Something like a food fight recently erupted in one corner of the Reformed world. Pastor Toby Sumpter wrote “Free Range, Gluten Free Yoga vs. Jesus” in which he criticized the concern among some Christians with “eating well” as part of an “idolatry problem.” This posting generated quite a bit of reaction and not a little push back from some folks leading Pastor Doug Wilson to write “Food Libertarian.” In “Fear, Shame, and Guilt at Lunch” Pastor Wilson warns that those who are overly concerned about food may be in danger of “foodalatry.” This controversy led Brad Littlejohn to write “The ‘All I Really Meant…’ Syndrome” article on his blog.
Theological Issues That Lies Beneath the Surface
As a former Reformed Christian I found this controversy over food more significant than might appear at first blush. The various articles inadvertently shed an interesting light on the Reformed tradition’s relationship with contemporary culture and its understanding of embodied spirituality.
I suspect that part of what is adding to the controversy is that while Reformed theological tradition has a lot to say about Christology, the sacraments, and predestination, it has had little to say about food and Christian living. This has not been much of an issue for Reformed Christians if Western European culture is assumed to be “Christian.” But with the recent dramatic shifts in American eating habits and the emergence of new perspectives on food some Calvinists are wondering how to respond. Some embrace the new perspectives on food while others resist making changes to their eating habits. Another contributing factor may be dominionist theology which insists on making the Christian faith applicable to all areas of life. As I read the various postings I noticed the tension between legalism and antinomianism. There also seemed to be an unspoken tension about how the Reformed faith relates to our bodies and our physical wellbeing.
One surprising discovery for this former Calvinist is Orthodoxy’s rich spiritual heritage with respect to food and eating. This heritage of spiritual wisdom draws from the monasteries and from Orthodoxy’s deep roots into particular cultures. Coming from an Evangelical church background where we frequently ate out quite often for fellowship we never gave much thought about what we ate or how we ate. When I became Orthodox I was surprised to learn that eating was part of Orthodox discipleship. In the catechism class I learned that the spiritual discipline of fasting is just as much a part of Orthodoxy as the use of icons in worship. It made sense in light of the mind-spirit-body unity but still it was a shock learning to apply Orthodoxy’s fasting disciplines to my life. Another surprise has been learning that Orthodoxy’s ancient wisdom tradition has much to say about food and eating.
Where Reformed Christianity tends to be cerebral, Orthodoxy is more holistic. When I was an Evangelical and when I attended a Reformed seminary, food was a peripheral issue for theology. But in Orthodoxy food is part of our embodied spirituality. Approached properly (Christianly) food and eating can promote spiritual growth. And, approached unwarily or carelessly food and eating can injure our spiritual well being.
Robin Phillips’ Take
An interesting theological perspective on this debate can be found in Robin Phillips’ articles. Phillips knows the key players involved. As a bright astute scholar he is sensitive to the fact that underlying the recent debate about food are issues about the relationship between the Christian and Creation, in particular physical matter and our bodies.
See his article “Jesus, Junk Food, and Christian Charity” in which he wrote:
In the end, the notion that God doesn’t care what we eat colludes with the Gnostic idea that the physical body is unimportant to God, that what really matters is the things of the spirit.
If accurate, this assessment has troubling implications for Reformed theology!
An Orthodox Approach to Healthy Eating
I have been blessed recently to attend a class taught by Rita Madden, the host of Ancient Faith Radio program: Food, Faith, and Fasting. In her presentations she combines scientific research with the ancient wisdom of the Church. What struck me as I listened to her presentations has been how holistic and balanced the Orthodox approach to life is.
Some of her talk titles are listed below:
In her article “Eating in an Anciently Refreshing Way” Rita discussed how the modern food industry has drastically reshaped America’s eating habits and how people are turning to all kinds of diet in order to counter the side effects of the new modern food products. One thing I learned has been the fact that God made natural food and that food is meant to be a gift that brings us closer to God. There has arisen a secularized view that sees food as fuel for the body or as something like a drug, something that lifts us up when we’re down or soothes us when we’re stressed. So I find her talks helpful to bringing balance and perspective to my spiritual life.
I invite our readers to compare how Orthodoxy and the Reformed tradition understand the relationship between food, eating, and Christian spirituality. I’m sure some will be pleasantly surprised by what they find!