Fish on Fridays
Nothing symbolizes the supposed arbitrariness of religion to those predisposed towards skepticism towards religious belief more than does the Catholic practice of eating fish on Fridays during the season of Lent. I’ll admit to having asked myself, especially on Good Friday, what connection there is between fish and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. And then there is the philosophical paradox. If my soul is lost after I’ve eaten meat on a Lenten Friday, does that mean I’m free to commit worse sins without making my situation worse? But if the rule doesn’t really matter, then why follow it? And on and on and on and on…
Here’s what I do know. With the choice of fish options available to a 21st century American, eating fish on Fridays is about as small a “sacrifice” in a material sense as can be asked for. But honoring the rule does require me to make some conscious choices that run contrary to what the surrounding culture tells me are cool and sensible. And if I am unable to make this small sacrifice, because I find it too inconvenient, or because I’m afraid to explain myself to others who don’t share my belief or who might think that I’m being just plain silly, then on what basis can I believe myself to be capable of taking a stand in more serious situations, when the choices might be a little harder and the stakes a bit higher?
Slightly edited re-post of an April 6, 2007 original.
I have wondered about that myself, and just looked into it. The requirement is not to eat fish, or whether it is connected to the crucifixion. The idea is that Catholics should “partially fast”, or “abstain” from meat. This seems to be a carry over from the pagan religions which it replaced.
Interestingly the Catholic Church has just opened a window for disaffected Anglicans (there is much distress there over gay bishops. For the Catholics in the audience, the Anglican church is “episcopal”, or bishop led. As there is no Pope, that is as high as it goes. In protest, several Massachusetts churches have placed themselves under the administration of an African Bishop). In any case the Catholics require of them “fasting” or “abstinence” in accord with the Book of Common Prayer. I never noticed any mention of it there.
The laws of Kashrut have undergone a similar transformation over time. Somehow a prohibition against boiling a goat in its mother’s milk turned into waiting an hour for ice cream after chicken when the rabbis finished playing telephone with the Talmud. My brand of originalism hasn’t been well received in the religious community, although my parents did abandon many of the practices when they grew tired of fighting with me. It’s been suggested to me that the value of the traditions in fact lies within the arbitrariness of them. I don’t subscribe to that viewpoint, but I maintain a healthy respect for those who do.
Eating fish in no longer a sacrifice but a luxury,since fish is now an expensive food item.