Eating Fish in a Resurrected Body: A Problem for Christian Vegetarianism?

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Jan Brueghel’s Earth, 1621, Wikimedia Commons

When I was studying for my undergraduate in theology, one of my lecturers suggested that the story of the resurrected Jesus eating fish with the disciples was a problem for Christian arguments for vegetarianism/veganism. The basic logic is that Jesus’ body is a new creation and one on which ours will be based when we are made new (a theme throughout the NT, but for some snippets, see Rom 8:29; 1 Cor 15:49; Phil 3:21; 1 Jn 3:2). But if Jesus as a new creation participates in eating fish, then the claim of some theologians, that eating meat* is part of the old creation and will be done away with in the new, runs into a significant problem. (*I am using meat here in the broad sense of sentience, so it includes fish):

He said to them, “Why are you startled? Why are doubts arising in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet. It’s really me! Touch me and see, for a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones like you see I have.” As he said this, he showed them his hands and feet. Because they were wondering and questioning in the midst of their happiness, he said to them, “Do you have anything to eat?” They gave him a piece of baked fish. Taking it, he ate it in front of them. (Luke 24:38-43 CEB).

In the following I will assume Luke’s account to be accurate. A quick Google search suggests that whether or not Jesus actually ate the fish, whether on the basis of the non-historicity of the the post-resurrection accounts or on the potentially symbolic meaning of this account, is a point of contention for some people. For me, whether or not Luke gets all the details right, and whether or not the resurrected Jesus actually ate fish, is moot, as I have no problem accepting either as possibilities.

There are, however, a number of things to be taken into consideration. The first is that Jesus in his earthly body eating fish should pose no problem for those who advocate vegetarianism or veganism on the basis of Scripture. Without having eaten meat in its history, it is unlikely that humanity would be here today. Good, some will say, which is fine, but then you have the problem of other dominant species eating meat in the history of evolution. All such killings can be lamented, I think, but they cannot be straightforwardly understood in terms of right and wrong, especially terms that have developed relatively recently in human history. Jesus, then, in becoming human, participates in the real history of human beings, such as the fisherman with whom he spent considerable during his ministry. Some might claim that there are plenty aspects of Jesus’ historical context that he opposed and was in conflict with. “We don’t have a high priest who can’t sympathize with our weaknesses but instead one who was tempted in every way that we are, except without sin” (Heb 4:15). Indeed, texts such as Gen 9:1-3, which implies that Edenic humanity was vegetarian or vegan, and Isaiah 11:6-8, which looks to an Edenic future in which the animals no longer eat each other either, both suggest that vegetarianism/veganism, if not a concrete reality, could at least be imagined by some ancient Israelites. Nonetheless, our best testimonies are the gospels and, as far as I can tell, they suggest that the historical Jesus had no problems at least with eating fish (e.g., Mark 6:41; 8:7; Matt 7:10; 13:47-48; 17:27; Luke 5:1-10; John 21:1-13).

If the earthly Jesus had no problems eating fish, why would the resurrected Jesus have problems? It might be claimed that Jesus, in rising from the dead, also gained a new perspective on the world. Indeed, the earthly Jesus “matured in wisdom and years” (Luke 2:52), he didn’t know who touched his robe (Mark 5:30), and he didn’t know the time or hour of his coming in glory (Mark 13:32; though, on these, contrast the christology of the Fourth Gospel). On top of this, there is the theological consideration that God’s complete knowledge cannot exist in any real, let alone safe (!), way within an earthly human being if that human being really is to be a human being. One possibility is that whatever limitations of knowledge that Jesus experienced in his earthly body were overcome in his resurrection (limitations only insofar as the divine Son voluntarily became human and submitted himself to them; these were certainly sometimes circumvented by special knowledge through the Holy Spirit, and as already mentioned a completely different perspective is given by John). All of this is to say, however, that if any kind of changes in knowledge took place for Jesus in his resurrection, there is no reason to think that these related also to a sudden knowledge that eating fish was suddenly evil. If that were the case then Jesus had sinned in his earthly body. But the resurrected Jesus can still take part in eating meat because the whole of creation has not yet become new. He has become new but he still also participates in creation that is still in need of redemption. Moreover, not all things that belong to the old creation are bad. Marriage, for example, is good (1 Cor 7:28; 1 Tim 4:3-4), yet “when people rise from the dead, they won’t marry nor will they be given in marriage. Instead, they will be like God’s angels” (Mark 12:25). We can perhaps say the same for eating meat. It is a non-sinful feature of the old creation that will be completely done away with in the new.

I have not here provided a basis for Christian vegetarianism or veganism. My goal has only been to show how the resurrected Jesus eating meat might be compatible with the claim that we will not do so in the new creation. What does this mean for our practice in the present? It means neither a legalism that condemns those who eat meat or animal products, nor an indifference that sees vegetarianism as a merely eschatological reality with no connection to present practice. As it is becoming increasingly possible to live on a healthy, affordable, and enjoyable vegetarian or vegan diet, as well as being something that the world needs to consider in light of climate change, it is certainly something that churches and individual Christians might consider participating in and having open, honest discussions about. Of course, meat and animal products can be culturally significant, and people might lack education for cooking, finances for buying, or just, in general, access to viable alternatives, among many other things. And this is why we are also reminded that Jesus, too, participated in this history of eating meat.

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Moltmann, Bonhoeffer, and “Violence in Exceptional Situations”

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Pixabay

I’m currently reading through Moltmann’s The Politics of Discipleship and Discipleship in Politics (Cascade, 2006). Moltmann’s essays in this volume were originally available in English in Following Jesus Christ in the World Today (now open access), and republished in On Human Dignity: Political Theology and Ethics. Here they are paired with response essays from various Mennonite scholars, a newer response-to-the-responses from Moltmann, and Moltmann’s later essay, “Peacemaking and Dragonslaying in Christianity.” I remember reading Moltmann elsewhere (though I’m not quite sure where, probably pre-CG) on exceptions to pacifism. He then stated that something along the lines of how pacifist Christians shouldn’t be paternalistic in speaking to Christians in other situations who use violence to achieve their ends. A similar idea comes through in his response-to-the-responses (first published 1984 I think). This issue has likely been treated in greater detail elsewhere by other thinkers, though I’m sharing this here as I appreciate Moltmann’s uncertainty here and the side of him that it reveals:

Tom Finger returned with another question, … which really embarrasses me. It is the question of violence in exceptional situations. My answer reveals my personal dilemma. In 1943 at age 17 I was inducted into the German army. I watched the destruction of my home city Hamburg in the “fire storm” in July, 1943, in which more than 70,000 people died. I survived only as by a miracle. In 1945 I was fortunately taken prisoner by the English. In 1948 I returned to Germany. My generation was pitchforked into the war after the war was lost; we were to die because Hitler wanted to live a little longer and to make Auschwitz possible. When I returned, I swore two things to myself: (1) Never again war and never again service in a war and (2) if I should ever have the opportunity to eliminate a tyrant and mass murderer like Hitler, I would do it. In this line, I have participated in the peace movements against the arming of West Germany and against nuclear armament and against the stationing of Pershing 2 in West Germany.

But I have always simultaneously admired Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who took part in the active resistance to Hitler and who gave his life in that cause. I also have great understanding for the Christians in Nicaragua, who have joined the Sadinista Liberation Front, in order to end the crimes of the dictator Somoza. I know both of these decisions in a sense contradict a pure ethic of nonviolence. But I would ask my Mennonite friends to comprehend my dilemma from the bitter experiences of my life. I do not represent the “just war” teaching. I also do not advocate a justification of the murder of tyrants. But I know that there are situations in life in which one must resist and become guilty, in order to save human lives. Perhaps Bonhoeffer was right when he spoke of a conscious assumption of guilt in such cases. My generation in Germany became guilty because we did nothing to hinder the mass murder of the Jews. “Auschwitz” remains our mark of Cain.

PDDP 129-30, paragraph split for ease of reading

Kierkegaard on the Cartesian Approach to Missing the Point

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Today I have been searching the works of the Danish Christian philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard for statements on the eternal present, something with which Moltmann takes issue. On quite a different note, I was reading the introduction to the Hong and Hong edition of The Concept of Anxiety when I found this killer insight:

Kierkegaard criticized the Cartesian principle of methodical doubt because it mistakenly gives more weight to reflection (thought) than it does to act (will).

“What skeptics should really be caught in is the ethical. Since Descartes they have all thought that during the period in which they doubted they dared not to express anything definite with regard to knowledge, but on the other hand they dared to act, because in this respect they could be satisfied with probability. What an enormous contradiction! As if it were not far more dreadful to do something about which one is doubtful (thereby incurring responsibility) than to make a statement. Or was it because the ethical is in itself certain? But then there was something which doubt could not reach!”

p.ix, citing Journals and Papers, I, 774.

In my “awakening” to philosophy and theology I went through a Kierkegaardian phase. Apparently this is quite common! He helped me to see the multivalency of symbols and was generally the beginning of my realisation of the ideological nature of truth claims (with some later help from Nietzsche). I began to depart from Kierkegaard when I thought that his philosophy was too individualist and spiritualist, overlooking the community and the concrete. You can empathise with me then when I found that Kierkegaard is a lot closer to Marx here than I had thought: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Unfortunately I doubt that Kierkegaard’s interest in ethics much resembles that of Marx. Correct me if I’m wrong?