How did this get on my plate?
I had a feeling that a lecture entitled ‘Consuming Animal Creatures: The Ethics of Eating Animals’ was potentially going to challenge my omnivorous habits. As I mentioned in my previous post, theology should include the lived experience—recognizing that we are embodied creatures—and as embodied creatures, we will recognize that bodies are not unique to humans.
My current work is on the image of God and an argument I am finding quite compelling is that a primary consequence of being in God’s image includes Creator-honoring stewardship of the physical world. There is strong lexical support that Genesis 1:26 should even be translated, “And God said, ‘Let us make humanity in our image, according to our likeness, so that they may have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” This notion of dominion is not a subjugation of non-human life to the whim of human beings. This sort of dominion is one which recognizes the shared creatureliness of all that is not-God. Such an understanding of the human’s teleological vocation does not demonize or prohibit meat consumption, but it does contextualize it in such a way so that we should ask “how is this getting to my table?”
Returning to the lecture, Professor Clough exposed the ways in which creatures are not being cared for in this way due to the mass commercialization of meat production. With deplorable conditions, genetic engineering which maximizes weight gain at accelerated speeds, and complete inattention to the animal’s experience of pain, these industries are denying this human vocation and purpose.
At the same time, when we dominate the created world in this exploitative way, we also end up hurting ourselves. Just as patriarchy also hurts men, exploitation of some creatures hurts all creatures. For instance, Clough explained that “we currently devote 78 per cent of all agricultural land to raising farmed animals, and feed more than one third of global cereal output to those animals.” On a global scale, the amount of land that is used for meat production could be used, instead, for crop production—providing healthier food to greater populations of people.
However, it’s hard to think on a “global scale” without feeling completely useless to affect any kind of change. Here I also appreciated Clough’s point that the “perfect is often the enemy of the better.” The fact of the matter is that if I tried to be a perfectly ethical consumer overnight, I would be both hungry and naked by morning. The systems of exploitation which we have enabled, even unwittingly, will take time to change and our own personal habits will take time to change as well. That’s why, upon leaving the lecture hall, I began to inquire about ethically farmed animals—farms which are concerned about animal flourishing. We have a local larder doing just this kind of thing (Balgove Larder).
So, while this lecture did challenge me, it didn’t require that I stop eating meat altogether (my inner-carnivore was relieved at this)—instead, it challenged me to a greater extent—to ask the questions “How did this get to my plate?” “How can I be a better steward of the created world?” “How should being in the image of God compel a certain ethic?” These questions are not about being politically correct, but being teleologically correct, as they include the vocation of care for all creatures, human and non-human alike.
(Views expressed in this post are my own and do not represent those of St Mary’s College.)
 Genesis 1:26 with interpretation by W Sibley Towner, “Clones of God: Genesis 1:26-28 and the Image of God in the Hebrew Bible,” Interpretation 59, no. 4 (October 2005): 341–56.