Saturday, February 22, 2014

Christian Leadership

In this essay, I attempt to characterize leadership that is informed by Christian theological and ethical principles. This is not to say that such leadership is applicable only in religious institutions. Nor is it the case that such leadership is merely a particular flavor of ethical leadership. As the Bible’s Book of Job attests, theology does not reduce to ethics, for such a reduction would make God subject to ethical principles, and therefore not omnipotent (i.e., all-powerful). To unpack the sort of leadership that can be said to be distinctly Christian, I analyze the investiture of Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church in 2013.
Generally speaking, Christian leadership is informed by the teachings as well as the example of Jesus of Nazareth. Whether he is “fully human, fully divine” as a god-man need not be answered in order to appropriate the teaching and lived example (i.e., on Earth). This does not mean that we are reduced to ethical principles. For example, the theological concept of agape, or self-emptying love, informs the teaching to love one’s neighbor, even one’s enemy. Such love does not reduce to ethical conduct, but is theological in nature.
Hence, in his investiture homily, Pope Francis told the crowd in St. Peter’s Square,  "I want to ask a favor. . . . I want to ask you to walk together, and take care of one another. . . .  And don't forget that this bishop who is far away loves you very much. Pray for me." To care for one another stresses the universal applicability of neighbor love. Unlike Cicero’s notion of love as friendship, neighbor love is not extended primarily to one’s friends and family. If a stranger is in need of care, agape means self-emptying one’s own preferences for the sort of person deserving of help. As a child of God, any given person deserves care when needed and by whomever is in a position (e.g., proximity) to help.
Lest it be concluded that Christian leadership reduces to servant leadership wherein a leader serves anyone and serving can become an end in itself, Pope Francis provides a more distinctly Christian sort of leadership.
For one thing, the leader is to love humanity, rather than merely serve others. Loving humanity may imply viewing humans as creatures, and thus fundamentally vulnerable (rather than “bad” or “sin”). To see the creatureliness of man is to see the creature as limited, rather than as fulfilled.
Secondly, leadership informed by Christ’s teachings prioritizes certain conditions pertaining to some but not all of us—namely, that of weakness in terms of earthly condition. In his homily, “Francis said the role of the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics is to open his arms and protect all of humanity, but ‘especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison’.” Christian leadership is thus not sectarian or limited even to Christians; there is no creedal condition one must meet in order to receive care from a leader following Christian principles. In the Gospel of Mark, it is the stranger rather than the disciples that “get it” as far as Jesus’s message is concerned. The good Sumerian cares for the injured stranger on the side of the road while the priest walks merrily by.
By implication, Christian leadership embraces humanity rather than merely protecting the faith. Such leadership thus has credibility beyond the faithful. The weak, poor, sick, and marginalized to be cared for could be Hindu, Jewish or Shinto, for example. In fact, to the extent that Christians tend to marginalize people of other religions as “not saved,” a leader informed by Jesus’s teachings and example can be expected to make a particular effort to care for non-Christians. The first are last, and the last are first. Such is the paradox that comes out of the notion of agape, or self-emptying love.
It is important to note that the caring must go beyond symbolic actions. The miracle of the loaves and fishes feeds the hungry and is therefore not a mere rhetorical symbol of caring. This is not say that symbolic acts have no value in Christian leadership. In St. Peter’s Square before the Investiture Mass, Pope Francis hopped off his jeep to bless a disabled man and kiss him on the forehead.
 Before his Investiture Mass, Pope Francis blesses a disabled man.  NBC
Although such an act sets the tone of Christian leadership, caring is not merely attention and a kiss. Had the pope had an aide get a walker or a nice wheelchair to be delivered to the man from the pope himself after the Mass, the leadership of caring would have been actualized rather than merely symbolized. Such actualized leadership could include the formulation and execution of a new or invigorated program geared to feeding the poor, for instance. In this sense, organizational leadership informed by Christian principles has a dimension beyond caring on the individual level.
In short, Christian leadership does not simply mean “ethical leadership” or even “servant leadership.” The foundation of distinctly Christian leadership is love as agape, actualized as universal benevolence manifesting as care for one another, especially the weak and vulnerable. Such love sees humanity itself as vulnerable in the sense of being created (i.e., creatures), and particular persons as more vulnerable than others. Even in an organizational setting, the “lower level” employees can be cared for first rather than being marginalized as last. This prioritizing directs but does not trump the universality of neighbor-love, for even the rich executive is a creature and thus fundamentally vulnerable.  To love and care for vulnerability, rather than to ignore, harm or destroy the vulnerable is the calling of Christian leadership, for vulnerability is an intrinsic aspect of self-giving love, or agape.


Nicole Winfield, “Pope Francis Inauguration 2013: Catholic Leader Begins Ministry in St. Peter’s Square,” The Huffington Post, March 19, 2013.

Pope Francis on Factory Wages in Bangladesh: A Theological Basis of Corporate Social Responsibility

If what Pope Francis said during a private Mass in April 2013 takes hold as a theme in his papacy, the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement will have gained a new public advocate on the world stage. Besides the fact that the pope is the spiritual leader to well over a billion Roman Catholics around the world, his remarks are significant in the that they proffer theology as an alternative foundation for CSR. As with the more established bases, theology applied to CSR has its advantages and shortcomings.

Scholars of CSR have long debated the salience of ethical principles as the basis of the movement/theory, as against the alternative basis in cultural norms. On the ethics side, the word responsibility is said to connote ought (i.e., prescriptive duty) rationally applied to conduct. To whit, businesses ought to be more responsible.

However, basis of CSR could also be a desired shift in corporate values and norms toward  a greater degree of fit with extant social norms held societally. In other words, the CSR agenda can be characterized as moving one set of values/norms closer to a more widely-held set. While prescriptive in nature--wayward corporate norms should be changed--the emphasis here is on norms and values that already exist rather than ought to exist. The goal is to get corporate norms to reflect, or at least not be in conflict with societal norms so the corporation will not suffer a loss in reputational capital and long-term profit from being out of sync with society.

Put even more academically, the question is whether CSR is founded in philosophy (ethics being a sub-discipline) or sociology/anthropology. If Pope Francis’s theological rationale can be reckoned as an alternative, theology or religious studies (i.e., widening out to other religions)  could be reconized as CSR's basic academic displine. That is to say, CSR could be studied by adding study of theology (or religious studies) to management. The opportunity cost would be the foregone study in ethics and sociology. As there is a cost, it is worthwhile to investigate the pope's rationale, including its context.

The pope’s homiletical comments came in the wake of a major industrial accident in India. On April 24, 2013 in Bangladesh, India, an eight-story building containing (among other things) five garment factories collapsed. As of this writing, more than 1100 people had already been found dead in the rubble. This made the accident the worst of its kind in history.

It is as if the sheer magnitude of the disaster shook people's confidence in the power of the ethical principle of duty and relevant societal norms to resist or even push back the countervailing force of greed fueled by the ubiquitous profit-motive. In other words, the standing of human nature itself took a hit. It makes sense then that a religious leader would preach an alternative basis that obviates the new-found lack of balance in human nature by transcending it and even our very realm of existence.

I now turn to the pope’s rationale to consider how his theological approach might apply to the five manufacturers in the disaster and the clothing retailers that buy the output. Furthermore, a bit can be said about relevant public policy. In short, how far does the sinning against God extend?

In his homily, Pope Francis said he was shocked to learn that the workers who died had been earning a paltry 38 euros (about $50) a month. Granted the standard of living is relatively low in Bangladesh as compared to North America and Western Europe, but that a day's pay is just enough to buy a dozen eggs gives some indication of the ongoing hardship being endured by the typical factory laborer in Bangladesh. Rather than focus only on the immediate tragedy, the pope used it to focus attention on the ongoing suffering endured by the working poor, some of whom even in Bangladesh are Christian and thus of particular concern to the pope.

The Pope excoriated the garment companies’ wage policies as being equivalent to slave labor. Speaking in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the pope said, “Today in the world this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us.” That something is “the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity.” God created human beings as being able to survive without having to compromise or sacrifice human dignity.

Of course, it could be argued that creating, working, and having dignity can be of value without any mention of a divine being. The three values could simply be social norms that are highly valued, as in Europe and North America. Even so, the tragedy sent a message around the world that organizational and societal values may not be sufficient to counter the force of greed in human nature, particularly when that nature finds itself in positions of power.

Therefore, I want to flesh out a  distinctly theological rationale that could have been behind the pope’s remarks. I turn next to what it might be.

 "God giving life to Adam" by Michelangelo.     source:      
In all three Abrahamic faiths, work is punishment for Adam's original sin. In their respective poems on cycles, both Hesiod and Ovid place laboring with buried treasures in the Iron Age, which is the furtherest (and lowest) from the prestine Golden Age. At least with respect to antiquity, toil did not have much of a positive connotation.

Yet in the Renaissance and later in Calvinism, industriousness made its way as a Christian virtue. Working hard to fashion God's gold as good stewards and dispensing some of the output as charity (neighbor-love being caritas in Latin) could give work a positive theological significance.

Furthermore, creating things and having dignity could be based on mankind being made in the image of God. Creativity can be associated with God being the Creator. Human dignity can be thought of from the standpoint of Leibniz’s point that human beings have a share of the perfection that is sourced in God as the perfect being. God's being perfect is inclusive of other divine attributes, such as omnipotence (all-powerful), benevolentia (having a good will), omnipresence (being everywhere), and omniscience (knowing all). Being made in the image of God, we have a certain dignity in that we exist. Our being, or existance, has a share of ultimate being, which is perfection in God. In short, we have dignity because we exist as created by God in His image.

Trampling on the divine image in other people by paying them a humiliating wage to do mundane, repetitive work is like putting a light under a bushel even though one knows that the radiance from the light belongs out in the open rather than weighed down and hidden. “Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God!” Francis said. He could easily have pointed to Jesus’s saying, “What you do to the least of mine, you do to me.” This is fundamental to Jesus’s message that God is to be loved by loving one’s neighbor—even one’s enemies. Leibniz puts this as caritas seu benevolentia universalis, or love, that is, universal benevolence, in the Codex.

In summary, sinning clothing manufacturers, including their owners and managers, deny God’s divine attributes by weighing down those created in God's image by paying them hardship wages. There is no neighbor-love in that, and thus no God. To get a fuller sense of how theology can serve as a basis for CSR, this theological rationale can be extended beyond the garment manufacturers themselves to those stakeholders who can be said to have played an indirect role in the tragedy.

The pope could have pointed to the fact that the building’s owner, Mohammed Rana, had ignored huge cracks and the consequent police evacuation order in assuring tenants that the building was safe. After the collapse, he was arrested for negligence, illegal construction (he had permission to build five stories), and forcing workers to join work.

Similarly, the pontiff could have pointed to the managers of the five factories, who, after having been informed of the evacuation order, ordered their workers to report to work. That a bank and some shops in the building did not open after the evacuation order suggests that the building’s owner and the factory managers must have known they were subjecting their employees to considerable risk of being killed.

In answer to Rana and the five factory managers who knew of the unsafe condition of the building, the pope could have given a homily on how the squalid cocktail of selfish greed, obstinate presumptuousness (i.e., “I can’t be wrong) and abuse of power can smother other people to death--pushing their lights under a bushel to be hidden forever. To knowingly put others at risk is to deny the inherent value in  not only the share of perfection that they have merely in existing, but also the font of perfection itself, which is God as perfect being.

The theological denunciations against paying the factory workers paltry wages and  forcing them to work in unsafe conditions can be extended to include the indirect culprits, such as the apparel retailers that had contracted with the five manufacturers and even any retailer that contracts with a sweatshop. The question relevant to corporate theological responsibility is whether indirectly enabling low wages and unsafe working conditions rather than acting to curtail them is included in the sin against God mentioned by the pope.

Specifically, by paying such low prices for the factory output, do the retailers keep the factory workers hungry? Were there not the contracts, would the workers be doing creative work elsewhere? Finally, do the retailers enable the factory managers to keep treating the workers in ways that violate any sort of dignity in the worker? If so, then Jesus's command to love one's neighbor as oneself is being violated not only by the manufacturers, but also by the more distant, yet contributory retailers.

The executives of retail clothing companies like JC Penney and the Gap surely know that contracting with a sweatshop allows them the advantage of paying less for the factory output because of the below-poverty wages and lack of safety upkeep. Rather than worrying about possible unsafe factory conditions or whether the factory workers can support a family, those executives are calculating that the low price they get to pay more than makes up for the additional shipping costs. 

Approaching CSR alternatively by looking at social norms, the disjuncture between the executives' values and societal values concerning sustenance would be the focal point. CSR would be oriented to change the executives' values so they are in line with the societal values, perhaps by showing the executives that their respective companies can make more money that way, or at least have a better reputation.  

In approaching CSR by means of ethics, the question would be whether the executives' motives, actions, or consequences thereof violates an ethical principle. Are those executives violating the social contract wherein the rights a company enjoys come with certain obligations? Are those executives enabling people to be treated only as other peoples' means, or also as ends in themselves? Do the low wages and unsafe conditions go along with the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people? Especially if the answers to these three questions all point to unethical conduct, the retailers' policies ought to be changed.

Adding insult to injury, the apparel retailers extend very little flexibility to the sweatshops. American Apparel CEO Dov Charney explains that in the apparel industry, “it’s all about deadline. You’ve got to get these sweatshirts or this swimwear by a certain day, or you’re nailed, and you’re out of business.” Strict cutoff dates and the lack of cooperation from retailers pushed factories in developing countries to their limits, forcing them to do whatever it takes to get the job done on time. This may explain why the managers of the five factories chose to ignore the evacuation order. If so, the relevant retailers bear some of the blame for pressuring the managers to do whatever it takes to finish an order on time, even if doing so involves risking the lives of the workers.

Beyond the managers and companies involved, the Indian society itself, particularly as it is reflected in public policy on the state and federal levels in India, may also be culpable theologically for having been negligent toward worker safety. The societal norm allowing for corruption in India allows building owners, construction companies, and manufacturers to get away with a lot. In the U.S., the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and a watchful media provide sufficient scrutiny that manufacturers cannot easily get away with whatever they want. Accordingly, Charney, whose factory is located in the U.S., declares, “If there’s something unsafe at my factory I’m shutting that thing down. If not, one wrong move and it’s all exposed. That’s a good thing. That’s not a bad thing.” He may be drawing too stark a contrast so the Indian government will be forced to increase the minimum wage in the low-cost factories. For our purposes here, the relevant point is that the failure of the Indian government to enact and enforce more rigorous regulations oriented to worker safety and wages may also be within the sin against God.

More generally, legislators and government officials who do not do enough in enacting public policy oriented to achieving full employment may be sinning against God. “There are many people who want to work but cannot,” the Pope said. “When a society is organised in a way that not everyone is given the chance to work, that society is not just.” The justice to which the Pope undoubtedly was referring is divine justice, which also stems from God’s attributes—in particular, omnipotence (all-powerful) and omniscience (all-knowing). According to Leibniz, that justice is essentially love manifesting as universal benevolence. Simply put, having a share of God’s perfection, each person is due benevolence from others.  To violate that justice, such as by selfishly paying another person only enough to keep him as a means rather than as having value in being made in the image of God, is to sin against God.

In summary, managers (and their companies) who are not theologically responsible to the workers are not merely unethical and acting contrary to societal norms. From the theological perspective, the fundamental flaw in running a company centers on sinning against God. Prideful selfishness and sordid greed slight God by replacing neighbor-love with exploitation. This is not to say that God, being omnipotent, is confined to our social norms or even our ethical systems. A theological perspective can mandate conduct that is unethical or against a society’s norms. So the theological perspective does not reduce to either that of ethics or sociology. There are, however, at least two problems in going with the theological grounding.

First, it is debatable whether a theological rationale for CSR can or should be recognized as valid beyond the safe confines of the believers who subscribe to the theological doctrines. For example, it might not be fair to apply criteria from Christianity to the people of India, whose people are predominantly Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs. In his homily during Midnight Mass in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI cited Origen, a theologian in Early Christianity, who saw paganism such as Hinduism as "a lack of feeling." Paganism, the pope said quoting from Origen, "means a heart of stone that is incapable of loving and perceiving God's love." In other words, a Hindu married couple is incapable of loving each other. "Lacking feeling and reason, [pagans] are transformed into stones and wood." A Hindu manager would likely ask why he should apply a pope's theological criteria to anything. If the Hindu manager is "lacking feeling and reason," how could he apply any criterion?

It could be argued that the extent of corruption allowed and the consequent laxity in regulation and wage-support in India should be critiqued by Hindu rather than Christian principles, though non-Hindus in India would doubtlessly object to even that solution. It is not clear, therefore, whether religious claims from any religion, including Christianity, are universal enough to be applicable beyond the members of the particular religion. If so, it might be difficult to treat religious belief as an alternative to ethical principles and social norms on which to base CSR.

Second, the Pope’s theological rationale can be put in secular terms without much if any change in the resulting prescription. For example, trampling on creatures made in the image of God bears a resemblance to Kant’s ethical categorical imperative that rational beings should be treated not only as a means to one’s own interests, but also as an end in themselves. Exploiting workers, whether by paying them an insufficient wage or mandating that they work in an unsafe building, involves treating them as a means only. How much more of a rationale need be added in terms of theology? In other words, is the Pope’s rationale redundant, practically speaking? If not, perhaps theological (or religious) corporate responsibility should be developed. 

Agence France Presse, “Pope Francis Condemns ‘Slave Labor’ in Bangladesh: ‘Goes Against God’,” The Huffington Post, May 1, 2013.  
Farid Hossain, “Bangladesh Building Collaspe Death Toll Rises To 430, Many Still Missing,” the Huffington Post, May 2, 2013.   
Syed Zain AL-Mahmoud, “Bangladesh Factory Toll Surpasses 800,” The Wall Street Journal, May 8, 2013.
Pope Benedict XVI, "Midnight Mass Homily," The Vatican, December 24, 2009.

Pope Francis Goes After the Idolatry of Money: A Theological Critique of Wall Street

How far must religion extend to retain its potency? Is religion like the law, having its fingers into everything? In Evangem Gaddium, Pope Francis formally puts his imprint on economic policy from a theological standpoint. The question is whether the connection is a bridge too far.
The Pope presents his intended nexus explicitly in the term, "idolatry of money.”[1]  With Wall Street and London undoubtedly in his sights, the Pope draws on the historical theological stance that the sin of greed is in turn based on idolatry. Lest it be presumed that treating money as an idol in the created realm is the bedrock, the decision to idolize money honors the idolizer. Therefore, greed is ultimately founded on self-idolatry: a creature vaunting itself above even its Creator. The question is whether the theological fix can be as specific as the Pope specifies in his first apostolic exhortation. Moreover, is even an ethically salubrious economic policy the answer to a sin or a category mistake?
In terms of policy, the Pope extolls politicians to guarantee all citizens "dignified work, education and healthcare."[2] In effect, he would have human rights applied on an economic basis. Additionally, he calls for an overhaul of the financial system and warns that unequal distribution of wealth inevitably leads to violence. "Just as the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say 'thou shalt not' to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills."[3]  Before issuing his 84-page paper, the Pope had spoken out against the clergy and laity who obsess on abortion by pushing a particular partisan position. Severe economic inequality kills too. This is not to say that the Pope advocates “a simple welfare mentality.”[4] Even if the Pope obviates charges of partisanship along familiar ideological divisions, the question remains: Is the Pope implying in his writing that significantly reducing such inequality also restores the inequality between the self-idolater and God?
The Pope may indeed inadvertently reduce a fundamental (and enduring) theological problem to a policy solution in claiming, "As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world's problems or, for that matter, to any problems."[5] Presumably the cleric would not have excluded the theological variety. Hence, given all that rides on the economic prescription being advocated by the Pope, he asks for divine intervention capable of reaching down into the bowels of legislative business. "I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor."[6] Is this not akin to begging the Lord to take sides in a bloody war, and, moreover, is it not at least slightly presumptuous  to take it as a given that God is the sort of ultimacy wherein particular policies or positions matter? 

3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.

Pope Francis Urges an Ethical Basis for Markets: Taking on the Prosperity Gospel?

Going after the “profit-at-all-cost mentality . . . behind Europe’s economic crisis,” Pope Francis told reporters travelling with him to the Church's Youth Day 2011that morals and ethics must play a greater role in future regulatory policies. “The economy doesn’t function with market self-regulation," the Pope claimed. Like Adam Smith who had situated his own theory of perfect competitive on a foundation of moral sentiments to keep markets from going to excess and thus self-destructing, Pope Francis asserted that a market needs "an ethical reason to work for mankind.” He added that the moral dimension is “interior and fundamental” to economic problems.

The Pope's appeal to the ethical dimension as the foundation of a market begs the question: What would a theological, or distinctly Christian, basis look like? The prosperity gospel would not stand a very good chance of being chosen, for it holds that God rewards true believers with earthly wealth rather than only with salvation. The basis for this interpretation is well represented in the Old Testament. During the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008, a significant number of subprime mortgage borrowers were convinced that their Christological belief qualifies as true belief and, furthermore, that God would provide, even miraculously if necessary, so said borrowers would be able to make even the higher (ARM) mortgage payments on houses beyond the borrowers' own financial means. Viewing God as the font of earthly treasure is to leave Christianity impotent in acting as a constraint against greed and wealth.

Facing the headwinds of deregulation and a Wall Street government, religious Americans weary of the excesses of uninhibited greed in the financial sector may want to press the Roman Catholic Pope to provide a constraining theologically-based ethic capable of counterpoising the hegemony of the prosperity gospel. Historically, the first three or four centuries of Christianity sported many anti-wealth theologians whose arguments could be appropriated to fill the gap left open by insufficient regulation.


David Roman, “Pope Visits Spain, Says Ethics Should Guide Economics,” The Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2011.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

On the Zoroastrian (Parsee) Funeral Rite: Vultures Devour the Dead

For centuries, Zoroastrians (Parsees in modern parlance) put their dead on “towers of silence” in Mumbai so the corpses could be “disposed of” by vultures. It was believed that burial or cremation would pollute the elements of air, earth, fire and water. Perhaps the discomfort was the thought that the material bodies associated with souls, which are of air, would be mixed in with inanimate matter that has no such association (i.e., soil). In Zoroastrianism, for the soul or mind to be free of matter—even that of one’s body—is an ideal even if it can be experienced only in the last few seconds of one’s life.

The top of a tower of silence used by the Parsees. (Image Source: NYT)

Even in the West, not many people relish the idea that their bodies will be placed under ground one day. The tradition whereby married couples are buried together must be strange for the couples themselves to contemplate while alive. It is not as though two bodies underground can have any inkling even of <i>being</i>, not to mention being next to a loved one. In the following poem, Oscar Wilde romanticizes what being buried must be like.

"Yes, death. Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one's head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace. You can help me. You can open for me the portals of death's house, for love is always with you, and love is stronger than death is.”

― Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost

The anticipation of one’s body being devoured by vultures can hardly be likened to such terms, even if the practice does not pollute the four basic elements. It is amazing how much projection goes on to cover the sheer non-existence that goes with actual death. Love may be always with you, as long as you are you, but you yourself will not always be so neither, therefore, will love.

Faced with the end of one’s own existence, a person may turn to religion, extending it beyond transcendent religious experience to a metaphysical realm wherein Plato’s idea of the immortality of the soul—a philosophical idea making possible an epistemological idea. Presumably as the Parsee’s corpse is being picked apart by flesh-eating birds, the soul is at the very least not dependent on the body. Nevertheless, all of us tend to assume an ownership-affinity of sorts with our respective bodies while we are alive, so the thought of one’s corpse being eaten is nevertheless uncomfortable, to say the least.

In the case of the fewer than 70,000 Parsees in Mumbai, the restoration of the ancient practice dovetails with efforts by the government to get vultures off the endangered species list. India once had as many as 400 million vultures—that’s more than the U.S. population was at the turn of the twenty-first century. The birds benefited from the prohibition of cattle-slaughter until the use of diclofenac by veterinarians on the cows caused kidney-failure in the birds. Eventually, that drug was banned and a decade into the twenty-first century, the Indian government decided to combine forces with the Parsee to bring back the vultures from extinction by the construction of three aviaries. The birds would feed off the human corpses left atop three “towers of silence.” As per custom, the bodies of men, women, and children would be segregated on three concentric rings of marble slabs—the remaining bones of all of the bodies falling to the ground below.

In short, the restoration of an ancient religious custom went along with an environmentalist cause. Furthermore, in a nation of over a billion people, the land spared from cemetery usage could be added as yet another benefit. Indeed, it can be asked both in the East and West whether there is anything more to a cemetery hundreds of years old than the markers themselves. It is difficult indeed for us mere mortals to come to grips with the end of our own existence.

It is as though a premise of our experience were ongoing existence, so it is difficult for us even to contemplate our own non-existence. Into this existential angst, we have allowed religion to venture (or encroach) from its native <i>experiential </i>basis. That is to say, we have enabled religion to adjunct metaphysics onto the experiential to assuage our existential discomfort. We have done so for so long we assume that the metaphysical (e.g., the immortality of the soul) is an inherent aspect of religion. Even though death must inevitably befall us, it is difficult for us nonetheless to let ourselves go—we are so accustomed to our very existence as the substratum of our awareness, which in turn undergirds our perception and cognition of external objects and thoughts, respectively. It is difficult, therefore, for the Parsee to disentangle himself from that which will be devoured by the vultures, even if the practice obviates religious pollution.


Gardiner Harris, Giving New Life to Vultures to Restore a Human Ritual of Death,” The New York Times, November 29, 2012.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Buddhist Temple in Plato's Cave

The lesson behind Plato's cave is perhaps that the puppets' shadows are not "things as they are" (e.g., outside the cave), but are instead mere pale reflections of a fire that is in turn dwarfed by the Sun outside the cave. Enlightenment in Buddhism can be construed in terms of coming to realize this in how we experience the world and realizing that not even the puppets themselves are the whole story; enlightenment fully realized involves being able (and willing) to perceive the cave as part of the world outside; the puppets' shadows on the cave's wall inside do not really exist. In fact, neither does the cave as an entity (i.e., there is no "other shore"). Returning to the cave, the enlightened person thus sees it in a new light--one that situates that of the fire relative to that of the Sun outside. 

A Buddhist temple in a cave. The light streaming in provides one way in which the interior can be viewed in relative rather than absolute terms. (Image Source: Kiomi Moore)