Christian Book Previews Home
Christian Book Previews
Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
144 pages
May 2004
Augsburg Fortress Publishers

Food for Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating

by L. Shannon Jung

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt


Chapter 1

Hungry for More

    In this condition, we have many commodities but little satisfaction, little sense of the sufficiency of anything. The scarcity of satisfaction makes of our many commodities an infinite series of commodities, the new commodities invariably promising greater satisfaction than the older ones. In fact, the industrial economy’s most marketed commodity is satisfaction, and this commodity, which is repeatedly promised, bought, and paid for, is never delivered.
    —Wendell Berry

    As we learn how to glorify God in our bodies (1 Cor. 6:20), we can see how our physical desires are not just needs to be met, but opportunities to encounter God’s goodness, serving God’s love here and now.
    —Robert Morris

A Cornucopia of Food Experiences

People were waking up in Amalfi, Italy.

The little town, nestled in a coastal valley, was bustling on Saturday morning. The entire population of school kids was climbing up the hill (yes, school on Saturday!), and the fruit and vegetable vendors were setting up.

The vendors had driven in early; who knows how early they had to get up? They were unloading crates of the most delectable fru i t —giant Sicilian blood oranges, reddish inside and sweet; pears so juicy

they almost burst; apples of six or seven types. And the vegetables—

onions of all colors; tomatoes still bound together by their vines;

c h i c o ry; artichokes; cabbages whose leaves looked like variegated

road maps. This was truly an abundance of food.

The older women and men (mostly women) who came to shop early were there before the trucks were unloaded. They clearly knew the farmers’ schedules and anticipated them. “What’s good today?” “How wonderful those look!” “What are you charging for the onions?” By 8:00 a.m. there was already a procession of shoppers up and down the hill laden with bags full of the best of everything. I flashed back to the wonderful farmers’ market in the shadow of the state capitol high on the hill in Madison, Wisconsin. As in Amalfi, Saturday was a special day for food.

Our friends and guides for our weekend excursion in Amalfi, Ken and Stephen, know food: international and domestic. My wife and I have eaten so well, and so often, with them. Without Ken and Stephen, the food would not have been flavored with such good conversation.

On this Saturday—clear, bright, and warm—the beauty of the mountains sheltering our hillside rental pushed us down toward the Mediterranean. We took a long hike later that morning up into the mountains, past Roman ruins and waterfalls and lemon groves.

The town of Amalfi differed from our neighborhood in Rome, Italy, mostly in its topography. But we had our favorite fruit and vegetable vendors there as well: the married couple who love to carp at each other and an older gentleman, shy around foreigners. We too lugged groceries up the hill. We learned what it cost to buy too much milk or fruit juice or wine. By the end of the trip home, carrying too much weight cut into one’s fingers. We came to appreciate food in a new way. We got closer to our food, ate closer to the vine and to the pasta-maker, and were more cognizant of what it took to move from field to table.

We got hooked on our local a l i m e n t a r i , or grocery store. The butcher, baker, stocker, checkout women, and boss were all related to each other. Most days the family quarrels were confined to the back room; occasionally they spilled out into the public area. The whole family, to varying degrees, put up with our stumbling Italian and even instructed us about the food when the store wasn’t too busy. I loved it. I even felt guilty when we shopped at the SMA, the supermarket down in the piazza, instead of Fratelli Ugaldi’s.

Sadly, it’s when we’re caught up in glorious abundance that we are often blinded to others’ very different food experiences. That little mom-and-pop store reminded me of shopping at Mister David’s store back in Zachary, Louisiana, when I was growing up. My world of experience in Zachary as well as in Rome was idyllic. There were h u n g ry people in both places, of course, but the social structure of my white, middle-class world segregated me from the hungry, the poor, and African Americans, to say nothing of people of other races.

Somehow, it was thought, the recognition of poverty or racism would shatter the idyll. To be sure, we saw beggars in Rome, in the metro stops, along busy streets in central Rome. The opening sign of their placards always read, “Ho fame” (“I am hungry”). Often they would have little children with them going from person to person, collecting donations with, invariably, a fast-food drink cup. But what was amazing to me was how carefully, how invisibly, the hungry were separated from my daily life.

In Monte Mario, the subdivision where we lived in Rome, there was no begging and there were no “gypsies.” “Gypsies,” in fact, is a term that is used often to denigrate, to exclude, and to discount all poor people as peripatetic, lazy, and immoral. The derogatory stereotype is used to justify and whitewash the “respectable” world’s complicity in the hunger and poverty of the poor.

We found ourselves amid a cornucopia of food experiences in Italy.

The wonderful, the idyllic, and the distasteful were all part of the mix—not all that different from where I grew up or maybe from where you live. Food—a cultural, spiritual, and moral casserole. Welcome to the feast!

Forgetting Food, Forgetting God

We have cut ourselves off from the abundant life that God intends for all people. This is a most serious matter, for it goes to the nature and destiny of human life: to glorify God and to enjoy God forever!1We have become disoriented and estranged from God, neighbor, and self.

One glaring way we have forsaken abundant life is that we no longer fully appreciate or enjoy God’s great gift of food. We have forgotten the purposes behind the blessing of food and have been satisfied with an impoverished appreciation of eating. Eating is a spiritual practice that reminds us of who we are in the global ecology. Forgetting what food is means we also forget who God is, who we are, and the nature of the world we inhabit.

There are two ways we suffer from failing to enjoy food and eating, and both are caused by disconnections. The first is that we Christians forget who is the giver of the gifts of food and eating. We forget the source of our food. To the extent that we are disconnected from enjoying food, we become disconnected from God. Food becomes mundane, a reality that slips beneath our notice. We may lose sight of the material reality of God’s movement and care.

The second disconnection we experience in not enjoying food is that we lose a sense of relationship with other human beings and the e a rth. The majority of us who live in the United States and other affluent nations have become mindless to what all is involved in food—its production, preparation, enjoyment, and capacity to promote social bonding. Food is too routine, too easy, too cheap, too available for us to note what it represents and offers. We forget what it takes to grow and prepare food. We chase success in the midst of plenty. Satisfaction and enjoyment are readily available, but we race by our neighbors and by succulent meals too fast to see those possibilities.

We have lost sight of God’s greatest blessings—the earth and other humans, both of which nurture us.

A Worldview without Joy

Those of us in the affluent modern sector of the world have inherited a worldview that decreases the amount of enjoyment we experience—a view that sees life as a business to be managed and images ourselves as “skin-encapsulated egos.”2 The ego, of course, is that part of the self that manages the psyche and the self’s activities. The phrase “skin-encapsulated egos” also notes the way we discount our bodies and fail to consider others, our bodies, or the earth as integral to who we are. To the extent that we incorporate this worldview, we understand ourselves primarily as individuals who, by managing the external affairs of the world and our relationships, can produce happiness.

It is a worldview that touts the extent of human control and has much in common with an Enlightenment set of assumptions. It suggests that we can buy happiness and manage ourselves to generate a happy life.

Significant factors feed into the worldview that we can control our lives and ourselves. One does not have to look far to see how advertising employs base metaphors to encourage consumption, sending us the message that we can manage our lives and the environment.

A d v e rtising and marketing aim to make us feel dissatisfied with what we have—we can never have enough, and what we have can never be new enough. The sheer quantity of advertising that so many of us take in socializes us into this worldview.

The (over)work patterns of Americans are a second influential sector of our lives and also carry many of these same messages.3 T h e long hours and increasing demands of work tend to foster in us an i n s t rumental view of ourselves: oblivious to bodily stress and i m p e rvious to enjoyment. These work experiences remove us from the immediacy of bodily experience in the name of efficiency and p e rf o rm a n c e .

The events of September 11, 2001, seem to have heightened our sense of the need to control our lives, even as they revealed our vuln e r a b i l i t y. They have demonstrated just how much enjoymentdepends on others and how hollow are the claims of what achievement and accomplishment can produce. Still, fear of what could happen and a distrust of others continues to affect our capacity to enjoy.

These examples bring into view yet another aspect of this worldview: the apprehension that scarcity lurks just beyond the present moment. Indeed, an economic downturn becomes a real cause for desperation. Yet, even when experiencing abundance, we feel we have to work hard to avoid calamity or other unhappiness.

In short, life is about business. At the root of this worldview is a mechanistic model of the self that divides life into separate components— work, family, religion, play, health, civic life, and friendship. We have to be mindful of each area and make certain each is independently healthy and doing well; that is our understanding of wellbeing, of success.

This set of values and assumptions, so representative of a Protestant work ethic, proves counterproductive to enjoyment. Protestants feel vaguely guilty when they stop working a moment to relax and enjoy life. Such values emasculate our native abilities to feel, to sense, to encounter the world immediately. In times of economic prosperity the skin-encapsulated ego may be able to put off or manage his or her life “successfully,” if without enjoyment. In times of crisis, however, this worldview creates feelings of powerlessness and d e s p a i r. The promise of procuring happiness by following this path falls flat. We find ourselves enjoying our lives less than we thought we would.

An Alternative Worldview

An alternative view sees life basically as a matter of relationships. This relational model expresses the more abundant life that God intends for all God’s creatures—a life in which meaning and happiness arise from relating to others, ourselves, and nature. Relationships, from this point of view, are intrinsically valuable rather than just instrumental. Such a model also connects our relationship with God with our potential for happiness.

Much of enjoyment is as mysterious as relationships. We cannot produce it; we simply have to appreciate it. There are many sources of enjoyment, however, and we can do much to experience those source. We can open ourselves to enjoy our lives and can encourage others to enjoy theirs as well. All of us are connected to each other and to natural life in such a way that our enjoyment reinforces and increases that of others, and others’ enjoyment increases ours. Thus we all have a stake in others’ and our own enjoyment.

The base metaphor for this worldview, then, is that we are holistic creatures who live in and through a communal web. We are bodily as well as spiritually and mentally alive. Unhappiness is the result of being relationally estranged, disconnected, and disoriented. Happiness and well-being consist of a harmonious connection with other beings, God, and the world. Others are intrinsically valuable, and our own happiness is a by-product of being rightly related to them and to ourselves. There is no scarcity of that which produces happiness and fulfillment, and this view does not foster a mechanistic, managerial approach to life. How radical is that?

To be sure, in discussing these two worldviews as “alternatives” to each other, I have overdrawn the contrast. There are areas of life where a managerial, controlled style is both necessary and desirable— for example, areas where law is appropriate and needed. There are regions of the world and even parts of affluent countries where there is material scarcity that detracts from life itself. Work is not always drudgery; for many, work is fulfilling and meaningful. However, this contrast calls attention to what receives first priority: Are our lives primarily oriented to management or to relationships? Are our relationships in the service of individual planning (the business model) or is our individual planning in the service of relationships?

Food experiences provide an excellent case study for these contrasting worldviews. Eating is something we do everyday: we can either approach it as a task, something to get done, or we can approach it as an occasion for appreciation and enjoyment, something to be experienced.

Beginning with Experience

Why is an exploration of food and eating integral to our happiness?

We must begin, as we already have, with experience. We do this because we believe that God is present in and through the experience of eating, and that our theology needs to reflect an awareness of that natural goodness. This is important for believers who may not expect to find God active in such everyday or routine acts as eating. One of my colleagues says that most people in biblical times spent 90 percent of their time producing or preparing food; another talks about Jesus eating his way through the Gospel of Luke!

Too often our theology seems to deal only with distant abstractions; things like food and eating seem too mundane for theological treatment. Many people have had difficulty believing me when I have told them I am writing a theology and ethics of eating. I interpret their quizzical looks (if not outright laughter) as an indication that they don’t really believe there is anything theological about eating. (But then, ironically, they almost invariably tell me food stories!)

God’s blessings and grace are all around us, and we miss these signs of God’s grace because they are too mundane, too everyday, too present. This must pain God. After all, how do you feel when your gifts are set aside?

When we begin with experience, theology loses its aura of dealing only with remote, profound, and infrequent events or doctrines. Indeed, our own experience counts, and counts a great deal, in this theology of eating. Our own sense of religious experience is on the front burner of this book, so to speak. Our experience of eating becomes part of the subject matter of theology. Food and eating can reveal the presence of God; they can also express the deepest values of our community. I invite you to consider how God is present in the food that you and I eat and the full experience of it.

An increasing number of theologians today begin with experience—especially women theologians and those writing from their own experiences in developing countries. By writing their experiences of God’s activity in the world, they call us to recognize where God is active rather than make us “think God into the world” or “apply” their theology to the world. Most Christians believe that God is already present in the world. Thus, theology is a way of thinking about our religious experience of God.

Let me illustrate briefly. We could take the doctrine of resurr e ction to indicate only a belief in Jesus’ resurrection or the resurrection of the body in an age to come. However, feminist theologians suggest that resurrection indicates the possibility of a new life that God enables every day. Feminist theology suggests a renewed valuing of bodily life in all its forms and calls on the church to be the bearer of r e s u rrection—to be the witness to the new life that is already effected by Jesus Christ.4 Christians have traditionally focused so much on the ways bodily resurrection is “not yet” that they miss the ways that it is already present. The celebration of eating may be one way to celebrate the “already” of the bodily resurrection.

Imaginative Eating

Living the resurrection is an experience with powerful implications for how we live, including how we eat. The experience of new life is what resurrection is about. Similarly I hope that we might discover the sense of resurrection and blessing that accompanies eating.

Hans Georg Gadamer, a German philosopher, conceived of the relationship between experience and thought as the difference between dancing and talking about dancing. Gadamer pointed out that the meaning of dancing is, in the first place, in the dancing itself.

Analogously, for us the first meaning of food is in the eating of it, in the experience and sensations of eating. In the second place, the dance’s meaning resides in our ability to enter through imaginative empathy into the experience of others’ dancing. For food and eating, this second meaning resides in our ability to imagine others’ eating (or not eating). Only in the third place, and this derives from the other two, does the meaning of the dance consist of words that are spoken or written about it.5

The meaning of food, then, is to be found at a primal level in the experience of eating. A second level is our empathetic imagination of the other’s eating. The third level, then, consists of trying to convey or think about the experience. My fear is that the foundational meaning of eating and drinking may be lost, both the experience of eating and also what Christians understand about food when they say grace or celebrate the Eucharist. Often theology moves to abstractions and loses the foundational experience. This would be equivalent to trying to describe a dance without ever having danced or without ever having entered empathetically into another’s dancing. That is why I suggest that we, today, recover the fullness of the experience of eating, of saying grace, and of Eucharist.6

Saying Grace Habitually

I confess that our family’s everyday table blessing frequently becomes routine. We simply go through the motions when we sing, “Oh, the Lord’s been good to me, and so I thank the Lord. . . .” But we don’t really thank the Lord. We are not conscious of God’s graciousness to us and the way Jesus Christ became an eater like us. However, even then, I want to hold on to traditions, because sometimes we can breathe new life into them. Sometimes I can rest in them when I am completely out of breath. In the writing of this book, I have become newly appreciative of food—its ultimate source in God and also its penultimate sources: earth and laborers, the people I share food with, and the concerns we bring to the table. I recognize and respect the world of those plants and animals that have contributed to my nurture and pleasure. In this way I become sensitive to God’s grace and newly aware of my dependence on God, other people, and other beings. I am more attuned to grace while I am “saying” it.

Still, “saying grace” becomes fairly mundane at times. Even then (perhaps especially then), my wife reminds me, the forms themselves can carry us; they may prevent us from falling farther away from God. At other times we are more aware of grace in our lives by praying over the food, giving thanks, and asking for God’s continued blessing. One of the reasons why saying grace becomes mundane is because we are seldom really hungry. This also accounts for our lack of attention to food and eating as a religious activity.

A Range of Hungers

Most Christians in the affluent, industrialized “First World” are seldom if ever hungry. In fact, many of us do not think of hunger as a n o rmal human experience. The sort of hunger we may only occasionally feel is a gentle hint on a scale of negativity, which middle-class N o rth Americans avoid at all costs.7 F o rt u n a t e l y, it is impossible to avoid a sensation that we might identify as pre-hunger. This can make us aware of just how biological we creatures still are, and it allows us to enter into the experience of eating or not eating. It allows us to imagine hunger, to remember that hunger is a primary human experience.

We can also enter empathetically into other people’s experience of not eating or, indeed, of overeating. We know what eating is, even if our own experience of hunger does not awaken the empathy for not eating that an intense experience of hunger might.

Our hunger is natural, and it points to a number of other hungers. Hunger of any kind—for food, for companionship, for cultural stimulation,and so on—drives the human animal to search for that which we need (or, in the case of misguided drives, at least for what we think we need). To be sure, there are distorted hungers and clear legitimate and illegitimate limits to the satisfaction of hunger. Even in the case of distortion, however, hunger is a clue to genuine desire and to God-given appetites.

Basic hunger is functional; it drives us toward satisfaction. It is a global human experience. There is no immunity from hunger; without eating, a human being can only live for two or three weeks. The limit on lack of water is much short e r, four or five days. Hunger makes us aware of the degree of our dependence on the world of nature for food, air, and water. Hunger is painful, a fact that is difficult for us who are the comfortable to remember. Hunger can make people aware of their interdependence with other human beings and the institutions we have created. When we are frustrated, hunger can be brutalizing. It can begin to take over the rest of our lives.8

Hunger for food also expresses other physical needs—needs for warmth, shelter, clothing, sleep, and touch. We hunger to meet other nonphysical needs: a life of companionship with other human beings, animals, and the world of nature. We hunger for freedom from fear, for human dignity, for some voice in our future, for sex, beauty, and security.9

Hunger and Desire

Often we fail to see desire or appetite as an asset. However, hunger reveals the centrality of desire for well-being. Never to be hungry mutes the place of appetite, and with it the positive way that appetite lifts into consciousness the role of that for which we hunger. Losing sensitivity to hunger for food may make it more difficult to recognize and deal with other kinds of hunger. It makes it difficult to understand oneself as a biological and emotional creature.

There has been a groundswell of Christian theological thought about the role of desire. Leon Kass, a philosopher and chair of the President’s Commission on Bioethics, suggests that appetite, desire, and longing are integral to human nature and, as he puts it, “Appetite or desire, not DNA, is the deepest principle of life.”10 Kass’s account looks first not to eating c u s t o m s as a clue to the perfecting of our nature but “to nature, to the meaning of what is naturally given to us as human beings, here and everywhere, now and always: our need for food. . . . [T]he testimony of our own lived experience can provide a royal road to appreciating what we are and discovering what we might become.”11 Kass finds appetite, longing, and desire to be “the spur to all aspiration, to action and awareness, to having a life at all. Bodies as incorruptible as diamonds, or bodies beyond themselves, would have no impulse or orientation to the world beyond their borders. . . . Here, in the germ of hunger, is the origin of all the appetites of the hungry soul”12 Kass also identifies food as relational. His perspective is exciting because it arises from natural experience and reveals the “germ” of hunger that ranges from material need to the need for love in a way that elevates the material and concretizes the metaphysical. Kass’s perspective implies at base a deeply religious, incarnational theology.13

The recent work of Michelle Lelwica, Starving for Salvation: The Spiritual Dimensions of Eating Problems among American Girls and Wo m e n , suggests that the pain and suffering that is associated with hunger can be a first step toward recognizing and beginning to counter those dynamics that lead to eating disorders.1 4 To be sure, the intense hunger that precedes starvation is nothing to be celebrated.

Nevertheless, the point here is that we should attend to our desires, our hungers, and our longings not only to fulfill or satiate them and certainly not to misidentify distorted appetites as “hungers.” Instead, we need to attend to our hungers to examine our deepest needs and nature and be able to identify where appetite ends and greed begins. Otherwise, we will continue to live with unsatisfied appetites rather than being happy. We need to locate and prioritize our authentic hungers so that we might learn how to live together in a way that respects each other and the rest of the natural world. That sort of respect and appreciation can be thought of as an impulse toward worshiping God. The world of eating is one groundlevel experience that can open onto these vistas.

Our Deepest Hunger

Our deepest hunger, our greatest need, is “to be called forth into the fullness of being,” which Monika Hellwig, a Roman Catholic moral theologian, calls “creative love,” and which can be thought of as wholeness or salvation. This need “often makes itself felt in a hunger to be worthwhile, to be valued or appreciated, to have a purpose or goal in life.”15 Hunger for a “creative love” is hunger for a force so grounded and grounding that the person can give as well as receive.

Creative love supports accountability, weathers criticism, and directs one’s life holistically. It calls for sharing and living in conscious dependence, for people to be fully alive and flourishing. It emerges in people who have such a sense of personal worth and meaning that they can share with others.

The Christian image of what it is to be fully human is found in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Especially in the image of Christ crucified for all created beings, voluntarily giving his life for all, Christians locate the redemption of all life. As Hellwig puts it, “this is why we are able to find there [in self-giving] the key to the redemption of the world from its self-maintaining cycle of hungers and oppressions.”16

God’s Grace and Our Hungers

C l e a r l y, hunger is an important guide to our well-being and enjoyment.

It directs us, through desire, to that authentic creative love that belongs, in the first place, only to God. God has communicated that love to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper is an invitation into Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is no coincidence that this invitation comes at the table that meets our deepest hunger. This table also celebrates our ability to give—to live out to some extent the gracious giving-ness of God—and thus express hope for the whole world.

It is a great mystery to me that “only in hungering and thirsting after righteousness” shall I be filled (Matt. 5:6). Or that only by losing myself, by giving myself, that I will find myself. Indeed, God has arranged our hungers in such a way that in them we can see God’s intention in both creation and also what has been revealed most fully in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The claim that sharing and self-giving is the way of redemption is a mystery. It is also quite countercultural, especially in light of the presiding mechanistic worldview in our society. If Jesus had advised hoarding food or eating only with one’s friends, that our culture can understand! We can only glimpse the mystery of our great hungers for food and for creative love, which underwrite the world. We worship the Father, Son, and Spirit who designed and continue to design our world. Trying to pretend to unravel this mystery is perhaps as dangerous as ignoring it. This book will try to maintain that tension.

What we do know is that food and eating are important avenues toward understanding God’s presence in the world. Food and eating can satisfy our hungers in such a way that they lead to that creative love that issues in deepest enjoyment and joyful sharing.