Join us April 17-19 for the BioLogos national conference, Faith & Science 2024, as we explore God’s Word and God’s World together!

Forums

The Gift of Food | Sacred Morsels

The sacred morsels we consume daily connect us to the soil, to the plants and animals that become food, to one another, and to God.


Share  
Twitter
Facebook
LinkedIn
Print
soup and bread on black background

Photo by Colin Hoogerwerf

The sacred morsels we consume daily connect us to the soil, to the plants and animals that become food, to one another, and to God.

Description

Food is a great connector. It can connect us to the ground and the soil that produces food, to the plants and animals that turn into food and to one another. It also has the possibility of connecting us better to God. In part on of the series we talk about some of these connections, eventually leading us to the idea that food is a gift. In the rest of the series we’ll consider what that might mean about about how we eat, what we eat, and how gathering around a table, whether it’s a communion table or a dining room table can strengthen our connections to the world, to each other, and to God. 

This is part one of a five part mini-series. 

Theme song and credits music by Breakmaster Cylinder. Other music in this episode by Tiny Music, Vesper Tapes, and Babel courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc.

Subscribe to the podcast


Transcript

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump

Hoogerwerf: 

And I’m Colin Hoogerwerf

Stump:

So unless our listeners clicked blindly on this episode without looking at the title, or it just started playing as the next up episode, they’ll know by the title that we’re talking about food. What they might not know is that this is only the first of five episodes. Five episodes on food. I think that might excite some people. But it might puzzle some others. This was your idea after all. Do you want to explain yourself? Give people a chance to keep listening? 

Hoogerwerf: 

I probably do need to explain why a science and faith organization would make a whole series about food. But I’m going to cheat a little and have some other people get me started. I asked several people we interviewed why an organization like BioLogos, with the mission of exploring God’s Word and God’s world to inspire authentic faith for today, would make a series about food. Here’s some of their responses:

Parish: 

God’s word is full of food. God’s world is also full of food. And authentic faith is about recognizing your dependence upon God, which is most manifest when you are hungry, honestly.

Hoogerwerf: 

This Nurya Love Parish the Executive Director of Plainsong Farm. We’ll be hearing more from Nurya again in later episodes. 

Wirzba: 

Food is the great integrator of everything. I mean, it takes us from the cosmic all the way to the intimacy of our guts, and everything in between.

Hoogerwerf: 

This is Norman Wirzba, returning podcast guest, a theology professor at Duke Divinity School. Norman Wirzba wrote the book on Food and Faith. 

Stump:

You mean that literally. His book is called Food and Faith

Hoogerwerf: 

Yeah, great book. And we’ll be hearing a lot from Norman through the series. 

Foster:

Whenever we sit down at a meal, we have sitting there in front of us between our knife and of our fork, a complete ontology, a complete epistemology, a complete theology and a complete political philosophy.

Hoogerwerf: 

And this is Charles Foster, another returning guest and we’ll hear more from him throughout this episode and series too. Nurya, Norman and Charles are getting at the fact that food is a great connector. And that’s, I think, why we’re doing this. Food has the potential to connect us more closely to ourselves, to others, and ultimately to God. 

Stump:

Let’s also mention a couple of things that we’re not going to do in this series: for instance we’re not going to tell you that you must become vegans.

Hoogerwerf: 

Though we won’t try to convince our vegan listeners to start eating animal products either. And we’re not going to say that you have to buy all your food from the farmers market though we might encourage visiting a farmers market now and then. 

Stump:

And we’re not going to say you should all go out and picket factory farms, or give a bunch of other rules that apply to everyone everywhere for all times. Each of us as individuals might hold different views related to these, but one of the things we’ve discovered is that the topic of food is really complex, and if we’re claiming anything, it is that we should all think a little more carefully about our food.

Hoogerwerf: 

This is an exploration. We don’t come with an agenda, though I’m sure we’ll find some things we and our guests and listeners feel pretty strongly about along the way. And like all the topics we explore at BioLogos we’ll try and do it gently but with curiosity and we’ll even do a little bit of our exploring around a table, a place where Jesus so often met with others. 

Stump:

So we usually ask our guests to give us a little background and that is typically around how they came to be interested in science or what their faith background was. If you had to give a little bio, what would you say is your story with food? 

Hoogerwerf: 

Oh that’s interesting. So I grew up in the midwest, that probably matters. Where you grow up definitely changes the kinds of food you eat. My parents cooked quite a bit. Both of them. We sat down for meals pretty much every night. I don’t know that I’d call my parents extravagant or adventurous eaters. That’s not a slight and I don’t think that would hurt their feelings. They fed me well and what they did was to impart some thoughtfulness about food. I also learned to grow food from my parents from a young age. Not anything large scale at all but I knew what a tomato plant looked like and what it took to grow one, including the fact that our very sandy soil and shady yard was not ideal. What about you? 

Stump:

Similar. Also not from a family that was very adventurous about the food we ate. It was meat and potatoes. Also midwest. My mother grew up on a farm, a diary farm and so when I was a kid, particularly living in Michigan, we had seven acres and had a lot of garden produce and even small animal produce. We had our own chickens that we would butcher and get eggs from. We ate a lot of fish because my dad was a big fisherman. So lots of bluegills and bass and perch and that sort of fish that I grew up fishing and cleaning fish like that. And even some hunting, squirrels and rabbits. I’d participate in the harvesting of those and the eating of those to some degree which I was never totally thrilled with but I would do it. And lots of garden produce too. So we had a pond on this little seven-acre mini farm that we liked to go swimming in and there was often a rule that you would have to go out and weed one of the rows of corn before you could jump in the pond when I was a kid. And then my brother and I had a—not a paper route, but a kind of route of corn, that we’d drive our little tractor with a trailer around full of sweet corn that we’d go around almost like a subscription basis, people in our little town that we’d go and sell sell a dozen ears of corn to in the fall every time. So that sort of food had a lot of experience with seeing where that food came from.

Hoogerwerf: 

I remember spending a lot of time at farmers markets too so I guess I knew where at least some of my food came from. Anyway, nowadays I love to cook. I love to eat delicious food. I love to watch things grow. And I have occasionally glimpsed how, in each of these activities, there can be a profound connection to the divine. But, like most everyone else, I’m also a creature of the culture I’ve been raised in and live in…and that culture hasn’t always given me the tools I need to understand the connection between food and the sacred. Over the past few centuries—or some might even argue that it’s been millenia—we’ve forgotten that food is a sacred thing. It has become a commodity and even just a plain nuisance.

Stump:

That reminds me of a scene from the Matrix when Neo is unplugged and finds himself there in the the kitchen or the canteen and finds himself eat some goo and Morphesu says this has all the amino acids you need but it’s like where was the excitement or the interest in eating food. .  

Hoogerwerf: 

And there’s this movement I’ve read about in Silicon valley to turn all nutrition into pills that contain like everything you need. 

Stump:

So you can keep workin the whole time instead of seeing food as an enjoyable thing.

Hoogerwerf: 

I think that’s exactly the kind of thing that points to this idea that food is simply fuel we need to keep on going, and the more convenient we can make it the better, regardless of what that means about where it comes from and the miracle that it comes to us at all. 

Stump:

And speaking of miracles, it’s interesting that many of Jesus’ miracles were food miracles. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Yeah, and that’s not the only place food shows up in the bible. It’s all over the place, starting in the first chapter in Genesis and never really going away. 

Stump:

Including a lot of really strange food rules in the Old Testament. What were those all about? 

Hoogerwerf: 

We will get to that in our next episode. And maybe this is a good chance to lay out a little bit of a map of where we’re going in the series. 

Stump:

So starting with this episode. 

Hoogerwerf: 

Where we’re going to talk about the human relationship to food, some of the ways that relationship has changed over human history, and how some of those changes leave us much more disconnected from our food than in any point in human history. 

Stump:

And to repair that connection to food, we’re going to start by diving into the spiritual side of food. That’s next episode. Looking more specifically at where food shows up in the Bible, some of the Old Testament rules, and also trying to understand some of the other food rituals and practices that have come out of the last 2,000 years of Christianity. 

Hoogerwerf: 

That will include the practice of communion and trying to understand the fact that Jesus’ very body and blood are available to us now as food? But this is BioLogos, and like Nurya said, God’s world is also full of food. So we’ll take an episode to look at the science of food.

Stump:

It turns out there is a lot of interesting science having to do with cooking food, eating food, and growing food. From those we’ll talk a little about how taste is centered in the brain and what that does to us. Something about food and nutritional science, which is often the science held of the exemplar of it always changing. And hopefully we will even get to talk about how food has influenced our evolution. 

Hoogerwerf: 

That will give us good context to look at some more specific issues around food in the final episodes: the ethics of eating or not eating meat; food economics and food justice; and also the fellowship, community, and conversation that gathering around a table of food can bring about. 

Stump:

Well, after all that, let’s get to the conversation. 

[musical interlude]

Hoogerwerf:

Let’s start with a story. Two stories, actually—or parables, maybe. Both are from Charles Foster’s book Being Human. And I’ll paraphrase quite a bit. 

The first goes something like this: there is a family who lives out in the forest and who are trying to feed their kids by killing the plants and animals they love and every time they go out to kill and animal for food it screams “don’t kill me” and every time they go to pick a plant to eat it screams “don’t eat me” and so they are getting thinner and thinner until one day an old woman stumbles out of the woods who is hurt and they help her. To thank them the old woman brings them to this secret place where the animals and plants all originally came from. It’s not clear what they see there but they come back changed but most importantly they come back with an agreement from the plants and animals that they can kill them for food as long as they are kind. And this totally changes everything for them. Besides being well fed and healthy from that point on, it also causes them to adopt all kinds of rituals and ceremonies and they become master storytellers. Here’s Charles Foster, a storyteller himself and the teller of this little parable. 

Foster: 

So that’s a story, really, about the nature of our entanglement with the nonhuman world. There was no denying the connection between its welfare and ours. And also the boundaries between us and the nonhuman world were much more obviously porous than they seem to us today to be.

Stump:

Foster tells this parable to point to what an earlier human relationship with food may have been like. He goes back to Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, when Homo sapiens (possibly other Homo species) had a different relationship to food than we have today. They didn’t go to the grocery store, and they didn’t even grow their own food. They were hunter-gatherers, and there is good evidence that they were animists of some sort. This is, of course, before Christianity, before Judaism or other organized religion, before any written spiritual texts. But it seems pretty clear that people had some sense of things having souls, at least—and not only humans. Animals and plants were thought to have souls. Maybe even non-living things. 

Foster:

And, of course, this presents a real problem for anyone who wants to eat because to eat means de-souling something. It is an act of colossal moral significance. And so there evolved an elaborate choreography of request: “Can I kill you?” And elaborate choreography of thanks: “Thank you for letting me eat you. Thank you for letting me live because of your death.” But those sorts of liturgies, there’s steps. And this great choreographic pattern took, I think, a long time to evolve. And it wasn’t until they were fully evolved that we were able to thrive, that we were able to broker the symbiosis which sustained us for most of the the Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherer period, which only began to be broken when we became sedentary and Neolithic and began to have the dangerous hubristic sense that we had mastery over the natural world without any of the moral consequences of that mastery.

Hoogerwerf: 

This is where the second story starts. This story starts with another couple that has presumably inherited this choreography. So there’s a rich man and a woman, and they live on a huge plot of land so big, they haven’t even been to the edges and they’re constantly wandering about. They never sleep in the same place twice or for long. The land is filled with friendly animals, and the couple knows all the names of the animals and they know all the names of the plants and the different kinds, and there’s tons to eat. The way it works is that the animals, when they know their time has come, go to the couple and ask to be eaten and enjoyed. And the couple accepts the gift. One day, the man for some reason, it’s not entirely clear, decides he’s fed up with having to go out and gather the plants. And he doesn’t like waiting until the animals come to them. And so he proposes to cut down some of the forest, build a wall and plant some of the edible grasses that they know about inside and bring some animals inside to kill and eat the wood. The women thinks this is a bad idea, but the man will not be swayed.

Stump:

[laughs] I’m guessing things don’t go well. 

Hoogerwerf: 

No. Of course, the animals don’t like being kept inside the walls, so they have to be dragged in screaming. And then they have to be fed and cleaned up after. And the grass actually doesn’t taste all that good and is a lot of work to keep growing. And after some time, the guy wonders out loud if maybe they made a mistake. 

Stump:

Listen to your wives, men. I can picture the woman rolling her eyes here.

Hoogerwerf: 

She knows it’s too late to go back. All the animals are afraid of them and have left or been killed. And they’ve forgotten what other plants they can eat. She does think, maybe we can at least apologize, and so they go out to apologize, but there’s nothing left to take their apology. Here’s Foster’s own take on this story.

Foster:

So the time of the Neolithic—when we became farmers, when we stopped wandering, when we stopped putting one foot in front of another, when we stopped having the whole world as our breadbasket was a time of containment—we built walls across the land, we built walls between us and other species, and we started building walls, through our own minds as well, we became compartmentalized people in a way that we still very obviously, and dysfunctionally are. And the compact between humans and nonhumans, which is such a crucial part, both of the day-to-day life and the psyche of hunter-gatherer people, compact between us and the nonhumans became broken. It’s a fragile thing, which requires constant attention. And once broken, it’s very difficult to reestablish, and it has widely and deeply recursive consequences, because the natural world is one place, tinker with one bit of it, and another bit on the other side of the planet—as we now know, to our cost, is disastrously affected. 

Stump:

Okay, this is interesting and raises all sorts of questions for me. It kind of feels like he’s giving a mythology of sorts, of how things used to be perfect and Edenic, and then there was a fall. 

Hoogerwerf: 

And he’s actually giving a date for when that fall happened. Around the transition from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic. 

Stump:

Yes, so that’s one of my questions: is he giving us an actual history of humanity’s relationship with food? And if so, it seems like the point is that we should go back to what it was? But that’s not really possible, right? I don’t think the Earth could support eight billion hunter-gathers, could it? I’m certain we’re not going get eight billion people to give up their hamburgers and Twinkies… so this must not be what he’s really saying is it?

Hoogerwerf: 

I think I can say that another thing we’re not going to do in this series is promote a return to hunter-gatherer lifestyles for our listeners. I think I do agree that people were once more closely connected to their food than we are now and that some changes were made that are pretty hard or impossible to return from even if we wanted to…which again, I’m not quite sure we want to simply go backwards. But I think the stories can still be helpful for us moving forward, to be able to think about how the relationship between people and food has changed. 

Stump:

Okay. So far I’m willing to agree that we have a different relationship with food. But it feels like I have been cast as the role of the skeptic again. Have we said yet enough to claim that it was a better relationship back then? I mean, we have to take into account that compared to hunter-gatherers, we can now produce a lot more food, and the possibility even better tasting food too?

Hoogerwerf: 

Well, I can concede that there have been some positive changes in our relationship with food. And the hunter-gatherers definitely weren’t eating three-year aged smoked gouda or artisan dark chocolate. 

I think one thing that these stories do is to give us some examples of how relationships to food can go from bad to good and good to bad. Whether it happened that way historically might be interesting and worth talking about, but even if it didn’t, I think we can use the stories to think about our current relationship to food and some of the costs that come from that. I said earlier that food can be a connector to connect us better to ourselves, better to the world around us, and better to the divine. And I think we can find ways to make all of those connections stronger than they are now. 

[musical interlude]

So let’s start with this relationship between food and the body. 

Stump:

For us to really care about food, it’s pretty clear we need to understand that our bodies matter. 

Hoogerwerf: 

There have been factions in the history of Christianity—and continue to be some today—who don’t think that bodies matter all that much. What is the idea? That our bodies are just temporary spaces for souls to be and that they’ll soon go off to someplace better, so it doesn’t matter all that much what happens to our bodies now?

Stump:

Yeah, so this is the long tradition of dualism right? And in it’s most extreme forms, going back all the way to Plato, 2500 years ago. Plato said the body is just a prison for the soul. And this leads to some strands of Christianity develop that; the flesh is bad, the spirit is good. And it complicates things that in the New Testament we see some language like that sometimes. But almost always when Paul uses this Greek word sarx, for flesh, it’s not just referring to the meat that is part of us, but there’s more of a metaphorical side to that. But that is definitely developed into the popular sort of understanding and imagination that the real me is immaterial, it’s not really this body, that there’s something else that’s there. And this is a complicated philosophical discussion throughout the ages. But it has some interesting implications for our conversations here about food and bodies. 

Hoogerwerf: 

So Plato was more than 2,000 years ago. What’s the modern version of this? 

Stump: 

Yeah, so almost any discussion of death today, you hear something to the effect that when you die your soul floats off to heaven and is looking down on us, while your body is rotting in the ground. And I don’t want to make light of that, these are serious implications, but there’s definitely the implications there that I can do without my body right? And even from the perspective of Christian theology, there’s a rigorous debate going on of whether there is some intermediate state for my soul, do I have this immaterial soul that exists after I die for some time, but ultimately, it’s still the hope of the Christian, that there’s a resurrection of the body. So the real me in the future is still going to be an embodied soul of some sort.

Hoogerwerf: 

So to bring this back to our conversation here about food, how does that change a person’s relationship to food?

Stump:

Yeah, so even dualists still eat food. It doesn’t really lead you to thinking that food is important or good in some ultimate sense because there’s a kind of philosophical and theological disconnect between why you eat and what kind of being you think you are. In the Bible, food is good, it’s a blessing, a feast is wonderful, not just for the sensory pleasure (though we should say that the Bible mentions this too), but because those are the kinds of creatures that we are—we are physical beings that need food. Even Jesus’s resurrected body was eating food . 

Hoogerwerf: 

Yeah, I think that Jesus eating fish after being resurrected is a great confirmation of this. I don’t think he did it just to prove a point. The resurrected body still needs to be nourished and fed. And now we’re finding out more and more about how food actually interacts with our body and immune systems and body chemistry—even our psychology is affected by the food we eat. We’ll get into this more in a couple episodes. In order to follow Jesus and do the work of God, we need to be healthy, and a big part of being healthy is to be fed and fed well. Here’s Charles Foster again. 

Foster: 

We are organisms who require calories. Unless we have those calories, we can’t do science; we can’t do faith. Whether we’re spiritual beings or not, we are material beings who need to be supported materially. So to think about the molecules which make up our bodies, and our relationship to the wider world which relates to our bodies, is a pretty foundational question. And food is concerned with the whole nature of the created order and the orientation that we should have towards that created order. So from what we do every day at the dinner table, we can derive, I think, lots of really fundamental things about the sorts of creatures we are and the way in which we should thrive in the world and relate to the rest of the world in the course of that thriving.

Hoogerwerf: 

So if we believe that our bodies matter, then it’s pretty easy to see that food matters to our bodies. The next step to take, then, is to realize that food comes from somewhere else, from outside of us, and that eating then connects us to that somewhere else. Anything we eat has to come originally from the ground and from the land. That’s another thing I think our current relationship with food doesn’t often acknowledge, at least not very clearly.

Stump:

In that second parable, they wall themselves off from the rest of the world. It makes some things more convenient. Now they can cultivate and tend to the animals right? But they lose a bunch of knowledge about the rest of the world. So the idea is that you move from hunter gatherers who roamed freely through the world, had to understand lots of different ways that things work out in the real world. But the move from there to these sedentary farmers that have their own plot of land, it’s that that starts to break their connection to the world, and between food and the rest of the world.

Hoogerwerf: 

Yeah, that move to the Neolithic might have strained this relationship a little bit, but I actually think a lot of that has come more recently. The Neolithic people sure seemed to be pretty connected to the land, and I think even a couple hundred years ago, there was a better connection between food and the land. We’ve gotten to a point today where we rarely ever see our food actually in or on the ground. Mostly our relationship with food starts in a grocery store, and more recently maybe even in a package at our doorstep.

Weston: 

It really is true that we are so incredibly disconnected from where food comes from. We think of food coming from a store. And so often we don’t think of the steps that it takes for food to get from the place where it’s grown or raised—or manufactured—to the places where it’s sold. And I think that’s a huge disservice to us, and yet I also want to note that that is very much by design.

Hoogerwerf: 

This is Derrick Weston. He’s the host of the Food and Faith Podcast and the Theological Education and Training Coordinator for Creation Justice Ministries. 

Weston: 

If you look at the parts of our country that produce food, they are very far away from cities; they are very far away from the highly populated parts of our country. And that’s both true in terms of both vegetable agriculture and animal agriculture, that we are very isolated from where those things happen. We’re very isolated from the fact that you need certain acreage of land to grow certain kinds of food, and you need certain acreage of land to grow fruit, and you need certain acreage of land to raise an animal in a healthy way. 

Stump:

And here’s Norman Wirzba again.

Wirzba: 

Food is the integrator. And it’s the means of life. And I think this is something that so many people have forgotten because we live in a world where food has been commodified; it’s a product. And it’s not just a product, but one that has been shorn of any of the vestiges that would connect it into natural biological systems. 

Hoogerwerf: 

While this was certainly changing over thousands of years, it has changed really dramatically in the last couple hundred years or so. You could pinpoint a lot of moments in history that led to major changes in our diet and relationship to food.

Stump:

I’m guessing Louis Pastuer might be of those pinpoints?

Hoogerwerf: 

Yeah, he’d be a good one. Pasteur discovered pasteurization in 1864. That allowed for food to be preserved, transported longer distances, and stored on shelves. And that kind of kicked off a major development in food science, which wasn’t possible before that and was helped by some other scientific discoveries of the time. Food was able to be made more nutritionally dense. Part of doing that meant breaking food down into more basic forms and putting it back together in ways that highlighted some nutritional aspect or allowed for better transport or preservation. 

Stump:

Some of the foods that resulted:

Hoogerwerf: 

Yeah. Wonder bread in 1921, and one of my favorite foods of all time: the gummy bear in 1922. 

Stump:

The Twinkie, 1930

Hoogerwerf: 

The first complete frozen meal in 1945.

Stump:

Cheese Whiz, 1952. 

Hoogerwerf: 

So the thing these foods have in common—and almost everything else you find in a grocery story today—is that they seem to be pretty far away from anything that comes out of the ground. And it’s interesting: when I tried to find some more modern examples, there didn’t seem to be anything obvious, or maybe it’s that there’s just so much now that nothing stands out as being suddenly invented in the same kind of way as the Twinkie was. 

Stump:

This isn’t supposed to make us feel bad for eating these foods, but simply highlighting that so much of our food today doesn’t bring to mind farmers and soil.

Foster: 

To break the connection between the field and the soil beneath it and the farmer and what turns up on the plate seems to me to be a really dangerous connection to break. Food is not just about getting the necessary number of calories into us because we are beings embroiled in the same web that generated the cow and its ancestors. And to eat a cow, which has actually been raised on the field, is acknowledging our part in that web. If we don’t acknowledge it, lots of things quite a long way—both geographically and metaphorically—from the field get broken too. The business of eating is something which should not be seen in isolation from the whole world, which we survive in by eating and to fragment the eating part of it—the calorie-consuming part of it—into a separate category is an extension, sort of metastatic reductionism, which is doing so much harm in other arenas of our lives.

Hoogerwerf:

There’s another aspect of the broken connection between food and land that I came across when doing my research for this series, and it has to do with food diversity. There’s this really interesting statistic. According to the Food and Agricultural Organizations of the United Nations, there are about 30,000 edible plant species on Earth. Out of those about 6,000 or 7,000 of them have been cultivated for food at some point or another. Only 170 of them are grown commercially as food in any significant way today. And 40% of our daily calories come from only three of those crops: rice, wheat, and corn. There are similar statistics for animals.

Stump:

So that’s interesting and certainly suggests that our eating has gotten boring, perhaps. But why is this lack of diversity such a problem? 

Hoogerwerf: 

Well I don’t know that it’s a moral or philosophical problem to only eat a few of the possible plants that can be eaten. I do think there’s a case to be made that the beautiful bounty of possible edible things should be better enjoyed. Each spring I’m always thrilled when the dandelions come up in my yard. I feel like I should pause here for the gasps that come. But here’s why: I think that dandelions are some of the greatest edible plants to ever exist. As so many people managing their yards know, they don’t take much work to grow, but almost every part is edible. The greens are a great substitute for arugula, and I use them for salads all summer long. They also make great pesto. The roots can be roasted and eaten like carrots or made into bitters for drinks. The flowers make wine and jelly. And there must be so many more incredible edible plants out there that we don’t even know about, that we’re just missing out on. 

But if you’re not convinced by eating dandelions, I think there’s a more convincing reason that prioritizing so few edible foods might be problematic, which is that it makes our food system highly susceptible to pests and disease, which means we need to modify the foods more and use more pesticides to fight the pests. And that process doesn’t seem like it can go on forever without causing some pretty serious damage. And since so few species of foods feed so many people, if a pest were to come along and wipe out a single species, a lot of people would go hungry. So diversifying the kinds of foods we eat and grow commercially could help avoid a lot of suffering. 

Stump:

So far we’ve identified a disconnect between food and our bodies and food and the land. There’s one more place to go, and I think this will follow us through the whole series, which is that it seems we’ve lost some of our connection between food and the sacred or the divine. 

Foster: 

Eating, rather obviously, is something we have to do. And in all healthy societies, it’s about so much more than just stoking up. There’s always ceremony. There’s always liturgy—that the knives and forks are laid out in a way, the lighting is dimmed. It’s one of the very few modern ceremonies where it’s still not embarrassing to say a prayer. The hosts strain to make the food as good as it possibly can be. And those observations, which are so obvious, are in fact, if you think about it, very strange and significant, it shows that matter in terms of the food, matters. And that therefore matter matters generally, that we’re not just spiritual beings, or that spirit infuses matter. So it’s in those basic kitchen and dining and all those observations, there is a whole intrinsic ontology and a whole intrinsic theology. It implies that everything that humans do—since this eating is the most fundamental of human activity—is sacramental and the matter for celebration. 

Stump:

This is interesting, because it points toward something distinctly human. I don’t think other animals have the kind of ceremonies or liturgies around their eating, around their taking of another life, right? We’re animals that have to eat stuff—or heterotrophs, to be scientifically precise—but we’re not just animals.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time listening to Leonard Cohen, and in one of his last albums he has a song with a line that says, “We’re all just brief elaborations of a tube.” That’s a pretty cynical take, but it’s true that all animals are tube-shaped, with a mouth on one end and an anus on the other and spend most of their lives trying to put stuff in one end and having it come out the other. But I want to protest that we’re something more than that. Food and eating has taken on another dimension for us, just like shelter and transportation and sex and every other activity we’re engaged in that lots of other animals are too. They mean something more because of the kind of creatures we are. So, for food: yes, we need calories, but these rituals we’ve developed point toward some greater meaning in this activity.

Hoogerwerf: 

I’ll say there are some really interesting examples of animals treating food in ways that seem to go beyond just nutrition, but while I will usually argue that animals are more similar to us than we usually think, I’m going to stand with you here and agree that this really seems to be distinctly human. Not only are humans the only animals that cook food before eating it; we’ve gone to great lengths to eat things that have interesting and complex flavors. And it seems like for a lot of human history, eating has been an experience that brings people together with other people. There is evidence that ancient humans, when injured, were still fed and must have relied on a community of people to eat. For a very, very long time, eating—for humans—has been done in community.

Stump:

And pretty clearly, eating has also been an experience that has connected people not only to other people but to the divine.

Hoogerwerf: 

There’s a great quote from Robert Farrar Capon, who was an Episcopal priest and wrote a book called Supper of the Lamb, which is a must-read for anyone interested in food and faith. He says, “To be sure, food keeps us alive, but that is only its smallest and most temporary work. Its eternal purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the heavenly banquet and see how gracious the Lord is. Nourishment is necessary only for a while; what we shall need forever is taste.”

Stump:

Maybe food connects us to the divine because it connects us to the land and to other people, which are not always reliable. So there’s this deep vulnerability in us related to where we will find our next meal. And as humans we can recognize that vulnerability and lack of control, and then maybe we cry out to God to provide for us, and we thank God for the food that we have.

Miller: 

Like every meal we eat, we are enacting our vulnerability or contingency or dependency or lack of self sufficiency. Like every time we eat, we’re doing something that says, whether we know it or not, we can’t sustain ourselves, right? 

Stump:

This is Jason Miller. He’s the pastor at the church I attended when I lived in South Bend. He’s thought a lot about the relationship of food and faith, probably because he’s something of a foodie. We’ll hear from him several times throughout this series.

Miller: 

We can’t sustain ourselves from within ourselves. Something from outside of us has to come into us—maybe three times a day, every day, unless you’re fasting or something, or don’t have access to food. So that sets me on a whole journey, I think, about how this isn’t enactment of dependency, right of creatureliness. And then we’re met with grace, we’re met with, you know, abundance. We’re met there in that moment and to share…I mean, I can’t help but wonder even if we’re not conscious of it or thinking it, I wonder if there’s some part of us that knows with every meal, we are enacting our dependency and vulnerability together. And maybe that’s part of why we feel so connected when we share a meal, you know?

Hoogerwerf: 

But here’s the thing. I think food and eating can point to the divine. Like I said at the very beginning of the episode, I have glimpsed this. And I think if we were to find a deeper connection between food on our bodies and health, and between food and the land, both of those things would also help connect us to the divine because part of what food does is to remind us that we are a part of a complicated and beautiful world which has been given to us. Or as Charles Foster puts it:

Foster: 

So what’s on our table, and the way in which we approach the sacramental business of eating, seems to be a requirement to reflect generally on the web and the weave of the both physical and moral universe.

Hoogerwerf: 

I’ll speak for myself here, but I feel like food doesn’t usually do this for me. And part of this whole project is to explore how it might do this better. My hope is that developing some knowledge and understanding about where food comes from and what it does to us might help increase my sense of wonder and amazement about food. Another thing is to revitalize the long traditions of ceremony and liturgy around food from the Christian tradition, and maybe also to learn some from other traditions that have better relationships to food, and to start seeing food as a connection point to God. 

Stump:

That’s a good segue to one of my favorite topics: seeing as. The way that we conceptualize something, the way we understand it, influences what we think about it. So we need to see food as more than simply nutrition. We’ve established that we need to see it as an important part of how our bodies function. And we need to see food as part of the world. But it seems like we also need to see food as a gift from God and reminder of that gift that comes to us each and every day.

Wirzba: 

So this “seeing as” is crucially important, and you have to talk about language here because language is the means by which we try to make sense of what we encounter in the world. And it’s our entry into things being the things that they are, to use traditional philosophical language. So just to use a little example.  

Hoogerwerf: 

So, imagine we hold up a plant and we ask for you to name it.

Wirzba: 

And if I say, “Well, that’s a flower,” that’s going to create all sorts of feelings in you, about “Is it beautiful? Do I want to come close to it and smell it because it’s going to be fragrant? Or do I simply want to behold it?” Right? Certain postures are invited with the word flower

Stump:

Okay, but imagine we made a mistake. It’s not a flower.

Wirzba: 

It’s really a weed, right? A different naming, a different way of seeing that plant as a weed—as opposed to a flower. Suddenly, your conception of what you should do in response to the weed changes because weeds are the kinds of things that, by definition, we would want to eradicate because, as Monsanto once famously said, “They steal the sunshine.”

Hoogerwerf: 

But we still have another naming that’s possible. 

Wirzba:  

I could say that “No, this is not a flower; it’s not a weed. It’s actually a blooming tomato plant.” Now you’re thinking, “Oh! If I take care of this plant, if I sucker it, if I trim some of the stock, I can have fresh tomatoes—vine-ripe tomatoes!” How fabulous is that? And now suddenly, I’m thinking about the responsibility of nurturing this plant.

So here’s three different namings, right? Flower, weed, tomato plant—three vastly different responses, how we treat it, how we engage it. 

Stump:

Okay, so let’s bring this little exercise in naming to our bigger theme of food. 

Wirzba: 

If we say food is a commodity, and this is the way a lot of people think about it because that’s the way it’s been presented to us. You go into a grocery store and depending on the grocery store, there’s anywhere between thirty and fifty thousand products, right? They come beautifully packaged with all sorts of information on the package. And that trains you to respond to it using the logics of commodification, which are the logics of efficiency, profitability, convenience, right. And so when food is presented as a commodity—the things that consumers most think about—are things like price, availability. And that is a whole way of relating not just to the food product, but then also to the world, which is behind the food product. And this has been, you know, demonstrated in all sorts of ways—that we’ve developed an industrial system of agriculture, which gives us food as a product. Now, that’s the dominant way of speaking about food from sort of a general cultural point of view in the North American context. What I want people to start thinking about is, what would it mean to name food theologically?

Hoogerwerf: 

In the next episode, we’ll see what happens when we do just that.

Stump:

And will reach back into the Christian tradition to find out what kinds of rituals and liturgies do exist around food and maybe recapture them, remember them, bring them back into use. 

Credits

BioLogos: 

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute. Fetzer supports a movement of organizations who are applying spiritual solutions to society’s toughest problems. Get involved at fetzer.org. And by the John Templeton Foundation, which funds research and catalyzes conversations that inspire people with awe and wonder. And BioLogos is also supported by individual donors and listeners alike you contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Brakemaster Cylinder. BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find the link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Or visit our website biologos.org, where you’ll find articles, videos, and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening


Featured guests

Image

Norman Wirzba

Norman Wirzba is the Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School, and a Senior Fellow at Duke’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. He is the author of several books, including (most recently) This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World and Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land.
Image

Charles Foster

Charles Foster is an author and a Fellow of Exeter College, University of Oxford. His books include the New York Times Bestseller, Being a Beast, and many others - many of which have won or been short- or long-listed for various literary prizes. He won the Ig Nobel Prize for Biology in 2016. He lives in Oxford and a remote part of the Peloponnese.
Jason Adam Miller Headshot

Jason Adam Miller

Jason Adam Miller is the founder and lead pastor of South Bend City Church, an eclectic Christian community known for its thoughtful teaching, inclusive vision, and commitment to its city context. An advocate for artists and peacemakers, his work beyond South Bend focuses on cultural headwaters and conflict zones, where he serves an international constituency of leaders. He holds a master’s degree in theology from the University of Notre Dame. His first book, When the World Breaks, explores the Beatitudes as transformative paradoxes that lead us into healing. Find him on Instagram at @jasonadammiller, or learn more at jasonadammiller.com.
Derrick Weston Headshot

Derrick Weston

Derrick Weston is the theological education and training coordinator for Creation Justice Ministries, an ecumenical organization equipping Christians to live in right relationship with God's creation. He is the co-author of the recently released book "The Just Kitchen: Invitations to Sustainability, Cooking, Conection, and Celebration" and co-hosts the Food and Faith podcast. He, his wife, and four children live outside of Baltimore, Maryland.
Image

Nurya Love Parish

Nurya Love Parish is the Founding Executive Director of Plainsong Farm, an ecumenical and Episopal ministry which cultivates connections between people, places and God as a place that nurtures belonging and the radical renewal of God's world. A graduate of Harvard Divinity School and an adult convert to Christianity, she is a priest in the Episcopal Church and a writer and speaker. She advocates for the development of wiser and more resilient food systems as integral to the practice of discipleship in an era of climate change.