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.
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
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.
Clare Palmer takes up Andrew Linzey’s case for the “theos-rights” of God’s creatures in her essay “Animals in Christian Ethics: Developing a Relational Approach”. Palmer’s discussion begins with the general feminist critiques of other rights-based approaches to animal ethics. She focuses on the utilitarian philosophy of Peter Singer and on the deontological approach of Tom Regan. She draws out the relevant similarities between Linzey’s theological account and theirs, illustrating how the arguments raised by feminist ethicists against both Singer and Regan apply equally as well to Linzey. Linzey’s case, she argues, is problematic on two fronts. First, she takes issue with his theory of rights, and second with his analysis of power relations. Like all “rights-based” ethics, Linzey’s argument from the theos-rights of animals tends to overlook important differences (e.g., between individuals, species, contexts, etc.), as well as the particular relationships that individuals have to one another, as ethically insignificant. Moreover, his univocal characterization of “power”, considered as a singular, monolithic concept overlooks what Michel Foucault referred to as the “micro-physics” of power. Instead, Palmer suggests a “Christian relational ethic of care” for animals; one that makes these concerns central to the discussion of our moral relations to animals.
Palmer’s concerns succeed in bringing to light a number of important considerations that rights-based approaches often seem to overlook or downplay. Her emphasis on the particularities of specific relationships, a concern that she picks up from feminist critics as much as from Christian theology, also offers an important way to deal with some of the more troubling dilemmas that have been posed by critics of animal rights. Nevertheless, her rejection of rights-based theories is too strong, and her claim that rights-based theorists are incapable of taking important contextual differences into account is in particular premature. Perhaps a compelling case could be made for an integrative approach; one that draws on the strengths of rights-theory as well as a more “relational” ethic of care.
In the essay “Theology as if Animals Mattered” Andrew Linzey, who’s work represents the single most extensive theological engagement with animal welfare to date, confronts some of the challenges that the issue of animal welfare poses for Christians in particular. Christian theology, he argues, has been slow to address the growing concern for animal welfare, often marginalizing the plight of animals as a non-issue. As the case for the moral significance of animal welfare gains an increasingly strong basis in philosophical reason, for Christians the issue of the moral status of animals remains “at a stage somewhat similar to the feminist issue forty years ago” (p.10). Linzey here has in mind a time when many Christians were vehemently opposed to equal rights for women. Linzey laments the anthropocentricity in much of Christian ethics, seeing it as a myopia so deeply ingrained in our thought today that many now find it difficult to think of animals as existing for any other purpose than as resources for human utility. Linzey takes particular issue with two facile assumptions about how animals must be understood in Christian theology: First, he addresses the idea that the bible lends support to human supremacy, and second, with the idea that it endorses the view that animals are made for human use. Citing a number of biblical passages, he shows that the assumption of human supremacy can only be considered faithful to the biblical story in a “highly qualified way”, and that the second claim, that animals are made for human use, is unequivocally unbiblical. Linzey suggests that to the degree that Christians seek to be sound in their theology they should strive to supplant their anthropocentric conception of animals (indeed of the cosmos!) with a theocentric one.