Panel on Environmental Relationships, Environmental Readings

The second Wednesday morning session of the Sacred Texts Human Contexts conference, titled “Environmental Relationships, Environmental Readings” at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, May 25 included presentations by Brianne Donaldson, professor at Monmouth College; Jamison Stallman, M.A. candidate at Union Theological Seminary; and Cecille M. Medina-Moldonado, M.A. candidate at Loyola University. I was most interested in hearing Donaldson’s presentation on Jainism, but ultimately found Medina-Moldonado’s presentation equally interesting.

Donaldson’s presentation, titled “I Ask Pardon of All Creatures: The Centrality More Than Human Life Jain Text and Rituals of Repentance,” began with some basic information about Jainsim, including an introduction to the principle of ahimsa, not causing harm. Pointing out that Mahavira, the key figure in early Jainism, was a contemporary of Gautama Buddha, she said, “Both buddha and Mahavira prioritize ethical action over Vedic ritual practice.” [Note that I am not able to include diacritical marks for Sanskrit transliteration on this Web site.]

“Jainism posits a universe of which our universe is just one part,” said Donaldson, adding, “There is no deity.” instead, according to the Tattvartha Sutra, there are six substances, including jiva which may be interpreted as soul, or as sentient substance. All organisms house a jiva, she said, including microorganisms.

Jains believe in reincarnation after death. They also believe in karma, said Donaldson, which she described as a kind of “causal entanglement. “Just to live in the world has a cost.”

“One’s own jiva might yet be reborn in a the body of a plant or animal,” said Donaldson, so care for other organisms is important, as one might sometime be reborn in one of those bodies. This leads to ethical concern for other beings.

Jains practice compulsory vegetarianism. They eat no eggs and no honey. They also do not eat those vegetables where harvesting the roots winds up killing the plant. Jain monks and nuns “try to minimize even further their impact on other organisms,” said Donaldson. Lay Jains help support “the more difficult path” followed by monks and nuns.

Donaldson describe Jainism as “a very pragmatic approach.” They know that living requires damage to other beings. Since one will cause harm to other beings, Jainism has rituals of repentance. The rituals of repentance are non-theistic, according to Donaldson: “One asks for forgiveness from other jivas directly, one does not need to go outside that system” to deities. She gave an example of a prayer of repentance from the pratikramana rite of repentance: “I ask pardon of all creatures, may all creatures pardon me. May have I friendship with beings and enmity with none.”

“A simple gesture of repentance,” she concluded, “is first and foremost an act of recognition.” Such an act of recognizing other beings “invites us to perceive life typically outside our senses,” and brings that life into our attention.

 

Jamison Stallman spoke next, on the topic “Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an Ecological Theologian,” in which he derived an ecological theology from Bonhoeffer’s social philosophy, using niche theory.

 

Cecille M. Medina-Maldonado gave the third presentation in this session, on the topic “Constructing an Environmental Ethic from the Doctrine and Covenant, a Latter-Day Saint Scriptural Volume.” Medina-Maldonado is a Roman Catholic who is in dialogue with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, or Mormons.

In her presentation, Medina-Maldonado contended that Latter Day Saints have “robust theological resources” to develop a powerful environmental ethic. However, they have not had strong motivation to do so recently because of twentieth century divisions between liberals and conservatives. Latter Day Saints adherents tended to “tune out” what she called the “drug-using sexually loose hippy-types” who stereotypically were involved in the environmental movement.

However, Medina-Maldonado said, from its earliest days, the Latter Day Saints movement “taught stewardship of the earth” for both aesthetic and utilitarian reasons. Furthermore, there are significant passages in a key Latter Day Saints text, the Doctrine and Covenants, or D&C.

Medina-Maldonado started by examining D&C 49.19-21, a text which includes the passage, “wo be to the man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need.” In the early history of the Latter Day Saints, there was a move towards vegetarianism, but ultimately meat consumption was allowed. This passage in the Doctrine and Covenants permits the consumption of meat, but with important conditions with environmental implications: the poor must be fed, and there should be no waste.

Next, Medina-Maldonado looked at D&C 59.18-20. While this passage begins by affirming a view in which humans have dominance of Nature, the text goes on to say: “For unto this end were they made to be used, with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.” This stands in contrast to the Enlightenment attitude that allowed humans to “ravish the environment for human gain.” Thus, this text implies that the earth must be treated with respect.

Medina-Maldonado pointed out that a stewardship ethic could be derived from D&C 104:13, 17-18. She said this text highlights “the responsibility of stewardship for all persons.”This is a moral responsibility, she argues, akin to other forms of moral issues.

Finally, Medina-Maldonado looked at the monism of Later Day Saints’ cosmology, arguing that this cosmology was perhaps even more important in “constructing an LDS platform” for environmental ethics. I was particularly interested to learn that Latter Day Saints theologians have argued against creatio ex nihilio, asserting instead that human intelligences have existed from all eternity; all matter has also existed for all eternity. This monistic cosmology means that all matter shares in the same substance, including the Divine.

“The LDS church has generous resources to bolster their environmental teachings,” said Medina-Maldonado. She added: “While the monism tradition has been slower to develop than the stewardship tradition,” she believes monism provides the best foundation for a Latter Day Saints environmental ethic.

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