Eating as Partnering with God’s Dream for the World
By Brian Claude Macallan
Eating with God allows us to participate in God’s dream for the world!
At the beginning of 2020, our family found ourselves in Washington D.C. just before the outbreak of COVID-19. We had been on holiday on the east coast and were heading back to Melbourne, Australia. Walking around the capitol grounds we stumbled into a climate change protest led by Jane Fonda and Martin Sheen, each of who were arrested for civil disobedience. One speaker was the actor Joaquin Phoenix. He spoke for a short time but attempted to make the case that a vegetarian diet was central in the fight against climate change. He argued that the meat industry was one of the major contributors driving climate change. Joaquin has decided to make the change in his own life to embrace a vegetarian diet to address climate change. I remember telling my kids, “You see, I’m not a nutter for being a vegetarian, look at Joaquin Phoenix!”
My journey towards a vegetarian diet started seven years ago and was the result of the experience of being diagnosed with colon cancer. My surgeon, along with research from the World Health Organization, had raised issues concerning the relationship between meat consumption and health. The initial desire to embrace a vegetarian diet was an attempt to give me the best shot of avoiding a potential recurrence of my cancer. Later, like Joaquin Phoenix, embracing a vegetarian diet became important for me to address climate change too. Only later, through the work of the philosopher Daniel Dombrowski, did the ethics of killing animals appear on my radar for consideration. Daniel challenged me by asking whether there is a need to kill animals in our current context. If not, then how do we justify the pain we cause to our fellow sentient creatures?
I believe that thinking about what we eat is a way that we can participate in God’s dream for the world. It is a way we can partner with God in creating and forming a more just, kind, and beautiful world. Thinking differently about our food consumption—through a specific framework and grid that I will introduce shortly—will allow us to embody our theological ethics in partnership with God in creative and transformative ways.
This combination of embracing a vegetarian diet to address climate change, while looking after my health and paying attention to the suffering of the animal world, led me to develop an acronym called SHE (Sustainability, Health, and Ethics). I now ask myself when I think about what I eat as to whether it is sustainable for the planet, good for my health, and whether animals suffer in the process. So what does this mean in practice? I believe that eating a beef steak is simply not sustainable for our planet and contributes significantly to climate change (in the unsustainable use of farmland and refrigeration transport). From a health perspective, it has also been shown to have strong carcinogenic properties—amongst other health complications. Ethically, most cows are bred and slaughtered in terrible circumstances. Cows have an emotional life. Is it right that they experience physical and emotional pain just for me to eat them? Clearly, my beef steak doesn’t pass the SHE-grid test! What about eggs? Free-range organic eggs can be farmed sustainably but will cost more money. They are generally good for your health (vegans’ debate this), as well as not causing the chickens significant stress (the organic and free-range component being crucial in this consideration). Now, you may disagree with my assessment around beef steaks and eggs, but the grid at least offers us an informed way to think about what we eat and its sustainability, health, and ethical dimensions. There is something further that it offers too though. . .
When I was a young Christian, I remember reading my first book on environmental stewardship. It was entitled Small Turnings by Lionel Basney. It encouraged Christians to make minor adjustments in their lives in order to make a difference in the world, arguing that these small, accumulated adjustments can cause significant societal change. I had come from a fundamentalist background, where thinking about the environment seemed strange, if not a general waste of time. That I needed to care about the environment becauseGod cares, and further that I might make a difference, took time to fully work itself out in my faith. The late New Testament scholar, Marcus Borg, in his book The God We Never Knew, first raised the idea for me that God has a dream for the World. As I’ve wrestled with the idea of an open and relational God over the last few years, I’ve found the idea of God having a “dream” for the world a helpful way to think about God’s desire for a better world. It extends Martin Luther King Jr.’s idea of a Beloved Community to not only human beings, but to the environment, and to the ecological community that we are a part of too. The question I ask myself continually is, “How can I participate with God in God’s dream for the world?” An open and relational God is in a dynamic and mutual partnership with the earth. God is intimately connected to trees, animals, and human beings. We, as human beings, are connected and related to God, the trees, and the animals. Being interconnected, and open, means we can actually make a real difference both to God and to the world. In this sense, as human beings, we can partner with God’s dream for the world. A more just, kinder, and beautiful world.
Adopting the SHE-grid is, I believe, one way that we can partner with God to address the real challenges we face ecologically today. It is an embodied ethic, literally, as it affects what we choose to eat and put into our bodies! I believe God desires a more sustainable world, one where we do not pollute the environment and destroy the planet we inhabit. I believe God wants us to be as healthy as we can, because being healthy not only makes us feel good, but allows us to participate in God’s dream for longer—and in better shape! I believe God cares about the animal kingdom and the suffering of other creatures. Therefore, we too can join with God by embodying an ethic concerning our food consumption that participates with God in transforming our bodies and the planet. A SHE-grid is just one way to do this.
Question: What are the implications of changing what we eat for participating in God’s dream for the world?
Brian Macallan is Senior Lecturer in Theology at the University of Divinity, Stirling Theological College in Melbourne, Australia. Brian has written many articles at the intersection of Practical and Process theology, with a particular interest in the work of the French philosopher Henri Bergson. Originally from South Africa, Brian now lives in the Dandenong Ranges in Melbourne.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.