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.