- Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating by Norman Wirzba
At the heart of the Christian religion is an act of eating: the Eucharist. Otherwise known as the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, or the Mass, this is referred to in all four Gospels and described by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. From these facts, it might reasonably be assumed that food has a prominent place in Christian theology and spirituality. Unfortunately, this is not true. Since Augustine, who was anxious to distance himself from the Manichean sect, of which he had formerly been a member, mainstream Christians have been wary of getting too concerned with food. After his conversion, Augustine thought that Christians could eat whatever they wanted provided it had not been sacrificed to idols, and this is largely true of his modern successors. In the West, Christian groups for whom food has been central have usually been marginal and have sometimes been viewed by the established churches as heretical. Within these churches, the Eucharist has typically been used theologically as a means of transposing everyday material acts of eating into an abstract realm far removed from the customs, traditions, restrictions, avoidances, and excesses of everyday eating. For this reason, very little serious reflection exists in modern theology or mainstream Christian spirituality on the topic of food.
Norman Wirzba makes an admirable contribution to filling this gap. He does not follow the utopian path trod by the Manicheans and later sects such as the Cathars, Seventh Day Baptists, Dorrellites, or Bible Christians, [End Page 236] for whom a radically distinctive diet helped to shape a spiritual identity distinct from wider society and other churches. But neither does Wirzba offer a mere commentary on current food practices. On the contrary, he is appropriately scathing about the dystopian dietary economy that twenty-first-century humans have spawned. The excessive use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, deforestation, genetic modification, irrigation, industrial harvesting, and global transportation has, as Wirzba shows, massively increased land, water, and air pollution and rendered many plant and animal species extinct. As a result, many areas of land are now less productive than thirty years ago, with artificial interventions increasingly required to maintain even existing productivity levels.
Nevertheless, what is here served up is not another diatribe against the modern food and agriculture industry that fails to address the basic question of how the world should be fed. Rather, Wirzba’s account is positive in the sense of comprising a constructive proposal for how Christians and others may eat in an ambiguous and complex world. Transcending the dialectic of utopia and dystopia, he seeks new ways of living responsibility in a fragile world. As was seen during the course of the twentieth century, such a world is at least as likely to be destroyed by ideology as by a failure of intellectual capacity.
Indeed, a dietary utopianism is excluded from the first page, on which Wirzba acknowledges that eating, despite being a means of life, depends on death. For creatures to live, others must die. Even the harvesting of crops results in the killing of rodents and other small animals at ground level, while beneath “countless bacteria, microorganisms, fungi, and insects are engaged in a feeding frenzy that absorbs life into death and death back into the conditions for life” (53). In opening, Wirzba writes: “Life as we know it depends on death, needs death, which means that death is not simply the cessation of life but its precondition” (1). His theology is Trinitarian, promoting the sharing and nurturing of life, hospitality, and making room for others above straightforward annihilation through consumption.
Being eaters, we are all dependent on gardens even if we are not ourselves gardeners. Linking cultivation with culture, Wirzba powerfully describes the importance of learning how to garden. This requires confronting personal ignorance and sloth, accepting contingency, compromise and failure, and waiting for growth on a timescale that is not one’s own. The first gardener, Wirzba reminds us, was God, who planted Eden and...