THE THEOLOGY OF EATING

MARCH 22, 1998
R.M. FEWKES


Eating and drinking is something we do every day of our lives, but we rarely give much thought to it, at least not of a theological nature. We eat to live and live to eat and that's about the size of it except that some of us would like to reduce the size of our waist line. My colleague in Lexington, Helen Cohen, says that, "Nothing so basic, so central to living as food is without religious, moral and psychological significance. We can learn much about ourselves from what we eat, how we eat, and when and where and why and with whom we eat."

It is recorded that Jesus once said of himself, "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Behold a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinner!' Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds." (Matt. 11:19) In the context of his time Jesus proposed a radical and revolutionary theology of eating. He broke all the rules of dietary laws and religious respectability and said they didn't amount to much. He seemed willing to break bread with just about anybody, saint or sinner, and as far as fasting was concerned he implied that he wanted no part of it and that he intended to enjoy eating and drinking with his disciples as long as he lived. Remember when he instructed his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath so that they could make bread for a meal? He could have fasted and waited until the next day, but he deliberately violated the Sabbath laws to rile the Pharisees and Saducees. His point was that it was not what entered into a man from the outside that was the cause of sin, but rather what came out of a person from within--namely, thoughts of evil, pride, violence, lust and greed--and thought is father to the deed.

Who were these so-called sinners that Jesus was willing to welcome to his table? They were those outside the pale of religious respectability--careless, ignorant, nonpracticing Jews and Gentiles, often contemptuously called "the people of the earth", and practicing Jews avoided them as "unclean" and unworthy, just as Hindu Brahmin's would never eat or associate with untouchables. Mahatma Gandhi, you will recall, went out of his way to eat and associate with untouchables, and Gandhi took a lesson or two from the teachings of Jesus. Jesus said as it were, "I'll sup with anyone who will sup with me. In the Kingdom of God we are all equals. God invites everyone to the Messianic Feast. There are no social distinctions or disqualifying factors except pride and prejudice, selfishness and contempt, and lack of joy and acceptance." And then he might say, "People of the earth, come sup with me. We'll raise a toast to life and the Giver of Life, and we'll all be glad in the knowledge that we are loved and forgiven, worthy of acceptance by God and one another."

Jesus' theology of eating was embracive and encompassing. It was not exclusive and divisive. "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Behold a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!" We have here, you might say, almost a subtle blessing upon the sin of gluttony, or at least a compassionate understanding of it and a willingness to forgive it in those who are not mean-spirited.

What, after all, is gluttony? It is, as Carolyn Owen-Towle reminds us, a carnal sin, one of the seven deadlies, "a sin of crude and bodily pleasures, a sin against the aesthetic, the beautiful." We've all heard the old saw, "Everything I like is either illegal, immoral or fattening." Well, that's gluttony, the sin of excess. It grows out of the most basic of survival instincts, we must eat to live, and soars far beyond. Jesus you might say blessed gluttony at the marriage feast at Cana when he is reported to have changed water into wine. It was an unnecessary miracle, an excess to please the wedding guests who already had enough food and drink. But a wedding feast is time for excess. As William Blake wrote, "You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough. Excess of sorrows laughs, excess of joy weeps. Exuberance is beauty. Enough, or too much."

In a book on the Seven Deadly Sins, Patrick Leigh-Fermor says that "gluttony is the only one of the deadly seven which is visited by physical retribution this side of the tomb." He queries, "What are snarling and hailstones compared with the pangs of indigestion, palpitations, muck-sweats, heart-burn, bilious attacks, d.t.'s, real alcoholism, nicotine poisoning? It is the only sin that turns us into monsters." Gluttony's retribution is immediately felt and outwardly evident. When we think of gluttony we think of the ancient Romans gorging themselves to the gills, retreating to the vomitoria, and coming back to the feast to gorge themselves all over again. It is reported that one Roman senator had slaves who walked backwards in front of him to carry his paunch. Dante's penalty for gluttons in hell is permanent hounding by Cerbeus the three headed dog in a non-stop hailstorm. You might call this "Dante's Quick Weight Loss Diet For Eternity--lose it now or lose it for eternity.

The prayer of the glutton is the prayer of Augustine paraphrased: "Give me frugality and sobriety, O Lord, but not yet." Patrick Leigh-Fermor says that the physical penalties of gluttony are the heaviest, but it leaves the lightest deposit of guilt. That may or may not be true. More and more Americans are feeling pangs of guilt over their relative abundance in comparison to starving millions in third world nations around the world or the homeless poor who live on the streets of our own cities. We do not enjoy the feeling that others see us as the gluttons of the world even if we do not think it is true. Whether we like it or not we are challenged to welcome the homeless poor and the starving masses to our table of abundance, to share what we are and have with those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

Gluttony is said to be a sin of the privileged rather than the poor. As Americans we live, by and large, in a fat culture that idolizes "the svelte physique." We have a preoccupation with eating and body image. We want to eat well, get fat, lose weight and stay trim all at the same time. It can't be done, but we keep on trying, failing, and wondering why.

It has been suggested by Bruce Marshall, former UU minister in Ohio, that there are basically three theologies of eating that underlie our strange eating patterns and behaviors. They are the theology of Utilitarian Food, Cosmic Cuisine, and The Protestant Palate. The eating of utilitarian food is eating as refueling, the quicker it is done the better, so we can get on with the supposed real business of living--work. Eating on the run, brown bagging it, MacDonald's Drive Through hamburgers, cold cuts between two slices of bread, spaghetti from a can is the typical fare of the utilitarian food eater. The ultimate objective is to keep moving, to get on with it, whatever "it" might be.

Quite the opposite is the vision of eating as Cosmic Cuisine. From the point of view of Cosmic Cuisine eaters whenever someone eats a hotdog and a twinkie the angels weep. What is uppermost is to seek balance with nature. Natural foods is the way to go, "for naturalness is closest to godliness." Cosmic Cuisine devotees "contend that the Utilitarian diet is not only in bad taste, but is harmful to the body and destructive to the earth." Waste, pollution, disease and plague is the penalty we pay for our sins. The rules of Cosmic Cuisine are: shun convenience foods, cook with raw ingredients, make things from scratch, take time to make and partake of your food, don't be in such a rush, get in harmony with nature and with nature's god.

Then there is the way of the Protestant Palate--"purification through sacrifice", "virtue won through deprivation", "salvation earned by not eating things." The guideline here is if you like what you eat you probably should not be eating it. Bruce Marshall mentions the famous New England Transcendentalist, Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, who "created what must be the ultimate Protestant diet; raw apples, unsifted flour and cold water. He felt that the Kingdom would become visible to those who restricted their intake of food to these basics." Alcott once had the audacity to declare at an antislavery convention that he had become "as pure and as wise as was Jesus Christ", the reason being that he ate "nothing but pure vegetables." Since the rest of the world ate animal flesh they became what they ate--"cattle, sheep, fowl and swine." The convention was silenced for a moment until a Methodist minister from New York retorted that Alcott was also just what he ate--"potatoes, turnips, pumpkins, and squash." The convention exploded in laughter.

The idea of "purification through sacrifice" reminds me of the "gruesome grace" that my colleague, Neil Bakker in Providence, offers at gatherings of ministers 'round the table. It's the kind of grace that Alfred Hitchcock might have devised. It goes something like this: "We give thanks to the birdies, beasties and veggies for the sacrifices they have made on our behalf. We ask their forgiveness for taking their life that we might live. As we do so may we be reminded that someday our time too will come." Though we may chuckle a bit at Neil's gruesome grace it in fact is telling the truth about the way things are in this world. And it hooks into the truth of our seventh principle which calls us to affirm and promote "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." The eating of food connects us to the source of life and being whether we are aware of it or not. By becoming aware of it we are also connected to the springs of gratitude within the soul, the awareness that life is a gift and that our sojourn here is temporary. Knowing this we should withhold neither our love for one another nor our very lives, for as the song says, love isn't love till you give it away, and life isn't life abundant till you are willing to share all that you have and are with others.

John Oxenham put it this way in a poem about the sacrament of food:

Let each meal be a sacramental feast,--
A Eucharist each breaking of the bread,...
For all we eat doth come of sacrifice,--
Life out of Death,--since all we eat must yield
Life for our living,--and yet nothing dies,
But in its giving finds its life fulfilled.
The wheat, the plant, the beast and man, all give,
Each of their best, God's purpose to maintain,
And all subserve the end for which all live,
And pass,--to live more worthily again.

As the Son of Man came eating and drinking and made friends with the people of the earth regardless of social distinctions or class let us strive to do likewise in our own eating and drinking, thinking and speaking, living and acting. And let us ever be thankful in the food we eat, the friends we share, the water and wine we drink, the air we breathe, the songs we sing. So be it. Amen.