Reformed Food Fight

 

food-fighting-1Something 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
Robin Phillips

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!

 

Rita Madden
Rita Madden

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!

Robert Arakaki

 

10 comments:

  1. These sorts of outcries by the Reformed people you cited smack more of their own personal annoyance and frustration than any sort of substantial theological argument. You can find commentators and comedians in the public sphere who are riffing the same line. Of course some people take it too far but that is true with anything.

    More often than not, I find my Protestant brothers and sisters who are focused on these issues to be motivated by appropriate concerns linked to their faith and not some idolatry.

    Can Protestants sensibly integrate the fasting cycle of the Orthodox Church without the corresponding liturgical cycle? Do they go “hand-in-hand”?

    1. I remember when this came up, and it only reinforces my borderline disdain for the pop Reformed world. As to food and fasting, while I don’t believe anyone has the right to bind consciences outside of God’s word, 95% of my meals over the past five years have been watered-down oatmeal, bananas, and apples. And heaping mounds of butter.

  2. I remember that when I was a postulant in two monasteries, I ate only once a day by permission of my spiritual Father. Nothing is done on one’s own, as is the case in the protestant world. Since there isn’t a Liturgical Cycle, fasting as the early Church did and as the Orthodox continue to do, cannot be done properly in the protestant churches, mostly because each protestant church is different and does whatever it does according to its own particular agenda. When I was a protestant, fasting usually was done only if there was a specific crisis and it was a total fast. Some participated, some didn’t. It was more of an individual thing.
    Monastics don’t normally eat meat unless a doctor has advised it, but they do eat fish on occasion with the permission of the Abbess/Abbot, and ACCORDING TO THE LITURGICAL CYCLE which every Orthodox Christian finds on any Orthodox calendar. A total fast from ALL food and drink is very rare, even for an Hesychast.
    So the entire Church is aware of the fasts for the month and their purpose. It’s not about food and never was. It’s about controlling the passions, INCLUDING food, that get in the way of our communion with God and about putting Him first, not our bodies and worldly desires. We fast on Wednesdays and Fridays from all animal products; Wednesdays because that’s the day the Jewish leaders took council to kill Jesus and Fridays because that’s the day Our Creator and Savior hung on that cross. This is the way it’s been from the earliest days, as found in the writings of the Ante Nicene Fathers. Fasting was nothing new to Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism and Jesus Himself states, in reply to the Pharisees, that His disciples will indeed fast.
    Nothing should be undertaken outside the normal cycle without the advice and permission of one’s spiritual Father who has the wisdom and discernment to know if what the person seeks is truly from God or for another, more worldly, purpose. Also, fasting is prohibited for certain people and altered for others, depending on their needs (health, etc.), again with permission. This isn’t because of legalism but for the glory of God and spiritual growth of the Church as a whole as well as the individual.

        1. The initial thrust of the post-comments seemed to be,

          “Look at how silly and unspiritual those evangelicals are. They don’t hae the liturgical cycle and discipline of the church like *we* do.”

          Beyond pointing that out my comment was just for commenting’s sake.

          1. It doesn’t seem like the liturgical cycle comment was made as a dig at evangelicals, just an observation. The fasting cycles are tied into the liturgical cycle, as you know. So elements inside the Reformed tradition or evangelicalism that are compelled to fast do it without a guide unless they look into other traditions.

            Many don’t do fasting at all because they don’t see the point. Modern evangelicalism (and certainly NOT all evangelicals and/or Reformed) can stress the spiritual while dismissing the physical. In my experience, fasting on that side often struck me as vain. I recall going to Campus Crusade meetings in college and hearing people talk about how they fasted for X amount of days and God granted them this vision or that thing, etc. Not all people are like that. Many do it quietly and you never hear about it, but some use it as a point of pride – and I’m sure that has happened much in Orthodoxy too.

            The difference I find interesting is the concept of self versus community in our diets. As Robert indicated, in evangelical circles fasting is often done as an individual. A liturgical cycle, even one that comes from outside Orthodoxy, can promote the idea of corporate fasting and standing together united (as liturgy does in general).

  3. Sorry Jacob, but I see nothing of the sort in Roberts post…or
    his history. He continues to be a kind and gracious host seeking
    only to help Reformed Christians and other protestants with an
    interest in Orthodox to understand well. Using this very public
    Reformed ‘food-fight’ as a foil to address an Orthodox approach
    to food, health and life within it’s on Liturgical and Fasting tra-
    dition is well done and without malice. As well as Robert as treated
    your continuous and repeated digs, I am saddened you feel compelled
    to post such, as it is beneath you and the Southern gentleman you
    have often been in the past. Lord have Mercy.

    1. It’s not in Robert’s post. Robert is always a gentleman. But these kind of discussions quickly take a life of their own (usually at Evangelicals’ expense) and perhaps I jumped the gun.

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