Food & Faith Chapter 2 Reflections

Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating
Norman Wirzba, Ph.D.
Cambridge University Press, 2011

Having provided a foundation for thinking theologically about food, Dr. Wirzba begins his theology of food and eating where God originally created humanity – the garden. By being involved in the gardening process, we find “our fundamental and inescapable home” (p. 37). As Dr. Wirzba explains, “To be a gardener is to be involved in one of the most fundamental of human tasks, namely, the effort to understand human creaturliness as our life together with other creatures and God” (p. 36). Gardening gives our existence shape by placing us in our natural home to rely on God and other creatures.

A discussion of place/home for our culture is important because so many of our lives are defined by a lack of home or place. We are a culture defined by the move. We are no longer tied to the land of our ancestors, even to that of our parents. While there are some advantages to this freedom of mobility it is not without its consequences. One of the major consequences is a pervasive feeling of disorientation, which Dr. Wirzba describes as “a fundamental distortion of who one should be and what one should do” (p. 41, emphasis original).

To counteract this aura of disorientation, Dr. Wirzba uses the Sabbath as a “model for what our life together in a place should look like” (p. 43). Dr. Wirzba’s view of the Sabbath differs from what I have heard. Rather than a rest from creation, he understands the Sabbath to be a complete entrance into the life of creation and all that is made available to us. Therefore, Sabbath is about being fully present to life rather than a disengagement from it, which is what I feel like I hear most often. This view of Sabbath also means that Sabbath is a discipline of seeking and finding God where he has placed me instead of continually uprooting and searching for the next biggest and best thing. Or as Dr. Wirzba writes, “Sabbath dwelling becomes possible as people give up the restless search for a more lucrative world and more agreeable friends, and instead embrace the places and communities that have been given as the concrete manifestations of God’s love” (p. 46).

One of the main lessons which gardening can teach us is the fact that we are not ultimately in control. It is tempting to think of gardens as utopia; Paradise will be regained on earth if only we all lived in gardens again. However, we still live under the curse of sin, which means sweat, toil, and weeds and we will continue to live under the curse until Jesus returns to ultimately redeem all of heaven and earth. But until then, gardening has the ability to teach us that no of us can ever live alone – autonomy is an impossible distortion of creation. Gardeners rely not only on their own knowledge, but on a vast amount of others, from nature to the micro ecosystems within the soil to produce the crop, much of which are beyond his control. Gardeners begin to see that they are members of all of creation, that a sense of interdependency pervades all of creation as God originally intended.

Gardening also has the ability to teach us an attentiveness that is counterintuitive to our culture today. Gardening cannot be sped up without altering and often destroying the beauty of the crop; a lesson I learned by waiting on our lemon and orange trees back in the Fall. Through gardening and a heightened sense of attentiveness we begin to see the world in a different life and take on the disposition and “the desire to work with rather than against others” (p. 55, emphasis original). Gardeners are better equipped to see the depth and the intricacies of creation which leads to a richer praise of God, according to Dr. Wirzba (p. 60).

While gardening has intrinsic value of its own as stated above, the ultimate of goal of gardening is to better understand the Triune God and how he gardens his people, thereby learning how to treat others with the same dignity. In this discussion, Dr. Wirzba uses John 15 and the image of the vine as the guiding motif. He writes:

This is arresting imagery because it communicates not only how dependent we are on God but also how important it is that we synchronize and tune our living to the true life that God reveals to us in Christ. Human life is to grow out of Christ, who is the vine, so that we can then be the agents of God’s continuing care in the world. We cannot mirror God’s nature if we are not inspired and fed – not gardened – by God (p. 67).

Intimacy is communicated clearly through the image of a vine and branches, more so than any other image Jesus used. As Dr. Wirzba writes, “Branch and vine are seamlessly connected such that it is hard to pinpoint exactly where on ends and the other begins…. The branch, by being what it is, reflects automatically the nurture and goal of the vine” (p. 67). But the vine and the branch do remain different and distinct. I will never become the vine, but hopefully I have so attuned myself to the vine that people see more of Jesus in my actions.

In learning how Jesus gardens his people, including me, how he treats me with respect and dignity, I should in turn learn not only how to be with others better, but also how to garden and care for creation.

This chapter challenged and inspired me. I have never been a gardener. I love plants and I love the beauty of gardens, but I have never taken the time to learn how to cultivate a garden. Gardening is an activity that I hope I can start to develop, but it is hard when Claire and I are renting a place and are unsure how long we will be there. Our lives at the present do not lend themselves to building deep roots, which we do not like, but also realize that it is hopefully only for a time. I also have to realize that starting small is okay; I am not going to have a huge garden overnight. But I can start by doing an herb garden that does not take up a lot of space and may even be portable.

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Summer Prayer

Summer season kicks off today at Forest Home Family Camp, where I work, which means for the next nine weeks, literally thousands of people ranging from babies to grandparents will make their way up the mountain to spend a week at camp. One of the traditions of Forest Home is to have an all staff commissioning service on the Friday before summer season starts. During the service, I was given time to reflect and pray to the Triune God what he might have for me and others this summer.

As I prayed and asked God what he might have for me, the image I kept receiving was the picture of Rublev’s icon of the Trinity in the midst of Lakeview Kitchen, which I am manager of. This image kept bringing me back to the idea of perichoresis, which I discussed in my reflections on the first chapter of Food & Faith by Dr. Norman Wirzba.

My prayer and my desire for this summer is to make room for others as I lead. To allow my coworkers to flourish. To teach and to empower them so that they can lead the meal and not rely on me. I told one of my coworkers, who will be working closely with me this summer, that by the end of the summer I want to be able to wash dishes and to have him and the person scheduled as the dishwasher to run the meal.

This idea is so challenging to me because I am a slight perfectionist when it comes to cooking. I like the meal to turn out how I want, and so in wanting to live and love as the Trinity lives and loves, I must surrender this. I will have to be okay with my coworkers failing. I will have to be okay with taking the blame when that happens. But I also know that if over the course of the next nine weeks, I can begin to internalize this and partially live this out, this summer will be good, not because of the food we made, but because we impacted and challenged each other to live and to become the people who have room to allow others to be more fully themselves.

It is easy to write this today before summer has officially begun, but it will be another thing to live this out for the next nine weeks. But I hope that in writing this prayer I will hold myself accountable before God and others to make this a discipline for the summer. Therefore, if you read this, I ask that you simply encourage me to live this way. I will do the same for you.

Food & Faith Chapter 1 Reflections

Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating
Norman Wirzba, Ph.D.
Cambridge University Press, 2011

Back in the summer of 2008, a Talbot professor, knowing of my interest in food and theology, sent me an email about Norman Wirzba, Ph.D., joining the faculty at Duke Divinity School. What was of personal interest to me was the fact that the release mentioned that Dr. Wirzba was currently working on a book on the theology of food. Fast forward to today, and the book (Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating) is now available, so of course I ordered it right away.*

I recently finished Chapter 1 – “Thinking Theologically about Food” and figured I would provide a synopsis as well as some of my own reflection.

The purpose of chapter one was to provide the preliminary foundation of what a theology of eating might look like, a prolegomena of sorts. The chapter opens with the question, “Why did God create a world in which every living creature must eat?” (p. 1) Ultimately for Dr. Wirzba, “Food is about the relationships that join us to the earth, fellow creatures, loved ones and guest, and ultimately God” (p. 4).

Probably the most important section in chapter one is his discussion on how to name the world, distinguishing between a natural view and a creational view. Dr. Wirzba believes in a creational view, understanding the world to be “the concrete expression of God’s hospitable love making room for what is not God to be and to flourish” (p. 7). Even though we live in a fallen world, the world and all of creation are still God’s ongoing gift.

The basis for this understanding of the world is derived from Dr. Wirzba’s understanding of the Trinity, specifically the perichoresis within the Trinity. According to Dr. Wirzba, “It suggests that person do not first exist as individuals and then at some time enter into relationship with each other (thus making relationship an optional affair), or even that they are always marked by interdependence. Trinitarian life shows that relationality goes much deeper, constituting rather than merely marking reality” (p. 9, emphasis original). Since the world was created by a Triune God, who is defined by relationship, then all of reality is also marked by the same inherent relationality, which means relationships are never secondary or optional. The image that came to mind as I read this was of Rublev’s famous icon of the Trinity, pictured.

This understanding means that food is “a gift of love” (p. 11). Food as love dawned on me a few years back when I was making chili and the recipe called for three different types of bell peppers. I challenge you to take a few minutes and think about the fact that God did not give us only green bell peppers, but green, red, yellow and orange. Only a God who deeply loves his creation and wants it to enjoy life as he enjoys life does something like this. I am also reminded of God’s love through food by the beauty of tomatoes at the peak of their season – the colors and nuances of flavor. Or a perfect strawberry.

A Trinitarian understanding of all of reality has an even bigger implication for eating. Eating is no longer an activity about maintaining my life; eating is “about extending hospitality and making room for others to find life by sharing in our own” (p. 11). In opening my house and my table to others, I am hopefully inviting them to not be like me, for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are never trying to get the others to be like them; rather, like the members of the Trinity, I am inviting others to more fully discover themselves.

Typing this right now, the weight of this idea hit me a little more. This model for eating is by no means easy. In order to do this, I must have first made room for me to be me. I cannot welcome others to be themselves until I have partially become myself. If I am not comfortable with who God has created me to be, then I will always be looking for the approval of others when I invite them to dine. Secondly, if Dr. Wirzba is correct, which I feel he is, then this understanding also means that I must release control of others. I must trust that God will do the work of forming others. Yes I must be faithful, but that does not mean contorting and distorting that image of God in front of me to be a little more like me than not.

Dr. Wirzba also begins to tackle the harsh realities of food in our modern age. Even something as wonderful as bread is not without its own problems. He also talks about food’s commodification and the modern industrialization of food productions practices, which looks at the effects of capitalism on food and eating habits. Crops and animals are no seen primarily in monetary terms instead of being understood as deeply connected to us and all of Creation.

He ends the chapter with what I hope is only the beginning of developing an understanding of eating as a spiritual exercise. He writes, “Eating together should be an occasion in which people learn to become more attentive and present to the world and each other” (p. 28). In a society driven by speed, eating is an activity which can train people to notice the smaller graces of life more. We have to eat at least two to three times a day, so why not take an extra 15-30 minutes and notice what and how we are eating? Through thoughtful eating, the hope and desire of Dr. Wirzba, and myself, is that we connect to God – the Ultimate Sustainer of life – and find our pleasure in him.

I am excited about this book and excited to see how Dr. Wirzba continues to develop the general themes he outlined in chapter one. Dr. Wirzba is sometimes idealistic in how humans should approach food. At times it seems as though he longs for a return to simpler times when humans cultivated the land around them, thereby keeping them grounded with Creation. I too wish I could buy all of my food from farms that treated Creation like God would want us to, but sadly this is just not a reality for me or many others in our world. I hope that as I read the book, Dr. Wirzba addresses how are we to eat and relate to food given our current cultural conditions.

*Full Disclosure: This is how big of nerd I am – I would check Amazon every so often over the past few years to see if the book was published. What can I say? The book got me really excited.