Magazine article Cross Currents

Editorial

Magazine article Cross Currents

Editorial

Article excerpt

The juxtaposition of "asceticism" and "today" signals a need to inquire into the meaning of asceticism not only in history but in and for these times. The past twenty-five years have seen the growth of considerable new interest in asceticism by scholars of religion. A diverse body of interpretation has emerged, much of it focused on the first several centuries of Christianity and the ancient West more generally, with significant contributions in other areas as well. So far, however, there has been little attention given to ascetic practices as they are undertaken now. But asceticism is not an artifact of the past. Ascetic traditions are alive and evolving. They are still here, and though often dismissed they may to speak to us, if we will listen, in ways we need to rediscover. In this issue we therefore raise these kinds of questions: Who is doing ascetic practices today? What exactly are they doing and why are they doing it? If it is true that asceticism is a "universal" phenomenon in the world's religions and cultures, what are the reasons for its ubiquity and persistence? What is the value of ascetic practices, if many people are still devoted to them in spite of ample criticism and the challenge of the practices themselves? And why should we care?

Some may say that a better understanding of asceticism should show us its pathology once and for all, making more clear than ever why we should not only reject it ourselves but wish that all may abandon it. A countering perspective is represented by the essays offered here. They acknowledge "the broad understanding of asceticism and its function within human culture as the necessary condition for all human endeavor," as Gavin Flood phrases it in his discussion of interpretations of asceticism--or even assume, as Larry Rasmussen does, that "asceticism speaks to something deep in the human spirit and is, in fact, a requirement of authentic humanity."

Our contributors engage in reflection on asceticism, the human spirit and contemporary culture coming from diverse starting points and far-flung traditions including Jainism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism as well as Judaism, Islam, Christianity and the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Nonetheless, there is an important convergence--namely, on the ethical importance of ascetic practices. The global environmental crisis, for example, has long been recognized as both moral and spiritual; here the ethical implications of asceticism are enormous. The impact of human consumption on the natural world calls us urgently to a re-examination of asceticism as the opposite of greed. A shared sense that ascetic traditions may have much to teach us in this crisis has been one impetus for our work on this project. The essays here by Larry Rasmussen, Christopher Chapple and Jay McDaniel focus especially on asceticism as a resource for environmental ethics and human-Earth relations. Another impetus has been the belief that asceticism as a kind of soulcraft is worthy of ethical inquiry and exploration into how it is actually supposed to work.

Not by design but perhaps because of their ethically constructive as well as descriptive nature, the essays here also converge on a characterization of "asceticism" which is broadly inclusive, encompassing the entire continuum of practices of restraint and abstinence. These range from the gentle asceticism and "creative frugality" commended by Jay McDaniel and the householder disciplines mentioned by Jeffery Long to the extreme austerities of some Hindu and Jain renouncers noted by Ramdas Lamb and Christopher Chapple. A more inclusive view of ascetic practice is useful ethically, as it forestalls the objection that asceticism cannot be morally relevant because it is "extreme. …

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