Being vegetarian is one distinctive characteristic of Adventism, even though the way of interpreting it may deeply vary – from a country like Norway to a country like Argentina. This diversity ranges from ascetic forms of veganism, realistic strategies of occasional meat-eating to various idealistic and romantic modalities of circumstantial or regional vegetarianism. But, compared to this worldwide Adventist individual diversity, institutional Adventism appears instead as homogeneously and massively vegetarian. Except for Czech Adventism. At the SDA Sazava Seminary, near Prague, where students study to become SDA pastors, they have decided to serve meat at the Adventist cafeteria – with the option to have vegetarian food as a reasonable alternative. It was not to accommodate non-Adventists (as could be the case in some Adventist hospitals) but basically for Adventists themselves. This could appear inappropriate, even blasphemous to an engaged, end-time Adventism. But actually it’s not. It’s rather the fruit of an historical and cultural wisdom typical of some European Adventist communities. In fact, even though the SDA Czecho-Slovakian Union Conference totals less than 10,000 Adventists, and the Czech Republic itself is sometimes considered part of Europe’s periphery, Czech Adventism helps us think about Adventism at large in a different way. It pushes us to change the perspective from “Adventism” to “Adventists”, from “ideology” to “persons”.
The temptation to arbitrarily reduce “Adventism” to “Adventists” is always real but still minor, particularly these days. The greater temptation is to think of Adventism as above, and even contra, Adventists themselves. At Sazava they have done a simple thing. They have decided to include people’s feelings, opinions and requests in what Adventism should be. We must not give up ideals, but even less ought we to give up the students themselves. A religion, a doctrine, a principle is always more perfect than real people. But also poorer. Real persons, groups or communities shouldn’t always be judged by ideals or values, rather the other way round. The validity of principles and values is such only if they survive among real people. And if they do, necessarily, they are transformed. Willing persons are transformed by good ideals. But serious principles are also transformed by being in touch with people. Doctrines and principles can be difficult or complicated but by nature are still straightforward. Only persons are complex and existentially opaque to pure rationality. This is what Czech Adventism teaches us about vegetarianism. And, in a larger dimension, this is also what Czech essayist and thinker, Milan Kundera teaches us about European culture in general. In his book “The Art of the Novel” he reminds us that Europeans have a double paternity. They are children of Descartes’ rationality but also of Cervantes’ “Don Quixote”. In Descartes’ rationality, as in any other, lay or religious, there prevails the “reductio ad unum” (reduction to one) strategy in the form of obsession with synthesis, coherence, clarity or understandability. While, in the Cervantes novel (and “Don Quixote” is the first “modern” novel), according to Kundera, we have the co-existing tension of hardcore and inerasable multiple events and plots at whose center are found specific, unrepeatable and unique persons and characters that resist a final synthesis. And there is a narrow parallelism, in this perspective, between Cervantes’ character Don Quixote (and the novel in general), and the Bible’s pluralistic, heterogeneous and polycentric narratives and poetry.
But what is vegetarianism in Adventism? It is a lifestyle choice to preserve health in our own bodies. A choice mainly understood ethically or soteriologically. In other words we mainly chose to be vegetarians for medical reasons, or to please God, or both. This classical dilemma is too theologically impregnated. Let’s enlarge this perspective by describing the cultural conditions and potentialities of Adventist vegetarianism from three different perspectives.
First, vegetarianism in Adventism undoubtedly takes an idiosyncratic anthropocentric form. We renounce eating meat not by compassion for animals or for ecologic reasons but rather because we want to live longer. The center of interest and reasoning here are humans and their personal, medical or religious benefit. Consequently this is also a typically voluntaristic vegetarianism, based in the strength and nobility of self-control and self-determination in preserving and managing our health. This ethical vegetarianism, strictly speaking, is not holistic. It considers only the human aspects and not the ecological implications on the cosmos. Adventism still remains entrapped in this anthropocentric reductive perspective almost totally today, in practice and scientific research. This is the case with the noble initiatives of researchers such as Joan Sabaté, Gary Fraser and, in general, all that is done at Loma Linda University.
Second, more individually, a few Adventists have started to question, here and there, the absolute and exhaustive validity of this traditional anthropocentric approach. They introduce in our vegetarianism some new environmental concerns and considerations. Some of them try to maintain both. But in practice the introduction of animalist considerations necessarily implies a downsizing of the typical anthropocentrism of traditional Adventist vegetarianism. This is not bad at all. On the contrary it represents an improvement and particularly a cultural bridge to non-Adventist vegetarians who, for instance in Italy, actually represent more than the 10 % of the population (a higher percentage than in the Adventist church itself) and who are vegetarians for ecological reasons. We Adventists shouldn’t have any problem at all in integrating these new more contemporary (and less ideological) environmental motives in our vegetarianism that aspire to be more dynamic and inclusive. An example of this is what two Adventists are doing in the Netherlands: Marianne Thieme (house of representatives) and Niko Koffeman (senate), founders of the first worldwide “animal” party, present in a parliament.
Third, aside from our current institutional “anthropocentric vegetarianism”, and beside this emerging “ecological vegetarianism”, I would like to propose another type that could be called an Adventist social vegetarianism. This because our vegetarianism, in addition to its strong anthropocentric burden, tends to be also heavily individualistic, exclusive and ideological. Even the emerging “animalist” Adventist vegetarianism (Marianne Thieme/Niko Koffeman) doesn’t correct these trends and might easily become radical and fundamentalist. But, in fact, vegetarianism and lifestyle are less conditioned by the “what” (meat – yes or no) and more by the “how” (how do we or don’t we – eat meat). This sociological approach to food is far more influential in people’s life, Adventist or not. This is in synthesis with broader thesis of “Slow Food”, a movement founded by Carlo Petrini – now an international movement – headquartered in Cuneo, Italy. We invited Petrini to present one of his books in our Italian Adventist Seminary of Villa Aurora some time ago and perceived this common accent on the necessity of a new lifestyle in our societies, but also the big difference between a medical-individualistic approach (Adventism) and a socio-cultural approach to food and lifestyle (Slow Food).
In fact, according to the French anthropologist from the University of Paris, Claude Fischler, the food anomaly today in rich societies is more related to the “how” rather than to the “what” we eat. This is what Fischler calls today’s big paradoxical “gastro-anomie” in western societies. And this new socio-cultural way of producing and consuming food is what makes us Adventists more like non Adventists. Adventism usually chooses to underline the difference between us, vegetarian Adventists – who live longer, and them, those meat-eaters – who live shorter. But that is a quantitative difference. In a deeper analysis this fact is less important. Instead, for Fischler, the qualitative common characteristics to vegetarians and non vegetarians are more important. And typical signs of this contemporary “gastro-anomie” are given by three sociological facts: 1) the industrial production of food today; 2) the privatization and individualization of common and shared moments of eating; 3) the permanent availability of food through home refrigeration and the various networks of omnipresent, proximate food-markets. In other words, we don’t follow and are not involved any more in the complete chain of food production, we have learned to eat alone and in a hurry, and we don’t know any more what food scarcity means. All these three characteristics are sociological because they tend to detach us from others and reinforce an already overdeveloped individualism.
So, between Adventist “individualistic and ethical vegetarianism” and today’s western societies’ “individualistic dietetic hedonism”, there is much more in common than we usually think. There is the shared overlooking that food and eating is a radical social experience and not only an economic, esthetic, ethical, medical or religious one. That even more important than “what” we eat (meat or not) is “how” we eat (stress or relaxed) and “who” we eat with (alone or together). And here the Adventist Czech way of interpreting and applying our traditional vegetarianism is less contradictory than it seems and more meaningful because it dares to consider as more important: “Adventists” and “vegetarians” than “Adventism” and “vegetarianism”.
Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.