As Thanksgiving approaches, it seems appropriate to mention something about food. Thanksgiving was originally established by Abrham Lincoln to memorialize a series of providential, historic and deeply religious events. However, like so many holidays in our nation, Thanksgiving has devolved into a celebration of something far more superficial than that. In a culture saturated with cooking shows of every sort, restaurants and cafés of every type, and grocery stores abounding in victuals of every kind, and that even has the stomach to name each day of the year after some popular confection, is it any wonder that Thanksgiving has been reduced to “Turkey day” in America? Thanksgiving in America seems to have become a celebration of food itself.
This transformation of Thanksgiving raises deep social and spiritual questions. Or at least it should. The questions have to do with our relationship to our food. This is a relationship often overlooked today. At least, it is overlooked with regard to our spiritual relationship to food. In modern America, we are usually interested in food only insofar as it affects our physical health. But rarely, if at all, do we stop to consider food’s effects on our non-physical health. How often do we pause and think of our relationship to food as it relates to our souls? Do we ever reflect on how our approach to food might shape our character, even our moral character? Today, we might say of Thanksgiving, once a commemoration of God’s provision of both food and friendship in the midst of terrible scarcity, that it has become the paradigmatic symbol of one of America’s most overlooked vices: the sin of gluttony.
On Living Christianly
It has often been argued that in this world Jesus Christ is Lord, and, in being Lord, that He is ruling over all things. The Church, as Christ’s embodiment in the world, is therefore tasked to advance Christ’s Lordship among and throughout the nations of the world (Matthew 28:16-20). While there are debates between “one kingdom” and “two kingdom” Christians on how exactly this advancement of God’s Kingdom on earth should occur, one thing all Christians agree on is the demand upon each individual believer to live every aspect of their life “Christianly.”
While this is easy to state, the imitation of Christ in every aspect of life is hardly anything anyone could expect to really achieve. And, for those who have come close to being “like Christ,” the more they do so, the more they know that it is only on account of God’s grace that such imitation can occur. This is the reason why the greatest saints among us are often those unknown to us. However, the attempt to do something that one already knows to be unachievable, is itself part and parcel of the Christian life. And so the Christian is always in process, making gains in living Christianly, yet without ever being just like Christ. In this sense, it is only the genuine Christian who truly dares to “dream the impossible dream.”
But how does all this relate to the issue of food? Actually, it is rather straightforward. For if every aspect of our lives should be lived in a manner that reflects the life of Christ, then this applies to every aspect. Eating food is not only an aspect of our lives. It is a necessary aspect of them. How we eat as Christians is therefore of great importance–both to God and our witness to our neighbor.
Clement of Alexandria on “Eating Christianly”
In his classic treatise on living Christianly, the Paedagogus (the Instructor), the 3rd century Church Father, Clement of Alexandria addresses the issue of how Christians should eat. Clement does not hold back about what it means to eat Christianly, as opposed to eating like the heathen. The Christian, unlike the heathen, must eat plainly and not for mere pleasure. At the same time, he should eat for strength and sustenance, but not in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons:
And the life to which it conduces consists of two things–health and strength; to which plainness of fare is most suitable, being conducive both to digestion and lightness of body, from which come growth, and health, and right strength, not strength that is wrong or dangerous and wretched, as is that of athletes produced by compulsory feeding.
Clemens goes further than just encouraging “plainness of fair,” he specifically denounces particular types of viands:
We must therefore reject different varieties [of foods], which engender various mischiefs, such as a depraved habit of body and disorders of the stomach, the taste being vitiated by an unhappy art–that of cookery, and the useless art of making pastry.
The Christian, as such, does not eat like the Roman athlete, to gain weight or muscle mass so as to play games. Nor does he eat like the Epicurean, out of disordered interest in the finery of food. Thus, certain kinds of cookery, or the fine art of “pastry making,” are seen as potential obstacles to the healthy Christian life. In a culture that has cooking shows dedicated solely to the making of cupcakes, this is a lesson even non-Christians may want to consider, especially those of a more stoic bent.
For Christians, this may also tell us something important about the long history of serving donuts after Church. Perhaps a veggie tray would be a more appropriate after-service snack? Admittedly it is hard to write this without a wry smile creeping across my face. However, it makes sense to think about these issues more seriously than we normally do. If we say we want Jesus to be Lord of our lives, then we must take food more seriously as Christians. In another passage, Clement points out “we must guard against those articles of food which persuade us to eat when we are not hungry, bewitching the appetite.” If donuts (or for me, Ice Cream) are not an article of food that tempt us to eat, even when we are not hungry, then I don’t know what they are!
Clement says more about why this orientation to food matters. First and foremost, there is a genuine relationship that exists between what we put into our bodies, and how that affects our spiritual life:
There is no limit to epicurism among men. For it has driven them to sweetmeats, and honey-cakes, and sugar-plums; inventing a multitude of desserts, hunting after all manner of dishes. A man like this seems to me to be all jaw, and nothing else. “Desire not,” says the Scripture, “rich men’s dainties;” [Psalm 141:4; Prov 23:3] for they belong to a false and base life. They partake of luxurious dishes, which a little after go to the dunghill. But we who seek the heavenly bread must rule the belly, which is beneath heaven, and much more the things which are agreeable to it, which “God shall destroy,” says the apostle, justly execrating gluttonous desires.
Food treated as luxury is a form of love of the world, or mammon as Jesus calls it (Matt 6:26; Luke 16:9-13). For mammon is not only money, but also what money can buy. Further, metaphysically speaking, any overindulgence in something of this world orients the human heart toward that which is finite and transient, instead of that which is infinite and eternal. Over-esteeming something in the world places us in the precarious position of committing the most egregious of all sins: that of confusing a part of the creation with the Creator Himself. In Romans 1:18-32, Paul tells us that all manner of human evil arises on account of this confusion.
In the end (pun intended), food turns into dung. That biological fact alone should remind us of its proper place in our lives. No matter how fancy we dress up our morsels, no matter what culinary magic people like Gordon Ramsey might do with the edible components of God’s creation, we should treat food rightly. To do so, we must see it in its right relation to both body and soul. Our appetites being more powerful than our reason, we must learn to take control of them so as to be oriented toward the right kinds of things: the kinds of things that will genuinely bring us genuine joy. In a culture which has had to create a term for the obsessive photographing of food: “food porn,” this should be an obvious corrective.
Divine Reliance and Self-Control
While wandering for 40 years in the wilderness, Israel had to learn to rely on God for all things. The testing in the desert was necessary before Israel could enter into the land of Canaan. For if Israel relied on its own strength and its own resources, it would become just like the Canaanites who had already despoiled the land of promise (eventually, this is exactly what happened). One of the ways God prepared Israel to be spiritually mature enough to take the land, was by driving into the people the truth about where their physical nourishment came from. Exodus 16 relates the event of God’s divine provision of “manna” for the starving Israelite nation.
However, in God’s provision of heavenly bread for the Israelites, He also places limits on how much of the flaky, sweet substance can be eaten. The provision of manna is limited, it is constrained to only what is needed, to what is sufficient for each family. This constraint on the amount of food each Israelite could gather serves two functions. First, as Desmond Alexander points out, this instruction “is clearly designed to curtail human greed.” (Alexander, Exodus, 325). It is meant to preclude Israel from aggregating to itself more than is required.
Second, it reminds God’s people that they are not the source of their own sustenance. In providing a double portion on the sixth day, moreover, and commanding Israel not to gather on the seventh, it tests the faithfulness of God’s people. But, God’s tests are always for our benefit. For whenever sinful human beings begin to grasp for control over their conditions, damage to both God’s creation and other people inevitably ensues. As such, the wandering in the desert taught two hard lessons to God’s people: divine reliance and self-control. These lessons would foreshadow things yet to come.
Jesus as Our Celestial Food
In the New Testament Jesus tells us that He is the manna from heaven (John 6:22-40), and that to have real life, we must partake of His eternal life. Thus, to restrain oneself with regard to food is also one way the Christian acknowledges that the true food, the heavenly sustenance, is Christ Jesus Himself. Clement elaborates on this point, comparing physical food to that of divine truth:
For they [the epicureans] have not yet learned that God has provided for His creature (man I mean) food and drink, for sustenance, not for pleasure; since the body derives no advantage from extravagance in viands. For, quite the contrary, those who use the most frugal fare are the strongest and the healthiest, and the noblest; as domestics are healthier and stronger than their masters, and husbandmen than the proprietors; and not only more robust, but wiser, as philosophers are wiser than rich men. For they have not buried the mind beneath food, nor deceived it with pleasures. But love (agape) is in truth celestial food, the banquet of reason.
According to Clement, not only does a proper relationship to food actually strengthen our bodies, but it allows us to set our “hungers,” (our desires) on divine love, which is our “celestial food” and “the banquet of reason.” He goes on about constraining our earthly hunger, so as not to be made a slave to it, and the need to satisfy ourselves with divine food:
For we are enjoined to reign and rule over meats, not to be slaves to them. It is an admirable thing, therefore, to raise our eyes aloft to what is true, to depend on that divine food above, and to satiate ourselves with the exhaustless contemplation of that which truly exists, and so taste of the only sure and pure delight. For such is the agape, which, the food that comes from Christ shows that we ought to partake of.
Fighting the “Belly-Demon”
The “battle of the bulge” has become a quaint façon de parler for speaking about our nation’s devastating problem with obesity. It is a problem that is indicative of an indulgent culture, a culture given over to various types of gluttony, most poignantly the gluttony of excess (there are other types of gluttony, excess being only one). Of course, living in the heyday of Roman opulence, gluttony was not unknown to the bishop of Alexandria either. In his exhortation to eat simple, natural foods Clement warns about falling prey to the “belly-demon”:
For of articles of food, those are the most suitable which are fit for immediate use without fire, since they are readiest; and second to these are those which are simplest, as we said before. But those who bend around inflammatory tables, nourishing their own diseases, are ruled by a most lickerish demon, whom I shall not blush to call the Belly-demon, and the worst and most abandoned of demons.
Clement almost sounds like an early proponent of “organic” and “farm fresh” here. But, his point should be taken seriously. To eat Christianly may mean refraining from the wasting of time with excessive preparations and inordinate attention to the making and serving of food. Minimally, we must recognize that this inordinate attention to our victuals is having a real affect on the quality of our lives. Clement goes so far as to quote the ancient pagan philosopher, Plato, who worried about man’s natural appetites as they related to his capacity for truth. According to the most “Christian” of all pre-Christian thinkers, gluttony of the stomach was a serious hindrance to the development of wisdom:
Whence that truth-seeking philosopher Plato, fanning the spark of the Hebrew philosophy when condemning a life of luxury, says: “On my coming hither, the life which is here called happy, full of Italian and Syracusan tables, pleased me not by any means, [consisting as it did] in being filled twice a day, and never sleeping by night alone, and whatever other accessories attend the mode of life. For not one man under heaven, if brought up from his youth in such practices, will ever turn out a wise man, with however admirable a natural genius he may be endowed.
Clement, Paedagogus Book II.Chapter 1
As such, the ancient practice of fasting, something commended to us by our Lord, albeit with certain caveats (Matt 6:16-18), is clearly one answer to the problem of gluttony, both gluttony of the body, and of the mind. But, more generally speaking, a certain kind of abstemiousness vis-a-vis food may be called for, since even the most “naturally genius” of men, if a glutton, cannot ultimately be wise.
The True Meaning of Thanksgiving
Therefore, this Thanksgiving, instead of fretting about the overly seasoned turkies and garnished pumpkin pies on our tables, we might prayerfully reflect on the conditions of the first Thanksgiving that gave rise to the holiday. We might meditate on the Puritans’ and Wampanoags’ orientation toward their food, and the spiritual friendship that it occasioned. We can do this knowing that in spite of the differences in religious belief, both parties would have known that God (or the Great Spirit) was the source and provider of their feast, and that food was there for strength and sustenance and not for mere pleasure. To encourage this attitude, I end with Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863, which established the holiday as we have it today:
October 3, 1863
By the President of the United States of America.
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.
By the President: Abraham Lincoln