The answers we get largely depend on the questions we ask, and one of the most foolish things we can do is declare our answers the “right” ones over against somebody’s “wrong” ones until we know what questions they were asking. If somebody’s answer if 5 and yours is 4, don’t declare them to be in error until you know for sure they were asking “What is 2+2?” and not “What is 2+3?”
I was reminded of that back during Lent when, as happens every year, somebody circulates stuff like this around and the guffaws about the scientific ignorance of Catholics got started up again:
Similar comments from around the world and across history can be found for such critters as capybaras, beavers, muskrats, and sundry other critters. I think lobster even made the cut at some point and perhaps still does in some parts of the world. Can it really be that bishops are that scientifically illiterate about Linnean taxonomies and imagine rodents, alligators and arthropods are all fish?
Generally, we should assume that when college-educated people of normal to high intelligence appear to be that fantastically dumb, we are probably missing something. And this is one of those cases.
What matters is not Linnean taxonomy in classifying foods acceptable for Lent, but “What sort of protein-rich meat is easily available to poor people?”
A rather silly myth grew up a while back that the Fish on Friday for Lent thing started because the Pope or his brother-in-law (or somebody in the Church) had cornered the market on fish and somehow Lent was invented to make a killing on the fish market. The reality was rather simpler than that. Catholic social teaching has always emphasized what is known as the “preferential option for the poor”. (It is, by the way, the theological underpinning for what is today known as “affirmative action”). The idea, neatly summarized in Deuteronomy 10:17-19 is this:
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the terrible God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Dt 10:17–19)
Note the paradox: God is “impartial”, therefore he “executes justice for” the weak and defenseless over against the strong, wealthy and powerful? Why? Because the strong have battalions of lawyers and arsenals full of guns and a buttload of money. The poor have nothing and nobody. So the rich are expected to make sacrifices for the poor. The poor are not expected to make sacrifices for the rich and the burdens on them are lightened by the law of Moses.
All this carries over into the Christian dispensation from Judaism, including in the celebration of Lent. The idea was to put the burden of the Lenten fast on the rich, not the poor. So the Church routinely looked around at whatever the common source of animal protein for the poor was in a given area and said, “Fine. We’ll reckon that as ‘fish’ just as we reckoned fish (the main source of animal protein for the poor in Europe) as acceptable to eat during Lent.” So when poor French-speaking Acadian Catholics from Canada migrated to Louisiana and (with the French gift for awesome cooking) started to eat the local dinosaurs in the bayous, the Church, “We’ll regard gators as fish” The idea was to take the burden off the poor, who live a more or less permanent Lenten existence and put it on the rich, who could stand to do without beef, mutton, and pork. Same for French-speakers in the pre-Revolutionary Old Northwest who ate stuff like muskrat and beaver, as well as in South America with capybara.
Of course, one of the things that has happened over time is that some foods (like beaver) have become expensive delicacies and it might be a good idea for bishops to revisit guidelines that are outdated to reflect current economic realities. But if they do, it’s important for the rest of us be aware of the reason for the guidelines in the first place.
Which brings us to similar issues in the Old Testament. More than once I have run across similar complaints about Levitical purity laws being stoopid and “unscientific” because of this passage:
And these you shall have in abomination among the birds, they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, the kite, the falcon according to its kind, every raven according to its kind, the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk according to its kind, the owl, the cormorant, the ibis, the water hen, the pelican, the carrion vulture, the stork, the heron according to its kind, the hoopoe, and the bat. (Le 11:13–19)
Bats are not birds according to Carolus Linnaeus, announces the Fundamentalist Atheist Prosecutor, ergo the author of Leviticus was stoopid and ignorant and knew nothing of the Ways of Science and therefore… what exactly?
Aye, there’s the rub. For of course, none of this matters if, in the original tongue of the writer, the word we English-speakers translate as “birds” simply means “winged creatures that are not bugs” and is utterly uninterested in 18th century scientific categories for living things. And this happens to be exactly the case. The only categories this passage from Leviticus cares about are “clean” and “unclean” and the only question it cares about is “What is lawful for us to eat?” Linnaeus (and the Fundamentalist Atheist) are asking “What is 2+2?”. The author of Leviticus is asking, “What foods are ritually defiling?”
And before we say, “That’s a stupid question!” ask yourself when the last time was you had a heaping bowl of insect larvae, ate yogurt mixed with horse blood, or enjoyed some bull testicles in your soup. Because if you have any foods that provoke the “Ick” response, you believe, just as strongly as any Bronze Age Israelite in “unclean” foods. All they did differently from you was attach a spiritual significance to this experience and find in the idea of foods too gross to eat, or things to gross to touch an analogy to the defiling power of sin.
All of which is to say, again, that when we start with different questions, we arrive at different answers. It does not follow that merely because ancients started with different questions, our questions (and answers) are automatically better.
Welcome, in short, to real multiculturalism that even includes respect for the most obscure and strange cultures of all: those of our ancestors.
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. – L.P. Hartley