Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley
In 2016, the Italian city of Bologna – which hosts one of the oldest universities in the world -hosted the inaugural meeting of the newly established European Academy of Religion. Modelled loosely on the American Academy of Religion, the conference brings together scholars from all over Europe, but also from North America and other parts of the world. Scholars from English-speaking countries are often startled when they discover that Italian universities -unlike Pontifical institutions such as the Gregorian University or the Angelicum in Rome- do not have departments of theology or religious studies (they were all closed in 1873 by the Italian government, which feared they would all turn into centers of opposition to the newly established Italian state). As such, while it is not possible to obtain a degree in these disciplines, different aspects of theology can be studied in different departments: Thomas Aquinas or Rahner are studied in departments of philosophy, Buddhism and Hinduism are often studied in departments of Asian studies or Asian languages and so on.
Given this peculiar situation, the Fondazione per le Scienze Religiose Giovanni XXIII (John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies, also known as SCIRE, an acronym echoing the Latin verb ‘to know’) at the University of Bologna has tried to redress this situation and encourage not only the study of religion as an academic discipline in a context where this is limited to ecclesiastical establishments, but has also tried to encourage the development of interreligious initiative and comparative religious studies, bringing scholars to Bologna from all over the world. One of the chief engines behind the European Academy of Religion, SCIRE hosted a variety of sessions on different aspects of interreligious dialogue, including many that in a way or another touched on Buddhist-Christian dialogue.
As someone who grew up in Italy though never went to university there, I found myself in Bologna in the peculiar situation of being both an insider and an outsider, having a better understanding of the local culture than most visitors, but also very much coming there as someone who by now has spent almost twenty years in American departments of theology and has very much adapted to its particular approach to interreligious dialogue. It was a great pleasure then to interact with scholars from other European countries that brought their own specific background and approach to the issue of dialogue. In 2018, together with Brandon Gallaher from Exeter University, we started a group on Eastern Christianity and interreligious dialogue, which hosted a number of papers devoted to dialogue between Eastern Christian theology and spirituality and their counterpart in other traditions. Last year, I read a paper on Gregory Palamas and the notion of the Buddha bodies in the Tibetan tradition; this year, in a similar panel, I offered a reflection on the Russian imiaslavie controversy – a dispute that divided the Holy Mountain of Athos at the beginning of the twentieth century, when some monks identified the name of God with God’s actual essence- and Tibetan visualization practices. A number of scholars from the Volos seminary in Greece were in attendance and this led to a very interesting conversation. We are currently preparing a proposal for Brill for a two-volume project on dialogue between Eastern Christianity and Eastern religions, which should have a significant Buddhist-Christian component.
The conference in Bologna also saw the participation of many members of the European Network of Buddhist-Christian studies, led by the indefatigable Elisabeth Harris who hosted a number of sessions. Perry Schmidt-Leukel gave everyone a preview of his eagerly awaited commentary on the Bodhicaryāvatāra, Elisabeth talked about Buddhism in Sri Lanka and its curious appropriation of Hindu and Mahayana themes, and other scholars offered reflections on the nature of dialogue in an increasingly plural Europe. Many presenters will reconvene in Sankt Ottilien this summer for the bi-annual conference of the Network- an event that promises to be as exciting as its 2017 predecessor in Montserrat.
After the conference was over, I travelled across the Apennines to the Tuscan city of Pistoia- just a short two hours away by train. Pistoia is the birthplace of Ippolito Desideri (1684-1733), who is well known to all scholars of Buddhist-Christian dialogue as the first Jesuit and indeed the first Westerner to really learn Tibetan and engage in interreligious dialogue. In 2017, an international conference was held there that celebrated the 300th anniversary of Desideri’s arrival in Lhasa- having had the great opportunity to participate and present at that conference, I also oversaw the publication of its proceedings in the 2018 issue of Buddhist-Christian Studies.
This recent visit, however, took me to one of Pistoia’s most famous -though alas, woefully underfunded!- cultural institutions: the Fabronian Library, named after Cardinal Agostino Fabroni (1651-1727).
Fabroni, born in Pistoia a generation before Desideri, also joined the Society of Jesus and soon moved to Rome, where he became one of the most trusted advisors of Pope Innocent XII (1691-1700), who named him secretary of Propaganda Fide. As the ultimate authority for all Catholic missions in the world, Fabroni entertained an intense correspondence with missionaries in India, China, and Vietnam, though he was also heavily involved in the theological disputes of the time, as attested by his numerous writings on the question of Jansenism. Upon his retirement from Propaganda and his elevation to the cardinalate, Fabroni chose -rather unusually- to return to his hometown, brining along an enormous quantity of documents about the Asian missions. These documents, along with his collection of rare books, constitute the core of the Fabronian library, still owned by the Diocese of the city of Pistoia. Alas, almost three hundred years after the death of Fabroni, the material still lies there, mainly untouched. No catalogue exists- in the 1920’s as the original containers crumbled because of humidity, the papers were transferred into new folders and there left untouched. The rooms have no heating or air conditioning, with the result that a lot of the material constantly deteriorates.
Dr. Anna Agostini, the librarian, kindly agreed to spend two days with me going through some of the material- some of the folders had most likely not been opened since 1925. We found an incredible amount of letters from missionaries in China discussing the Chinese rites controversy, others writing from Vietnam talking about the curious practices of Buddhist monks, letters by bishops in Macao complaining about unruly religious orders, and so on. Most of the material is in Italian or Latin or other Western European languages, though some is in Chinese, which I do not read (some Chinese-speaking scholar should visit soon!). The amount of material is almost mindboggling. Dr. Agostini will help me reproduce some of this material and hopefully this will find its way into a published volume on the history of the Asian missions.
Of course, as always, there are questions that remain unanswered. Desideri must have corresponded with Fabroni during his lengthy controversy over the mission in Tibet- in addition, they were from the same city, and Fabroni was there when Desideri returned from Lhasa in 1722. Yet, there appears to be no trace of this correspondence. Is it lying in one of the unopened boxes at the Fabronian library? Perhaps a future visit will resolve this mystery.