Eating as a Spiritual Act (Part 1)

These are the first of my notes from a wonderful presentation I attended yesterday, entitled “The Spirituality of Stewardship, Sustainability, and Food”. It was held at the holy Rothko Chapel and featured Dr. Norman Wirzba of Duke (author of Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating)¬†as well as some Texan farmers and one pastor who are advocates for sustainability. But it was Wirzba’s talk which garnered the bulk of my note-taking, since he & I are simpatico.

Dr. Wirzba

If one does not eat mindfully, as Slow Foodies like myself advocate, one is reduced to being a “food consumer”, as opposed to being intentionally involved in some step of food production (be that growing, processing, preparing, sharing, etc.). That person labors under the misconception that food is something that can be purchased – that it is a commodity that he consumes.The first question Wirzba asked was: What are we doing when we are eating? He suggested that “eating is a holy mystery,” giving the example of Shakers who spend two full minutes in silence prior to eating any meal (not easy when you’re hungry!). This is to bring their minds to the present moment and to the food before them, so they will not eat mindlessly (he also mused, “Does eating mindlessly lead to living mindlessly?” – or I would say it could go the other way around, too).

But here is the difficult truth: “For any of us to eat, others have to die.” Not only animals, but plants; and then microbes in the soil, yeast organisms, even our own flesh which feeds the grass which begins the cycle over again. So the real question when you sit down to a meal mindfully might be: “How do you make yourself worthy of another’s life and death?”

In our culture, we are obsessed with eating yet we are ignorant eaters. As pointed out by Eric Schlosser in the seminal Fast Food Nation, we witness our values to the world by the way that we eat. Wirzba made a wonderful connection from this to the “99 cent value menu” – when we order from this “value” menu, right there we are broadcasting “value” all right – our values, placed on efficiency, price, and speed.

Who knew the 99 cent value menu had deeper meaning? But it’s just so appropo!

He pointed out too that the idea that we can talk into a box and then a hamburger magically appears before us reveals our supreme worship of all things convenient (and I would add it’s a wee bit sci-fi).

Living in a Fast Food Nation also means we lose the connections food can make for us: to place, to the earth, to animals, and even to other people. We wind up going “through” life instead of going “into” it; always passing “through” instead of “entering into”; living in touch with machines (like the squawk box) rather than human beings.

Connecting to people through food isn’t just about who we cook or eat with; it’s also about being aware of the people who produce, grow, butcher, process, and in all other ways make our food available. We are only 2-3 generations removed from a time when nearly everyone was a farmer, but today much of the world’s population lives in cities, and relates to the world entirely “through computers and credit cards.”

We also have what he termed “ecological amnesia”: that is, we don’t think about how ecology affects our ability to eat – how very vulnerable and fragile food actually is. In fact, we have a “food superstition” that “money produces food” – which is patently ridiculous (any farmer will tell you money can do very little to make food happen).

Wendell Berry described it another way, as “one night stand” eating: we want it cheap, we want it now, we don’t want to ask questions about its past partners or where it came from (no backstory, please), and after we’ve enjoyed it we’d like to move on without considering the future impact to our lives or bodies that this union might result in. (this is so incredibly apt – one of my favorite food metaphors ever!)

The anonymity of our current society (particularly fed by the Internet) contributes to this amnesia: we see a big beautiful red strawberry in the supermarket in January, and we don’t want to know how that’s possible (let me ruin it: it’s created by a mixture of poison and slaves). We don’t want to shatter our enjoyment of the moment of consummation with the strawberry (I added that part).

“Every time you eat you bite into ecological realities, you bite into agricultural realities, you bite into social realities…realities of greater or less justice, greater or less care, greater or less mercy.” And it is in religious traditions, Wirzba argues, that we can find help thinking through these realities.

I’m going to finish this in another post, since it’s getting long. Stay tuned!