Inauguration Lecture

  • Parliament Hall South Street St Andrews United Kingdom

This lecture will kick off the weekend of events open to the public. Join Professor Francis X. Clooney, the Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School and Director of the Centre for the Study of World Religions at Harvard University for a discussion on the meaning of interfaith dialogue in contemporary society.

Recognition of the importance of silence has facilitated real and deep progress in inter-religious understanding, as extraneous and disruptive words have been put aside in respect for the mystery of contemplation of many traditions, in acknowledgment of the limitations of language and the immensity of the mystery of God, the Ultimate Reality. Yet while silence can be powerfully communicative and conducive to deeper exchange, the power of words ought not be underestimated.

Language too is deeply, essentially human, and our being and thinking are most often intertwined with the gift of language. Before encounter, honest and vulnerable words clear up misunderstandings, support the articulation of the right questions, and give “a body” to thought; by wise instruction, experienced words guide practitioners in their ascent into the Mystery of God; in the end, very often, the silence is broken as the enlightened speak of and from the abundance of the gift of divine Presence. After the encounter – with God, with the religious other — the words of skilled and experienced teachers and guides who choose not to remain silent lead others toward the experience of those who have seen and heard the Mystery.

That words matter before and after the still point of silence will be illustrated with reference to the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad and later Vedanta texts wherein words are of crucial importance in particular ways, and to Biblical texts and classics of the Christian tradition, wherein the mystery of God is always the mystery of the Word of God – in the beginning and in the end – encountered and proclaimed. Insights from poetry and philosophy will clarify my exposition of how words matter, before and after silence.

Finally, in light of all the preceding points, I argue that while some very important inter-religious encounters arise simply and purely from and to silence, in inter-religious exchange there is profundity and sacredness also to the duties of speaking and listening, arguing and learning, and praying and worshipping in words.