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.