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A Spirituality of Eating

Friday, 27 April 2018  | Charles Ringma



Introduction

To link spirituality and food is not immediately obvious. We more readily link spirituality and fasting as a spiritual practice that has a long history in the Christian tradition. But eating is not simply intrinsic to life; it is also an important dimension of the life of faith, of community, and of witness and service. This is so because spirituality is not a part of life, but has to do with the whole of one’s life. Thus we may define Christian spirituality as ‘a lived encounter with Jesus Christ in the Spirit’.[1] And this ongoing encounter is to shape the entire Gestalt of one’s life. To explore this further, we will listen to some of the biblical narratives, listen to the wisdom of church’s long journey in history, deal with the problem of dualistic thinking and embrace a sacramental vision of life and faith.

A Cultural Starting Point and a Missional Outworking

Before I unpack the introduction, it is relevant to acknowledge my upbringing. I grew up in a Dutch family in Holland and in Australia. We were members of the Reformed church. Meal times were important. The meal was framed by prayers and reading from scripture. And particularly the Sunday meal was a time for guests and for discussion. It should be mentioned that all meals were home-cooked and nutritious, although we undoubtedly ate too many gebakjes, or cakes.

In the nearly two decades of subsequently working with marginalised urban youth, particularly those with addiction issues, meal times featured prominently in a way of life that sought to be restorative and life-giving. We grew our own vegetables, had chickens, baked our own bread and shared meal preparation responsibilities. And particularly the evening meal was in the ‘slow lane’- always at least an hour and sometimes much longer. One of the features was that each person could share something of their day. And one meal in the week was marked as a ‘love feast’ in the tradition of the Moravian communities and had a Eucharistic celebration at its centre.[2]

These two major segments of my life have had a profound impact on my understanding of the spirituality of eating. And these events shaped my reading of scripture, to which we never come with a blank slate.

Glimpses from the Biblical Narratives

While we may be tempted to start with Israel’s festive celebrations in gaining a glimpse of the link between religiosity, community and eating, we need to start much earlier in the biblical narrative in order to gain a picture of what it means to be human. The human being created in the image of God is neither wholly spiritual nor wholly earthly. Thus he/she can’t be thought of solely in spiritual or in biological terms. This means that neither scientific reductionism nor spiritual idealism help us into the mystery of our integrated complexity. John Polkinghorne points us in a better direction with his notion that we are a psychosomatic unity ‘able to participate in a noetic world of ideas and purposes, as well as being able to act within the physical world’.[3] For our purposes we could simply say that we are people who dream and act, pray and eat, and relate to God, neighbour and to our environment.

The Eastern Orthodox scholar, Alexander Schmemann, sharpens these insights for us. He notes the fundamental emphasis on eating in the early Genesis narrative (Genesis 1:29, 2:16, 3:3-6, 3:12-13, 3:17-19), where eating is set in both provisional and problematical terms. The point there is clear: it’s not just a matter of eating to sustain life; it is also that we be rightly related to God in all we do, including our eating. Schmemann (in gender specific-language) notes: ‘Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood’.[4] But there is more. ‘In the Bible the food man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God’.[5] Thus we receive our food not simply with gratitude, but we also eat it sacramentally. Schmemann concludes:

A meal is still a rite – the last ‘natural sacrament’ of family and friendship, of life that is more than “eating” and “drinking”. To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what that ‘something more’ is, but they nonetheless desire to celebrate it. They are still hungry and thirsty for sacramental life.[6]

With this starting point we can see something of the spirituality of eating. Eating is to sustain us, not in our autonomy and self-sufficiency, but in our relationality to God, to nature, to work and labour, and to each other. Thus eating is powerfully symbolic, and this poses a challenge to our contemporary pragmatic and utilitarian attitude to food and eating.

It is this symbolism that is everywhere in the pages of the biblical narratives: Abraham and Sarah’s entertainment of the heavenly visitors (Genesis 18:1-8); Joseph’s provision for Egypt and his alienated family (Genesis 42); God’s provision in Israel’s desert journey (Exodus 16:4-12); the festivals and eating (Leviticus 23); and the prophetic vision for well-being and sustenance (Isaiah 65:17-25). If we link this with Israel’s sacrificial system then a clear picture emerges. ‘Food’ is offered to God in worship, obedience and penance. But this is framed by the God who gives us the provision of the earth and the gift of human labour. And eating is thus about gratitude, celebration and community. Put much more bluntly: food is about relationship with God.

One needs to be only minimally familiar with the pages of the New Testament not to be struck with the emphasis on table fellowship. The feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9:10-17), the return of the Prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), the counter example of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), the parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 22:1-14), the Last Supper (Matthew 26:17-29) and the post-resurrection breakfast (John 21:1-19), are but a few significant accounts.

What is striking about these and many other accounts is that they are about eating. But it is more than just eating. The Last Supper is foundationally sacramental, the Emmaus account is revelatory (Luke 24:13-35), the post-resurrection breakfast is relationally restorative, and the parable of the wedding banquet, and many other parables of Jesus, are parables of reversal where ‘the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame’ (Luke 14:21) are welcomed home, while others excuse themselves from celebrating God’s provision.

Eating has significance. And in the pages of the New Testament, as in the Old Testament, the matter of food and eating is provisional, paradoxical and problematical. Eating acknowledges God’s gifts of creation. Eating is paradoxical in that ‘one does not live by bread alone’ (Matthew 4:4) and, while one may enjoy feasting, there is also a time for fasting (Matthew 9:14-17). And it is problematical in that one can fail to share one’s food and resources with others as is evident in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. In fact, the gospel suggests that, in giving food and drink to the others, we are in fact serving Christ himself (Matthew 25:31-46).[7]

That eating is not simply for now is the theme of the resurrection and the coming into being of new heavens and a new earth and the eschatological hope that we ‘will eat and drink at my table in my kingdom’ (Luke 22:30). Since Jesus is the bread of life (John 6:35), a spiritual participation in Christ and eating as celebration, sustenance and worship will continue to be our creaturely reality in the final Reign of God.

Overcoming Dualist Thinking and Practices

The fundamental Christian reality is dialectical and paradoxical. God is wholly distinct from the world, but also upholds all things. Christ is Son of God and Son of Man. The Christian, in the theology of Martin Luther, is sinner/saint. We are homo faber (the human seen predominantly as worker), but we are also homo adorans (the human seen as worshipper or adorer). We are truly earthlings, but we may also receive the gift of eternal of life.

Living the tension of our creatureliness and that of our eschatological future is never easy. And so we are ever faced with the temptation of various forms of reductionism. While present Western culture wants to negate the religious dimensions of life, in some of the history of Christianity there has been the attempt to negate the earthly.[8]

The latter perspective was clearly expressed by Eusebius (c260-c340), bishop and church historian:

The one [way of life] is above common human living; it admits not marriage, property, nor wealth but wholly separate from the customary life of man devotes itself to the service of God alone in heavenly love. The other life, more humble and more human permits men to marry, have children, undertake office, command soldiers fighting in a good cause, attend to farming, trade and other secondary interests.[9]

For Eusebius, and for many others in the long history of the Christian church, the former rather than the latter was regarded as living a full Christian spirituality. As a consequence the following bifurcation occurred:

            Virginity, rather than sexuality.

            Spirit, rather than the body.

            Fasting, rather than eating.

            Withholding, rather giving.

            Sobriety, rather than celebration.

            Relinquishment, rather than engagement.

            Prayer, rather than action.

Clearly this dualist thinking is reductionistic and unhelpful. It loses the dialectical nature of Christian existence where one is called to be fully immersed and engaged with our world and to be fully with God who seeks to redeem and renew the world. Karl Barth emphasises that the church exists for the world. It also exists for God. And since God exists for the world, the people of God also exist for the world. As such, Barth notes, Christians ‘are made jointly responsible for it [the world], for its future [and] for what is to become of it’.[10]

An emphasis on life that follows the contours of Eusebius does not celebrate the much richer themes of the biblical narratives and makes our eating functional and pragmatic rather than celebrative and worshipful.

As a consequence, we are challenged from both directions – from the world and from our partially warped Christian tradition. Both fail to reflect the integral nature of what it means to be human in Kingdom of God. Both fail to hold together the vertical and horizontal dimensions of life. Both fail to maintain our humanness and spirituality, and our life of prayer and eating.

Conclusion

Eating is life-sustaining, assuming of course that one eats well and that one does more than simply eat. But there is a lot more to eating - much more than what our Western culture emphasises. There, food is fast and utilitarian or an elitist fetish, simply an end itself. In the biblical narratives, however, eating is relational and celebrative. It is an act of worship. It has in view God the provider and the wider human community through whose labour we enjoy the gifts of creation.

Eating together is a significant reminder of our connectedness to God, to the earth and to each other. Just as life is mediated to us through food, so food is a symbol and reminder of all the other ways in which we are sustained practically, relationally and spiritually.

Eating reminds us of our fragility and vulnerability and our need for the human community and the inter-relatedness of all of life. It also calls us missionally to the task of radical hospitality.

But most fundamentally eating calls us into a paschal spirituality. This emphasises that what is given as gift enters ‘death’ in order to give life. This points us to the Christ event: the Lamb of God slain for the sins of the whole world! And thus whenever we partake of food we enter into the great gift, who is the Bread of Life, and whose life and death is for the life of the world.

Charles Ringma has served in urban ministry for twenty years and subsequently has taught in universities, colleges and seminaries in Australia, Asia and Canada. He is Emeritus Professor in Mission Studies at Regent College and Honorary Associate Professor at the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, The University of Queensland, Brisbane.



[1] L. S. Cunningham and K. J. Egan, Christian Spirituality: Themes from the Tradition (New York: Paulist Press, 1996), 7.

[2] A. J. Lewis, Zinzendorf the Ecumenical Reformer: A Study in the Moravian Contribution to Christian Mission and Unity (London: SCM Press, 1962).

[3] Quoted in S. J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 160.

[4] A. Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 11.

[5] Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 14.

[6] Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 16.

[7] For a helpful account see C. D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

[8] For helpful corrective to a world-denying spirituality and eschatology see J. R. Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).

[9] See Charles Ringma, Whispers from the Edge of Eternity: Reflections on Life and Faith in a Precarious World (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2005), 95.

[10] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol. IV, 3, II (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1962), 776.


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