Human dignity, even when analyzed through the lens of human rights, has received surprisingly little attention in the Journal of Religious Ethics, in contrast to a resurgent global interest in it. This article examines some possible reasons for this diminutive interest and makes a case for dignity's integration into the mainstream of religious ethics scholarship. A social conception of human dignity understands it as a conferment that entitles its holder to certain respectful treatments unavailable to those without it. As a (...) naturalistic conception, human dignity assumes certain features to be inherent in human nature. An emancipatory theory of dignity offers a fuller accounting of the concept as it is informed by a grassroots human rights praxis and social movements across a spectrum of historical periods and cultural and political contexts. (shrink)
This article draws on ethnographic fieldwork among Japanese Shin Buddhists who have an enduring commitment to volunteering with Hansen's disease patients in Japan and its former colonies. I trace the negotiation of emotions in this Jōdo Shinshū ethical context, identifying the Buddhist, Japanese, and global liberal vocabularies that ascribe moral value to various emotional responses to suffering and injustice. I argue that for these Buddhists, companionship rather than compassion serves as both an ethical ideal and a focal point of emotional (...) practice. (shrink)
A growing number of lay Buddhist practitioners have sought out alternative ways to incorporate Buddhist teachings in their daily practices and make positive changes in society by “doing good” for others. Sometimes recognized as part of “humanistic Buddhism,” this approach emphasizes general morality and focuses on people who need help as a way to fulfill Buddhist teachings in this world. Some Chinese Buddhist practitioners who follow the Tibetan Buddhist tradition also carry out similar humanistic engagements but use more subtle space-making (...) processes and often “brand” these as Buddhist practices. Drawing on the ethnographic observations of lay Buddhist practitioners in urban China, this article examines how urban practitioners promote (middle-class) morality and well-being lifestyles through what I call “atmospheric Buddhism.” Ultimately, the article argues that an alternative mode of Buddhist practice is emerging in Chinese urban environments in order to cope with politically constrained environments. (shrink)
Since 1995, thousands of people in Taiwan have pledged each year to donate their cadavers to the medical college run by the Buddhist Tzu Chi (Ciji) Foundation. The “surge of cadavers” seems intriguing in a society where ancestor worship continues to be salient. Drawing on my fieldwork in 2012–2013 and 2015, the purpose of this paper is to describe a series of practices involving the transformation of a cadaver into a Buddhist moral subject: the donor, the family, and the medical (...) school engage in various endeavors and rituals involving “emotional practices” to honor the deceased; situate the donation as a “good death”; and fulfill the family's obligations to ancestor worship. I argue what makes the ritual transformation efficacious is the dominant currency of emotional practices. Emotional practices “authenticate” the ritual transformation. The main ethic for commemorating the cadaver donation is not generosity or dāna but equanimity. (shrink)
To Gandhi, secularism went beyond the political separation of religion and state; it was a moral commitment to uphold human dignity and social justice. His approach to secularism was intertwined with his socio-economic philosophy of Sarvodaya, or the welfare of all. Gandhi argued that true secularism required addressing the socio-economic disparities that often fueled religious tensions. He believed in the “Sarvadharmasambhava principle,” which means equal respect for all religions. This perspective aimed at eradicating prejudices and promoting a culture of empathy. (...) In this context, this paper highlights Gandhi’s views on secularism which went beyond conventional notions, emphasising the interconnectedness of spirituality, social equity, and communal harmony. The author argues that Gandhi’s vision remains a poignant reminder of the potential for secularism to facilitate societal transformation by nurturing an environment of acceptance, understanding, and unity amidst diversity. (shrink)
Can humanity survive climate change and mass extinction? Concepts of humanity assumed or implicit in the field at the founding of this journal are under critical pressure from multiple directions. Reading across schools of thought confronting relations sometimes called Anthropocene, this essay explains five tasks for religious ethics “after humanity:” (i) incorporate species-level relations of power and vulnerability; (ii) denaturalize planetary myth-making; (iii) undo colonial humanisms; (iv) recompose ways of life after the end of the world; and (v) reanimate ethical (...) inquiry in attentiveness to multispecies worldmaking. (shrink)
The author examines two open questions for religious ethicists: whether continuing to have children is a bad idea, given the challenges of antinatalism and climate change, and how we should evaluate the future of reproductive technology. Kao responds to these questions without resolving them by drawing upon human rights, the reproductive justice framework, and principles of social justice.
In this article, I propose a new theory of “Buddhist para-charisma” by analyzing the case of an iconoclastic monk in Vietnam. My argument draws from 20 months of ethnographic research conducted in Ho Chi Minh City between 2015 and 2019. During fieldwork, I was introduced to a highly respected monk with the extraordinary capacity to read minds and perceive karmic obstacles in the lives of his lay and monastic followers. This monk was unique for openly consuming meat and alcohol, wearing (...) lay clothing, and using insults while preaching. These behaviors had the deliberate effect of creating an uncomfortable, tense environment among his visitors. Later, the nun who introduced us explained that his harsh language and adversarial demeanor were a rare form of compassion that urged immediate awakening to Buddhist teachings. I compare this case with previously developed theories of Buddhist charisma and moral aesthetics. While past studies analyze Buddhist charisma through the moral aesthetics of physical beauty or affective responses of tranquility, gratitude, and awe, the theory of para-charisma shows how some monks can deliberately use repulsive behavior and negative affects to attract followers and advance spiritual goals. (shrink)
This introduction to the special issue on “Buddhist Moral Emotions” explains the need for analyzing affect and emotion for a full understanding of Buddhist ethics. The introduction surveys major works in the turn to affect and advocates for ethnographic research on Buddhism as a lived religion in order to address the role of emotion in Buddhist ethics.
Heim responds to the five articles by anthropologists concerned with contemporary Buddhist practices and ideologies of emotions, arguing that a history of emotions approach that attends to the centrality of emotions and their evaluations can be important for ethics. She submits that while sometimes studies of moral psychology in Buddhist ethics have focused on individuals, these articles suggest how emotions can have a very public and collective impact on social, economic, and political life. She is also interested in how these (...) anthropological studies of contemporary Buddhist communities trouble textual accounts of Buddhist ethics on central questions of giving, karma, merit, and compassion. (shrink)
This paper presents a rereading of David Little and Sumner Twiss's Comparative Religious Ethics in the context of its initial reception and legacy within the field of religious ethics and argues that we can read it more charitably as a piece of pragmatism rather than as a work of formalism or semi-formalism. If one does not read Little and Twiss as committed positivists concerned with realizing a specific research program associated with the “twilight of logical empiricism,” then their theoretical and (...) methodological recommendations, illustrated in their case studies, appear more pragmatic in nature and less excessively rigid. By rereading Comparative Religious Ethics in this light, we can see more clearly its relevance for the field today, particularly regarding the fundamental importance of the discursive activity of practical reasoning, or the game of giving and asking for reasons, in the study of religious ethics. (shrink)
Approaching Martin Luther King Jr. as a constructive political theorist, I present a synthetic view of his thought that is able to make cogent and compelling sense of prominent concepts and lines of reasoning in his writings. I contend that King's political thought, which is grounded in his moral, metaphysical, and theological convictions, is best understood as structurally teleological and oriented to the construction of an inclusive, democratic community as its end. To make this case and fill out the picture (...) of his view, I offer an analysis of King's “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and argue that his account of nonviolence, which provides the key to understanding his political thought, ought to be understood as operating within and on behalf of this teleological vision by patterning what I term dialogical relations between persons. (shrink)
As the Journal of Religious Ethics celebrates its 50th anniversary, higher education in the United States is in a period of upheaval. How does its changing landscape impact the ways we articulate the value of religious ethics? What do our students need from ethics coursework? Both the upheaval in higher education and recent critiques of higher education from religious ethicists highlight questions about the purposes and value of postsecondary education. This essay argues that an emphasis on the practice of ethical (...) reasoning speaks to legitimate public interests in higher education, serves undergraduate students' personal development and professional preparation, and provides an opportunity for dynamic engagement with religious ethics. (shrink)
Past discussions of the public role of religious ethics scholarship have tended to focus on the propriety of religious argumentation in the public square. Rather than critiquing or vindicating such public engagement by explicitly religious thinkers, this essay recommends broader public engagement by scholars of comparatively oriented religious ethics, exploring why this goal is worthwhile, some possible objections, and various models of how it might be accomplished.
The Journal of Religious Ethics (JRE) was established at a particular moment in the United States in the early 1970s. This article investigates how that moment—in the institutional milieu of academic theology and religious studies in which the (JRE) emerged—influenced its founding. It does this through attention to three main sources: (1) the original charter and bylaws of the JRE, (2) publications from the JRE and other scholarly outlets in the period, and (3) a collection of interviews with scholars who (...) occupied editorial roles in the first 10 years of the life of the journal. The article suggests that the JRE's early period was driven by three key forces: the emergence of Christian ethics as a field of academic theology, deepening engagement with academic philosophy among students of Christian ethics, and growing attention to the pedagogical requirements of increasingly pluralist tertiary educational environments. In conclusion, I describe my own place in this history, asking how the dynamics around the founding of the JRE shape my participation in the practice enacted in its pages. (shrink)
This essay explores the intersections of religious ethics and American religious history and advocates for a transdisciplinary approach to scholarship in both disciplines. Four books, each published within the last 4 years, form the foundation of this discussion by modeling distinctive elements of transdisciplinary scholarship: Heathen: Religion and Race in American History by Kathryn Gin Lum; Make Yourselves Gods: Mormons and the Unfinished Business of American Secularism by Peter Coviello; Peaceful Families: American Muslim Efforts Against Domestic Violence by Juliane Hammer; (...) and The Sex Obsession: Perversity and Possibility in American Politics by Janet R. Jakobsen. Each of these texts raises questions that hover at the intersections of religious ethics and American religious history, demonstrating how scholarship in both areas can be strengthened through a destabilization of the disciplines themselves. (shrink)
Regnant public accounts of Jewish sexual ethics—both external and internal—fall short of what they could accomplish. Using a Twitter thread on sexual ethics which falls into some key errors as a case study, I argue that Jewish ethicists are poised to address the thread's errors by offering sources for alternative moral frameworks. I examine how thinking with this Twitter thread can help us clarify what we mean by public scholarship more generally, what is wrong with some common public deployments of (...) specifically Jewish sources, and some implications of this for both Jewish and non‐Jewish publics. I conclude with some reflections about the role of traditional academic venues, such as the Journal of Religious Ethics, within this. (shrink)
In response to the Journal of Religious Ethics (JRE) editors' request for reflections on “how religious ethicists have interacted with, and ought to interact with, public policy decision makers,” this essay focuses on doing religious ethics in the context of doing public bioethics, especially through participating in public bioethics bodies (PBBs) established to provide advice to public policymakers in what might be called “mediated advocacy.” Drawing heavily on the author's experience as a member of and a consultant to several PBBs, (...) it features case studies of PBBs deliberating about and recommending public policies to address the scarcity of postmortem organs for transplantation, the equitable allocation of COVID‐19 vaccine, cloning humans, and human embryonic stem cell research. (shrink)
This article analyzes the unpublished dialogue between James Baldwin and Reinhold Niebuhr where they discussed the role of the Christian church in the wake of six child murders in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. On that catastrophic day—one that is impossible to forget—the Ku Klux Klan bombed The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and two black boys were subsequently shot and killed. In the wake of that violence, this article will show that for Baldwin, the dynamite that exploded the face (...) of the “alabaster Christ” from the stained-glass window presents an opportunity for not only a new depiction of Jesus in terms of presentation—but more significantly—a brand-new Christology rooted in black liberation. Such a reading provides us with an unusual constructive theological position offered by Baldwin, especially once it is read alongside a public essay written by the Association of Artists for Freedom advocating for Black Christmas. (shrink)
How do abstract doctrinal ideas become visible and meaningful in the lives of religious practitioners? This article approaches this question by examining the diary of the Tibetan pilgrim Khatag Zamyak (kha stag 'dzam yag) (1896–1961) to explore how he engages with the idea of karma. Scholars of Buddhism often define karma as a law of cause and effect that is fundamental to Buddhist ethics, but this third‐person approach to understanding karma can lead scholars to overlook what it feels like to (...) live in a world structured by karma. This article explores how Khatag Zamyak confronts the fact that he does not know his own karma and how he undertakes specific practices to be able to see and tell stories about his own karma. It further argues that Khatag Zamyak's process of engaging with karma is integral to his formation as an ethical subject. (shrink)
In "Sefer Hasidim" and the Ashkenazic Book in Medieval Europe, Ivan G. Marcus proposes a new paradigm for understanding how Sefer Hasidim, or "Book of the Pietists," was composed and how it extended an earlier Byzantine rabbinic tradition of authorship into medieval European Jewish culture.