Jack Allen answers your theological queries
Our very first ever question comes from Tim in Rutland, who asks ‘It says in Genesis that the Garden of Eden had plants that were good to eat, as well as look at. And the lion and lamb played together, as it was paradise, without violence. So if Adam and Eve were vegetarian, does avoiding meat help us get closer to God?
This is an interesting question. If we were vegetarian in the state of innocence and only eat meat in the current state of fallenness, then it seems reasonable to tie meat-eating to fallenness, and say that there’s something more sinful about being a meat eater compared to being vegetarian. And this idea has some basis in Scripture too, with Genesis 1:30 reporting that God proclaims that “And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein [there is] life, [I have given] every green herb for meat: and it was so”. My dad’s trusty old KJV even renders it as “every green herb for meat”, which is an excellent translation for our purposes; instead of meat, Adam and Eve had vegetables, so they must have been at least vegetarian in the Garden of Eden.
Whilst the idea of the lion and the lamb playing together in the Garden of Eden is more tradition than revelation, it does have some basis in Scripture in the passage given above: presumably, if God gives all living things plants for food, they don’t need to eat each other. As Tim says, ‘it was paradise, without violence’, and there’s little in the Animal Kingdom more violent than a lion ripping apart an antelope. Scripture, then, seems to give us fairly solid ground when we say that Adam and Eve were vegetarian.
The idea of the ‘lion and the lamb’ is an alliterative abbreviation of Isaiah 11:6, which we always hear around Christmas: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them”. Whilst Tim doesn’t cite this passage, it’s probably the easiest way of getting from Genesis to the Church: in Eden, all creatures were vegetarian, and in the coming future of the Messiah all creatures are vegetarian, so now we Christians ought to be vegetarian. Whilst, the lion and lamb in this passage are probably more metaphorical than literal, likely representing the conflicts and violence between different groups of people, Isaiah 65:25 claims that the lion will eat straw ‘like the ox’, so maybe there is something to it. The normal metaphorical understanding here is that there will be peace on Earth, and that peace is understood in terms of lions no longer ripping apart antelopes. Whilst, again, I do believe this passage is a metaphor, really being about people rather than animals, it makes sense that in the Kingdom of Peace, there isn’t even the violence of predation.
But there is an issue. If this is a moral obligation, then it seems reasonable that Jesus Himself would have kept it, at least as an example to the rest of us. Jesus, however, ate the Passover meal, which was traditionally of lamb or goat, meaning that Jesus did eat meat. We have an explicit case of Him eating fish too, with Luke 24:43-43 being a prime example of this. Whilst Tim might be right to draw a line between vegetarianism and innocence, Christ acts in such a way to suggest that some meat eating is compatible with the Law of the Kingdom of Peace.
However, some scholars claim it is a Christian’s duty to avoid meat as a consequence of our other moral duties. Sarah Withrow King claims that “Aware of the suffering and pain experienced by animals raised and killed for food, with a knowledge of the immense waste of natural resources and subsequent impact on both our fellow humans and the rest of creation, and acknowledging that flesh is not a dietary necessity for the vast majority of Western humans, why would we continue to participate in a system that dishonours God’s creation and perpetuates violence on a truly phenomenal scale?” Again, this seems quite logical, particularly given the emphasis King gives to the environmental impact of meat eating: we know that the meat industry harms the environment, the people who live there, substantially, and a Christian is obligated to worry about the welfare of other people. Indeed, in light of the 2017 Warning to Humanity, it seems an act of some callousness to continue as before without change. The situations in which Christ eats meat are radically different to those we now find ourselves in; there was no risk of St. Peter fishing the Sea of Galilee to the extent that any animals risked going extinct. Likewise, King draws attention to the ‘violence’ of the meat industry, and takes it that this is contrary to the Kingdom of Peace that Christ came to establish.
As people seeking wisdom, we should be able to use our common sense to go beyond what is explicitly commanded to the implicit principles that lie behind them, and one of those principles is worry about those who may suffer. The relevant verse for principles here is Mark 12:40 – “Which devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: these shall receive greater damnation” – if our actions ‘devour’ – apt phrasing when talking about diet – the houses of the poor, then they are sinful. And a move away from sin can only ever be a move towards God. As Pope Francis puts it, “Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.”
To answer Tim’s question, I think there is something to be said for the claim that trying to act in a manner that is consistent with and obedient to the principles of the Gospel can help us draw closer to God, because those principles teach us how to avoid sin and become conformed to Christ, even if we are considering the same action, because the context of those actions can be different in times and places 2,000 years apart.
But I think there is another way that forgoing meat can help us get closer to God.
It is well known that a number of religious orders are pescetarian, eating fish but not meat. Chapter 39 of St. Benedict’s Regula seriously limits meat eating by commanding that the Abbot should “Let everyone, except the sick who are very weak, abstain entirely from eating the meat of four-footed animals”, citing Luke 21:34 (“And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with surfeiting, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come upon you unawares”) to note that modesty in eating is virtuous, lest one become so focused on the pleasures of this life that one forgets those of the next. According to Philip Lawrence, OSB, Abbot of Christ in the Desert, some Benedictine traditions have taken this further, and banned all meat and fish; the mostly vegetarian diet St. Benedict seems to want to enforce allows the brothers to become dietarily poor and to avoid gluttony, without diminishing their protein intake.
So, I think there are two ways forgoing meat can help us get closer to God. Firstly, by avoiding an industry that is incredibly harmful to the planet, we can express a love for God’s creation and the people who live there, drawing us closer to God by nurturing a love for His work. Secondly, by giving up something we would rather enjoy, we can come closer to God in that act of fasting, turning away from the pleasures of this world to the joys of the next.
And I can’t think of anything better for a Christian’s spirit than turning to look up to Heaven.
If you have a question about theology that you would like to be answered, email Jack at firstname.lastname@example.org