate the poetic and dramatic qualities of these texts rather than the histories and theological doctrines that have developed around them. By contrast, Entr’acte Two takes on the challenge of writing theologically in the aftermath of having “entangled us in the images and emotions of two traditions.”8 Here, Clooney relies on the work of American poet Jorie Graham, who explores the limits of language and writing. Clooney acknowledges that the writing process will be challenging and intense, even as it enriches our theological imagination. In both interludes, Clooney models for his readers how to carefully integrate a close and careful reading of two texts with a critical reflection on one’s particular methodological approaches and theological commitments in the overall comparative endeavor.
Beyond the impressive array of contributions to comparative theology noted above, Clooney’s book raises some important questions for those interested in following in his footsteps, two of which are mentioned here. Both are primarily methodological in orientation.
First, how does one go about the task of choosing the texts for comparative analysis? This question might be described as “the chicken and the egg” dilemma of comparative theology. To what extent does one’s comparative agenda drive the selection of texts, or conversely, to what extent does the comparativist begin by drawing connections between texts almost by accident and then go on to develop a more extended comparative analysis? One wonders, for example, how this book might have turned out differently if Clooney had chosen to analyze the Book of Job instead of the Song of Songs, which seems to have equally promising comparative prospects when juxtaposed with the Holy Word. Or, if Clooney intended to write on the theme of divine absence from the very beginning of the project, one wonders to what extent this thematic agenda might have influenced the later interpretative work of the book. Admittedly, Clooney does not set out to define the methodological parameters of the comparative enterprise as he has in some of his earlier work,9 but this nevertheless remains a critical methodological issue for comparative theologians today. Even if the result of such an inquiry is that both methodological options are available to comparative theologians today, some degree of reflection on this process could provide greater clarity on the relative strengths and weaknesses of each approach and the methodological challenges faced by those working in the field of comparative theology.
Second, what kinds of reading strategies are available to (and appropriate for) the comparative theologian? Clooney notes, for example, that a distinguishing feature of the book is his reliance upon two medieval commentarial traditions in his analysis of both the Song and the Holy Word. One wonders what it means for the comparative project to privilege a particular commentarial tradition in the reading and interpretation of a text. On the one hand, the use of medieval commentaries grounds Clooney’s analysis in the wisdom of earlier generations and provides readers with some insight into how these texts have been received historically. On the other hand, it seems plausible to assume that an interpretation that relies upon one particular commentarial lens will differ from an interpretation that relies upon another. If this is indeed the case, then to what extent does it matter? Clooney does not discuss his choice of commentarial interlocutors at any great length, or whether he debated using a different set of interlocutors in earlier stages of the book. Nevertheless, the question of how one goes about choosing a particular set of interlocutors in the act of comparative reading remains an important one to answer. Future comparative theologians ought to explore this issue at further length in their work, particularly when they rely upon several different commentaries for interpretive insight.
Ultimately, Clooney offers a compelling comparative reading of the Song of Songs and the Tiruvaymoli based on his own finely-honed interpretive abilities as well as insights from the commentarial tradition of each text. The result of this effort is a beautifully-written manuscript that blends the grinding work of translation and textual analysis with the imaginative possibilities opened up through poetry. The reader finds herself “entangled” in the stories told by the authors of these texts and in the wider comparative portrait that Clooney creates for his readers. Near the beginning of the book, Clooney suggests that “the relationship among religions such as the Christian and the Hindu is played out as a diastasis, a ‘continuous forward striving’ that will not be finished in any expected time period nor with any conclusive theological determinations.”10 This book marks an important point in Clooney’s own “continuous forward striving” as an accomplished scholar and writer, and it is one that should be taken seriously by scholars in a variety of subfields across religious studies and especially by scholars in comparative theology.
1 Francis X. Clooney, His Hiding Place Is Darkness: A Hindu-Catholic Theopoetics of Divine Absence (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014), x.
2 Ibid., xii.
3 Ibid., 14.
4 Ibid., 15.
5 Ibid., 49.
6 Ibid., 130.
8 Ibid., 104.
9 See, for example, Francis X. Clooney, Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
10 His Hiding Place, 26.