Food and Sacrament

The recent issue of The City, a publication of Houston Baptist University, features an interview with Hoover Institute policy fellow Mary Eberstadt.  In the interview she makes a striking observation.  We all know, she remarks, that our society has become increasingly amoral regarding sexual activity over the last 50 or so years.  But an interesting thing has happened: as we became more lax on sex, we became much more censorious and aware about food.

She does not necessarily condemn this concern about food, noting that she herself is a vegetarian.  After all, we should know something about what we put in our bodies.  But she feels that a connection must exist between these two phenomena, and I agree.

What is this possible connection, and how did it come about?

For starters, we have lost the sacramental nature of sexual activity, and I don’t just mean “lawful” sex between husband and wife, but of sexual activity in general.  As St. Paul notes in Ephesians 5, the sexual union is itself a mystery, a clue to the keystone relationship of Creation itself, the union between Christ and His Church.  In certain Old Testament passages, like the meeting of Isaac and Rebecca, the sexual union is the marriage.

But sex outside of marriage also “works” — works in the sense that it forms a spiritual union between the participants.  But no man can serve two masters, and this is why those who have multiple sexual unions with many different partners might be expected to have issue that resemble those who have had multiple marriages.

To engage in the “freedom” of “free love” we have had to try and rob sex of its inherent spiritual meaning and focus on its mere physical aspects, or as a purely personal means of self-expression.

But we are a hungry people, in need of meaning.  We need to replace the meaning abandoned in sex, and perhaps we have chosen food to do that.

As mentioned, the impulse to find some kind of spirituality in food is not inherently wrong.  Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote in the opening pages of his classic, For the Life of the World,

“Man is what he eats.”  With this statement the German materialist philosopher Feurbach thought he had put an end to all “idealistic” speculations about human nature.  In fact, however, he expressed, without knowing it, the most religious idea of man.  For long before Feurbach the same definition of man was given by the Bible.  In . . . the creation story man is presented . . . as a hungry being and the whole world as his food. (Gen. 1:29-30).  He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man.  And this image remains throughout the whole Bible the central image of life.  It is the image of life at creation and also the image of life at its fulfillment: “. . . that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom.”

Later he comments that the family meal is the last American sacrament left.

If we look around we can also see that emptying the sacramentality from sex has also gone in tandem with a rise in concern for the environment, which of course also goes in tandem with increased interest in food.  In abandoning a spiritual perspective on sex, we have discovered something of the spirituality in creation.  But tragically, much of our culture associates our newfound interest in creation with something apart from a Christian world-view, even though certain conclusions the modern environmental/food movement draws are right in line with historic Christianity.  Take, for example, the interest in getting away from industrial farms and towards humane treatment of animals, which makes us think more about stewardship, and helps us realize that meat does not come from the grocery store.  I grant that this can go too far. . .

. . . but this is not the problem with the Church or the world at the moment.

Let us not throw the baby out with the bath water.  As Schememann and others have noted, if sacraments reveal and communicate the life of God to us, the whole of creation is sacramental in itself.


Thus ends the original post.  A friend of mine forwarded me this article about the Olympic village that perhaps many of you have already seen.  Sobering, to say the least.  The analogy of a college frat atmosphere used by the author may be the best explanation for their behavior.  But I wondered if there might be a connection to Eberstadt’s thoughts above.  If they train and eat so “religiously” for so long, might that lead to emptying the mystery and sacrament out of sex?

2 comments on “Food and Sacrament

  1. I’ve been pondering lately the relationship to dogmatic opinions on matters of taste, or other debatable, grey areas–related to the abandonment of biblical ethics. It seems that as people are less certain about the black and white issues of love of God and others summed up in the 10 Commandments, they become MORE certain and dogmatic about their own grey-area subjective likes and dislikes, say on food or drink, aesthetics, culture, or political ideas.

    It seems everyone needs a certain level of certainty in our lives–and if we don’t get that from scripture…we make it up on our own.

    On a positive note, I believe that when we get objective reality right–namely certainty of the unchanging truths, or God’s law (as the Puritans would of said) from the Bible, we are better prepared to be objective and open-minded on grey-area matters of taste and culture.

    Biblically grounded Christians should be the open-minded of people–in that we are best able to clearly discern what we can be open-minded about.

    • Dave Mathwin says:

      Mr. Davis,

      Thank you so much for your comments and your insights. You raise an excellent point, and another occurred to me. We put so much emphasis on ‘innovation,’ but if our culture does not have a solid foundation to build from, our creative attempts might be like so much flailing around in empty space. It will be hard for us make progress.



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