Andy Alexis-Baker has a nice article at The Mennonite on Jesus’s actions in the temple (you know, turning over tables, whipping people, and driving out the money changers). He argues that careful consideration of Jesus’s reaction to the doves – pausing to tell the dove sellers to take the caged birds out of the temple – not only pose a challenge to the idea that Jesus was throwing an unrestrained and violent tantrum, but might also suggest that the Christian ethic of non-violent peacemaking needs to be expanded to include God’s other creatures as well as humans. The article is short and worth a read.
“Pain is pain, whether it be inflicted on man of on beast; and the creature that suffers it, whether man or beast, being sensible of the misery of it whilst it lasts, suffers evil; and the sufferance of evil, unmeritedly, unprovokedly, where no offense has been given; and no good end can possibly be answered by it, but merely, to exhibit power or gratify malice, is Cruelty and Injustice in him that occasions it…. We may pretend to what religion we please, but cruelty is atheism. We may make our boast of Christianity, but cruelty is infidelity. We may trust to our orthodoxy, but cruelty is the worst of heresies.” – Humphrey Primatt, 1776
While the majority of theologians today don’t believe that there is any contradiction between the theory of evolution and their Christian faith (the emerging consensus among Biblical scholars is something like this), the story that evolutionary biology tells us about the origin of species emerging from an agonistic process of competition, death and the ‘survival of the fittest’ appears to present a problem for some Christian vegetarians who have argued that an ethical commitment of nonviolence toward nonhuman animals can be grounded in the “original” peace of creation as depicted in Genesis 1:29-30. Theologians like Andrew Linzey, J.R. Hyland, Richard Alan Young and others, have defended a “protological” rationale for vegetarianism, based on the idea that relations between human and nonhuman animals were “originally” intended by God to be peaceful; no animal (including man) was originally meant to depend upon any other for food. The problem however, is that it’s not clear just how this claim can be squared with an evolutionary account in which no such “original” state of peace appears to have ever existed?
These problems are taken up in Christopher Southgate’s essay on “Protological and Eschatological Vegetarianism” in Eating and Believeing: Intersiciplinary Perspectives on Vegetarianism and Theology. Southgate maintains that these protological arguments are based in a crucial way on a “particular exegesis” of Genesis 1:29-30 according to which “what God created was a vegetarian world, which was damaged by the fall of the first humans.” (Southgate, 247). This is especially apparent, he thinks, in Linzey’s work where an “eschatological ethic of vegetarianism must be based on the presumption that the natural world is not as God intended.” (Southgate, 248). Such claims, Southgate notes, fail to take seriously the findings of modern science:
“The scientific record of the Earth’s long history before the advent of human beings calls into profound question any account which regards human sin as the cause of struggle and suffering in the nonhuman creation in general. Predation, violence, parasitism, suffering and extinction were integral parts of the natural order long before Homo sapiens.” (Southgate, 249).
While Christians might do well to retain the idea of human “fallenness”, which he sees as crucial for theology, they ought to reject the idea of a literal, historical, fall – a real point in time at which our ancestors turned from God to sin, disrupting the original peace of God’s creation. This means, of course, that a theological argument for vegetarianism based on the idea that death and predation in nature are the outcomes of an historical fall, rather than God’s original intentions for creation, must be squarely rejected.
While there’s much in Southgate’s essay that I tend to agree with (e.g., that evolutionary theory is sound, if incomplete, science, and should be brought into constructive dialogue with Christian theology), I don’t find his case against “protological vegetarianism” ultimately compelling for a number of reasons. First, while he implies that proponents of such arguments rely on an idiosyncratic interpretation of Genesis 1:29-30, he fails to offer any alternative reading, implying then that this text has no enduring theological significance. Most Biblical scholars and theologians, however, even when they object to a literal, historical reading of Genesis 1, still insist that it has a significant role to play in the shaping of theology. While they may argue that certain textual considerations like genre, literary style, and authorial intent suggest Genesis 1 should not be read as offering “scientific truths”, they don’t usually end the discussion there (as Southgate does), but go on to argue that it offers “theological truths” instead, truths conveyed in a narrative format common to the literature of the ancient near east (see, John Walton’s Lost World of Genesis One). And these “theological truths” are presumably normative for theology today. In fact, Southgate himself clearly agrees with this when he says that the concept of “fallenness” is “brilliantly described by the myths of chapters 3-11.” (Southgate, 249). But if the ahistoricity (and even “mythology”!) of Genesis 3-11 does not preclude it’s theological significance, then it is entirely inconsistent to think Genesis 1:29-30 cannot similarly inform a theological ethic of vegetarianism.
The second problem with Southgate’s argument is that it comes dangerously close to “sacralizing nature” (to use Linzey’s language). For by displacing an historical interpretation of the fall without offering an alternative account, he seems to just assume that the processes of predation and death are simply the instrument of God’s creative process. In fact, this is stated more or less explicitly, when he says that he sees “value and disvalue, enrichment and catastrophe” as “functions of the same creative process” (p. 250). But why assume that this is the only option for Christians who want to take seriously the claims of both evolutionary theory and the Christian doctrine of creation? David Clough illustrates the problem nicely in his sermon at St. John’s College on “Animals and Creation”:
“I, like most Christians, see no contradiction between evolutionary theory and the Christian doctrine of creation: the creation theology of the Bible…addresses very different questions to those of Darwin. But how would things look if we rejected Christianity and tried to construct an alternative account of the world solely on the basis of a Darwinian evolutionary narrative? ….Instead of thinking of all things as willed into being by a good God, we might tell a story of life as competition between rival organisms in which only the strongest survive. On this account, our existence as humans is not God’s gift, but the triumphant victory of our ancestors, and our radical subordination of other species to our needs is the appropriate ordering of power relationships between successful and less successful species. On this account, we might feel justified in breeding other animals to make them ever better suited to our needs, slave species to the master species, and raise them in whatever the most efficient environment is for our ends.” (Clough, 2)
Even if we must reject a literal, historical fall, as Southgate maintains, I suspect retaining a slightly qualified notion of “cosmic falleness” is at least as important for theology as Southgate insists the idea of human “fallenness” is. At the very least, the idea of “cosmic fallenness” would simply function as the theological equivalent of the “is/ought” gap in philosophical ethics, keeping us from “too blithe an affirmation that all is as it should be.” (Southgate, 250).
Nevertheless, I am in agreement with Southgate that there are much more compelling theological arguments for vegetarianism than those based on an inference from what God supposedly “originally” intended. He is right to suggest that a Christological ethic informed by a kenotic (i.e., “self-giving”) love that genuinely desires the flourishing of the other “in his, her or it’s otherness”, is a much richer theological rationale for abstaining from meat for the sake of God’s nonhuman creatures. I also agree that the Bible’s general concern for justice for the poor, and for God’s creation should lead us to avoid contributing to the demand for food products derived from livestock, given all the evidence concerning livestock’s inefficient use of food resources, and it’s massive contributions to climate change. But unlike Southgate, I also think that there are compelling eschatological (or at least teleological) arguments that favor Christian vegetarianism. As Neil Messer’s essay “Humans, Animals, Evolution and Ends” argues, “a theological account of the proper ends of humans and non-human animals, and the proper relation between them, must get it’s bearings from God’s good purposes in creating, reconciling, and redeeming the world” (Messer, 217). Insofar as we are called, as Christians, to “witness to those purposes – specifically, in this case, to the promise of the peaceable kingdom” (Messer, 224), we ought to take more seriously the implications that an eschatological vision like Isaiah 11:6-9 may have for how we choose to live in the present, including, of course, what we choose to eat.
Clough, David, “Animals and Creation” http://www.joh.cam.ac.uk/creation-animals-and-creation
Linzey, Andrew. Animal Theology. University of Illinois Press. 1994.
Messer, Neil. “Humans, Animals, Evolution and Ends” in Creaturely Theology: God, Humans and Other Animals. Ed. Celia Deane-Drummond and David Clough. SCM Press. 2009
Southgate, Christopher. “Protological and Eschatological Vegetarianism” in Eating and Believing: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Vegetarianism and Theology, Ed. David Grummet and Rachel Muers. Continuum UK. Kindle Edition. 2008
“Not to hurt our humble brethren [the animals] is our first duty to them, but to stop there is not enough. We have a higher mission: To be of service to them whenever they require it” – St. Francis of Assisi
“Cruelty to animals is as if man did not love God…there is something so dreadful, so Satanic, in tormenting those who have never harmed us, and who cannot defend themselves, who are utterly in our power.” – Cardinal John Henry Newman
“[St. Francis] looked upon creation with the eyes of one who could recognize in it the marvelous work of the hand of God. His solicitous care, not only towards men, but also towards animals is a faithful echo of the love with which God in the beginning pronounced his ‘fiat’ which brought them into existence. We too are called to a similar atttitude.” – Pope John Paul II
The American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature will be hosting their Annual Meetings in Baltimore this year from November 23 – 26. The meeting is one of the world’s largest gathering of scholars interested in the study of religion. This year’s meeting will feature a panel discussion of David Clough’s On Animals (Vol. 1): Systematic Theology co-sponsered by the Christian Systematic Theology Section and the Animals and Religion Group (Sun. Nov 24th 3p-5p). The panelists for the event will be Margaret Adam, Chris Carter, David Fergusson and Stephen Webb. David Cunningham will be chairing and David Clough will give a response to the panelist’s discussion. Here’s a description of the event from the AAR website:
David Clough’s On Animals is the first work to consider the place of animals in Christian systematic theology, treating a wide range of doctrinal questions under the broad headings of creation, reconciliation, and redemption. The book argues that addressing “the animal question” is crucial for the coherence of Christian theology — and that doing so can bring new insights to the discipline, as well as guiding human conduct in relation to non-human animals. This panel will subject the book to critical scrutiny from a diverse range of theological perspectives (feminist, African-American, philosophical, and denominational); panelists will explore the power relationships inherent in traditional Christian reflection on animals, as well as the implications of including or excluding animals from Christian accounts of community and communal praxis. The panel will consider whether the book succeeds in making its case for greater theological attention to animals, as well as evaluating the positions it defends.
Regrettably, I will not be able to attend, but for those who can it should be a great discussion! I do hope that there will be video or audio coverage of the event available online.
“Christian vegetarianism might be understood as a witness to the world that God’s creation is not meant to be at war with itself. Such a witness does not entail romantic conceptions of nature or of our fallen creation but rather is an eschatological act signifying that our lives are not captured by the old order.” ― Stanley Hauerwas & John Berkman, “The Chief End of All Flesh” Good News for Animals?: Christian Approaches to Animal Well-Being.
“Vegetarianism is a valid and valuable way of anticipating the kingdom of God by practicing what God most intends for the world. It is a sign of our trust in God’s intentions for the world and our hope in God’s plan for the world’s ultimate redemption.” ― Stephen H Webb, Good Eating.
David was kind enough to send me a link to a paper he delivered at a conference on the work of Peter Singer and Christian ethics at Oxford. I’ve reposed it here for readers to enjoy.
“[man] must never treat this need for defensive and offensive action against the animal world as a natural one, nor include it as a normal element in his thinking or conduct. He must always shrink from this possibility even when he makes use of it. It always contains the sharp counter-question: who are you, man, to claim that you must venture this to maintain, support, enrich and beautify your own life? What is there in your life that you feel compelled to take this aggressive step in its favor? We cannot but be reminded of the perversion from which the whole historical existence of the creature suffers and the guilt of which does not really reside in the beast but ultimately in man himself.” ― Karl Barth
…So, as Neil Messer concludes…
“A properly repentant attitude to human sin and the brokenness of the world should lead us to avoid the violent exploitation of non-human animals whenever we can.” ― Neil Messer
Andy Alexis-Baker, co-founder of Jesus-Radicals, and co-editor of A Faith Embracing All Creatures: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions About Christian Care for Animals has an interview with Erin O’Sullivan on ‘Animal Voices’ about this anthology and about Christian vegetarianism in general. The audio is available here, and is worth a listen.
The only thing I would like to have heard a bit more about, was the distinction that Alexis-Baker sort of started to make (when asked if he thought Jesus was a vegetarian) between the somewhat superficial “Christians-should-do-everything-Jesus-did” approach, and a more Christologically informed imatatio Christi. In particular, I would like to hear from him, what such a Christological vegetarianism would look like: is it a form of kenotic asceticism rooted in the self-emptying of Christ for the sake of others? Does it stem from an understanding of the Incarnation as a radical solidarity with the weak and suffering? I assume that the answer is yes. But it would have been nice, for those listening who might not think to make such a distinction, to hear a bit more on this.
For those who are interested, Here are the links to some great articles I’ve read this week:
Stanley Hauerwas and John Berkman give a theologically robust and compelling case for Christian Vegetarianism, here.
Matthew Barton discusses an exchange between William T. Cavanaugh and Stephen H. Webb on the theology of food, and argues for a more serious consideration of the place of nonhuman animals in the discussion, here.
He discusses the recent “Horsemeat scandal” from a theological perspective, here.
Joshua Duffy has written an interesting piece on the “Animal Theology of Pope Benedict XVI”, here.