Virtuous Eating, Part 1: Taking Food Seriously

I felt disappointed when I read Acts 15.

The rising action is thrilling. Empowered and united by the Holy Spirit, the great apostles discuss a question of freedom in Christ and the Christian’s relationship to Law. St. Peter and St. Paul, Barnabas, the apostles, and all the great men of the early church stand in conference and speak together in one voice, declaring what seemed good to them and to the Holy Spirit. That’s right: they speak with God. So important is the matter, they have the letter couriered by no less a man than St. Paul, that brilliant redeemed soul, the pride of the universe.

Then follows the letter. That’s where I get disappointed: it’s just about food. They extend four proscriptions: “abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:29). Well, at least they got somewhere important by the end there, but I’m a little disappointed that they wasted all that time on food.

Of course, finding myself disappointed by Scripture always precedes a realization that I have copious room for growth. Acts 15 is not a disappointing chapter; I’m just a disappointing person when I read it. Why do the apostles and the Holy Spirit write about food? For only one reason: it’s important. This opens the question – could eating, that most frequent interaction between myself and my world besides breathing, actually matter?

It’s possible. If Discovery Channel documentaries have taught me anything, it is that animals have two primary drives: hunger and procreation. Food and sex. Christians generally agree that sex matters to the spiritual life. By comparison, we seem sluggish to probe the interaction between eating and our spiritual life.

Inundated by secular messages about food, the average American Christian would be hard-pressed to explain the Christian understanding of eating. Yet the same Christian can give at least a shallow account of the biblical standard of sexuality, despite being surrounded by unbiblical messages about sex. We recognize that the secular explanation of virtuous sex and the Christian explanation of virtuous sex are aimed at different purposes. Science offers us a condom to defend our bodies; the Bible offers us chastity to defend our souls. Yet, the average Christian explanation of healthy eating would probably sound identical to the secular explanation of healthy eating. There are two possibilities: 1) secular science tells us everything we need to know about eating, or 2) our view of food may be missing something as important as the difference between a condom and chastity.

If these two drives – eating and sex – are the strongest instinctive drives of the human body, the average Protestant’s lack of a position on the more frequent one leaves me concerned about what ideas are floating around in our heads and where we got them. I suspect they aren’t from the Bible.

The biblical account of man, after all, turns quickly to food. The story of Adam and Eve is so familiar, it’s strange how surprised people get when you point out that eating plays a central role. Literature students rush to examine close-up the core of Milton’s apple, but fail to notice Eve standing there chewing on food. And, while we’ve thrown open the book of Genesis on the debate stand in science departments, we’ve closed it in the kitchen.

After Christians overcome their initial surprise at the role of food, they become skeptical. Surely, I’m being too literal. Surely it’s mere chance that we fell for food. It could have been anything – anger or sex or sloth. The heart of the sin isn’t food; it’s disobedience.

Of course, disobedience is the heart of the matter. But, we can’t forget that humanity’s first disobedience was the wrenching of our soul upside down by choosing appetites for earthly things over heavenly ones. Hearing the dinner bell the tempter rang, we did not reply “man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Where we should have answered with abstinence, we answered with appetite. Now, we live infected by our original decision to take care of our stomachs before our souls, to assume that we had to provide for ourselves, that we could provide for ourselves, and that God’s providence was not to be trusted. Our original disobedience is wrapped up in our disordered appetites.

We must take food seriously.

Thank God, one concrete link remains for most Christians between eating and the spiritual life! And, thankfully, in that single sliver of a link glitters the heart of our antidote. While the average Christian may find little spiritual guidance on when to eat and what and how much, we still know (by God’s mercy!) one thing about eating as American Christians: we know we give thanks to God before we do it.

Though the issue is complex, though we almost don’t know what virtuous eating means, at least we have not forgotten the most important antidote for sin: gratitude. Before eating, our great love for God flares out, overcoming our unschooled appetites with a moment of due thanksgiving. In this rightly-ordered action, we oppose ourselves to the Fall. Food, which Adam hoped would sustain us apart from God, is perennially subordinated to our acknowledgment that God sustains us. Food, which Eve was proud to pick for herself, becomes the occasion for our humility.

Though there remains more to examine in order to align our appetites with the Christian life, there is no more beautiful, hopeful place to start than in that simple prayer of gratitude.

(This is the first of a series of three posts on the Christian’s relationship to eating. Subsequent posts will examine the Eucharist, fasting, diets, eating disorders, and the cultural mythos around healthy eating.)