In the current “Food” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, KtB regular (and, now, father!) Scott Korb has a provocative essay, combining his experience as a recovered self-righteous vegan with the syllabus of the food-writing course he teaches. He glues these together with theology—or mythology, at least, divested of the temptation to be perfect. The upshot: it’s okay to eat animals. And to like it.
What the ancient myth-makers behind Genesis understood better than we often do is that ours is not a perfect world. Nor, they believed, was such a perfect world possible without a divine intervention as cosmic and dramatic as God’s original creation. Utopias are the dreams of prophets, and prophets dream big of what God, in all His mystery and majesty, will do at the end of time, not what humanity, in all our meekness and fear and shame and pride, is merely capable of today. Following Genesis, Isaiah’s eighth-century-bc prophecy once again establishes a world without suffering. Only now we’re asked to look forward to a time where our implements of war will be turned into gardening tools—“they shall beat their swords into plowshares”—so we can grow more and more green plants to feed our vegetarian wolves and leopards, bears and lions, asps and adders. And of course, our long-lost vegetarian selves.
But we’re not there yet. And, honest to God, we’ll never get there again. Explaining our essential imperfection in this world is a part of religious storytelling that runs through Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham and Moses, and even the long-suffering Job. It’s also what stands behind the work of the Hebrew prophets, who were intent on reforming their own world by way of an endless, even hopeless, grasping for the Kingdom of God. And if it’s possible to strip away whatever religious dogmas that have adhered to our mythologies over the centuries and go right to the lessons of our great myths, discussions about our basic imperfection and essential imperfectability might go a long way in shaping a better kitchen.
Scott Korb fans like me will read this essay thinking of his 2005 reflection here at Killing the Buddha, “Reading Niebuhr Instead.” Well in advance of the Obama-era Reinhold Niebuhr craze, he was recommending the great Christian realist amidst the cowboy idealism of Bush administration policies. Just as Korb was once a vegan, Niebuhr had been a pacifist, but the incarnate evil of 20th-century totalitarianism convinced him that such utopianism was tantamount to standing by at Auschwitz.
Christian love, for Niebuhr, can call us to war; by similar reasoning, Korb tells us that concern for animals can coincide with eating them.
Maybe it’s apropos, though, to offer the utopians a rejoinder. Take this passage from A. J. Muste, Niebuhr’s pacifist ally-turned-nemesis, for instance. It concludes a 1948 open letter to Niebuhr against the latter’s “theology of despair”:
The Scriptures are not simply an extended commentary on the single text, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” We read in them the commandment, “Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and the promise, “Behold, I make all things new.” Even Paul declared, “I can do all things in him that strengtheneth me.” Pacifists verily need to be on guard both against the error of over-simplification and the sin of self-righteousness, but it does not follow that nonviolence as a political strategy and pacifism as a way of life are invalidated. For Christian leaders to reject them may be in truth to condemn the Church and our age to futility and doom.
In food and war, perhaps it’s enough to say for now: Do your best.
Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.