Thursday, February 25, 2010


What is the point of viewing environmentalism from a religious perspective? Does their correlation support the validity of environmentalism, of religion, or of both? I think that this task of trying to find a moral imperative to be environmentally conscious overlooks the scientific fact of man’s place in nature. If we destroy our planet, we won’t be able to live on it, plain and simple. I don’t really understand why this logic isn’t enough to encourage people to think more sustainably towards the future, but since it obviously isn’t, we must create moral imperatives for them in the only thing they seem to believe blindly, religion.

Religious faith is sometimes the only source of moral imperative


We’ve already discussed Western religion’s role in this, and how its view of compassion can be selectively applied. In Jainism, however, who, or what, the moral code protects is strictly delineated. Following the path of Ahimsa, humans must not harm nor think of harming any living thing, plant or animal. This comes from “the development of a mental attitude in which hatred is replaced by love (236).” Love for all things and people within creation, stemming from a shared divinity of life. The implications for this in environmentalism are obvious. However, such a path is not enough to mitigate the affect man has on the environment. Would a Jain monk understand the long term implications of releasing carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels? Or the interruption of natural land progression by suppressing the periodic burning of scrubland? What about the overpopulation of deer which results in the end of oak regeneration? In these instances, ahimsa is not enough, unless coupled with a deeper understanding of the implications of all our actions, not just those that result in the direct destruction of life.

Jainism does have a positive effect overall when put in the context of human relations. The idea that “one self dwells in all… by serving another, you serve your own self (237)” speaks to the unity of man as a species. From that perspective, ecology arises once again as a central issue. If we are all each other’s protectors, if we all dwell in a singular self of existence, then we have a responsibility to maintain a suitable environment for that singular self to continue to exist. Thus we protect the environment for the future success of human life.

What are we leaving for future humans?


But what does this interpretation say of morality? That it is fueled by self-interest? I don’t think most Jain scholars would agree, from what I have read in the anthology and on the theory of ahimsa in general. In the essay on Jainism and ecology it argues that “we have a moral obligation toward nonhuman creation (145).” But where does that morality come from? Is it a spiritual creation, a respect for the divine natural world, or a humbled view of human accomplishment in the face of nature? This does not seem self-serving, but rather depreciative of humanity, and I think this is one of the main differences in Eastern and Western spiritual tradition. As the essay says, “the most urgent task of both science and religion is to assert the unity and sacredness of creation, and to reconsider the role of humans in it (245),” and I believe that Jainism fits that role. In western tradition, however, the sacredness of creation has been asserted, but man continues to dominate its trajectory.

It is a good question to ask what role man is to play in the “divine” theatre that is nature. Will we be shepherds or slaughterers? Will we take what we need, or take what we want? We recognize the importance man has in interacting with nature, caring for it, using it to serve the species, as it states “agriculture is the noblest profession (241),” but where do we draw the line? What perspective do we take on the environment and our responsibility, our moral imperative, to protect it? When viewed from a spiritual perspective, we must consider where divinity lies, or to be less secular, where the beauty of creation is manifest. And this is the difference between eastern and western thought, for in the east divinity lies in all nature, but in the west it lies in man and in gods work through man. So if we could merge these two perspectives, superimpose them on one another, we’d be left with a question similar to Professor Bump’s: “who would not be upset if a saint was lopped, maimed, and killed? (222)” The only difference lies in who your saints are, but regardless, it is agreed that the divine should never be destroyed.

Nature is divine.


Wednesday, February 17, 2010


At first glance, there might not seem to be much of a correlation between religion and environmentalism. However, as we saw in our own discussion of spirituality, many of us have a profound connection with our natural world, in the presence of which we often feel closest to the divine. But how is that feeling reflected in religious doctrine itself? And how can this correlation be used as a tool to foster environmental awareness?

Western religions don’t have the best reputation for being environmentally conscious. Recently there have been adjustments, such as the Pope making pollution and environmental degradation an “official” sin, but overall, and judging by the bulk of their doctrines and practices, there is little room in their moral code for the protection of any life, or any environment, that isn’t human. As the essay on ecology and world religions stated, “religions have traditionally been concerned with the path of personal salvation, which frequently emphasized otherworldly goals and and rejected this world as corrupting (anthology, 28).” In most western religious tradition the moral code is focused on human interaction, and hu

mans are the only ones created in the image of god, and thus at the top of the hierarchy of life. And so the only way to relate western religion to environmental responsibility is through its human components. If we destroy our world now, where will our children and the children of our brother’s live tomorrow? A hint of this reasoning can be found in the Qur’an, as quoted in the anthology, “live in this world as if you are going to live forever: prepare for the next world as if you are going to die tomorrow (30).” But still, the concept of an afterlife makes it much easier for people to overlook the degradation of this life. As does God’s command in Genesis: "be fruitful, multiply. Fill the earth and conquer it (115).”

The Pope made pollution a sin,

but does that really reflect

catholic doctrine?


The whole relationship, or rather disconnect, between god, man, and the environment creates many hurdles to using religion as a motivator in increasing environmental awareness. From the very start, man is separate from nature. However, in eastern tradition these separations stop. Man enters the world machine and is part of the cyclical whole of the environment and the cosmos. In this way eastern tradition is more conducive to celebrating a symbiosis with nature, and conservancy becomes the natural course of man.

The might of nature.


Despite differences in the two philosophies, it can’t be denied that religion is a powerful tool to promote certain actions of the part of the individual. By tapping into one’s spiritual beliefs, you tap into their sense of purpose, of duty, and of legacy. One thing that flows through all beliefs and all people, however, is the awe and power of nature as we experience it on earth. As Virgil says “see how it totters- the world's orbed might, earth, and wide ocean, and the vault profound, all, see, enraptured of the coming time! ah! might such length of days to me be given (124).” Even in the face of all our ascribed divinity and doctrine, nature still dominates our current space, and we cannot avoid the fact that the world around us will outlive us, whether we work towards saving it or not. Our bodies will die, and go back into the larger system of the earth, regardless of the destination of our souls.

Monday, February 8, 2010


In the second half of Life of Pi we are shown the ultimate end to suffering. We are shown what happens when we are left alone, how we manifest in a new, displaced reality. Again the idea of humanity comes into question. What is the universal truth that so separates us from animals? In Pi’s case, that truth is relative. As is all truth when looked at through the lens of the ultimate end – the end of loss, complete separation from past identity, it is the end that is not death of body but a reemergence from the death of soul, or rather, the splitting of a soul.

Could Richard Parker be an alternate
reality for Pi's sense of self?

Pi’s end comes from an early realization that, “when your own life is threatened, your sense of empathy is blunted by a terrible, selfish hunger for survival (p. 151).” In his story he first loses an empathy that was once so easily engrained – vegetarianism – and later an empathy with far more profound consequences. Richard Parker lurks through this new reality, an example of unrestrained determinism, and a symbol of fear for Pi. But what does the tiger on the boat threaten? We do not know if it is threatening Pi’s survival of body, or whether it threatens to overtake his moral soul. Perhaps the threats go hand in hand, and so once again, in the end, the truth may remain relative.

And what of Pi’s loss? He maintains his body. He maintains a will. A wit. A God. Even a scrap of sociability. But he does lose something profound on the boat, he loses his mother. And what is more of an ultimate end than that? Pi says, “to lose your mother, well, that is like losing the sun above you (p. 160).” This is the final straw to sever pi from his place, to leave him disoriented in reality, and to start anew with another narrative, not of loss but of sacrifice. For a maternal chimpanzee is not a mother, a wounded zebra not a young sailor. And so the loss is not the same. It is not so much a loss at that point as it is a trade off, one life for another. Even to a zookeeper’s son, or especially to him, the circle of life is a firm reality, that is until man, until Pi, turns into the end point of the circle – and thus must work against it.

Pi suffers. Pi is lost. Pi is displaced, disoriented, removed. Yet Pi lives, and what is the most striking thing left in his life? It his ability to tell a story. To create a story where God exists, from a situation in which God, to most of us, would seem so far away. The most striking thing left to Pi at the ultimate end of his suffering is this realization – truth is relative. Truth is relative to the end one wishes to achieve. Pi’s end is the same no matter the narrative, and he asks of his interrogators, “which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals? (p. 398)” Which is the better story, the better truth? In the case of ultimate suffering, it does not matter the means to the end. A soul is left ripped open, split, allowed to create whatever meaning it so chooses. And the meaning it chooses is the meaning that keeps some semblance of human wholeness, of order, of will. And yet it is the realization that these semblances are but that, mirages on an open sea, that affirms in the end the triviality of distinction. All that is left of life is to live, so it went with Pi, “and so it goes with God. (p. 399)”
In the end absolute truth should never
be sought nor found.

Monday, February 1, 2010


A woman is walking down the street. Her universe is solid. Her thoughts busy but controlled. Her morning starts with tea and periodicals, every day. Behind her trail the rigid structures of her past decision making, a tessellation formed carefully and completely. Her path is clear in both directions, backwards and forwards.

'a tessellation formed carefully and completely'


She’s an unshakeable woman, and not for lack of being shaken. She sees hardship daily at work. She sees it, enters it into the formula, and calculates the appropriate response. The heat has been shut off in nearly half the units on Avenue B. Bonham Elementary just cut 6 teachers. There are no proposed budget raises for the education sector – or any sector. Crime rates have risen. She has eighty-seven unread e-mails, all urgent, all the same. And at her desk, tea getting cold, periodical set aside, she makes decisions that chip away, slowly and deliberately, at the inefficient cycle that is American Poverty.

Here she sits - successful, moderately affluent, rigorously intellectual. She sees justice in everything, by constant judgment and classification. Her views shift with the circumstances, reason intact. She follows the path of constant resistance; a skeptic. She finds joy in making things orderly, connected, part of a greater whole. But to create unity, she is consistently destroying the individual. She recognizes differences, she recognizes even her own uniqueness, but she continues to lump things – and people - together. Differences are but runs in the perfect cloth of her universe - a tapestry that explains everything, growing at the edges with beautiful and ever intensifying patterns. Complexity grows, disorder fades. The heat gets turned on in unit twenty-seven.

Out for her second biodegradable cup of chai. Metallic ringing tells her that her father is calling. She considers her schedule – does she have time for awkward banter? Irritating questions? Too much time, it turns out.

“Hi Dad.”

“Hello.” A sob, broken. “She’s dead.”

It’s not the call she expected, least of all from him. And in one moment her formula has broken down. She has contemplated the event of her mother’s death before; that she is reconciled with. But her father was not accounted for. One would not call their relationship loving, at least not on her end. Resentful, yes, impatient perhaps, but she never allowed him her sympathy before, and considering it now made her extremely uneasy. How would she deal with this man, this sobbing man, for whom she fostered little respect and less affection? He would need constant attention, the same attention her mother had wasted so much time on. He was a very needy man, incompetent in the most basic of household duties, easy to fluster, easier to depress. She didn’t have time for this. She didn’t have the emotional capacity.

That dull feeling starts welling up in her chest. A precursor to sadness perhaps, the unmitigated sorrow she never gets to feel. And why not? Why now, when she has an excuse to break down, to reach out, empathize in a common situation with a fellow human being (family no less), does she feel nothing?

What causes emotional paralysis?


Worse than nothing, she feels the barrier, pressed so hard against that wall she could suffocate. All she has to do is show something, some scrap of love or compassion, pathos – but she can’t. And she traces back to the why, because that’s all she knows how to do.

I was fifteen and I could feel everything. The ills of the world were my passions – everything in my future set aside to solve them one by one. Dred-locked, revolutionary, I felt that the trials of those less fortunate were my trials to bear, oppression mine to defeat. Apathy was the ultimate enemy, ambivalence disgusted me. My motto – never be content.

And then I met him. His passion rivaled even mine (though I definitely had the better dreds). Where I came from a loving, stimulating environment, his had been broken. And so his passion, though just as strong, was somewhat fractured - energy with nowhere to go. His ills were now more important than the world’s. His sadness – unbearable. And so with the selfless love we all contain – agape – I poured everything I had into him. And for awhile I was approaching that contentment I so loathed.

Young romance may seem frivolous to some, but for us it was anything but. We were entrenched. For once we each had someone else to take us seriously – our optimism, our compassion, our grandiose schemes – finally we were sharing them. It was a tumultuous love between tumultuous people – one of those huge life relationships, compacted into mere years. And despite many of my more skeptical, cynical moments, I will never discount what we had because of its scale or age. And that is the hardest to bear.

We talk about a selfless love, spiritual, all-encompassing, divine love – but how many of us experience that? Perhaps we sense some abstract form of it through our religion or our connection with the environment, but to create that love between people is a rare and amazing experience. Once you’ve loved like that, you can never forget human potential for compassion. You can’t forget your own potential, even if it never rears its head again. And so I can’t forget this relationship. I can’t deny that it left me how I am. I can’t deny the potential it showed me.

But maybe I do. To lose a love like that – or rather to give it up – is debilitating. To give everything you have to someone – to be truly selfless in loving someone – well, it can cause you to give up too much for too little. I saw a man suffering. I reached out with all available compassion, all possible love, demanding so little – but perhaps expecting too much. I expected to alleviate suffering. To help him help himself and the others suffering in his life. But sometimes another’s suffering is not in our hands. Sometimes love is not enough.

So I gave up on love, I gave up on his suffering, as he had given up long ago. But it was too late; I’d spent my reserves. The passion I once had was diluted. My old optimism seemed naïve. Love was too painful a concept to appreciate. But ethics – my ethics remained.

At the end of it all, I would still not accept suffering as a fact of life. That would be indulging in my own weakness – a weakness I had learned from him. But the path to alleviate suffering was no longer abrupt, loving-kindness – it was never to be rushed along again. It was cold, calculating, relentlessly driven. It required a steady mind andpatient labor. Most of all, it required constant risk management.

So a life emerged: numb of compassion, withholding of love. But driven to compensate for the one failure that meant the most.

What is life now, in this numbness?

A woman is walking down the street. It’s cold outside, but she feels the residual warmth of the space heater she just dropped off at unit twenty-seven, Avenue B. The home of a student, met working the afterschool program at Bonham Elementary. A new baby brother, a single mother, no heat. But the warmth is there now, and she can still feel it. She passes the café, hands three dollars to the man huddled outside. The city’s budget may be frozen, but hers remains flexible – she chooses which commodities to cut and trade. Her phone rings. Her father – a kind man.

“Hi Dad.”

“Sweetheart, your mom…” A sob, broken.

A sob, echoed.

“I’ll be there. I love you.”

Once she thought she was numb to this kind of pain, this kind of love. Once she thought, it is no one’s right to suffer.

But those thoughts were fleeting. And she entered life again, with heart agape.

Life is nothing in numbness. So I go forward in my actions, I do not run out of fuel, I do not run out of love. There are many ways to apply ethics in our lives. Some ways help reach people most efficiently. Other ways help us reach them directly. When we combine both, keeping in mind all our past and possible future experiences, we can change lives – across the world and across our dinner tables. I plan to apply my knowledge and appreciation of justice, democracy, and social responsibility to a career that alleviates the suffering of a community – a society – at large. But I will never forget the love and compassion that flows through me, though I may try to guard myself against it. I know it is there, and I know it can make a difference in cases where reason alone, where the most complex of calculations, cannot control an outcome. And I will love as if love is limitless.

Love is necessary in ethics.