Norman Wirzba is a professor of Theology and Ecology at Duke Divinity School and has written a book titled “Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.” He will be speaking in Tyler on Oct. 12. For more information and to RSVP to the event, email email@example.com.
Q: The name of your book is “Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating.” How are food and theology related?
A: Oh, in so many ways. If we think just most basically, when we think about what food is, it’s God’s gift to the world that makes it possible for us to live. If there was no food, no living creature could survive. And so, food is the daily reminder of God’s provision for the world. I tell people they should just be astounded they live in a world that has the potential to taste so good! That’s just a gift; none of that has to be. So the fact that we have a world like that is just a sign of the blessing of God. In the Bible, food is everywhere. Food and hospitality are major ways of showing the love of God in the world. And so, I want to tell people in churches in particular, that Jesus was in the food business all the time, and churches should be in the food business, because one of the best ways you show love to somebody is you feed them. If we don’t see food as a medium of love — our culture encourages us to just see food as a commodity — we’re doing ourselves a huge disservice and we are also doing the world a disservice, because by making food into a commodity we’ve also done a lot to destroy the world by destroying our agricultural lands, exhausting our fish stocks all around the world. It’s a mess because of industrialization of food systems. Learning to understand food as God’s gift is a huge step that has the potential to do a lot of good.
Q: Another interesting thing you talk about in the book is how something has to die for there to be food, and you relate that to the death of Christ. Can you explain that?
A: How to do that briefly, that’s hard. I think this again, is a feature of our society where, because food shows up in a store and it’s nicely packaged and processed, we have forgotten that for anything to eat, others have to die. That’s just the rule. The question then becomes, ‘How do you become worthy of that death?’ What I argue in my book is that eating has to involve a sacrificial element to it. By sacrifice, what I mean is the willingness of people to offer themselves for the life that they receive. So, more practically speaking, what that would look like is, if we eat food, which we all have to do, the responsibility on our part is to make sure that the life that we consume has been well cared for, that the life we consume has been honored as a gift from God. That means that a lot of the practices of food production today fail the test, especially when you look at today’s meat industry. So many of these animals are just brutalized, and it’s a world that no creature should have to endure. So that doesn’t mean you can’t ever eat meat, but if you’re going to eat meat, you have a responsibility to buy from farmers who have given these animals a good life. But it’s not just animals. The way we treat our fields and our vegetable crops. We just spray poison after poison on our crops and our land and our water and this is not honoring the life that’s there. So again, there’s an obligation on the part of people to try to find ways to eat food that honors the life and the death that’s represented in it.
Q: One of the chapters talks about the idea of food in heaven. So, will there be food in heaven?
A: Well, the first answer, of course, is I have no idea! (laughs) I don’t know what life will be like in heaven. But I think that if we look at the Bible, it seems to indicate that there will be fellowship. In fact, one way to describe the life of heaven is to see it as this communion of love in which creatures participate in God’s own loving, eternal life. So in that respect, I would say yes, because eating is fellowship. It’s about moving into the lives of each other in the most profound and intimate sorts of ways. But then, the hard part is, because our eating right now presupposes the death of others, does that mean that the eating we do in heaven will be exactly like the eating we do now? I doubt it. But I think if you take seriously that it’s going to be a resurrected body and not just some disembodied soul in heaven—which is what Christians are supposed to believe—then it makes sense that our bodies will continue to eat, even if we don’t know the character of the food that we’ll be eating. Just think about how the Bible sometimes refers to Heaven as an eternal banquet or a perpetual feast, I think those are images that help us see that the life of heaven is about shared life in the most profound and loving ways. I think that food can have a part in that, but I’m not in a position to say, right?
Q: Yeah, I guess no one is! I think the organic movement and ethical eating I think is really intimidating to a lot of people, because it’s hard to know how to get started. So, on a practical level, what is your advice?
A: Well, on a practical level, I tell people ‘Don’t beat yourself up over this.’ A lot of people feel so guilty. There’s lots of room to be guilty, and that doesn’t help, because guilt can often be a form of paralysis. Not always, but often it is. I tell people to start by just getting to learn where some of their food comes from that they eat regularly. Just trace the history of it. And if you find that the food that you’re eating is not made in a way that you can affirm and say ‘That’s well done,’ then maybe find a substitute for it. You go at it more piecemeal. Don’t go at it thinking ‘I’m going to change my whole diet.’ That’s not going to work. Eating is a very personal thing, and there are lots of reasons why people eat what they do, so the point is not to be really judgmental about these things. We don’t need food police, that would be a terrible thing. But what we do need are people who are going to help each other find ways to eat better. Depending on where you are, you’re going to find more options than less. Where I live, for instance, there are a lot of options, because we have small-scale agriculture that is committed to honoring plant and animal life, so we’ve got options. But it’s not just purchasing food. This is something else I tell people because a lot of people can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods or these other farm-to-fork restaurants. So one of the things people can do, which is a lot cheaper, is start to grow some food themselves. You don’t need to have a lot of land, but you can grow some food yourself. This is something that people have done for thousands of years, is grow their own food, and we don’t appreciate how odd we are today. Most people have nothing to do with growing their own food. I think that’s a really sad thing that’s happened to us.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like the readers to know?
A: This is one of those places where doing the right thing tastes good! So often doing the right thing seems to have pain built into it. ‘Oh, I have to deprive myself of something.’ But when you try to do the right thing with eating, it’s just good, because it means you’re going to eat good food and you’re going to share it with good people, and that’s just wonderful.