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Friday, January 23, 2015

Too Hot to Handle: Stomaching Veganism

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

How, now?
Increasingly, studies like this one point to the strong possibility that a strictly vegan diet might actually be the healthiest for human beings, and that even that even consuming a small amount of meat in our diet is sufficient to increase our chances of diabetes, among other things.

These studies may well be accurate (though, as with all assertions of the scientific community these days, I tend to reserve judgment until we see all the consequences of a purely vegan diet in a representative sample of the human population over a generation or two). But for the sake of argument, let’s give these studies the benefit of the doubt and assume they represent truth and not simply another scientific boondoggle.

Tom: So, the obvious question ...

The Obvious Question

Why, if meat is bad for us, does God right after the flood say to Noah, “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you”, and more importantly, why, after his resurrection, does the Lord Jesus eat the piece of broiled fish offered him by his disciples? Not to mention the Passover ...

Immanuel Can: I’m just thinking that it doesn’t seem a terribly important issue in itself. I know some people have very strong feelings that there are profound ethical duties at steak — I mean “stake” — whenever we eat meat. Peter Singer comes to mind, as do his pals at PETA. Nevertheless, eating meat does seem to be within the normal round of activities that are not sinful — at least for fallen human beings.

Tom: I’m a little intrigued by this apparent paradox, though: If meat is actually not good for us, why would God allow it? A couple of suggestions: (1) I notice it is allowed, but not required; and (2) that it is permitted in the aftermath of an earth that had become “corrupt in God’s sight, and … filled with violence”, and in which men were doing whatever they wanted to do, which I assume includes catching, killing and consuming all of God’s creatures. From the prohibitions later about not eating meat with blood in it, it seems to me that they were probably doing that too.

So I’d suggest that allowing the consumption of meat is an accommodation, not God’s “best” for man. Does that make sense?

IC: Well, possibly.

Tom: You sound dubious.

IC: I suppose … but it would be hard to make that case positively. People often point to the fact of humanity’s omnivorous nature, as evidenced by things like the enzymes in our stomachs that permit us to digest meat. There’s also a larger issue bracketing this one, which is the issue of whether or not we can “read” what is allowable or forbidden based on what seems to us salutary or harmful to prolonging or at least cultivating our lives within a fallen creation.

Tom: Oh, I’m not thinking about “allowable or forbidden” here. That consideration is clearly off the table from the example of the Lord himself. But there’s no denying that man did not start this way.

No Meat in Eden

Let’s go back to the Garden of Eden. No meat. Not even a hint of a suggestion that it was necessary to kill an animal in the creation order. This was a truly blissful state, but these are not the conditions that currently exist. Man’s lifespan has been deliberately shortened to a range around 70 years, and I’d suggest it’s grace that did that. It’s into this new state of affairs, after one complete cleanup of corrupted humanity in the form of a global flood, that God introduces the option of meat into the human diet.

So when I say meat eating is not God’s “best”, that’s what I’m referring to. Something may be perfectly allowable in our present state of affairs, but fall short of God’s original plan for man.

Trust me, though, I’m not going to suggest that a vegan diet will return us to an Edenic state, or that such a thing would be desirable even if it could be achieved.

IC: There doesn’t seem to be any biblical concern at all about the potentially deleterious effects of meat consumption. In fact the people of the Old Testament were positively required to consume meat as a moral duty, at times such as Passover.

Quantity and Quality of Life

Tom: Let’s say, for instance, that you and I might live five years longer on a vegan diet. Is such a thing desirable in any way?

IC: Well, that’s a matter of quantity of life, isn’t it … not of quality. I see no reason we ought to seek more life if it’s bad life. Hezekiah may have made that mistake but there’s no reason we need to. And what really defines the goodness or badness of a life?

Tom: Well, this is it. Until the Lord returns, death is … well, a fact of life. The death rate is 100%. We’re all going at some point. Adding five years or ten makes little difference to me. What’s important, as you say, is to live and die well.

So let’s forget about prolonging life with a non-meat diet for a moment. Do you think there’s any validity to the idea of improving quality of life? Our body, after all, is a temple, as we’re told. We are to “glorify God in our bodies”. What does that mean to you, practically?

IC: That’s said as an extension of the observation, “You were bought with a price; you are not your own …”, and in the specific context not of “sinning” against your body by eating meat, but doing so through immorality. It’s a general attitude we all need to take, that contra popular wisdom today, we do not own our own lives. This means that we cannot say with the world, “It’s my life, and it’s my right to make my own choices, and no one else has a right to judge me”. Rather, it is God who is our Judge, and to Him we owe the obedience of the body.

Eating and Drinking to the Glory of God

That’s a real paradigm shift for a lot of people, I think. But it’s part of what it means to “die to self”, as modelled in baptism. We are no longer our own. And we do have a responsibility to take care of our physical forms, yet not so that we may prolong our own lives or even enhance our own health; but rather that we might render our bodies back to God as living sacrifices.

Tom: So what you’re saying, if I may paraphrase, is this: Every bite we eat is to be to the glory of God, and to no other purpose. So, hypothetically, I am a vegetarian in my own home out of conviction that it’s better for me and will enable me to be healthier in later years and therefore better able to serve the Lord. But now I’m invited to the home of a fellow believer and they serve me pot roast. How does this principle manifest itself?

IC: I’d suggest that unless he says, “By the way, I sacrificed that to idols,” you should eat it.

Tom: Unremarkably, I would concur. Fellowship is the priority, not fussing about our diets.

IC: It is also worth considering the expansion of allowable diet proclaimed by God Himself … first in the words of the Lord in Mark 7:19, which are interpreted as a pronouncement that “all foods are clean”, and then again in 1 Timothy 4:3, in which foods are called “things created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth.” There, and also in Hebrews 13:9, the prohibiting of food is definitely marked as a sign of “varied and strange teaching” and spiritually unprofitable legalism associated with false teachers.

Now, assuming that meat is somewhere included in those “foods” in view, which is certainly very likely, given passages like 1 Corinthians 10:25, it would quickly become difficult to justify a Christian duty to keep to a vegan diet, would it not?

Tom: Very difficult indeed. This whole discussion about what is and is not appropriate to eat is a very modern Western indulgence, don’t you think? It’s something you can cavil about when you’re living well and can afford anything in the grocery store. But there are many countries in the world where Christians have trouble finding a meal, let alone picking and choosing what food groups comprise it.

Responding to Conscience

But I think another relevant principle is this, and you hit on it with your reference to sacrificing to idols. I have no problem with meat, though I consume it more moderately than I used to. But if I did find it problematic, there’s a simple remedy, and that is to follow my conscience. If I can’t eat confidently, to the glory of God, then I should find something else to eat. 

IC: So this is one of those issues theologians used to call adiaphora, meaning, “theological issues that are neither here nor there”; that is, that are up to the personal conscience and personal situation, rather than things that can be universally mandated? Or is there a universal moral dimension we’ve overlooked?

Tom: I can’t see one. The usual provisos about adiaphora would certainly apply to this issue, wouldn’t they? That is to say, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him”. Any moral problem with food would be a consequence of us handling the issue poorly. The meat-eating believer might look at the vegan Christian and think (or say), “What a maroon. Why don’t you enjoy your freedom!” Or the vegan Christian might look at his fellow believer and say, “That’s not very spiritual of him to damage his body; why should I listen to what he has to say about anything else?”

Then we’ve got a moral dimension.

IC: So it would seem. Even when we intend well, we must not become legalistic about that which God has created for the good of mankind … or about that which He has left to the conscience. To our own Master we stand or fall.

4 comments :

  1. We might also observe that the Lord Himself ate a piece of fish in the presence of his disciples after his resurrection, and also provided a meal of cooked fish for them on the shore of Galilee. If there were something horribly cruel about catching fish or sinful about eating them, surely the Lord would not have done either of those things. And although we are not specifically told that the Lord ate the Passover Lamb along with his disciples on the night before His crucifixion, it would have been singularly unusual and indeed shocking for him as a Jewish man to have refused to take part in that Passover. So it's really impossible to make a case that eating meat is sinful, or even morally dubious, without accusing the Lord Jesus Himself of knowingly and willfully participating in sin.
    - RJA

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  2. It's been stated in the news (here in the USA) that public, government, health care expenditures would drop by 80% within a few years if everyone adopted a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle. That is an enormous public good. Supposing for this argument that this is approximately doable, then that alone should oblige people to move in that direction. It is much more significant than a ban on smoking or drinking and so forth. So, why shouldn't it be a moral obligation to make lifestyle changes that help you not to be a burden on the public treasury and health care? Since most of this expenditure is generated by the extreme cases of neglect and downright abuse of your body, then why should others have to pay the price for that? Also, abuse of body, as I recall, is definitely not acceptable even in the religious sphere.

    You could argue that God is relatively unconcerned with that because he has instituted cause and effect so that the penalty for poor behavior is illness. Unfortunately, penalty itself always causes expenditure. The reality is that the best solution to all this is not necessarily only a plant based diet but to a large part also caloric moderation. I have acquaintances who reached 450 lbs to the point where they could do their work only while sitting down. When management gave them an ultimatum, they enlisted in an educational nutrition program that taught simple calorie assessment and counting that they then implemented. Within 2 years they were down to 250 lbs and are now holding at 220 lbs. Evidently, other important factors are motivation and that is linked to your upbringing, personality, character, sense of self-worth and vision of yourself, and possibly external pressure.

    Your discussion with regard to whether it is worth making a change to gain an extra 5 years, and implying probably not, shows that you are missing the point. It is not only increased longevity, but continual improved overall health and sense of wellbeing. Also, when Tom asks IC (or vice versa) how significant an extra 5 years are, they are obviously asking the wrong person. Instead ask your kids, grandkids, relatives and friends (if all is well there ( :-/ ) and they'll let you know that they would love to have you around an extra 5 years, especially in good health and spirits.

    As an aside:
    Found this really nice web site called letter count that lets you paste your blog and returns the number of letters it contains. Here is the link.

    http://www.lettercount.com/

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  3. Hey Q: I'd be very curious about a source for that 80 % improvement you suggest. I'm no nutritionist but there's an awful lot of nutritionists / health care providers out on the web who are suggesting a vegan diet may well create more new health challenges than it solves (try googling "problems with a vegan lifestyle" for multiple similar stories).

    While I share your concern with gluttony (something the bible certainly condemns), colour me unconvinced there is a significant saving - if any - to be garnered from an all-vegan / vegetarian pursuit.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Bernie. The 80% number is something I heard in one of those short news blurbs and I did not take anything down. However, I had no trouble finding references suggesting that a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle would have a significant impact on health care expenditure. Here are a couple.

      http://www.vegetarian-nutrition.info/updates/vegetarian_diets_health_benefits.php

      http://www.nyhealthinsurer.com/2012/blog/can-a-vegetarian-diet-lower-health-insurance-costs/

      I have appended quite a bit on this topic in previous comments but will summarize over here.
      First, personally, I don't have an ax to grind regarding this topic except that it indeed produced the claimed results within the short advertised time frame (with regard to drop in cholesterol, sugar, weight loss, blood pressure, sense of wellbeing). Then there are testimonials from family, friends who experienced similar improvements. Now, I am more vegetarian since I find pure veganism difficult and I am more of a pescetarian, also have a bit of cheese on occasion (don't take away my whipped cream cheese and jelly) and no more than one to two eggs a month. My wife has learned some great vegetarian recipes, including homemade pizza. I love onion soup and when ordering in a restaurant tell the waitress to go light on the cheese and she will tell the chef to use one slice of cheese instead of the usual two. You get the idea, and on top of it all, and probably most important, I have learned to keep tabs on calories during the day.

      There are a few important considerations. First one must realize that there is a very intense battle and information war going on since there are powerful food, meat, dairy interest groups who would lose a lot in this and they are deeply imbedded with government and industry. But, if you listen carefully to the news and watch your supermarket shelves, the vegetarian side is slowly beginning to make significant inroads. Our family's interest started with the documentary "Forks over Knifes" (available on Netflix),

      http://www.forksoverknives.com/

      and has progressed from there to "The China Study."

      http://www.thechinastudy.com/endorsed-by-t-colin-campbell/food-over-medicine/about/

      I subscribe to PCRM (Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine),

      http://www.pcrm.org/health/diets/vegdiets/vegetarian-foods-powerful-for-health

      and to the worldwide nutrition research summaries provided by Dr. Greger's Nutritionfacts.org. Below is a link he published concerning the political battles for this topic that even result in falsification of research.

      http://nutritionfacts.org/video/food-industry-funded-research-bias/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=food-industry-funded-research-bias&utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=food-industry-funded-research-bias

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