Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Hidden vegetarians

We tried to discuss Christian responsibilities to animals in "Exploring Religious Ethics" yesterday. The reading, Stanley Hauerwas and John Berkman's 1992 essay "The Chief End of All Flesh," builds an argument for Christian vegetarianism on analogy with an argument for Christian pacifism. Our discussion was lively but didn't get far off the ground as nobody admitted to finding pacifism compelling, convincing or even interesting. ("I wish I was more peaceful" was the extent of it.)

And vegetarianism? Two students owned that they were long-standing vegetarians but strenuously assured us that they told nobody. People had all sorts of reasons for being vegetarian, one said, just as other people had all sorts of reasons for what they did, and that was perfectly okay, everyone should do what they thought right - she would never judge. A fitful vegetarian myself I wondered that she was so willing to let others eat animals - but then I do, too. (I don't cook them or order them in restaurants, but I patronize meat-serving restaurants and willingly, indeed gratefully, partake when friends invite me over and serve meat. I have my reasons; it's not quite as weak-kneed as it sounds.)

I recalled a famous footnote in the essay:

Can one seriously discuss these questions with someone who is in the midst of eating a hamburger? We take this to be a serious question.
Theology Today 49/2 (July 1992), 197

The point is similar to the one made by William Pietz in an essay I use in "Theorizing Religion," which examines the emergence of concepts of fetishism out of the African slave trade, concepts he describes as "ideological" in the modern sense of "how you have to think in order to feel morally good about yourself given what you actually do." In that class I stress the counterintuitive understanding of the relationship of belief and action here posited. Structures of unjust action, unchosen and difficult to opt out of, shape and indeed force thought - but the thought which emerges tends to naturalize the contingent and soothe the troubled conscience. Hauerwas isn't tapping Marxist sources, as Pietz is, and in place of revolution he champions the witness of church. But that, too, is something you'd have to taste and see - or at least see?

Is there no point in discussing vegetarianism with animal-eaters, then? Hauerwas' thought has this cul de sac danger, particularly perilous in the relativism-infested waters of a liberal arts college, but we'll find a way out of it - if not, I fear, to an ethical encounter with "the other animals" in creation.

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