Food rules for Christians

I think it was Stanley Hauerwas who said, with typical pungency, that no religion can be interesting if it doesn’t tell you what to do with your pots and pans or your genitals. By at least part of that criteria, Exeter University theologian David Grumett seems to be trying to make Christianity interesting again. In an article in the Christian Century, he argues for a recovery of “food rules” among Christians.

Young Augustine’s experience with the Manichees, Grumett argues, left a somewhat unfortunate legacy to Western Christianity of disdaining any religious limitations on how much and what kinds of food we consume. In reacting against the anti-materialism of the Manichees, Augustine delivered a blow to the valuable practice of regulating our diets according to religious ideals.

Grummett suggests that recovering a more traditional ideal, like that associated with early Benedictine monasticism, can help Christians relate their eating practices to their faith:

The desert fathers were famous for their meager diets, and early monastic rules were codifying this practice in moderated form. The major rule for monasteries in the West, St. Benedict’s Rule, prohibited healthy adults from eating the flesh of four-footed animals. It also limited the number of meals that could be taken in a day and the range of choices at a single meal.

This ban on what we today call red meat points to a Christian tradition different from that of Augustine, one in which food choices express spiritual devotion and identify people as part of a faith community. It also shows how, through avoiding the food typically thought of as high-status food, Christians may resist the networks of oppression which such food symbolizes and on which it depends. To eat meat frequently requires significant quantities of land, feed and water—either your own or those belonging to someone else, who might, on a good day, be paid a fair price for them. Worldwide, animals farmed for meat generate more pollution than motor vehicles and consume vast quantities of food while elsewhere people are going hungry.

“Modern Christians,” he writes, “are in danger of slipping into a fast-food mentality: speed, convenience and illusory abundance rule, regardless of the consequences for the planet.” Attending to the sources of our food–how it’s produced, where it comes from–can be ” a means of reconnecting to our spiritual heritage and traditions and marking the Christian calendar and the seasonal calendar—which is itself God-given.”

Grummett doubts that agreement on a set of food rules is either likely or desirable, but observing cycles of fasting and feasting, restricting certain types of food, and reconnecting to the sources of our food are all ways of living out our faith in concrete, daily practice.

5 thoughts on “Food rules for Christians

  1. I think it’s biblically sound to say it’s good and right to take care of yourself. I think there’s something to say about “speed, convenience and illusory abundance” ruling. But David Grumett’s argument for a set of ‘food rules’ seems to be based on the assumption that every human being could follow one diet plan and all benefit from it equally.

  2. Lee

    He doesn’t say that at all, actually. As I said in the post, he doesn’t think a uniform set of “rules” is a good idea. What he does think is a good idea is “subjecting eating to the scrutiny of Christian conscience and tradition.”

  3. I think the death blows were from Jesus:
    “And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean) [Mark 7:18-19] and St. Paul: “If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?
    These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” [Colossians 2:20-23] [All parentheses are in original text.].

    To try to come up with new food rules as such sounds like an unbiblical impulse on the face of it.

  4. Lee

    Well, as a good (depending on whom you ask) Lutheran, I’m certainly not going to say that anyone’s salvation hangs on observing a particular diet.

    But surely there’s room for discpline in the Christian life? “Rules” may be a poor choice of language, but presumably Jesus and Paul didn’t intend to exempt our food choices from all moral evaluation.

  5. There are several points to be seen in the passages listed. As a good Lutheran, I don’t think salvation hangs on keeping the Law. But the verses cited make me wonder if this kind of thing even qualifies as Law. Though what is rejected in Jesus’ passage seems to be rules that would make a food “unclean.” In Paul’s it seemed to be making these rules into a ladder to heaven.

    I do see a place for evaluating the ethics of practices related to eating. Cruelty to animals is a valid category. But when we emphasize the food as such, I get itchy.

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