Vegetarianism and Orthodoxy

First, Orthodox know there is a standing anathema against anyone who promulgates the idea that eating meat is a sin. Some Orthodox, true, may not be aware of what is contained in the anathemas since in some Churches they are dramatically abbreviated, or omitted altogether, where formerly they were read in full on the Sunday of Orthodoxy. That’s a testament to the laziness and misguided “tolerance” of our time and of the West, which has polluted our rites since first contact. But the anathemas stand in full force and cannot be contraverted by any Orthodox person. Those who do speak against them have automatically excommunicated themselves (defrocked themselves if they are clergy), even if no one is aware of it. The anathemas are holy and cannot be contravened. Most of them are the anathemas of the most holy ecumenical councils, which are infallible, and so to speak against them is to deny the Holy Spirit, the Church herself, and to separate oneself from the entirety of the tradition, making oneself fundamentally Protestant and heterorodox. Since the first Church council, recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, in which the eating of meat was upheld, this has been the way of things. And I am not planning on ceasing to be Orthodox by controverting that council and the holy anathemas.

The Annual All-Vegan Thanksgiving Potluck
Image by massdistraction via Flickr

All of that being stipulated to, I do not think it is a sin to eat meat, but I think the eating of meat is wrong. And say what you like, there’s a distinction. All Orthodox, if they are Orthodox, agree that death is wrong, that death is in fact the greatest wrong of all. It is an affront, though it is also a mercy. We also all say that there will be no more death in Heaven, that the lion will lie down with the lamb, and a child shall lead them. In short, we will all be vegetarians in paradise, as we were in the first paradise. Death will cease, because Christ has overcome it. It is not forever – or in Christian translation, “where now is thy sting?” In fact, it is every bit as much a heresy to say, as the Protestant dispensationalists do, that God will honor sacrifices again, the killing of animals as a holy act, as to say that eating meat is a sin. The Epistle to the Hebrews makes its clear that those who return to the sacrifice of animals are attempting to resacrifice Christ. There will be no death in paradise, just as it was death that ejected us from the first paradise. There will be no more covering ourselves with the skins of animals. There will be no more violence, no more tears, and no more killing of any kind or of any thing. All things, as is Orthodox understanding, will live forever – all things will be deified. To countenance the notion of death as normal, right, and good, is to deny what we Orthodox mean by salvation in the first place, namely that all that is created will be united to the Creator forever and ever and unto ages of ages.

Not so many realize that the eating of meat will cease forever as are aware that the eating of meat is currently permitted. Currently, but it will not last.

To return then to the here and now, it’s worth pointing out also that our monastics already live according to the rule of Heaven more closely than do laymen. They eat no meat, but only a bit of fish once a week, when it is not a fast, or upon Great Feasts. Holy Orthodoxy is an ascetic faith, for each and every person involved in it, even if it has become oddly popular in some circles to deny this (their error is apparent, in that they must repudiate the entire tradition and make themselves out to be wiser than Christ and the Apostles, who taught asceticism to all, and practiced it as an example with all, as well as the Fathers who stand in repudiation of such silly claims). There is a lay asceticism, evidenced among the faithful in the keeping of the calendar, and of the feasts and fasts prescribed in it. So much is this not a separate, optional appendage to the Faith – so integral is it – that St. Seraphim says, “He who does not fast does not really believe in God.” In short, you cannot be Orthodox and not be at least a lay ascetic, so that the Fathers of the Desert have practical relevance to us all. And as the angels are to the monks, so the monks are to we laymen – lights, examples, and to be imitated in some manner. We refer to the monks as our angels, in fact, which is the main reason we visit them.

Our Faith, in short, is intimately bound up with what we eat, when we eat, and why. To the uninitiated, this can be confusing. That sometimes cannot be helped. There are things worth saying to that, but they are aside from the point here. More than half of our lives, as Orthodox, we are not eating things that come from animals. And if the monks, who fast more than us, are examples of what it will be like in the Kingdom, as we begin to live in the Kingdom now, since it is upon us already, then this underscores the fact that there will be no use of animals in that way, no slaughter, and no suffering and constraint wreaked upon them by men. Someone once asked, “Why fast from dairy? Milk is there to sustain life.” Yes, of course, but not *your* life. Human milk is there to sustain your life, which is why nursing mothers and infants don’t refrain from nursing during the fast. We must guard ourselves from the silly assumptions that come from presuming Death as natural, as the Darwinian norm. Death is not natural or normal – it is alien to our physiology and psyche – we are merely infected with it. And if our ideas don’t fit with that, then they are not Orthodox ideas, not Christian ones, since they deny what all our Fathers teach us.

But I said I think it’s wrong to eat meat – not a sin, but wrong. Yes, that’s my opinion. I think that we are permitted to eat meat (not a sin), but that all killing is wrong, all Death is wrong, all dying and suffering and constraint is wrong – are in fact another way of describing Death. I don’t think it’s a sin to slaughter a cow. I think it’s wrong, though. And I think our Faith tells us quite clearly this is so, in that Christ swallowed up Death, trampling it down by his dying, and that it was in part for this purpose that he came. But that more importantly, there can be no Death in union with God who is Life. And Christ has come to us for no other reason than to unite us to God, by whose coming he united himself to all things, which likewise will be united to God, and so in union with him we are also united to each other and all things, and nothing will be lost, and all things will participate in salvation. There will exist nothing, so is our Faith, that is not being united to God. This is why even Hell, many of the fathers describe, as the agony of God saving man by making him exist forever in his uncreated Energies, while not extinguishing (killing) his individual person and will, which may oppose this. Our salvation, our perfect union with God, is not a genocide, destroying the diversity of our individualities, but a true salvation, consuming us each in order that we may each live forever.

So where you really get into trouble is if you tell everyone that, in light of this, they have to be vegetarian (actually veegan). I am not saying that. You will be veegan, and so will I, in paradise. All Christians, if they are listening at all to their tradition, say that. To deny it is to be pagan. To be a Darwinist perhaps, but not a Christian. My opinion is that the evangelical “creationists” are fighting the wrong battle. The real question is whether Death is natural or not. But because they are of the Western tradition, they themselves have confused person and nature, and cannot understand the concept of natural/nature in the first place. They have no choice but to fight a losing battle, on the ground of their own enemies, because they are not beginning with the right anthropology, that of our Fathers, and cannot therefore make a meaningful case against those who share their error and have merely developed the error better and more logically. Yes, the Darwinists have a much better case than the “creationists” when the latter are offering the evangelical Protestant version. It doesn’t make them right. It just makes them more sophisticated and less confused, barely.

So while i’m not telling people they have to be veegan, I’m saying it’s not a bad idea, and that it’s not a bad idea for religious reasons. Part of the error of contemporary Western thinking, that has polluted as many pulpits and pews as it has everything else, is the notion that preferences are entirely separate from matters of Faith. What clothes we wear, what we watch on TV, what food we like, what sites we visit — all of these are supposedly one of two things — to be *dictated* by reference to proof texts (fundamentalism) or else to be emancipated from religion entirely (which makes religion a kind of ghetto that doesn’t touch the rest of life – so therefore, how can it presume to offer salvation of the whole person?). Either error is part of the same fundamental mistake. It’s a philosophical mistake, adapted from something alien to our Faith, that we won’t discuss in detail in this post – namely the confusing of distinction with opposition. Besides, there’s already really good literature on this – see God, History, and Dialectic by Dr. Joseph P. Farrell. No, it is not only appropriate to choose veeganism for reasons of faith – not only is it quite acceptable – but one can make a really good case for it. Again, I’m not saying we’re sinning by eating meat – I’m saying there’s a good case for becoming veegan for religious reasons – reasons integral to our tradition – reasons that are exactly the same as much of what we are already doing, if we keep the faith, and are the same as what we will all be doing, whether granted entrance to paradise or Hell.

In short, I’m encouraging that a lot of us consider attempting this. I’ve been attempting it for a while. Each of my family members has a sickness that causes us to need things most abundantly found in animal products. We pay such a severe price by abstaining, that we have been granted economia during fasts for some things. What is medicine cannot be forbidden but is prescribed. But we still resist – we still push back – we still fight it. So no, I’m not saying that I abstain from all animal products all the time and think everyone should follow my example. Would anyone listen if that’s what I was saying? We know that all sickness comes from Death, which comes from our sins. So we are constantly acknowledging that “I have caused this. It’s my fault. I brought this Death into the world and on myself. I am sick, because I have sinned.” This is the Orthodox way. We never think another person is sick for their sins – quite the contrary – we think another person is sick because of our own sins. So if you’re sick, I did that too. I brought all suffering and all dying to all things. I killed the universe. I am the genocidal maniac of the ages. Every time I sin. This is hard for those who haven’t thought through it, and listened to our Fathers, to swallow. It is nonetheless how we are taught to build our thinking. And so, when I have to inflict suffering and death on something, I know it is my sin that is the cause. For my sins, I eat meat. That makes some people uncomfortable – putting those words – sin and meat – in proximity. But that is why we say that eating meat is ‘permitted’. You understand, in that sense, it is much like marriage. Marriage is good, and likewise there’s an anathema against anyone who would speak against marriage, but it is ‘permitted’ you’ll recall, not ‘prescribed’ in the same way prayer is prescribed. In fact, that’s part of what’s wrong with “christian” groups that don’t have any monasticism, or have driven it into the marginalia – you go and it’s all broken up into singles groups, though they might call them something else. It’s a religious version of e-harmony out there – “Hi, welcome. The 30-somethings are meeting at 2pm. There will be wine and… wear something skimpy, but vaguely Christian.”

One of the biggest reasons I think this is more important now, that it’s important for Orthodox to consider being veegan, or vegetarian, or at least making a radical reduction in the animal products they consume, especially in my neck of the woods, where the habit is meat+starch(potatoes)+starch(bread)+starchy vegetables(green beans and corn)+starch(dessert)+2nd helping of meat (the first was already 3-4 times what most of the people in the ‘developed’ world consider necessary), is what the meat now is and where it comes from. Rest assured, the answer to those two questions is NOTHING like what they were in the first millenia of Orthodoxy. No, factory farming means your gallon of milk is full of pus from a short-lived cow that lives and dies in agony, your beef includes beef from downer and diseased cows mixed into giant vats owned by only 3-5 food conglomerates for all the ‘farms’ in the US. I could go into vast detail, but there’s no point – this information has long been widely available. It’s appalling what kind of garbage people shlepp out to their kids and families and put in their own guts, often getting religiously (and politically) ‘righteous’ about how somehow “god” is in favor of factory farming. Not the god I worship. Not at all. The god I am given to worship came to end suffering and corruption. And it’s far, far, far worse than what you see in some lightweight puff piece like “Food Inc.”. Even what happens to make dog food, even what you’re feeding Fido, if you’re buying Iams or some garbage, is so gruesome, hideous, and outright dangerous, that there’s really no excuse for equating it with slaughtering animals even 300 years ago. No, this is *not* what you see in the Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston. I wish it were.

Without going into all the details of the horror, abject torture inflicted on animals in factory farming, or the filth, disease, and corruption polluting the ordinary animal products at the grocer (and even a lot of the fake organics like Horizon products), I’ll say that of course we’re permitted to eat those things. But are we permitted to *do* those things? I don’t think so. And I think any “christianity” that can only focus on what’s under the cellophane, and doesn’t have a morality of where it comes from, is false religion. In short, if our ‘faith’ can’t stand the light of reality, it’s not the Faith of our Fathers in the first place. The Saints stood up against cruelty to animals. They stood up against polluted things. It is only popular now to obey the ongoing, comprehensive campaign by the food industry, to keep our perception of food completely separate from its origins, to keep our minds on the fake images on our butter boxes and grocery store posters of idyllic farms from centuries ago, peaceful cows standing in actual grass – it’s only through lies, and our participation in them, that we can dismiss the source of our food as a non-issue, and therefore a religiously suspect one. No, ignorance, dishonesty, pretense must not be the basis of faith. When someone says that “god ordains all leaders, so we should support all leaders” in some fundamentalist environment somewhere, that god is a fake god, a fabricated factory god when what it’s propping up is the tobacco industry, or the war engine embedded in the energy, munitions, and aerospace industries, or the kind of things you don’t know about for very intentional reasons in the food industry. Such a god is worthy of villification and ridicule. Such a god does not exist, except as the collective ideology of people who are likewise cogs in the very system they’re actually worshipping – and that’s what it is – worship of political, industrial, economic, and social structures that pretend to be god, but are actually idols built in the image of the masters to whom you and I are slaves. They are Pharoah’s gods. And we the Israelites are burning sacrifices on their altars, and are enthralled by the magic of their priests, and we are now one people with their people.

I’m working out this veegan, vegetarian thing. It’s sort of like Walmart. It’s been six months since I set foot in a Walmart. A lot of people are much farther along than I am. It was three months before that. I’m going for forever, of course. Is it a sin to shop at Walmart? Not in an absolute way. It might be. It might be a sin for you – it’s not possible for me to know what you know, what you’re trading for what, what your motives are, what delusions and pretences you’ve made for yourself. I only know the ones I have to overcome. In the same way, I don’t look down on you for eating animal products, though I do look down on a lot of what’s going onto that table, or from cardboard box to mouth without ever seeing a table. I’m appalled at things I’ve eaten, too. My plan is to keep learning to build sufficient protein into our diet (people in the US consume 300% of what people in Europe do in protein – so on the whole, our notions of what’s healthy are stupid – but my family has special protein needs, as yours may, so that’s an added challenge). I’ve learned a lot from the veegans. I’ve learned to make a lot of things that wow! – just taste far better than their carnivore equivalents – are healthier – and create a better, more sustainable physiological response. There’s a lot one can learn. And by leaving off of having animal products in every meal (if we’re Orthodox, we should be learning this stuff anyway – we fast from animal products half the year, so if we’re keeping the faith, we’re doing this for months at a time already), you end up freeing up funds for a couple of things – for the poor, which is part of what the Fathers teach we are fasting for – so that we can save money to give to the poor, so they can eat – make no mistake, *we* are their sustenance – that is why we are here, according to the Fathers – but there’s also the benefit that when eating, we can more readily afford to choose real food. Hamburger does’t cost $1.99/lb. That’s factory farmed garbage. Real meat, ethically and cleanly created, costs more than that. Eating less garbage, fake-food means you get to afford more real food.

Dumping instant products makes a huge turn in this, too. 90% of what you see in any supermarket isn’t food at all. All those packet meals, box meals, etc. They’re full of chemistry set ingredients I used to make stink bombs and flash powder from as a kid. More than half of them have some form of MSG in them, even if it’s called something else, and that’s the cocaine of food – it’s a neurological drug that makes you think something tastes good, even if it actually tastes like wood chips. It’s addictive, destructive, and it makes you stupid over time. Yep – eat it for life, and you’re a gump compared to most people who don’t. Take out all the fake food, all the aluminum-infused noodles, chlorine bathed meat, guts and chemical garbage, and wash that sticky pesticide surfactant (you have to use an oil cutter like dish soap) off the cucumbers and other vegetables, and you’re left with food that would fit quite comfortably in one of those corner lube oil stations. The rest was poison anyway. And wow, the money you save! It’s shocking. It really is.

I think the content of this post will be unpopular among Orthodox, for the same reasons advocating vegetarianism is unpopular among most people. Only the nutjobs mind if you personally are a vegetarian. You might get some wannabe Klansman upset that way, but not anyone with a brain. But the moment you begin suggesting a change of lifestyle, your popularity drops. I think the most powerful reason is this – faith is infested with religion. And religion is full of impulses, ideologies, politics, and various forms of bigotry and idolatry. I live in a part of the country that, with a lot of other parts of the country, consistently votes to bomb villages, torture people, deprive the poor, minimize education, abuse foreigners (whom Christ calls “strangers” and says are, like the poor, himself in disguise), and generally make mega-corporate illusions the predicate of public thought (because ‘capitalism’ is “god’s” will). Yep, some of you call those “red states” – which is fun for me, because it just rankles them to no end when you tell them there’s a ‘red scare’ and they are it. Anyway, it’s also interesting to look at the parallels of all those violent, angry tendencies with the eating habits that prevail. Tons and tons of meat. More meat at one sitting than a lot of us will eat in a day of feasting. It’s interesting, because one of the reasons we fast from animal products is that we say they incite the passions, and our goal is to overcome the passions, so that food will not possess us and drive us to sin. In other words, we link eating animal products directly to violence, anger, and the other passions that position people against other people, against God, and against all of creation. I find it compelling that the incredible volume of animal products consumed in these regions seems to correspond with the incredible antipathy these regions demonstrate for almost every living thing. And they’re often verrrrry religious about it, too, which is also interesting. They’re the first ones to get the pitchforks, sing hymns as the bombers fly off on another run, to chase off the strangers (just look at the recent draconian anti-immigration laws and where they are most prevalent), to deprive the poor and fund conglomerates. It’s amazing that this is going unnoticed, but I think it’s a demonstrable phenomenon, and I think it has significant religious implications that we’d be fools to ignore.

That last, in and of itself, is not a case for reducing meat intake. It’s an observation coupled with a speculation, offering possible support for an opinion. The best supporting evidence it could garner would be how vehement the reaction when someone suggests they significantly reduce their intake of animal products. Does it tick them off? Are they outraged? Do they want to see you ‘hanged’ in some way? If so, they really are lending some credence to this speculation. Maybe, actually, the best case for eating less animal products, or stopping altogether if we can, and for choosing only humanely created ones, is what the alternative does to us as a people, and perhaps as individuals. Personally, I’m not putting garbage in my family’s body, if I can help it. But on the other ethical and moral and religious considerations, I think there’s a really strong case for rethinking what has become, in some cases, a blanket chill upon the discussion of the role of food, especially killed and carcass food, and all animal food, in our salvation. If, as we Orthodox assert, all things are for our salvation – in other words, no area of life is separated from theosis, then it bears consideration – and I don’t mean pronouncement. Pronouncement is not for thinking – it’s for ending destruction – as often said, we make pronouncements only when absolutely necessary to stop heresy from spreading. I’m talking instead about going beyond pronouncement, without ignoring it, and thinking about how we might live in a world that has converted living creatures into machines and is largely indifferent to the results and religious implications in general and for each of us personally.

1 thought on “Vegetarianism and Orthodoxy”

  1. This is a very thorough description of your position, and I find it to be quite interesting. While I am not religious, I am vegan and have had much experience with Christians, having been raised as one. I find your arguments to be quite logical and very similar to ones I have used on the topic of vegetarianism/veganism within Christianity. It’s a very touchy subject, often convoluted by a lack of awareness or actual consideration of what is truly happening in the animal exploitation industries and the attitudes of those who operate them. Thanks for taking the time to write your perspective, I hope it guides some to start living more like it seems we were intended to.

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