Skip to main content

Department ofReligious Studies


June 2021: Post-It scribblings

Found by SCU custodial staff in the cleared-out drawer of an empty desk in a vacated office in Kenna Hall; transcribed as a historical curiosity.

Found by SCU custodial staff in the cleared-out drawer of an empty desk in a vacated office in Kenna Hall; transcribed here as a historical curiosity:

Lahore, outside the shrine of Data Ganj Bakhsh. A fortunetelling parrot offers me an oracle card. I stop to read what’s inscribed: Everything is hastening to destruction except His face.

Cairo, a café by the bus-stands of Liberation Square. Muslim classmates buy me a mint tea and serve it with a question: Explain how you can possibly take seriously this business of a Trinity and three-gods-in-one.

Malang, a pleasant chat with pupils at a pesantren (Islamic seminary) in East Java. But the interfaith chat turns challenging when the senior cleric interrupts to ask: Your Gospel says Jesus on the Cross needed water so badly he cried out with thirst, humiliating himself in front of his enemies. So how can you call Christ ‘God’ or ‘Son of God’ when we know from our scripture that Allah is al-Ghani, ‘the One who is free of all needs’?

Three encounters, from among many in the course of an Orientalist career. As I’ve often told students, at SCU and elsewhere, the experience of studying Islam and living among Muslims has deepened my own faith as a Catholic. Islam is similar enough to Christianity for numerous points of comparison to surface, but different enough to make one re-think doctrines one might otherwise take for granted.

Over the years, my experiences in Muslim countries shaped how I taught and what I wanted to accomplish with my students. I used the courses I offered, at SCU and elsewhere, to explore what it might mean to be religious and belong to a faith tradition—while also laying claim to be a thinking educated adult. (Warning: At a lunch table such claims can trigger open-jawed choke-mouth furor. I recall one Adobe Lodge meal where a faculty member from another department, upon hearing me say such things, coughed his indignation into a handy napkin. His throat-clearing done, he pronounced he couldn’t imagine how anyone with a Ph.D. could be anything but an atheist.)

SCU students with whom I worked often ranged in their response from skepticism (or simple somnolence) to militant hostility at the very idea of religion (along with annoyance at being required to take a Religious Studies course to graduate). In general I found the hostility easier to respond to than indifference—as such a state indicated said student had at least thought about religion enough to get angry.

So I began with basics, with texts that acknowledge our modern secular condition and don’t take doctrinal adherence for granted. I found William James a help: “Meanwhile the practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideals.” (The concluding two chapters of The Varieties of Religious Experience are especially worthwhile.)

A larger power? Friendly? Too much for some readers. So at times I tried them on Heidegger (and here I—very loosely!—summarize): Hercules-like, we must clear out the mud-clogged stables of unexamined language, grapple with Death’s reality as it comes surging up at us, grasp authentic life before we die and glimpse the Ground of Being. (Maybe he too had been handed a parrot’s oracle card of things hastening to destruction.)

Which cleared the way for us to read together Macquarrie’s Heidegger-flavored Studies in Christian Existentialism: God is the Ground of Being, understood as gracious.

The Divine, transcendent source of grace, of unearned blessings. This intrigued some students. But how do we touch this transcendence? Not always easy, I conceded, in this tech-fueled age of limitless distractibility. I steered them to Rahner’s wisdom: “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or he will cease to be anything at all.”

But it was an SCU lecture some years ago by a visiting Jesuit—Ryan Duns (Marquette is lucky enough to have him)—that especially helped me in addressing undergrad questions about touching the Transcendent. Drawing on Hadot and G. M. Hopkins and—of course—Ignatius, Ryan talked of the possibility of life lived as a daily discipline of attunement whereby one discerns God’s self-disclosure in the beings all about us in the world. (See his just-published Spiritual Exercises for a Secular Age, a book I love.) The product of such discipline: a sudden stabbing appreciation of existence as a gift, astonishment at the givenness of things. Relevant here are Pope Benedict’s insights about the two dispositions we should bring to prayer: gratitude, and attentiveness—both appropriate responses to the presences we sense disclosing the Ground of Being in our life lived day-to-day.

Prayer, gratitude, attentiveness: these translated well to the courses where I focused specifically on Islam. Many—make that most—of the Muslim students I taught shared in common with their Christian peers a hunger for fresh ways of thinking about their faith. We challenged ourselves with ‘Abd al-Karim Soroush’s postpositivist readings of the Qur’an. I refereed debates in which students argued over whether a renegade apostate and so-called kafir like Ayaan Hirsi Ali should have a public platform from which to critique the religion in which she was raised. And we explored the controversies surrounding Mahmoud Mohammed Taha and his disciple ‘Abdallahi Ahmed An-Na‘im, who found themselves jailed in Khartoum and facing death for prioritizing the “universalizing” Meccan surahs over the “contingent” Medinan verses of Islamic scripture.

What I taught in the classroom was shaped by my fieldwork overseas. One example, from the island of Java: in 2007 I met Rosek Nursahid, a Muslim animal-rights activist and the founder of an organization named ProFauna Indonesia. He encouraged interfaith cooperation on environmental issues, and at his invitation I served as a volunteer at ProFauna’s wildlife rescue center. (This experience led me to further work in subsequent years caring for pangolins, gibbons, and moon bears at rescue facilities throughout Southeast Asia.)

One part of the ProFauna work: investigative visits to pasar burung (“bird markets,” where in fact all kinds of animals are sold) in Denpasar and the port of Surabaya. Here, as elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago, traffickers sell members of protected species. Collaborating with ProFauna staff to expose such dealers, I presented myself as a foreign buyer.

It helps to have a strong stomach in such markets. Thousands of animals are crammed into cages in hot airless sheds. I remember a cluster of a dozen monkeys—each chained by the neck—who watched as we approached. Their eyes commanded attention: plain to see were all-too-recognizable emotions—dejection, anger, despair. “Mereka sesungguhnya menderita,” said the ProFauna staffer at my side: “They really do suffer.”

They really do suffer. The thought stayed with me: Any religion worth our allegiance needs to take into account what I saw chained animals undergo in Surabaya. The Crucifixion as an enduring bridge between heaven and earth, between eternity and earthly time. A God who thirsts; a Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world.

This encounter inspired me to the creation of a new undergraduate course when I returned Stateside: “Religion and Animal Suffering.” The students and I examined Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Jewish theology of the “divine pathos.” Thereafter we studied Jürgen Moltmann’s kenotic Christology and its divine quality of empathetic suffering—a suffering entered into freely by a God who desires to undergo a loving solidarity with the world he brought into being. We studied how Moltmann’s thought in recent years has been applied by environmentally-minded theologians. Mark Wallace argues that just as Christ’s crucifixion constituted a “terrifying event of loss and suffering within the inner life of God-self,” so too does God continue today to suffer in the Trinitarian person of the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit is Christlike or cruciform,” says Wallace, “because she suffers the same violent fate as did Jesus—but now a suffering not confined to the one-time event of the cross, insofar as the Spirit experiences daily the continual degradation of the earth and its inhabitants.”

Volunteering with rescued animals had another effect: it educated me to the reality of trafficking networks in Southeast Asia. In all the countries where I served—not only Indonesia, but also Malaysia, the Philippines, Laos, and Vietnam—most of the trafficked animals are smuggled to markets in China. In fact senior Chinese Communist Party officials often facilitate and are the beneficiaries of such commerce.

What I learned about the CCP’s policies shaped the events I sponsored as director of AIMES (SCU’s interdisciplinary program in Arabic, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies). Thus in 2018 I brought to campus Georgetown’s Jim Millward, who lectured on the CCP’s persecution of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Through the Millward lecture I was fortunate enough to meet Paul Mariani, S.J. of SCU’s History department. It was Paul who very kindly provided the contact information that made possible one of the most satisfying interviews of my career: a dinner in Hong Kong where Jody Rubin Pinault and I met with Cardinal Joseph Zen. For decades the Shanghai-born Cardinal Zen has been an outspoken opponent of the CCP and has taken a leadership role in condemning Communist China’s suppression of Hong Kong’s freedom. I applied what I learned from such conversations in the final few courses I taught in the last stage of my SCU career.

But in all my campus activities, whether in courses or public lectures, I tried to convey to my audiences that what I teach and what I do—the volunteer work, the writing, the involvement in contemporary issues—all flow from what I am and what I believe. From time to time over the years students have confessed to a sense of shock at meeting a professor who openly acknowledges a) belief in God; b) adherence to Christianity; and c) identity as a Catholic. Such shock, I think, is salutary.

Which brings me to my last point. Teaching students to think critically about religion; introducing them to faith traditions from around the globe while presenting sociological and anthropological insights (and I’ve done my share of that!): those are good and vital things.


Bearing witness in a scholarly way to the reality of the Transcendent, and fostering in our students an openness to relationship with the Divine: these are at the radiant heart of what we do as instructors in a Religious Studies department at a university that is Christian and Catholic. These are things no other department can be counted on to do. These are what make our RS enterprise unique.


David Pinault


rs home