Around the World in 21 Days

David Niven, Around the WorldIt was just yesterday that I finished my second round-the-world trip. The first one, long ago, was West-East and spread over several years: part one in 1973 (NY-London-Paris-Rome-Beirut-Karachi-Delhi-Kathmandu) and part two in 1975 (Kathmandu-Bangkok-Manila-Hong Kong-Carolines-Honolulu-San Francisco-NY).

The second trip, just now, was East-West, start to finish spread over a mere three weeks (Boston-LA-Sydney-Melbourne-Yogyakarta-Singapore-Kochi). Such journeys, perhaps moreso when brief, do give us a sense of the breadth of our planet and its many wonderful cultures and peoples. Of course I visited many airports, and for the most part they are excellent, some superior to their US counterparts. I could write a guidebook.

I’d been to Australia four times previously, and was happy again to visit Sydney, and I love being in Melbourne – a city which seems harmonious with Boston/Cambridge. It was fun too, early in my days in Melbourne, to meet with a great group of Harvard alumni/ae, for a most interesting conversation on all matters religious. Alice Hill, President of the Alumni/ae group, was our gracious host.

Harvard in AustraliaBut my visit to Indonesia was a first for me, and Yogyakarta a very interesting area, blessed with the wonderful Borobudur and Prambanan world heritage sites, the first a grand Buddhist shrine, the latter a magnificent Hindu temple – and then too a famed and quiet Marian shrine (Our Lady of the Cave, at Sendangsono) — all in the context of a vibrant Islamic culture.

Singapore, also new to me, is small, clean and efficient — and crowded and wealthy. Its holy sites are modern and lively, ranging from the fine Catholic cathedral to Hindu temples with a south Indian feel. One fine temple was very near to a major Buddhist shrine jammed with people on a Saturday afternoon, and many local people tended to visit both shrines, one after the other.

Outside BorobudurKerala, my last stop, was dense and green and very wet in this monsoon season, though spared the damaging floods of a year ago. In Veliyanad, at the birthplace of the great Hindu teacher Sankara (at his mother’s maternal village) and the site of a traditional Hindu center for study (in the Chinmaya Vedanta tradition) and the incipient Chinmaya University. I had a chance to visit only one off-campus temple which was beautifully illumined with a thousand and more oil lamps. The campus itself included several shrines, sites for worship and meditation. Though I was in a center of Christianity in India, I unfortunately did not have a chance to visit the many churches and Christian centers in the nearby areas.

In all these sites, my task — and the rationale for the whole trip —was interfaith learning. Specifically, I wshed to highlight the need to deepen dialogue by sustained, reflective study. The biggest event was an Australian Catholic University international conference in comparative theology, bringing together local scholars with some scholars from the West (such as me), and strikingly young scholars from Japan and China, Indonesia and India. The discipline of comparative theology in its current form grew up in the American context, so it was gratifying to see so many people (175 or more) come together in Melbourne to hear about and discuss the field, its possibilities and problems, its place in the larger project of dialogue and interreligious learning, and what all this could mean in Australia and today’s Asia. (The photo just below is myself with two of the indispensable apostles of dialogue in Australia, Anita Ray and Fatih Tuncer.)

Anita Ray and Fatih TuncerIn Yogyakarta, I was honored by an invitation to address the Indonesian province of the Jesuits at their annual meeting (just before province ordinations), regarding the new Jesuit commitment to “universal apostolic preferences” as set forth in the document, “Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus, 2019-2029.” The document sets forth ideals to mark all Jesuit works: “showing the way to God,” “walking with the excluded,” “journeying with you,” and “caring for our common home.” I had protested, even at the initial invitation (from Fr Albertus Bagus Lakshana, SJ, a student of mine and now dean at the Sanata Dharma University School of Theology ) that I was hardly the one, on my first visit, to give Indonesian Jesuits advice. But the exchange was gracious, and it was a testimony to our common Jesuit identity that we could, as brothers, discuss the challenges facing us as we try to preserve the great tradition of learning and writing that has characterized the Society from its start even while facing up to pressing 21st century needs. Professor that I am, I raised some hard questions about our academic commitments — won’t the preferences make us too busy to find time for study? Doesn't its emphasis on intelletual depth apply mainly to the social sciences? My special concern was the fate of interreligious commitments made over the past 25 years and more, yet not mentioned in the current document.

with the young JesuitsIt was particularly exciting to meet after dinner with many of the young Jesuits of the province; my plan to give a short presentation turned out to be unnecessary, since once we opened up with the chance for questions related to the earlier session, it turned out to be unnecessary to do anything but share in a lively exchange: how to be a scholar, and why, in today’s Jesuit context? How to balance study with other obligations? Is interreligious learning really possible if we do not find others reciprocating with interest in Christian scriptures, traditions, and current practice? In any case, to be in Yogyakarta, visiting Catholic, Hindu and Buddhist sites, as well as the Sultan’s great mosque, helped me to glimpse for a moment the vibrancy and hope of the Society of Jesus outside the West and in a great Muslim country.

Indeed, I was pleased to note that in Sydney, Melbourne, and Singapore, it was dedicated, hardworking Muslims who took the lead in arranging events I took part in: the Affinity Intercultural Foundation, the Islamic Sciences and Research Academy of Australia (ISRA), the Australian Intercultural Society Australian Intercultural Society, and in Singapore, my lecture in the Global Interfaith Leadership Series was sponsored by a host of interfaith groups — and hosted at the Singapore Islamic Hub. Not flashy, these were not events arranged to provide good PR (though such was accomplished), but rather the patient and selfless work of people of faith who have the conviction that Islam too, in its depth of wisdom and dedicated practice, has wonderful resources to help us build and sustain interreligious learning on a broad and deep level of value for common good. Mr. Mohamed Imran, my host, introduced me at a lecture in Singapore by calling me a man of great hope – quoting a piece I had written several years ago, to that effect that hope, not despair and violence, is winning out in today’s world. If anything, this trip confirmed my hope, since in every location there is a lot going on interreligiously. Much of it is growing from the ground up, due to the efforts of just a few committed people who then draw together wider networks of friends willing to discuss the interreligious possibilities before us, and the best ways of proceeding. Violence is no match for love expressed in the endless efforts of innumerable individuals of all faiths.

at the Chinmaya VidyapeethOn my too quick trip to Kerala —just over three days, and my shortest trip ever – I visited first the Chinmaya Vidyapeeth, an educational institution of the Chinmaya Mission, steeped in the traditions of Hindu monastic learning — the classic disciples, and all manner of Sanskrit learning — and yet now almost three years into the project of founding a university which will bring together the values of modern academic standards, traditional learning, and spiritual practice. I was on campus to have conversations about further exchanges the Vidypeeth might have with Harvard Divinity School. The possibilities for some relationship or exchange with Harvard are promising, though if truth be told, there was also great and evident resonance with the best of Catholic tradition: the links evident between faith and reason, between the spiritual and the intellectual, and between the life of study and the life of service. My lecture at the Vidyapeeth emphasized the value of balancing depth in one’s own tradition with deep openness to other traditions. This seemed to resonate with the faculty and students present.

Festschrift for Sebastian PainadathThe last stop on my trip was at the Sameeksha (Contemplative) Centre for Indian Spirituality, a Jesuit ashram-retreat center founded decades ago by Fr. Sebastian Painadath, SJ. A doctoral student of Walter Kasper in Germany, Fr. Sebastian has dedicated his life to interreligious understanding, deep learning from Hindu spiritual traditions, and programs aiding participants in a similar interreligious learning. His latest book, You Are Divine: 100 Meditations on Theosis (ISPCK 2019) contains many gems of interreligious contemplative learning. During my visit, there was a book release of a volume of essays in his honor, Spirituality through Interreligious Experience (edited by Xavier Tharamel, SJ, ISPCK 2019). Quite a crowd showed up. Although most of the speeches were in Malayalam, a language I do not understand, I could detect general themes related to interreligious understanding and spiritual depth that I echoed too in my brief reflections (definitely in English). When there are so many initiatives under way, it is important still to be able to slow down, reflect, take the time to allow ideas to sink in, and Sameeksha has for decades created the space for such contemplation.

I returned from the trip yesterday, around the world in 21 days. (The golden movie, Around the World in Eighty Days, was actually an option to watch on my 13 hour flight from Doha to Boston!). Aside from jetlag, I need now to take a moment to reflect on all this travel, the many people I met, the issues and questions arising over and over. I am turning 69 soon (a thought to contemplate…) but in Asia, becoming an elder seems also an advantage. There is still great respect for age and its benefits, particularly if accompanied by good health and at least a modicum of wisdom. You also get many free rides and guided tours.

Marian Shrine, YogyakartaMore deeply, it strikes me that my work now includes sharing my experience – perhaps my wisdom – with a younger generations, who are inventing and re-creating for their times and places bonds of intellectual and spiritual understanding and empathy across religious borders. I am at a point in life that while I do keep doing research and publishing, increasingly my role is to help people 20, 30, 40, 50 years and more younger than me to find their way, to do interfaith work and learning in ways they find possible and see fit. (Arthur C Brooks has an insightful essay in the July 2019 Atlantic, on how our role and work changes later in life. Well worth reading. Don't hold on to what you were years ago, but find the strengths of the moment in which you now live.)

In a kind of Jesuit contemplation, then, the whole trip offered a kind of God’s-eye view of the world, all God’s children across the globe, with an eye to my small place and role in a much larger scene that we can hardly imagine all at once. There is much to worry about, but the rising tide of understanding and good really is the way of the future, God’s will for the world. There is reason for hope, everywhere in our world, all the way around it.