International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
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6th European Vegetarian Congress
Bussolengo, Italy, September 21 - 26, 1997

Ethics, Christianity and Vegetarianism
Luciano Valle

Director of the Gregory Bateson Institute

My aim here is look at the subject of ethics, Christianity and vegetarianism from an Ecosophical point of view. At the end of the twentieth century, Ecosophy is the cultural movement carrying us towards what the Norwegian philosopher who founded Ecosophy calls "familiarisation with all surrounding elements". My contribution, then, will be a philosophical conversation inspired by Ecosophy, including some thinking points from Christianity re-examined in a critical light. Christianity has been accused (by Schopenhauer and Nietzsche for example) of anthropocentrism, colonization of nature, also of being the chief culprit for man's attitude of dominion and destruction towards nature, and consequently all life forms including animals.

Let us consider what has been happening around the world in the last 20 years.

Although historically Christianity can be accused of such negative effects, we can see that a change is taking place if we take a close look at the debates and theo-philosophical reflections of the last 20 years. We have to be able to read and interpret the signs of a "Copernican revolution" within the theo-philosophical concepts of church teaching as a whole and not just Catholicism.

I am referring here to Moltmann in Germany, Panikkar in Italy and Spain, and John Paul II's encyclicals and speeches. After 2,000 years of non-recognition, except by St Francis and a few others, the Pope recognised the dignity of animals in his 1990 speech "Peace With Creation And The Creator" in which he says that, "Animals too have a soul."

We have now got to the point of apologizing for our anthropocentric dominion over animals (Parliament of Religions, New Delhi, 1992), and we are opening up to a relationship of fraternity towards the world around us, including animals.

This is very important because it means that the moment has arrived for us to completely reassess the fundamentals of the whole Western philosophical and ideological structure of the last 2,000 years.

St. Jerome, a vegetarian and very significant figure in the first four centuries of the Catholic Church, said that the early Church's lack of understanding of the true Christ figure - Jerome believed Christ could only have been a vegetarian - comes from a closing of hearts (Letter to Jovian), which in turn comes from a crisis in fundamental beliefs, "wisdoms".

Today, then, we are facing such a reassessment, and are in a much better position than the Jewish culture of those times to understand subjects such as word being made flesh, the role of the economy of Creation, the role of the testimony of God made man, and the role of the ethics left by this testimony. I'm convinced we are witnessing an extraordinary event, since we can now reach a much deeper level of understanding than was possible in the then prevailing culture, which was a stoic and therefore anthropocentric one.

As we reassess these major areas we rediscover the concept of world. In the theology of Jewish Creation post-Moses and so of the Second Pact (Solomon 144, Hosea, Isaiah) it is clear that man is not the lord and master of nature, but a mere guest in a world in which he must live in a fraternal spirit in a new pact of alliance. In this context the world is "oikos", a Greek term which in its most metaphorical sense means "home", not a physical house but a place of atmosphere, history and spiritual wealth to live in: a world held together by God's wisdom and love. Christians have forgotten all this, and this is perhaps the biggest gap of the modern era: the unsuccessful analysis of this Christological role and the role of the pneumatological Holy Spirit. Christians have forgotten that the world is part of the love dynamic of Creation, and that according to the Trinitarian view the world is the expression of the dialectical relationship of the communication of love and wisdom between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The world, therefore, in all its life forms, of which vegetable, animal and human are the most striking and recognisable, is the expression of an act of love. ("…By Him were all things created." Council of Nicaea.) The Creatio Originalis of Genesis is regarded by Christians as the first creation which sees the coming together of the Trinity, a creation of relationships, dialectic.

Moreover, from a theological point of view the Incarnation brings God still closer to the world: the world as God's creature and the Incarnation as a closer relationship, closer solidarity between God and man, and also between God and the fibres of matter (atoms, molecules, from the most basic life forms to the highest). Throughout the Middle Ages Franciscans believed that the Incarnation was part of the Divine Plan, God's Word operating in the organisation and order of the world. The Resurrection also should be seen in this light: the whole world participates in the glory of creation and re-creation. That is why we talk today about a new creation linked to the Christ event. The Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection introduce a new stage in the relationship between God and the world, a stage dominated by "pneuma". As we assess anthropology and the constitution of man, and questions such as, "Who are we?" and, "What is our role in the world?" pneuma has supremacy: it means a man who is no longer carnal, but open to a listening relationship, connected with all that surrounds him. The life of Christ Himself is nowadays being seen in this new light. The signs and symbols we see in it are not there by chance, but are precise choices of civilisation, typical of the Essenes' world, which was one factor conditioning the Christian message as it came into being, the other factor being stoicism. God reveals Himself to the little ones, in little things unnoticed by adults: this is the great subversion of ethics to which we are called.

Let us consider, for example, the Last Supper, which takes place in a strictly vegetarian setting - the room belongs to the Essenes, a Jewish vegetarian sect, the meal consisting of bread and wine). We are taught that our relationship with the sacred can go beyond the sacrifice known to Mediterranean cultures. With this supper, Jesus prepares the way out from the violence of the world. René Gérard, the great French anthropologist, in his writings on violence and the sacred, maintains, "It was necessary for God made man to take upon Himself the violence of the world so that from that moment violence should leave the world," In other words the sacrifice of the innocent lamb in order that no more lambs should suffer. All this was made necessary by the arrogance of the human race, anthropocentrism, man having understood "made in God's image" not in a pneumatological or agapic sense, not in the sense of the spirit of love, but in the sense of possession. At the beginning of the modern era, the catholic Descartes would take this idea further. Modern humanism would declare man owner and master of nature. This is the responsibility of historical Christianity.

I now move on to the second part of my reflections. Ecosophical thought can meet Christian testimony. How? The starting point for ecosophical reflection is the need for a knowledge revolution, a new epistemology. Barbara MacClinton, Nobel prizewinner for corn genetics, regards young corn plants as "alive", capable of joy and suffering. She invites us to see things with a different attitude. St Francis had a great ability to look into things with childish wonder, what Nietzche called "morning philosophy". This is a valid approach to the field of knowledge, and not just ethics: it is a way of dealing with reality on a knowledge level. It is Pascal's "reason as heart", reason in which elements of intuition (Einstein) and empathy have a primary role. This represents a revolution in the field of ontology, the way we see what is. We must understand that all that surrounds us has dignity, both animals and things (Rilke), we must open up to the mystery of the things around us and to the complexity of modes of expression of what surrounds us. We cannot limit ourselves to loving animals only in a paternalistic, anthropocentric way, but must recognise the dignity of their being, the wealth of their language which we do not understand. The sense of the message, given also by Jesus, is that of man dissolving in relationships, even with the "little creatures", opening up to listen to the language of the world, and becoming a bearer of a message of spirituality and love for the complexity of the world.

- translations by Hugh Rees, Milan - commissioned by Associazione Vegetariana Italiana (AVI)