On this day, let us remember the example of St. John the Baptist when confronted with evil. Moreover, may the memory of those who perished eighteen years ago be eternal!
On a more cheerful note, I received a lovely letter over the weekend from a lady named Zoe, who has given me permission to post our exchange about veganism and the Christian life. I’m continuing to be embarrassingly negligent of this site, and I don’t feel any worse shame for parasitizing my email for a post. I have scores of post ideas saved to which I may eventually get—maybe when the weather cools and my garden enters into dormancy.
I was wondering what you thought of the compatibility of veganism and Christianity, especially when considering the following things:
- Veganism is not the belief that eating meat or killing animals is inherently or intrinsically evil.
- Veganism is not the belief that humans or animals are equal, or even that animals are equal between themselves.
- Veganism is not against human life or the maintenance of human society.
- Veganism is the belief that when possible and practicable (for humans) one ought not to cause pain or suffering to animals, beginning with a change in diet, clothing, entertainment, and general products. [An example of where it is not practicable is when a person needs a certain medicine that has been tested on animals, or itself contains some animal products, and they will die otherwise. Another is the maintenance of hospitals, which require the killing of rats and cockroaches as long as it is open without ceasing. A final example is when there is literally no other food source available, although this does not apply to the majority of modern Westerners in decadent democratic first-world societies.]
- Veganism seeks to curb mass environmental damage from animal agriculture, and to use the earth more responsibly.
- Veganism seeks to curb damage to human health from the excessive use of animal products.
- Veganism is a simple praxis [a way of life that seeks to exclude cruelty to, harm of, exploitation of, animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose, as far as practicable and possible for humans] that can be participated in by many.
- Veganism is not the belief that killing animals is always wrong, or that humans will ever be able to completely cease all harm to animals own their own.
- Veganism if the whole world was such would end as much as possible animals in domestication/captivity relationships with humans.
Or simply this definition with nothing extra added or implied: “A philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals.”
I am aware (I think this is true at least) that Christians believe that the whole world will one day again be even better than Eden, with no strife between the creatures of God at all (Isaiah 11 and so on), and was wondering if you thought it would be morally acceptable to approximate or imitate such a thing now (by reducing harm done to animals as much as possible)? In the time between times (between Eden and the End that is).
You have a fitting name for someone who cares for your fellow creatures. I am not a vegan, but I’ve been a vegetarian since the 1990s (and I’ve had “fits” of vegetarianism since I was five, maybe earlier). I go through periods with a vegan diet, but not year round. You mention Eden, and that was exactly my inspiration—and it remained my inspiration even when I went through an agnostic period as a young man. I’ve always thought—felt, really—that a world where life requires death was somehow broken . . . fallen. Of course, I marvel at the beauty of nature and the circle of life . . . the tendency for balance to be reasserted when things go awry. Nonetheless, this state has always seemed like a second best scenario—God’s making lemonade out of lemons, so to speak. We live in an imperfect world of sin and death, but when we can refrain from participating in it—and when we can make it better—we thereby cease falling and start a return to the divine cosmic order. I think that such is true, both as a Christian and as a Platonist. Even when I ceased to be the former for a time, I remained the latter.
It’s clear that the Hebrews and then the Christians never condemned meat eating, but they also had strong traditions to care for animals, both wild and domestic. Mosaic law involves animal welfare in several ways, and there have been Christian vegetarians from the early Church—and no shortage of stories of saints who lived among beasts in a manner similar to Adam in the garden. Americans may know of Francis of Assisi, but there are scores of such people in Christian history. Also, the Christian monastic life might be the most explicit about leaving the allowed though fallen order behind and focusing on a life wholly committed to communion with God. It’s not surprising to me that the monastic diet veers toward veganism—as a sort of return to Eden. Monastics will eat dairy and eggs for some periods during the year, and they’ll also eat fish and shellfish at certain times, following the examples of Jesus and John the Baptist (they equate invertebrates generally with St. John’s locusts).
That said, I don’t mind animal husbandry if it’s done with respect for the nature of the animal. Sadly, this isn’t often done. Male dairy cows, dairy goats, and chickens are usually slaughtered, many beekeepers kill their queens annually or biennially (I don’t—I let the colony regulate itself), and sheep raised for wool probably aren’t always treated properly. Yet, I don’t think that there’s anything intrinsically wrong or fallen about exploitation as such. People usually speak of exploitation in a negative manner, but it simply means making use of something or someone. That can be done without tarnishing the things or creatures used. I’m a big fan of child labor in the household—helping with chores, gardening, and such! Sticking kids in factories or mines—that’s where exploitation becomes wicked. Farm life, like domestic human life, can instantiate an image of a higher order—concrete beings in time and space cooperating in a valiant effort to allow paradise to appear, if only for moments, in this vale of tears.
I disagree with well intentioned Christians who deride the Jews’ tikkun ha-olam—the idea that we should participate in the healing of the world. These critics think that such is a form of modernistic humanism, where men supplant God in trying to overcome the fall (the Cartesian project of the modern world). I disagree. Of course, we should work to make the world better, and we can only do anything good through God’s gifts to us. Other Christians think that the totality of the Christian life involves simply an exercise of the will (in obeying God), and they dismiss everything outside the will as unneeded at best, idolatry at worst. Again, I disagree. I think that our whole lives should be transformed into a sacramental life where we redeem the time—and everything around us—by incorporating the world into our lives and into a restored order in our souls as we travel our path toward the Lord. We fail miserably, yes, but not entirely. Even the most wretched sinners can have moments where they allow God to work through them, touching lives and spreading light in darkness.
Now, I’m a spiteful, proud, lazy, wasteful, critical, unsocial, disagreeable, impatient person with a massive deficit of charity. I certainly have no delusions of personal sanctity or spiritual grandeur. However, we all struggle in our own ways, and for me, vegetarianism is a way that I try to live in harmony with God’s plan for the cosmos. So, I commend vegans, though, as I stated earlier, I approve—and am enthusiastic about—human relationships with animals when such elevate both human beings and other animals. Determining that, of course, calls for wisdom and good judgment, as all moral deliberation does. Is the human/domesticated dog a nature-respecting, life-affirming relationship? It certainly can be. People with cheetahs or apes? Hmm, I suspect that it’s usually not. In between, though, is a messy spectrum. Like most things in life, we see through a glass darkly!