I often say that I hope to be a vegetarian by the time that I’m 30. That doesn’t leave me much time to get around to making that kind of commitment, but I feel the draw for various reasons, not the least of which has to do with the origins of religious experience as I explain it to my senior religion class. I begin the section that I title “God and Religion” with the movie “Into the Wild,” my favorite movie of a couple of years ago and a top five favorite of mine all time. There is a poignant scene in the movie, pictured above, in which Christopher McCandless kills a moose. He moves as quickly as he can to smoke the meat, but he is too late. The flies lay their eggs in it and maggots get into the meat. He writes in his notebook in a moment of agony that this is the saddest moment of his life.
I show this because as far as we can tell, some of the earliest religious experiences were closely linked to the experience of the hunt. The earliest cave drawings in southern France that date back 30,000 years ago revolve around the sacred experience of hunting for food, of killing in order to survive. There seems to have been a profound sense of tragedy associated with having to kill something in order to survive for oneself. In other words, possibly one of the origins of the religious sense in human beings had to do with the experience of evil and lack in the world. We have to kill to survive, but that is not how things are meant to be.
What I find particularly interesting about this is that the story we read on the walls of the caves in southern France is the same story we read in the Bible. The Eden myth makes it very clear that in the original “sacred place” where God and man were closely united there was no death. This is the plan of God, the ideal in the future, that there be no death. Humans in the story eat vegetation only. It is only after the Fall that meat is allowed. What I find telling about this myth is its similarities with ancient cave drawings. Religion, sorrow, and a sense of the sacred seem to arise contemporaneously. Ancient hunters would weep before a kill, and apologize to the animal. They understood the trade off that was taking place: your life for mine. Your sacredness for my sacredness: a necessary evil. Yet there must be a world in which this will not be the case. This is the world that Eden idealizes in the future.
I have my students notice that with each new covenant in the Bible, there are both advances and concessions to human sinfulness. In Genesis 9 after the flood, when God makes a new covenant with Noah, certain commands are repeated such as “be fruitful and multiply” and the observation that men and women are made in God’s image. But there are also concessions. Man can now take life as punishment and also kill animals to eat. Notice how they go together. What is envisioned by Eden – a lack of death – is lost by sin. There is a concession to sin. And we continue to live in a world of concessions.
But as a Jesuit, whose primary mission is to realize the eschaton in some way, to begin to inaugurate the eternal banquet by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as signs of the kingdom, shouldn’t I also live the ideal that Eden espouses? Shouldn’t I reject the concessions to sin and try to relive the earliest religious sense that eating meat is a necessary side-effect of sin? Maybe the way of the commandments does not prohibit it, but the way of perfection does.
At the least, I have grown in an appreciation for the role that animals played in helping primitive man discover the presence of a God in the world. What a profound link seems to have existed! And I think of one of my own “initiation” moments when I took our first dog out, Sheila, to put her to sleep, since I didn’t want my dad to do it. He was the closest to her and her “master.” So I took the front-end loader out, dug a hole, and put the .22 to Sheila’s ear…and then cried like a baby. Maybe this is the real reason we say grace before meals: to recognize before I eat some more turkey that this exact experience by my ancestors has given to me the awareness of a God in our world.