Eating as a Spiritual Act, Part 2

Remember when I said I would write up more of my notes from the panel I attended on this topic? I’m finally getting to that! Here is Part 1 in case you missed it.

So, the last thing I said was how eating opens us up to a number of realities: ecological, agricultural, social, and so forth. Dr. Wirzba maintains (and I concur) that religious traditions are an excellent key to helping us think through these realities. He said, “The opposite of religion isn’t atheism, it’s negligence.” In other words, by shirking our responsibilities to be good stewards of God’s creation, we are denying our very connection to God.

The fact that the creation story takes place in a garden is significant: the Deity of Christianity (and all the Abrahamic faiths) is not violent and powerful, but a farmer, who picks up and uses the soil to create life. He gets his hands dirty, so to speak. “God loves the soil first, because without loving soil, there is no you or I.” The creation is ultimately an act of hospitality, wherein God “makes room for another to be…to become what they are most able to be.”

I would add that the story of Christianity ends at a great banquet – the telos (a word meaning ultimate destination, destiny, fulfillment of purpose) of the garden is this hospitable act of celebration and communion. The Sabbath was the culmination of creation (it was seven days, not six: humans aren’t the final word, but rather REST and appreciation).

Our life now is the growing, in the garden; our afterlife is the harvest, the enjoyment of the growth we have allowed and fostered in our lives. We are not meant only to sustain life together, but to celebrate it. To be hospitable: helping others – and ourselves – become fully who we are.

How would our worldview and self-image change if we thought of God primarily as a farmer or a gardener (or a vintner)? If we thought of the world we inhabit as a garden (and not a “resource”, another word for “superstore” in consumerist mentality), and of ourselves as the plants God is tending? A gardener understands virtues such as attention, patience, long-term commitment, the value of hard work, and the vulnerability and fragility of life. If we modeled our lives after God’s in this way, oh how our eating habits would change.

To drive this point home, Wirzba asked, “What if we thought of food as ‘a Gift'” – pointing out that the name we give to food is important. For example, thinking of a plant as a weed, or a flower, or a vegetable gives us different ideas in our mind of what that plant’s use is and how to relate to it. So with food: we relate to it differently if we think of it as fuel, or a commodity, or a Gift. “Naming something is the act of establishing a relationship with it.”

When we vote for “cheap” as our primary value around food (voting being what we’re doing with every dollar we spend – particularly on the Dollar Menu), we are not honoring the life that food represents (remember the quote, “for any of us to eat, others have to die”). We want to be able to say grace before meals with a clear conscience.

I wonder, how can we spend ridiculous amounts of money on our pets, or put up huge fights about abortion, but not honor the life that is represented by what is on our plates?

So how do we honor it? Here is Wirzba’s short list of suggestions:

1. Grow something (or if you’re like me, try and fail and appreciate your farmers that much more).

2. Know the people who grow what you cannot grow yourself.

3. Participate in your local food economy.

4. Share food with others.

5. Grow your food imagination: for instance, ponder the miracle and achievement that is a single loaf of bread.

6. Say Grace before meals – make eating a mindful act. Make that a time set aside to think about economy, politics, celebration, gratitude, mercy, and honor of the other lives sitting before you, which you are about to consume.

And one final word of wisdom from Dr. Wirzba: “The point is not to become the food police…the point is to become more merciful with each other.” We learn how to do that by paying attention to the incredible mercy God offers us through our daily bread.

Amen.

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!

How does your church eat?

Eating begins with shopping – or really, growing (and some churches do have gardens, to their credit). When we shop for the church, do we consider where the food is coming from, how it was raised, how its cultivation impacted the earth and the farmers? Do we think about the people who might be enslaved to pick produce, or despite doing all the work, receive only a tiny portion of the price we pay for coffee? Do we know what legislation affects people who work in agriculture, and do we advocate on behalf of the powerless and put-upon? There are safeguards in place: fair trade organizations, rainforest certification, humane certification, and organic laws which specify some quality conditions for animals and people and protect the environment. These are easy shortcuts to help us consider more than the price tag when buying our food. Continue reading

The FoodiEvangelist

Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People of 2010” included real-food advocate Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and Food Rules), urban farmer Will Allen, animal welfare championTemple Grandin, and deputy USDA secretary Kathleen Merrigan, who wrote the 1990 Organic Foods Production Act (the first federal legislation establishing standards for the “organic” title).

Over the summer ABC ran a second season of the series “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” in which the British celebrity chef fights to replace the processed food in school cafeterias with fresh produce and whole foods, and teaches Americans how to cook simple meals instead of patronizing the drive-thru, all the while emphasizing that this is a “life and death” issue.

First Lady Michelle Obama has made diet-related disease her primary cause, planting a teaching garden at the White House and encouraging Americans to get to know their farmers.

There is no denying that a foodie frenzy has taken hold in this country. Suddenly it is not enough simply to eat organic – you must find the most local produce possible at the farmer’s market. The new “status lawn” is a backyard homestead, complete with Victory Garden, compost bin, and free-ranging chickens. The Food Network has spun off a second cooking channel and has already spurred many competitors (from TLC to The Travel Channel) to feature food-centric shows. And just recently I read on my Starbucks napkin that they no longer use artificial colors or flavors, hydrogenated oils, or the real boogie man, High Fructose Corn Syrup.

The backlash against the “industrial food complex” is strong and vocal, demanding an end to the prevalence of convenient but unhealthy food produced in non-sustainable ways. The major players also call for an end to the prevailing wisdom of “Nutritionism” (Michael Pollan’s term): the idea that food is merely biological fuel in the form of key nutrients, and no matter how they are consumed, it is the nutrients that matter the most. No longer is the nutrition info box on the side of the carton the only place one should look to know whether something is good to eat (good not only meaning healthy, but also tasty! Which actually matters to these people!).

I call this lifestyle choice the “religion” of the foodie – it calls for a change in one’s eating habits that makes them less convenient, more expensive, and ultimately more satisfying and nurturing. I call myself a “FoodiEvangelist” because I believe that this dogma can be instructive to persons of faith (particularly those of my own persuasion, which is Christian). Continue reading