April 12, 2013

My Life of Pi: Religion, Faith & Letting Go. ~ Enver Rahmanov

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On that journey, like Pi in the ocean, we have to make friends with our fears and peace with our enemies, even if they are imaginary, and perhaps they are always imaginary.

I grew up in the “city of love” of Central Asia, known as Ashgabat. Only then it was a part of the Soviet rule and nobody could speak openly about religion.

When the winds of change arrived and the empire collapsed, I crossed the ocean, only by plane, not knowing that it would be a providential journey of faith. My pursuit of happiness had no other intentions but to search for freedom and peace, and discover the beauty of our diverse world. I started to notice that every time I would enter a house of worship or a temple of none, a simple sacred space or a vast field of nature, something started to ache very deeply within me.

How was that possible for someone who grew up in a secular Muslim family? I know there might be endless answers based on what people believe in, but what if all of them reveal certain truths about it, even if they are paradoxically different?

I remembered reading Life of Pi by Yann Martel several years ago and how my heart would resonate with each experience of the sacred by the story’s brave protagonist, a Tamil boy from Pondicherry, through his adventurous openness to spirituality beyond the borders of one religion.

This story that became the Oscar-winning movie is more than a fantasy adventure. It is a beautiful interpretation of our reality, of human imagination, of fear and hope, of deliverance and letting go. This story is also about the possibility of multiple religious belonging.

Today, words like “inter-faith,” “ecumenical” and “inter-religious” have become more common, but multiple religious belonging is not something you read about in papers or see on a board or a flyer.

While we do not need scholars to notice a rapidly increased human migration across the borders that have brought us closer to experience the religious other, prominent scholars and wise religious leaders, who dedicate their lives to a deeper understanding of faith beyond one’s tradition, can help us with insight into a possibility of multiple belonging.

One of them is Francis Clooney, S.J., a professor at Harvard University and a Jesuit Priest. Clooney runs Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions. I have to admit that reading Clooney’s Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders[1] has opened to me a new and exciting world of religious opportunities, including their devotional practices.

His book has also helped me to understand my own complex identity, as someone who is taking a great, but rewarding risk of trying to “live on the border of the holy,” to borrow Rev. William Countryman’s phrase, by entering what another great scholar in this field Catherine Cornille calls “many mansions” of multiple religious belonging.

Professor Clooney’s expertise includes South Asian languages, history of civilizations, and the Jesuit missionary tradition. His scholarly work on comparative theology uncovers commentary writings in the Sanskrit and Tamil traditions of Hindu India and compares them to the Christian scriptures and contemplative practice of Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order to which Clooney belongs.

Clooney challenges us to explore the borders of religious citizenships through attentive study of the particularities of other religious traditions, their texts and, perhaps, as we are able to encounter them, our participation in their sacred rituals and prayers.

In reflecting what he has learned over the years from Vedanta, Clooney builds a bridge, or perhaps rediscovers an ancient one, on the path of knowing his own faith through the eyes of the other. He leads us through the inter-textual connection of the Bhagavad Gita, Mutal Tiruvantati, the Gospels, Pauline literature and Christian prayers. He encounters similarities of divine embodiment, including being in the presence of Hindu Goddess Laksmi during his visit to her shrine and parallels his rediscovery of Mary, mother of Jesus.

Clooney says that revelation happens only as a reflection after the event, enriched by careful exploration of textual parallels, and he calls us for “an attentive reading” of the primary religious texts in each tradition so we may see the parallels that would bring new light.

I tend to agree with Clooney that we are what we read and “if we read in complex ways, we become persons with complex religious identities.”

It is the risk we take as beings endowed with reason and conscience that we are searching for religion. Yet, Clooney also calls for “an attentive emptying” through contemplative practices of such traditions that help open space for our true encounter with the sacred, while leaving the traditions unobstructed by one another.

This is not to suggest that by attentive reading and emptying one acquires multiple religious belonging. While this may be possible if one is inspired to gain such identity, the intention of comparative theology is to help us better understand our own religion through the eyes of the religious other.

Clooney does not require one to have a PhD in order to pursue it, but argues that it is a discipline that has ethical implications and, therefore, takes “wise practitioners who know by experience the power and limits of words.”

He emphasizes that it requires our individual choices, honest study, broad curiosity in religion and yet narrow focus in such comparative undertaking, humility and courage “to find a way to be unthreatened by what is new, unsettled and unsettling, without being enamored by novelty or disrespectful toward tradition.”

The author is very open about the fact that this honest exploration has its price for a comparative theologian. Clooney points out that no one can predetermine the conclusions “to which her encounter with other religions will lead,” suggesting that such “bountiful yet untidy learning can be personally uncomfortable.”

While a theologian is by definition a person of faith, she needs to acquire all the fine tools of scholarly expertise, including linguistic proficiency and historical atonement. He shows possible shortcomings of a comparative theologian’s work that must be open to criticism, and that this work may fail a few times, including within their own communities, “before she would be able to refine her methods and ideas.” Clooney warns that a comparative theologian would possibly cultivate a double identity, where she may not be at ease in the world of academia that requires a more clinical and detached attitude toward the results of comparison and what honest scholarship might imply for religious traditions.

Perhaps the hardest and yet adventurous prescription the author leaves is to become “insider-outsider” several times over, unwilling to distance herself from her tradition in any definite way. Clooney suggests that they find one home to return to, as difficult as it may be, and to see the straightforward guidance of a particular tradition, while visiting many mansions of faith.

I find both Martel’s and Clooney’s books extremely rich, theologically and pedagogically. Martel’s Pi may suggest an irrational case of never-ending representations, including taming of a Bengali tiger by the boy on his solitary journey through the ocean, but many can also relate to it as a true story of deliverance enriched by faith beyond one religion.

Clooney’s encouragement is that believers, who imagine and remember in more than one religion, will find that God responds accordingly, “agreeing to meet humans who find God differently.”

While Clooney hardly addresses non-theistic traditions, like Buddhism, he encourages those with strong interest in it to take their own foundational knowledge in such traditions toward attentive steps of learning across religious borders. Stepping with an open heart and “inquiring mind into providential diversity” is not an easy task, yet for Clooney and his comparative theologians, who dedicate their deepest passion to this exploration, this may be a prophetic journey in the encountering of intelligent faith.

On that journey, like Pi in the ocean, we have to make friends with our fears and peace with our enemies, even if they are imaginary, and perhaps they are always imaginary.

Journeying through the inter-religious map is not an easy task and it is not for everyone, but all of us can learn from those who share with us their intelligent exploration.

As far as those who may identify themselves as having single or multiple religious belonging, like Clooney, I think while traditions would still remain different in their features and may seem contradictory, they would not cancel our common spiritual expectations.

No matter where we were born and into which culture, we are a part of each other, complimenting and completing what has been divided. Once we embrace it, we can then let go of our differences as well as of our secondary identities (religion, nationality, ideology, etc.), like Pi let go of Richard Parker… and that seems to be the hardest part.

[1] Francis X. Clooney, Comparative Theology: Deep Learning Across Religious Borders. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.


Enver Rahmanov was born in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan and studied in Kiev, Ukraine before moving to the United States to work at the United Nations in New York. Currently, he is a student in Interreligious Studies at the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley, California) and a Graduate Research Assistant at the Mangalam Research Center for the Buddhist Languages. Working for the UN and volunteering with several faith-based organizations, including on Navajo land in Arizona and in Bodh Gaya, India, Enver has come to realize that the wisdom of peace, compassion and right actions is truly universal and has no borders but only different languages and interpretations. He is inspired by the Dalai Lama’s ethics beyond religion and “education of the heart,” a call to bring the indispensability of inner values of love, compassion, justice and forgiveness into education. Enver promotes interfaith dialogue by building personal heart to heart connections across religious borders and through his facilitation of Beyond Words: An Interfaith Ritual for Peace. Enver enjoys meditation, yoga, dance, bicycling, hiking, volunteering and travel.


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