Saturday, August 13, 2005

Sleepless Vegetarians

One of the pitfalls in studying the early church is the "denominational diversion," that is the attempt to wrest every issue into a "why 'we' are right and 'they' are wrong" polemic. While this is a necessary part of church history, which must include evaluation of true apostolicity and the legitimacy of the trends that develop or depart from that, it can distort the issues and lead us to focus only on issues that separate denominations today. Meanwhile, facets in the early church that are irrelevant from all of today’s Christians tend to get neglected.

As an interesting example, there is the strong current of vegetarianism in the early church. This trend was there from the beginning, when Daniel and the youths refused the meats and wine of the pagan king. To many their healthy appearance after a week of vegetarianism (Dan. 1:12-16) was a display not only of the blessings of obedience, but also of the dietetic benefits of a teetotaling vegetarian diet. The same beliefs continued in the New Testament, as Paul writes:

Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.

As is often pointed out, since meat in the markets was involved with pagan sacrifices, it was hard for Christians to find "legal" meat. But for many, including many completely orthodox early Christians, vegetarianism, along with teetotaling and abstention from sex formed a constellation of expected discipline. As a result the idea that eating red meat is un-Christian flourished into the era of the Christian emperors. You see this in Prudentius, the Spanish Christian poet born in AD 348. In his poem on the "Daily Round" he describes all the foods given by God: birds ensnared in cunning traps, fish caught in nets and on rods, the rich crop in grains,the vine, the olive, milk, honey, and the fruits of the orchard. But he cautions his reader:

All this abundance is in the service of Christ’s followers and supplies their every need. Far from us be the appetite that would chose to slay cattle and hack their flesh to make a bloody feast. Let tribes uncivilized have their savage meals from the slaughter of four-footed beasts: as for us, the leaves of greens, the pod that swells with beans of diverse sorts, will feed us with an innocent banquet. (vol. I, p. 22-23)

One may well wonder, what happened to this theme that red meat is dubious for a Christian? Well it appears to have disappeared when the "tribes uncivilized" became the ruling classes all over Europe, even in his native Spain. Not only was meat the essential food group for Germanic, Slavic, and Central Asian peoples (as a token of which "meat" in the King James Version today means just "food"), but cutting the meat and supplying pieces to the guests in proper order of precedence had a deep significance in politics and etiquette among them all. (The importance we place on the carving of the turkey on Thanksgiving is an remnant of this archaic custom.) This aspect of Mediterranean Christian practice thus fell by the wayside, with only abstentions of Lent and Friday remaining of what was once a common (although certainly not universal) belief that red meat was always bad.

And what about sleep? Prudentius again speaks of sleep as a likeness of death and an overcoming by sin:

It is late to spurn the couch after the shining sun is up, unless by adding a part of the night thou hast given more hours to toil. The loud chirping of the birds perched under the very roof, a little while before the light breaks forth, is a symbol of our Judge. As we lied closed in by foul darkness, buried under the blankets of sloth, He bids us leave repose behind for day is on the point of coming; that when dawn besprinkles the sky with her shimmering breath she may make us all, who were spent with toil, strong to embrace the hope of light. This sleep that is given us for a time is an image of everlasting death. Our sins, like foul night, make us lie snoring; but the voice of Christ from the height of heaven teaches and forewarns us that daylight is near, lest our soul be in bondage to slumber, and to the very end of a slothful life sleep lie heavy on a heart that is buried in sin and has forgotten its natural light. They say that evil spirits which roam happily in the darkness of night are terrified when the cock crows, and scatter and flee in fear; for the hated approach of light, salvation, Godhead, bust through the foul darkness and routs the ministers of night. (vol. I, pp. 7-9)

Read in this light suddenly we see more meaning in the disciples’ sleeping in the Transfiguration and in the Garden of Gethsemene, and Paul’s contrast of sleeping and waking and light and darkness:

And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.


For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light . . . And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret. But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever doth make manifest is light. Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.

While physical preparation for Easter is now focused on fasting, in the ante-Nicene church it was primarily a vigil, a repression of the sloth and dissipation of slumber (cf. Acts 20:7-12). Now Edison did his part to remove from us this horror of darkness, but that sleeping is like death and an overcoming by sin; where did that go? I have no idea, but since it is something that because both Catholics and Protestants today share it is little remarked on.

So we will continue to read church history for clues as to who's right and who's wrong, but one learns even more, by also keeping one's eye open to how different the ideas and concerns of Christians, especially not famous-theologian Christians like Prudentius, were from ours today. They are not always right and we're not always wrong, but as C.S. Lewis said, their errors are unlikely to harm us, being obvious, but their virtues will be unexpected to us.

Originally posted at Here We Stand

UPDATE: An old post about Jerome I now recall touched on the same issue, where he praises Hindu vegetarianism: What the Brahmans in India and the Gymnosophists in Egypt observe on their diet of only porridge, rice, and fruit, why should not Christ’s virgin do altogether? Jerome's rejection of bourgeois family life and advocacy of "tune in [to Christ's call for asceticism], turn on, and drop out [into a monastery]" only add to the "early Christians had a good long streak of hippie-ism in them" conclusion.

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