Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, Meat, and Christian Diet
Challenging modern theologians and Christian ethicists who they believe have ignored the theological importance of everyday eating, David Grumett and Rachel Muers state in their preface to Theology on the Menu: Asceticism, Meat, and Christian Diet, “Food issues are not just about healthy eating, but about how humans live under God” (x). Their book provides a well-researched, thoughtful, and provocative discussion of the relationship between Christian faith and dietary choice.
The first four chapters examine historical Christian dietary practices, particularly that of abstention from red meat, “seen at least historically, as a foundational element of Christian identity and discipline” (1). Chapter 1 gives an in-depth discussion of the Anchorites, early Christians who withdrew to the desert to avoid persecution and civil obligations and also to pursue a life of intense prayer and penitence. The next chapters trace the changes in food practices of organized religious communities. The rules and rituals governing food consumption in monasteries, the philosophical and theological underpinnings for these rules, and the ways these practices intersected with the surrounding communities are examined. The Reformation greatly influenced food practices in the church, and the authors outline the views regarding fasting of Reformation theologians including Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.
While the first chapters are primarily history without critique, the chapters that follow, while still discussing historical facts, also offer much in the way of criticism. The fifth chapter describes Hebrew categorizations of clean and unclean animals and also the important dietary rules related to animal blood. Throughout history, although most Christians believed the Levitical food laws were not to be taken literally, some Christians followed these laws as a way to govern their use of God’s gift of food. The authors affirm this idea that Christians should view food as a gift needing structure, boundaries, and rules, and not in the modern consumerist way.
Dietary practices have at times been used to identify people as Christian or non-Christian. The teachings of Augustine regarding dietary practices were shaped by his reactions against Manichaenism and his desire to separate himself and his church from this group. He presented dietary discipline as marginal to Christian life and “doctrinally ambiguous” and so “played a significant part in sidelining it as a matter for serious theological debate and spiritual reflection” (94). In modern times, meat eating was often considered a marker of converting to Christianity. Food practices were also used to distinguish Jews from Christians, and Muslims from Christians. The association of vegetarianism and heresy still persists with some, who view vegetarianism as “New Age” or countercultural. The authors argue, however, that “the countercultural refuser of meat could be understood, in Christian terms, as a prophet whose life and actions pronounce judgment on the failures and injustices of a particular social order” (105).
The history of animal sacrifice in the Christian church is examined, specifically regarding the Armenian Church, which practiced a revised Christian version of sacrifice and was careful to separate the practice from pagan and Jewish practices. There is thus “sanctified slaughter” (113) and the animal is then shared with the community. “The distribution of food that follows the ‘sanctified slaughter’ can be seen, in these contexts, as a means by which God’s peace and generosity proclaimed in the church’s liturgy is made real in society” (113).The authors argue that this “sanctified slaughter” is a way to honor the sacredness of the animal:
Animal sacrifice displays the deep connections between everyday food practices and understandings of the sacred. It is a fundamental part of human culture, cosmology and religion, and performs vital functions in these fields of human experience. This suggests that Christians who have insisted on the elimination of animal sacrifice, especially in the Roman Empire, risk disengaging Christian belief from a fundamental part of human culture … By recovering some key elements of historic sacrificial practice, such as confining meat eating to particular days, making slaughter visible to the community, and having greater regard for animal welfare, Christians would bear witness to a redeemed and realistic fellowship between humans, but also between humans and animals, and humans and God. Sacrifice provides a context for slaughter in which thanks is given for the life of the animal as a gift from God. (113-114, 115)
The authors link animal sacrifice to Christ’s sacrifice. “Stephen Webb argues that, to the extent that the sacrifice of Christ abolishes animal sacrifice, it calls Christians to abstain from eating meat” (118). In modern society, sacrifice is rejected, but mass animal slaughter is accepted as normal. The authors argue that where kosher slaughter is done, animal welfare is important. In mass slaughter situations, however, animal welfare is not considered. “Animals in slaughterhouses are placed “beyond the law” and become bare life. This degradation occurs by a process similar to that by which Christ is dehumanized, passed between different legal authorities and then cast out of the world onto the cross” (124).
Current methods of meat production are rejected in favor of a different approach to animals and the meat industry.
What might Christians contribute to debates about methods of animal slaughter? Our discussion suggests that Christians in the modern West have much to learn from Christian traditions of animal sacrifice. The concealment and deliberate forgetting of slaughter, and the lack of respect for nonhuman animal life which this indicates, should be subjected to Christian critique … More radically, Christians who are vegetarians might wish to argue that actual sacrifice and public slaughter should be reinstated, in the hope that large numbers of meat eaters would be repelled by such spectacles and thus motivated to abstain from meat too. (126, 127)
To construct a contemporary Christian theology of food, the authors contend the most pressing need is “to reinstate reflection on diet into public discourse, and inculcate an awareness that responsibility for dietary choice is societal as well as individual” (130). They advocate taking meat off the menu for Christians because of the social, economic, and political implications of meat eating. “For proponents of vegetarianism, the various forms of work which turn animals into meat need to be interrupted … This interruption of meat-producing processes amounts to a stand against idolatry” (133). In response to the injunction to “eat whatever is sold in the meat market” (I Cor 10:25), they write, “today there is no morally neutral meat and no ‘secular’ meat market. To consume meat is not just to accept the by-products of a cruel and distorted system, but actively to affirm that system” (133-134).
The authors state that people in their everyday food practices choose foods primarily due to practical and material considerations, but they maintain that theological reflection and discussion should still take place.
A good theological ethics, and an ethical theology, needs to draw on all available evidence about the effects of the practices it describes or advocates. It matters whether Christian food practices lead to starvation, or bodily health; destruction of local and global habitats, or environmental sustainability; wealth concentration, or redistribution; the suffering of nonhuman animals, or their flourishing. On all these issues, non-theological accounts are vital to the formation of good judgments, even when the “intensities” of Christian life, such as the effects and implications of animal sacrifice, are under scrutiny (144-145).
In looking at historical Christian food practices, how does one decide which are only curiosities and which should inform us today? Grumett and Muers argue that our answer to this will be shaped by our own attitudes and practices. They have displayed this very clearly in their book. Although they give us a wealth of information regarding dietary practices (34 pages of notes and a 15-page bibliography), their own attitudes and practices of abstention from meat are those which are most clearly articulated. Some of their assertions seem to me (an admitted meat-eater) to be extreme. For example, the slaughterhouse killing of animals “…occurs by a process similar to that by which Christ is dehumanized, passed between different legal authorities and then cast out of the world onto the cross” (124), and “Christians who have insisted on the elimination of animal sacrifice …. risk disengaging Christian belief from a fundamental part of human culture” (113-114), and the “interruption of meat-producing processes amounts to a stand against idolatry” (133). Many thoughtful Christian people would find these claims to be shocking and offensive. While modification of current meat industry practices is warranted from an animal welfare perspective, I do not see this as “a stand against idolatry,” nor do I see the similarities between animal slaughter and Christ’s death.
Even in light of and perhaps because of some of the claims made in this book, it could serve as a useful tool for study and discussion among Christians. The authors have this express purpose in mind.
Eaters [of meat] and abstainers share, if not a menu, at least their acknowledgement of God and their commitment to honour God, which will have implications for their life and diet which might not yet be clear to any of them. This shared acknowledgement has the potential to create a space for discussion about food choices that is not abstract or theoretical, but begins by recognizing, accepting and attending to each other’s everyday ways of honouring God by eating and by abstaining. (140)
Christians have an obligation, they insist, not to agree with each other’s practice in regard to food, but “to take seriously any attempt to eat ‘in honour of the Lord’” (140). Their informative and impassioned work lays a good foundation for encouraging the conversation to continue.