If we are what we eat, what does today’s consumption of cheap, convenient, and often unhealthy food say about us? Looked at from the other side, are we showing much respect for the world’s eaters with an industrial food production system that is slowly killing and steadily poisoning our land and water, and neglecting animals and farm workers alike?
Though food is clearly in the minds of lots of people today, what is lacking is a sustained and hospitable conversation on how eating, besides being a physiological, ecological, agricultural, economic, and social act, is also a deeply moral, even religious act. The world’s faith traditions have much to contribute to our understanding of eating. They help us think about food’s significance and value. They provide resources for evaluating how we produce our food and how we consume it with each other.
Consider how Genesis begins the story of life: by placing God and humanity in a garden. God is not presented as a violent warrior or a lofty king, but as divine gardener with hands in the soil, breathing the breath of life into it. In this story, soil is central because Adam (this first person is physiologically and etymologically linked to adamah, the Hebrew term for “fertile soil”), the plants and the trees, and the animals grow out of the ground together. Humanity’s fundamental identity and vocation are also given: Take care of the garden and its soil, because without healthy and fertile soil life will suffer.
While clearly not a scientific account of the origins of terrestrial life, this story is telling us something very important about the significance of food: It is a cherished gift that manifests God’s desire that the world be healthy and whole. Eating is our introduction to a world that nurtures us and has the potential to taste really good. It is the daily activity through which we learn that God’s first and fundamental relation to the world is that of the gardener and host who feeds all creatures. As the Psalmist (34:8) says it, “taste and see that the LORD is good.”
The story of the Garden of Eden teaches us that the world is not a stockpile of natural resources awaiting extraction or a massive warehouse of commodities awaiting sale. It is a complex, interdependent, and vulnerable realm that is created and made beautiful by an unfathomable amount of care. When our primary concern about food is its cheapness and convenience we miss the opportunity to receive the world as God’s love made visible, fragrant, and delectable.
To eat in a way that is faithful to this gardening and hospitable God is to accept the responsibilities that teach us to protect soil, nurture plants and animals, and build compost. It is to become involved in the kind of hosting and sharing that welcomes others and potentially makes our life together a feast. Made in the image of God the gardener, humanity’s fundamental task is to learn and participate in the divine in utterly mundane and practical ways, to water and weed, to protect and promote the life of the world.
Biblical hope for humanity and the world rests upon the faithfulness of the gardening God who, despite our sloth or belligerence, daily visits the earth to water its soil and bless its growth (Psalm 65:9-13). This hope, first expressed in Genesis, finds its fulfillment in another garden, this time the garden of the New Jerusalem. Here we find the tree of life “with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Revelation 22:2). It is a vision of our world come to rest and delight around food that does not harm or kill.
Should we believe this Biblical story? More specifically, should we invest our trust and talent, our energy and skill, and our economic and political decision making in this story? In my view, it is far superior to the industrial tale that promises unlimited prosperity, asks for no responsibility from us, but delivers destruction to land and animal alike.
Norman Wirzba is a research professor of theology, ecology, and rural life at the Duke University Divinity School. His most recent book is Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (Cambridge University Press, June 30, 2011).