Beginnings and Ends: Evolution, Creation and Eschatology in Christian Arguments for Vegetarianism

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).

Christopher Southgate

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.

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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

Three Theologians on Eschatological Vegetarianism

“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.

The Interdependence of Human Sin and the Suffering of Animals

“[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