I was sitting at a table with my classmates, and there was one part of the conversation in particular that stuck in my mind. One of my classmates was a vegan, and my professor, who was Orthodox but usually was not as strict as some people are observing Orthodox fasts, said that he was challenged by that position. He talked about Orthodox monasticism, which usually avoids meat, and its implication that meat is not necessary. I wanted to contribute to that discussion, but my sense was that that wasn’t quite the time to speak. When I explored it after that meal, it seemed more and more to be something that was part of a deep web, connected to other things.
What is Theophany? And what does it have to do with meat?
When I became Orthodox, one of the biggest pieces of advice the priest who received me (my spiritual father) gave me was to take five or ten years to connect with the liturgical rhythm. Now in the Orthodox Church advice from spiritual fathers is like a doctor’s prescription in that what is given to one person may not be good at all for another: like a prescription given by a doctor, it is given to one person for that specific person’s needs, and should not normally be seen as universal advice that should be good for everyone. However, that doesn’t mean that advice is perversely designed to be useless to everyone else. I believe this was good pastoral advice not because of something ultimately idiosyncratic about me—something true of me but no one else—but because of something I share with a lot of other people, especially other Westerners.
In the Orthodox Church, there are days, weeks, and years as in the West, but what they mean is different. In some respects the similarity is deceptive. The biggest difference is less a matter of linear vs. cyclical time, as that in the West time is like money: people will say, “Time is money,” and if it is a metaphor, it is none the less a metaphor that captures people’s outlook very well. Time is like a scarce commodity; it’s something you use to get things done, and you can not have enough, and run out of time. Language of “saving time” like one would save resources is because the way people treat time is very close to how one would treat a commercial resource that you use to get things done. This may be deeply rooted in some Orthodox, especially Western members of the Orthodox, but instead of time being like a limited supply of money, time is like a kaleidoscope turning. There are different colors—different basic qualities held in place by worship, prayer at home, fasting from certain foods, feasting, commemorating different saints and Biblical events, and being mindful of different liturgical seasons—and they combine in cycles of day, week, and year, given different shades as people grow. Again, this is much less like “Time is money.” than “Time is the flow of colors in a kaleidoscope.”
One of those seasons is called “Theophany,” and it is defined by the third most important feast in the year. I am writing in that season, and it seems an appropriate enough season to write this piece. It fits Theophany.
“Theophany” means “the manifestation of God.” That word does not refer to icons or animals. But the way that God was manifest in Theophany has every relevance to icons and animals.
Theophany is the celebration of the Lord Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan, and at one point this was not celebrated from what we now celebrate in Christmas. At that baptism, the Father spoke from Heaven and said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” the Son was baptized, and the Spirit appeared in the form of a dove. The Trinity was made manifest, but more to the point, the Trinity of God was made manifest to and through material Creation.
The Fathers have never drawn a very sharp line between Christ the Savior of men and Christ the Savior of the whole creation. This isn’t something the Fathers added to the Bible: the Son of God has entered into his creation so completely that the Bible itself says that Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.”
When Christ was baptized in water, he blessed the whole creation. Yes, he set a precedent for his followers. I wouldn’t want to diminish that. But if you draw the line and say the story is relevant to our being baptized but nothing more, you have cut off its fundamental relevance to the whole Creation. The Orthodox liturgy never forgets the rest of the created order, and the liturgy for Theophany crystallizes this in the service for the blessing of the water:
Great art thou, O Lord, and wonderful are thy works, and no word doeth justice to the praise of thy wonders; for by thy will thou didst bring out all things from nonexistence into existence; and by thy might thou dost control creation, and by thy providence thou dost govern the world. Thou it is who didst organize creation from the four elements, and crowned the cycle of the year with four seasons. Before thee tremble supersensual powers; thee the sun praiseth, the moon worshippeth, the stars submit to thee, the light obeyeth, the tempests tremble, the springs worship thee. Thou didst spread out the heaven like a tent; thou didst establish the earth on the waters. Thou didst surround the sea with sand. Thou didst pour out the air for breathing. Thee do the angelic hosts serve; thee the ranks of the archangels do worship, the many-eyed cherubim, the six-winged seraphim, as they stand in thy presence and fly about thee, hiding with fear from thine unapproachable glory…
And shortly the water is blessed, opening a season of blessing in which people’s houses are blessed, icons are blessed, people are blessed, and so on. To be human is to be created for worship, but it is not only humans; every material creature and every spiritual creature (the “supersensual powers”, the “many-eyed cherubim”, and other figures in the liturgy quoted above) are not only created to worship but have a place in what could be called a united organism.
People today are seeking a harmony between man and nature, and some people may wonder if Orthodoxy has a basis for such a harmony. The answer is a yes and no. Let me explain.
If we ask a different question, “What would harmony between humans and technology be? What would a society look like?” then there might be an image of people caring for machines, adapting themselves to them, and so on and so forth. And that image, or that projection, would lead to a deceptive image among societies today. If we are talking about the kind of technology in the first world today, then the first world today not only is better attuned with technology than the second or third world, but has done something with technology that is simply without parallel in the first 99.999% (literally) of the time humans have been around. Although some other nations like Japan may have a slight edge over my native USA, I’m going to focus on the USA for the simple reason that I know it better.
In the USA, which has something about technology that exceeds what has been done in the same vein in the first 99.999% of the time humans have been around, there are people who develop technology and are carefully attuned to it. And the culture is optimized to support technology in a way that I didn’t appreciate until I lived in the second world. You may be able to count on your fingers the number of societies that have ever managed, in the entire history and prehistory of the human race, to be more attuned to technology. And yet the society is not what one would imagine if one tried to imagine a society in harmony with technology.
This is a society with a minority current making Luddite arguments about why computers are bad (and to me the arguments have more weight than some might suspect). There are also people who have no academic axe to grind about the sociological effects of video games, but hate learning new programs. The predominant computer operating system is the most insecure operating system, the one that most exposes its users to viruses and worms—better operating systems are available, at very least from a security and privacy perspective, for free in some cases, but the industry standard is the one that leaves its users most vulnerable to malicious software. Furthermore, people do not hold technology as objects of reverence, or at least most people don’t. Not only is it not a big deal to dispose of no-longer-wanted technology, but “planned obsolescence” means that technology is made to be thrown away. When technology is broken, it will probably be replaced instead of being repaired. You can be very educated and know very little about technology. And the list goes on.
Now I ask: Is this attunement with technology? And the answer is “Yes,” but it is the kind of attunement seen in real society (perhaps more perfectly in Japan and other places), not what one would imagine as “harmony with technology.” The difference between the two is like the difference between romantic relationships—the kind you have with another flesh-and-blood human who has things that your imagination didn’t put there—and romantic fantasies. In fact people don’t think in terms of “harmony with technology;” to ask if American culture lives in harmony with technology is a question few Americans would ask.
Does Orthodoxy have a key to harmony with nature? Let me give one clue. No single technology—not SUVs, not environmentally incorrect inks, not styrofoam—dictates a heavy environmental footprint. Even if there were no soy inks, the printer in itself need not dictate environmental damage. What dictates environmental damage is waste. And Orthodoxy never tells a society what technologies it may and may not use—when someone ran an anti-SUV advertisement asking, “What would Jesus drive?” Orthodoxy may well agree with the archaeologist who in essence said, “Speaking as someone who’s done excavations in the Holy Land’s rugged terrain, you basically need an SUV, and Jesus with his twelve disciples would have driven a Hummer.” (This does not mean that we all need Hummers. I get rides from people but don’t own a car myself.) Even if Orthodoxy does not give a list of what technologies its people can’t use, Orthodoxy does join voices with many other Christians in saying that part of the walk of virtue is living simply, meaning using what you need but being willing to ask “Do we need what we can afford?” instead of just “Can we afford what we need?” This simplicity is not lived consistently in the first world, but the classical virtue of living simply, formulated at a time when people simply were not thinking in environmentalist terms, has implications for appropriate stewardship of the earth. Living simply has usually been conceived as something that deals with rich and poor—almost all people in the first world who have a home would be considered rich—but it is part of a right ordering that will rightly orient people and society to the material world.
But there is another side to the issue. In the Western way of looking at it, there is a fundamental opposition between harmony (shaded by equality) and domination (shaded by inequality). Harmony, by definition, does not include domination. But the way the Eastern Church approaches it fits neither into the Western boundaries of harmony nor the Western boundaries of domination. The link between man and nature needs harmony, but it is incomplete if it cannot include domination and even destruction. The PETA position, admittedly extreme for people who have animal rights sympathies, is that a duck is a rat is a goat is a boy. To them, meat is murder, not just as a way of exaggerating something deep, but in a literal sense. And I cannot agree with that. If I could kill a goat and save a girl, I would do so. And beyond that, I eat meat, more than most people (at least before low-carb diets came in vogue, and perhaps after).
When I was a boy, my art teacher told the class to get smocks, and my father gave me an unwanted shirt—but he would have given me his best shirt if I needed it. I used it and it kept me from getting clay and paint on my other clothing. (In other words, I destroyed it.) That wasn’t the only thing of my parents’ that I destroyed. I destroyed the meals my mother cooked for me (usually by eating them and throwing away as little as possible—you wouldn’t want them when I was done). I destroyed things that weren’t working by taking them apart to see what was inside. I destroyed clothing that my mother brought for me, usually by wearing it out. If my parents had back every penny they spent on something that I destroyed, they would have a good deal more money.
However, my parents did not raise me to be a destructive man. The smock is an example of justified destruction. The fact that my father gave me one of his shirts to destroy as a smock does not mean that it didn’t matter if I destroyed his shirts. He would have been quite bothered if I had rubbed red clay onto all of his shirts. Quite a lot of the destruction I did was appropriate. It was justified destruction within a context, and I believe it illustrates what it means to say both that destruction can be permissible, and that destruction matters. To speak of justified destruction is both to say that destruction can be justified and that justification needs to be justified: it is acceptable to destroy a dress shirt when a smock is needed, but destroying a dress shirt needs to be justified, and is not appropriate when it is not justified.
The concept of “raw materials” applied to the natural world isn’t a very Orthodox concept, for much the same reason that it would seem strange to interpret our house as merely a bunch of raw materials for me to destroy at will. The examples above notwithstanding, my parents did not want me to be destructive, and the fact that I was permitted to destroy things was not the central truth of the matter. It would be much closer to the truth to say that I was in that home to grow into a Christian and a man, and be a member of that family. There was also a footnote that said I could destroy some things in some circumstances. But even the things which I was permitted to destroy were not “raw material”. A shirt has value in itself, as a shirt, even if it is used as a smock.
The problem with considering the items in my parents’ house is raw material is that they have both status and value independently of what I might get out of destroying them. It might matter that I would benefit from destroying the shirt by using it as a smock, but the heart of the matter is that “potential for making a smock” is neither the only status nor the only value of a dress shirt.
An icon, a picture painted to help make spiritual realities manifest, has value as the emblem of a view of the Creation where science and materialism do not tell the whole story, where matter has spiritual qualities above the legitimate observation of scientists, and where saying “Nature is simply what science describes” is as fundamentally erroneous as saying “Your value as a human being is simply what you get when you subtract your financial liabilities from your assets.” If an icon is spiritual, if it is part of God manifesting himself through matter and restoring matter to his circle of blessing, then there is something inadequate if the only meaning to “matter” is “what science describes.” Matter is a part of the treasurehouse of God, and the icon is spiritual not as an exception to inert matter and raw material, but as the crystallization of something at the heart of Creation. Seeing the natural world as raw material is almost as strange from an Orthodox perspective as seeing people in terms of their financial net worth. It’s the same kind of error.
Of the possessions in my parents’ house, not are equal, and it makes a difference whether I am destroying a plastic cup or a landscape painted by my mother. In God’s own house with his treasures, not all are of equal value. There are some of these treasures that exist, in their way reflecting a God who is existence itself: rocks, for instance. There are some possessions which exist in a deeper sense, having an existence that is alive, a reflection of a God who is not only Being itself but Life itself. Then, beyond these oaks and roses, there are treasures which exist and even live in a way that moves: gazelles and badgers. As the pinnacle of material creation and the microcosm that brings together the material and the spiritual, are creatures that exist, live, and move in out of rationality—on a richer and more interesting understanding of “rationality” than most people would associate with the word today. That would be the realm of men. Lastly, there are bodiless rational spirits. rank on rank of angels.
We can destroy treasures that exist, live, and even move, and some people think that in dire circumstances we may destroy the highest of material treasures, the ones that are rational. But that does not mean that it’s all the same to destroy rocks, plants, and animals. Destroying a plant—to make a vegan’s meal, for instance—is more serious than smashing a pebble. (Unfortunately, you can’t live off of a diet of rocks.) Destroying an animal is far more serious, and there are sources which suggest it is more a concession than what we would think of today as a right. You can find people arguing that meat is more of a condition to weakness and medical concerns than something healthy people should need to resort to.
In Judaism, “kosher” is not only a matter of whether the meat comes from a clean animal like a cow or a sheep or an unclean animal like a pig. It also is a matter of how the animal was slaughtered.
The butcher says a blessing over the animal and then makes a single motion with a knife that has to be sharp, and is specified so that the animal dies as swiftly and painlessly as possible. Its lifeblood is also to be poured out as thoroughly as possible—because the animal’s life belongs to God, not to us, and even if we may kill it, Judaism at least frames acceptable slaughter in a way that shows respect for the animal killed.
If we look at a Jewish shepherd with his flock of sheep, under second temple Judaism, and a contemporary (to him) pagan Greek swineherd with his flock of pigs, they (or at least the Jew) would have seen themselves as complete opposites, at least after taking into account that they both raise a group of animals. There may have been a difference in whether all the animals were being raised for meat, but let’s ignore that for the sake of argument. The Greek swineherd might have found the comparison rather insulting: to Greeks, Jews were these antisocial people who wouldn’t mingle in polite company and for some reason treated one of the most delicious meats (pork) as if it were something revolting and putrid. In other words, Greeks perceived Jews as rather a bit weird, a beer or two short of a six-pack. The Jew, however, would have certainly found the comparison insulting to the extreme: not only was this figure a goy, a heathen dog, but he was raising pigs. Saying that he was like a swineherd is offensive in much the same way it would be offensive to tell a UPS delivery driver who is proud of helping the business world and contributing a little to help the economy run smoothly, that that she is like a gang’s drug runner because they both deliver packages, whether the packages are productive business documents or street drugs. The Jew would have been more offended by the comparison, but for people who raise flocks of animals, the Jew and Greek would have seen themselves as very different.
But let’s compare them to how pigs are raised today, in today’s factory farming. Pigs spend almost their entire lives in tiny cells, with an hour of artificial light a day—the rest of the day being surrounded by darkness—constricted in cells too small for them to turn around, deprived of a herd animal’s normal contact with other animals from its herd, traumatized not only by sounds but by the unending stench of rotting feces. The workers who treat them come down with atrocious respiratory diseases—and they are exposed to the vile air for a few hours a day instead of 24/7 as the pigs are. I don’t believe that feeding animals antibiotics is innately wrong, but with pigs it serves as an inappropriate band-aid for the damage caused by a dungeon—if that is a strong enough word—which is such a toxic environment that feeding the animals constant antibiotics actually makes a marked difference in the number of pigs killed by the life in their dungeon.
If we compare the Jew and the Greek herd-keepers, suddenly they look the same, and some things take on a new significance. Both allowed their herds to graze at least some of the time. Both allowed their animals to have natural contact with other like animals as part of a herd. Both raised their animals in daylight. Both raise their animals in places that gave them not just room to turn around, but room to move about normally. And now I’d like to ask what the Jewish shepherd (at least) would have thought of the factory farming way of raising (in the example above) pigs. Or, if you prefer, a rabbi.
Do you know how when you step on a tack or stub your toe, you feel tremendous pain, immediately, but if you get in a car accident and really need to go to the emergency room, it takes a while for the pain to register? My suspicion is that kosher slaughter techniques leave an animal unconscious and possibly dead before the pain has had time to register. Even if it is not painless slaughter, the specific rules are motivated by a principle that reduces suffering in a timespan of only a few minutes. And non-kosher slaughter, unless people go out of their way to cause suffering, cannot come anywhere near the suffering which factory farming inflicts on pigs. For that matter, it’s not clear how one would go about creating a torment-filled slaughter technique that would come anywhere near the lifelong suffering animals experience in factory farming. My suspicion is that people who are criminally convicted of cruelty to animals (at least in the U.S.) cause nowhere near the suffering before the animal is dead that factory farms do. To the best of my knowledge, Orthodox Judaism has not made rules about how an animal must be treated for its entire life to provide kosher meat, but if the rules were being articulated today, I suspect that the rules would recognize that lifelong torment is more of a problem than failing to kill an animal quickly and with a minimum of pain (as well as pouring its blood out as a reverent recognition that the life of an animal belongs to the Lord).
Before further discussion about factory farming’s evil side, I would like to explain what it has allowed. Raising animals the traditional way is expensive, requiring a lot of land and a lot of manpower. Factory farming—stacking animal cells in warehouse-like fashion and in general treating animals like mere machines—is a way to automate and mechanize the production of both meat and animal products like eggs and cheese. It is a tremendous way to cut corners, and the result is that things that come from animals are drastically reduced in price, drastically cheaper.
It is difficult, at least in the first world, for people to understand that for most of history people have not been vegetarians but neither did they eat meat every day. There have been a few hunter tribes that had a meat-based diet. For most people whose food came from farms, bread or rice has been the staple food. Meat was for special occasions or a seasoning; eating meat every day would seem strange to most people, like ordering lobster every time you feel like a snack, or drinking Champagne with every meal. Meat, being an expensive thing to produce, was something people didn’t have as the basis for normal meals. If you are an American adult—and you have not made a conscious choice early in your life to drastically reduce or eliminate meat from your diet—then you have almost certainly eaten much more meat than Jesus did. This does not automatically mean that we shouldn’t eat meat ever, or that we should eat meat rarely, but it does suggest that eating meat every day is not really the traditional way of doing things, even if most people were not vegetarians. A lot of people today love lobster and Champagne, but that doesn’t mean it’s normal in my society to have them every day. It might be telling that the “Our Father” Jesus gave doesn’t say, “Give us today our daily meat,” but “Give us today our daily bread.” That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t eat meat, but it seems not to assume, as people sometimes do, that meat is the main food.
Three American rules
I’d like to point out something more about American culture. Where I was growing up, I heard that a restaurant, Dragon West, had been closed down for improper use of domestic animals. For those of you who don’t have X-ray goggles, “improper use of domestic animals” is an opaque bureaucratic euphemism for the fact that they were serving dogs as food. The reason the restaurant was shut down has to do with the fact that eating dogs is culturally offensive to much of American culture, and there is a reason for that.
There’s a rule in America that if you keep a particular type of animal as a pet, you don’t eat that kind of animal’s meat. The rule is not absolute, and part of it is that most kinds of pets (carnivorous cats, for instance) would make poor livestock, and most kinds of livestock (behemothic bovines, for instance) would be hard to keep in a suburban home. And the rule isn’t absolute. Aside from rabbits, people swallow goldfish, although they seem to do that precisely because it crosses a line. But once you acknowledge a jagged border, it’s not just true that we happen not to eat the most common pets; many Americans would find the idea of eating a dog or cat to be nauseating. And it’s deeply seated enough to close down a restaurant.
You can, at some restaurants I’ve been to, order fish head curry. That doesn’t get a place shut down, but it breaks another rule. More specifically, it breaks the rule that meat shouldn’t give obvious clues that it came from an animal. Fish, which look the least like people, can be sold with their heads on. But unless you go out of your way, chickens are sold without head and feathers, and red meat and pork (which are from non-human mammals) is sold with even fewer clues that it’s some of the flesh of a slaughtered animal. Not that a detective couldn’t figure it out, but meat is sold in a form that hides where it came from, and people buying or eating beef would probably be grossed out by having a cow’s severed head nearby. Surely some of this is for economic reasons, but Americans who eat meat tend not to want to be reminded where it came from.
Lastly, people can be disturbed by the idea of eating certain kinds of “gross” things, things that creep and crawl—eating a tarantula or scorpion would be disturbing. (Interestingly, this rule seems to have a clause that says, “except if it came from the sea,” so the tarantula’s watery cousin the crab is fair game, as is the scorpion’s cousin the lobster.) That observation aside, the animals used to evoke horror in movies are generally not used as food.
My point in this is not to say that we all have rules, or think that only Orthodox Jews and Muslims have dietary rules. Even if the last rule has a strange exception, these rules are not random.
A devout Muslim will not eat pork and a devout Hindu will not eat beef, but the reasons are opposite: to the Muslim, a pig is an abomination, while to the Hindu, the god Shiva’s steed is a cow, and it would be an affront to Shiva to kill his steed for food. So we have abstinence out of disrespect and our of respect.
In the last rule I gave, “Thou shalt not eat anything creepy,” is an abstinence out of disrespect: spiders and lizards are dirty things that aren’t clean enough to eat. But neither of the first two rules is like this. The rules against eating animals that could be used as pets, and meat that looks too much like it came from an animal, are not rules of disrespect but rules of “Don’t remind me that an animal was killed for this.” The average suburbanite would rather be fed by meat from a kind of animal he has never interacted with closely—i.e. a cow—than think, “This came from a dog like the one I had growing up.”
This adds some complexity to the picture of “America is a place where people eat lots of meat and that’s that.” It suggests that, even if we eat lots of meat, there is something residual, a reticence that tries not to know that meat comes from slaughtered animals. (That is even without adding any knowledge of what it means for livestock to be raised under factory farming, which in my mind far outweighs the slaughter itself.)
Two things animal rights activists won’t tell you
Not all meat is created equal.
I had a bear of a time learning what specific conditions animals are raised under. Animal rights activists tend to want to treat animals as people, and only tell about what is inhumane, never what is humane, and so they will never tell you that beef cattle are raised under much nicer conditions than pigs. The people involved in factory farming seem not to advertise what they are doing. This makes not the easiest conditions to find out how much cruelty is associated with different things. (Or maybe I was just looking in the wrong places.)
What I was able to find—or the impression I was able to get—makes for a sort of ascending scale of cruelty, moving from least cruel (no more cruel than traditional animal husbandry) to most cruel. This scale isn’t perfect, but it’s the one I use.
Before we get on the scale, there is soy milk (which I’ve found to be available at grocery stores, and the chocolate is easiest to get used to), soy cream cheese, and so on. I still haven’t gotten the hang of liking tofu. I’ve found some other soy substitutes not to taste equivalent, but to taste good enough, and soy is claimed to have a complete protein signature.
At the base of the scale, the purest and most humane end, include ocean caught fish and seafood, and organic and free range anything. Organic food (which goes a little further than free range food—free range means that livestock can move about, free range, instead of being confined to coffinlike cells) can be found if you look for it at some supermarkets, and can be found at yuppie, granola music listening places like Whole Foods, which stacks exclusively organic produce, is pure as the driven snow, and has prompted a nickname of Whole Paycheck.
Next up the list are beef and mutton. Beef cattle do end up in fattening lots where they have little space, but they spend most of their lives growing up on open grazing land, able to move about, see sunlight, and be part of a herd.
Next up are eggs and dairy products. Because of the moral tenor of factory farming, animals can be treated cruelly even if they’re not exactly being raised for their meat, and if you order a cheeseburger, there’s more cruelty in the cheese than in the burger. Dairy cattle live much like pigs, although less of their lives (and therefore less cruelty) goes into producing a gallon of milk than a comparable amount of pork.
Last on the list are chicken, pork, turkey, and (the worst) veal. Many people know veal is cruel; pork and chicken are not much better. Chickens have a space roughly equal to a letter-sized paper folded in half, and farmers melt much of their beaks off (this is called “debeaking” by the farmers and the literature) because the living conditions cause so much fighting that the chickens would kill each other if they had their beaks and could peck like normal chickens would.
That is one of two things the animal rights crowd won’t tell you. There’s one other major thing I found that they don’t advertise.
In the Orthodox tradition, part of the story is fasting, which doesn’t mean abstaining from all foods and drinking only water, but usually means abstaining from some foods. The requirement on paper is to essentially go to a vegan diet (shellfish are allowed; oil and alcohol aren’t) and avoid most meat and animal products. This is more of a measuring stick than a requirement on paper, and some Orthodox bishops are concerned that new converts do not fast strictly. But, among people that observe fasting, most people go at least a notch or two closer than usual to a vegan diet. A little less than half the year has some fast or other, and the fast can be relaxed to some degree while still being observed. There are seasons of fasting, as well as days of the week.
What I realized in relation to fasting is that I hadn’t expected what fasting would really do. Giving up some of my favorite tastes was obvious, and I experienced that. But craving meat and not giving into that craving came up, and I don’t know that I consciously expected that, but it didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was consciousness, or more properly the effect it had on my consciousness.
Fasting quiets sinful habits and makes it easier to fight them. But at the same time, it drains energy and puts your mind in a fog. I have reason to believe that’s not the final effect, that your body responds differently over time, but fasting affects different people somewhat differently, and the effect on me is quite strong.
What I realized, that animal rights activists will not tell you, was that the main difference in giving up meat (temporarily or permanently) is not the taste; it’s not even really the craving, even if you fight a strong craving. It’s consciousness, and when one friend said he was going to cut meat mostly out of his diet as he married his mostly vegetarian fiancée, I strongly urged him to monitor his state of consciousness.
Why I’m glad I can’t eat Splenda
When I eat more than a little Splenda, it makes me sick—nothing life-threatening or anything like that; I don’t need a medical alert bracelet. But Splenda doesn’t agree with me. If I eat a little, nothing happens. If I eat a bit more than that, I feel mildly sick. If I eat a lot, not only will I feel sick but nature will call with a louder-than-usual voice.
It’s a shame, really. Every other artificial sweetener I’ve tried doesn’t taste right; it tastes like something that’s meant to taste like sugar, but fails. Splenda tastes like sugar’s cousin come in for substitute duty, instead of complete strangers dressed up to vaguely resemble sugar. And I’m not the only person who likes the taste.
Actually, I don’t think it’s a shame at all. Perhaps it has its downsides: I suddenly can’t eat most desserts, because at least where I buy desserts it’s hard to find a dessert sweetened with real, honest sugar. If you can’t eat Splenda, you can’t eat most desserts. And perhaps I will have to turn down more than a tiny serving of some hand-cooked desert made by the friend I am visiting. But there’s something to real, honest sugar, and it betrays something about Splenda.
A couple of friends in Kenya sent a newsletter trying to explain to the Western mind that people value a ring of oil as evidence of a stew’s richness, that bread lists its calories as how much energy it provides for hard work, and they underscored that the calorie is a unit of energy. This is a totally different attitude from in the U.S., when calories count as strikes against food.
It is also a healthier attitude, which underscores that food is eaten to nourish the body. Now God, in his generosity, has made it a pleasure as well, but we don’t need the pleasure, and we do need the nutrition (i.e. nourishment).
Splenda represents an effort to sever the link between eating and nourishment. It may be physically healthier to eat one ice cream bar sweetened with Splenda than with sugar, but it is not spiritually healthier, and there may be hidden consequences to the message, “I can eat and eat and not get fat.” Not only is that bad for the spirit, in that it causes you to fall short of the full stature of being human. If you think about it, it may end up being bad for the waistline.
Splenda is, in short, a very attractive invitation to become a moral eunuch.
In contrast to this, I remember a plaque with a picture of a pig, which said, “Eat to live. Don’t live to eat.” It is the same mindset as Richard Foster saying (I think quoting someone), “Hang the fashions. Buy only what you need.” Maybe he was talking about clothes, but it applies to foods too.
A private response
I try to eat animal products and meat, as much as are necessary for me be able to function. Unfortunately, I’ve found that I need a lot to function, partly for medical reasons. When I am receiving hospitality, I eat freely from what is offered to me; when I buy food, I buy a lot of beef, tuna, and chocolate soy milk. I try to get the minimum I need to function, and to take as much as I can from the lowest end of the cruelty scale. (I try. Sometimes I eat more than I need.) I also try to avoid wasting food and really try to avoid wasting meat—if it bothers me to see a pig raised in cruelty so I can eat a pork chop, it would be even worse for that pork chop to be thrown into the trash.
But there’s something wrong with that. I don’t mean that I chose the wrong private response to this dilemma. I think that as far as private responses go, it’s at least tolerable. Perhaps other people have chosen different responses, and maybe it could be better, but the problem is that it is a private response in the first place.
PETA, officially “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals” and labelled by some as “People Eating Tasty Animals,” tend to be the sort of people Rush Limbaugh would have lampooned when he wanted to give the impression that all liberals were crackpots. They made a gruesome TV commercial telling children to run from their fisherman fathers, apparently for much the same reason you’d run from a serial killer. They’ve probably done quite a lot that will prevent moderates and conservatives from taking animal welfare concerns seriously. But there is one area in which they are perfectly rational.
If, as they believe, meat is literally murder, and if, as they believe, imprisoning animals under lifelong conditions of misery is morally equivalent to imprisoning humans under lifelong conditions of misery, then it is entirely inappropriate to say “I’ll privately choose to be a vegan and you can privately eat your meat, and we can disagree without being disagreeable.” Whatever else they may have wrong, what they have right is that society’s default placement for the matter, of private decisions where people exercise their own private judgment on what if any dietary restrictions it may be. If they are completely wrong, and there is nothing wrong with veal, then maybe they have a private right to eat as if their erroneous beliefs are true, but if substantial parts of their claims are true, even the claims I have made, then there are real problems with the way American culture frames it.
I think I’m going to have to leave this approach “depracated without replacement”; I don’t see anything better that could believably replace it.
An animal lover
I’ve been told I’m good with animals. I certainly love pets, other peoples’ as well as my own: when I visit certain friends, I usually have a pet on my lap.
There was one point when a friend was moving into the area, and (for reasons I don’t understand) asked me to stay with her dog, who was afraid of men. (Even though there were women in the group of friends who had come to help her.) At the beginning, it was very clear that the dog was nervous about being at the other end of a leash from me. But after half an hour, the dog’s head was in my lap as I petted him, and when the group came, he was jumping up and down and wanted to meet the men as well as the women in the group. Part of what happened was because I knew how to approach slowly and let an animal get used to me, but part of it was probably something else.
That is probably the most exotic, or at least most impressive, story I can muster about my being good with animals. If I visit friends with pets, I usually ask to see the pets. And I believe my family’s warm atmosphere is part of why our cat is nineteen years old and still catches mice. This is not to say that we love our cat more than one friend, whose dog was hit by a car, or another friend, whose dog died of cancer. But it is to say that she might not have lived nearly so long if we merely gave her food and water, and that when she was attacked and was found curled up and not moving, she desparately needed a vet’s attention, but I’m not sure she would have pulled through if she didn’t have the love and prayers she received. (As it is, we are delighted that she pulled through and is back to being her old sweet self.)
When I left to study, I moved to an apartment where pets were not allowed—not dogs, not goldfish. (And even if they were allowed, I wouldn’t want to buy a pet that I wasn’t reasonably confident I could care for properly with vacations, moves, etc. I wouldn’t want to put a pet to sleep because it was no longer convenient to me.) So, I thought, I knew the perfect creative solution. I would buy a Furby—a furry stuffed animal that talks and moves, due to the technology inside. (In other words, a pet that wouldn’t make messes or upset the powers that be.)
So I tried to convince myself that I could enjoy it as a pet, and for a while I thought I was successful: the Furby spoke its own language, and I learned a few words, being fond of languages. It would respond to my commands at least some of the time. The perfect pet for my situation… and it took a while before I acknowledged that there was something creepy about it. It wasn’t creepy when it just stood there, looking like a stuffed animal and adding color to my room. But when it opened and closed its eyes, the technology seemed different from what I was expected. It almost seemed like the unnatural un-life of a vampire. I knew, of course, that it would run according to technology, and having done a master’s thesis about artificial intelligence running into a brick wall, I knew that it wouldn’t be truly intelligent. Yet I didn’t count on the creep effect. Now the Furby stands as a decoration in my room, one I like looking at. But it isn’t really to conserve battery power that I don’t activate it very often. I recognize it as an impressive technical achievement, but not as a pet.
There’s a spark of something that is there in a real animal that isn’t there in a robot dressed in a stuffed animal costume, and it was driven home to me when I tried to pretend that it didn’t make a difference. There is something special about existing, and there is something more special about living as a plant does, and something about the moving force that is an animal. Something that I can enjoy when I am with pets.
What is the point of this? Am I saying that being an animal lover is an obligation? No. I do not believe that the minimum acceptable requirement is being an animal lover. I don’t think there is any moral imperative to learn how to deal with animals or have the faintest desire for a pet. But I would say that it is part of the spectrum of things that are acceptable. Not everyone needs to be a big animal lover, but it is an appropriate exercise of freedom. Not everyone needs to be a wine afficionado, but it makes sense to savor subtle differences in flavor and aroma for good wines that doesn’t make sense with Mountain Dew. Slowly savoring a tiny taste of different years of Mouton Cadet rouge is not incongruous; slowly savoring a tiny taste of different years of Mountain Dew is absurd. It might me good for making a delightful lampoon of wine snobs, but Mountain Dew does not merit a treatment ordinarily reserved for wine. For the same reason, there is something that fits about luxuriating on a waterbed that does not fit about trying to luxuriate and savor a sleeping bag on a hard floor. There is no moral obligation to seek out a waterbed or even a bed, but there’s a difference between a waterbed and a floor. Similar things could be said about painting with oil paints versus trying to paint with SAE 10W-40 motor oil. There’s something there to animals that means that they make much better pets than shampoo bottles, so that being an animal lover is a fitting response whether or not it is a moral obligation. And that “something there” is present whether or not you are an animal lover.
There’s something there. The “something there” of animals undergirds the possibility of people enjoying pets as some of us do, a “something there” that is not human and is less than humanity, but is something more than almost anything else in nature. There is also “something more” than machinery, and while there are not ethical problems about cruelty in how we treat machinery, there is a dimension to a farm animal that isn’t there for economic assets in general. That means that there are ethical concerns surrounding meat and animal products even after some of us acknowledge that God has given us authority to slaughter his creatures.
Animal rights activists tend to think animal rights means treating animal rights as human. When people have treated me as human, they have given me a bedroom and made other rooms available. They have spent time with me, and made good food available—not raw unless there was good reason to serve it raw. They have given me Christmas presents and a million other signs of respect that animals do not merit. If I looked at things in terms of rights (I don’t), I would draw a much narrower and much more modest list of rights for animals: being part of a herd, moving about out doors, seeing sunlight during the day, and so on. Nothing about beds and cooked foods, but treated like an animal, which is much less than being treated as human, but it’s also different from being treated like a mere piece of machinery.
This leaves loose ends untied. I haven’t explained why the breeding that went into the breed of 96% of turkeys sold in America (which causes an ungodly amount of meat to grow on a skeleton and beast that really aren’t built to carry anywhere near that much weight—imagine the frame of a compact car supporting the bulk and weight of a full-fledged SUV) is cruel, and the breeding of housecats (which also introduces profound changes that some animal rights activists call out-and-out cruel) is appropriate stewardship with regard to God’s creation. And this article is dense enough without exploring all of those. Environmentally conscious readers may not be pleased to note that my ranking of cruelty encourages people to buy foods that have some of the worst environmental footprint—a pound of beef is said to require 4000 gallons of our scarce water. You can make meat with less impact on the environment if you are willing to cut corners, not only economically but morally. But I would argue that cruelty concerns are heavier than even environmental. And those are presumably not the only loose ends I’ve left. But there are a couple of points I would like to underscore.
First, thinking in terms of “raw material” is inappropriate. Destruction may be justified, but if so it is justified destruction of items that have something to them besides what economic use we might be able to find. The whole system of factory farming treats animals as mere economic assets who cannot suffer or whose suffering is not as important as making the most money. That causes terrible, usually lifelong suffering. Cruelty to animals matters.
Second, cause as much cruelty as you need to, but not more. Try to have the lightest footprint that doesn’t cause trouble to you—trouble meaning something more than “A cheese and bacon omelet would really hit the spot.” (In my case trouble meant difficulty concentrating on my studies, and since then I’ve learned what my body can handle.) Eat to live. Don’t live to eat. Remember that not all foods are created equal. Aside from soy, organic animal products and meat, and sea-caught fish and seafood are by far the least cruel; beef is more cruel than these, but less cruel than animal products like milk, cheese, and eggs; dairy and other animal products are less cruel than most meats, including turkey, pork, chicken, and especially veal. If you are eating meat because it tastes good and not because your body needs its nutrition and energy, that is unnecessary.
Third, caring about the living conditions of farm animals has been framed as a liberal thing. That may be because there’s a problem which arose, and liberals have been better at waking up to something conservatives should have been noticing. If you are dubious of my credentials as a conservative, I invite you to read Our Food from God, published in a Christian journal that argues long and hard against even the more moderate forms of feminism. It’s not just liberals who have a strong moral ground to criticize factory farming. It’s just that liberals have been quicker to wake up and say, “Houston, we have a problem.”
Seeing animals only as financial assets whose suffering is not important, instead of God’s treasures which may be judiciously destroyed but have value independent of their economic usefulness, is the same basic error as seeing a person in terms of financial worth. The error is more grievous in seeing a person in terms of money, but that same basic error—as opposed to keeping a light footprint and trying to keep to justified destruction—has caused terrible animal suffering. Consider ways in which you might limit suffering you cause, and consider emailing a friend a link to CJSH.name/meat/. And maybe visit the store locator for Whole Paycheck, er, Whole Foods.
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