I was hammering out a date via Messenger to have coffee with my friend, Tori Aquilone. I told her I might have a bagel, and she said she might splurge on a vegan donut even though she's been mostly off sugar for a bit. The following conversation on food taboos ensued, and I thought it was interesting enough to share with you all.
RD: No pressure to eat food when we have coffee if you'd rather stick to your routine. You probably don't feel pressured, but I'm always amazed at how easy it is to just eat something because someone else is or because someone suggested it.
TA: Ah, yes—it is a strange phenomenon. Thank you for saying that, though I've become quite accustomed to breaking social food rules. I actually couldn't drink coffee for a bit and people were incredulous that I wanted to "go for coffee" just to spend time together. Thankfully, I can drink coffee again...that was awful.
RD: Yes, we associate food so much with socializing and relationships. I was actually reading a book on food in Isaiah this morning, and it was looking at anthropological studies about food taboos. It noted that often (in literature, but in life as well) we make assumptions about how people eat and what it means for people in other areas of life (whether or not that's true). For example, we Westerners associate dogs as pets and if someone eats a dog, it seems weird even to folks who are not vegetarian. We make assumptions about that dog-eating person (they must be weird...a serial killer...psychopath). In some other cultures, eating a dog would have the same social/moral connotations as eating a cow in our culture.
TA: Yes! That's something I've come across in my food research as well. I think people don't realize how socialized food is until someone challenges it, but usually that person becomes socially ostracized. It's interesting how we're tempted to say "It's just food, who cares?"—but that's not really how we engage it. Perhaps because in our culture we are so accustomed to food being readily available that we don't see how much we rely on it for life and sustenance, but in reality humans are created to have strong connections to that which sustains us.
RD: Right. And "food" is actually a human category. Many things are edible, but we choose whether or not they will be food to us. In our society, we don't choose humans as "food" even though they are edible. We make that choice based on our perception of what is morally okay to eat and what isn't. And our conception of it being immoral to eat other humans is based on how we perceive our relationship as humans to other humans.
TA: Ah, yes–how interesting! I never thought of it like that. I know how strongly I have moral associations with food, but it's interesting to consider that as the default rather than the deviation. It's just that I have different moral standards than the majority culture. It reminds me of presuppositional apologetics–everyone has a moral foundation, it's a matter of which moral foundation rather than whether you have one at all.
RD: Yes, and our presuppositions are shaped by our cultures and societies, and at times are at odds with the broader culture. I love Mary Douglas on "purity" and "dirt." She points out that everyone (not just ancient or tribal cultures) has different ideas of what is pure and impure (both in regard to eating and in other areas of life). We can eat food anywhere, but we would consider it strange to eat food in the bathroom or (for some) in the bedroom, not because it's necessarily unhygienic, but because it conflicts with our socially constructed sense of where food should be consumed (usually kitchen or dining room).
TA: Hmm. Interesting. I'll have to check out her work. I think people fail to realize that our cultural assumptions are often underlying moral beliefs, like the use of the language of "pure," which is why there may be so much vitriol surrounding challenged food habits. I asked my students yesterday in class (in the context of whether or not the economy should be regulated to protect the environment...they don't know I'm vegetarian) if the government should reduce the amount of red meat that's produced to protect the environment and the consumer. Students who were pro-regulation before totally changed their minds because they couldn't imagine giving up red meat. I didn't press into that, but I wonder now what moral assumptions underlie that reaction.
RD: Eating meat is such a huge part of the social aspects of culture, it may be that the students realize (even just on a gut level) that giving up meat has social implications (sacrifices) that they don't want to make. It also runs counter to so much of what is advertised. So much advertising goes into marketing meat and making it look good. Salad not so much.
TA: Yes, there are so many facets. I will think more about the socialization. I've only ever thought about it in light of my personal experience, but I think there's definitely something deeper going on. Like a visceral, instinctual need to belong, and to eat the food everyone else is eating. Not to mention that meat/dairy subsidization makes absolutely NO sense, but that's another topic all together.
RD: I don't think I've really thought much about the idea of food choice as social sacrifice (or alteration) until I verbalized that to you just now. People think of vegetarian or veganism as giving up particular foods, but you're also giving up social currency (and maybe gaining other things and other social currencies). I was always fascinated by the fact that when I would create a huge salad in the cafeteria at school and come to the table, people would often comment on how "healthy" it was and how I was "being good" and contrast to what was on their plate. I never commented on their choices, but they perceived my veggie-oriented choices as a judgement of their choices. It goes to show you that making different food choices (or any choices that diverge from the dominant cultural impulse) puts other people in the position of how they will respond to your difference. Will they ignore your difference? Will they comment (positively or negatively)? Will they create space for you to cultivate your different practice? Will they see your practice as an indictment against them? Will they change their own eating habits in response to your difference?
TA: Yes, social currency is an interesting concept that I definitely feel intuitively from experience, but also never really verbalized. And I frequently have thought of Paul's argument about meat sacrificed to idols and that as Christians, we should deny our rights for the moral convictions of others, regarding food. And his argument in general seems to acknowledge that we attach moral assumptions to our food consumption. I frequently have to bring my own food to social functions and it always invites comments ranging from somewhat benign statements like "Oh, so healthy!" to "What's your problem?" I feel like I have so many instances where I've experienced this personally and it was very, very hurtful...and now I’m thinking it hurt me in ways I didn't even realize.
RD: It can be very ostracizing to have someone comment negatively on your food. Whenever I see people do that to other people, I feel very uncomfortable. It can be ostracizing in general, but also—what if that person struggles with an eating disorder or other food issue? The last thing you want is for someone to call attention to how you’re eating. Paul opens up a lot of interesting issues. In 1 Corinthians 8, he’s speaking to a newly formed Jesus-community who live in a world where eating meat is often connected to the worship at temples of other gods (and the imperial cult of the deified Caesar). Eating the sacrifices offered to the god is associated with worship of that god—you’re dining at a god’s table. The meat was often sold in the marketplace. You can imagine that for some folks in the Jesus-community who used to worship other gods, eating meat offered to those gods might evoke the memories of their former worship and even end up strengthening the emotional and social connections to those gods. I think Paul (from the perspective of a monotheist) recognizes that in an abstract sense, there are no other gods, so on the one hand eating meat offered to the “no-gods” isn’t a big deal. But in the concrete, on the ground, Paul knows that people have memories and associations with food, and social bonds, and so whether or not they eat idol-meat matters. And so he’s calling the folks in the community to be aware of how the other members are approaching food (as it relates other issues) and telling them be willing to show deference to one another.
TA: Yes! I feel uncomfortable too, especially when you bring in the possibility of an eating disorder and medical issues that affect food intake, which I've been battling recently. I've talked with people about Paul on this and they come back with some interesting retorts. One time in a theological conversation I aligned vegans with the "weaker brother" who have convictions about their food, and the person responded, "Do you really want to be the weaker brother?" It seems that people feel if they are the "stronger brother" it's ok to just write off the other position as a weakness that needs to be admonished rather than a conviction that should be respected. I think it also comes back to philosophical ideas. It's clear that a lot of Platonic/Socratic ideas beat out Aristotelian ones in the history of Christianity, and Plato refused to see the "tangibility" (as I call it) of anything. Christians run into problems when they eschew tangibility (what you said above as concrete) in my opinion. Even the sacraments seem to be barely hanging on by a thread because we've relegated them to merely symbolic rather than seeing ourselves as inherently embodied. One of my favorite things ever was when I was in Gary Schnittjer's Intro to Bible class and he asked, "Who is the weaker brother?" and we all said, "The one who refuses to eat.” And he said, “No, they are both weak, for the stronger brother refuses to love the weaker, rendering him just as, if not more, weak in the end.”
RD: That's great. Good old GES. But yes! Absolutely. I really just think Platonism has ruined everything.
TA: Haha. I'm tempted to think that too but I'm still working through it. My assumptions about Plato only started changing recently so I'm a bit swept up in it at the moment, but I definitely am seeing the negatives more clearly.
RD: I have actually intentionally started to avoid even using the word "embodied" and say "bodied" instead (though that’s a bit tricky, too). I think if we're serious about the implications of Jesus’ resurrection, we have to recognize that–however we might parse out the relationship between what we call "soul" and "body," that disembodied existence for humans is seen as a negative (or at least insufficient) mode of being. If we have something that can be called a "soul," it isn't something that (in its fullness) can be abstracted from either physical bodiedness or our bodied social and political locations. But Plato is probably a lot cooler than Platonism.
TA: Yeah, I think you're right. It's funny how the resurrection is so central to our theology yet it seems to evade practice in other ways.
RD: It really is very sad. I see so many Christians not digging into life here because they're hoping for some distant future where everything is "perfect" and perfectly disembodied. But life begins now. Matter matters.
TA: YES! It's certainly sad, but mostly leaves me angry. I'm not sure how we continue to coddle a theology that renders the here-and-now irrelevant.
RD: If matter didn't matter, if it wasn't redeemable, God never would have become human. He'd just have condemned it to burn.
TA: Yes, I think we have to realize that the incarnation is one of the most important supports of the import of earthly matters. As well as the resurrection.
RD: I don't coddle theology that looks away from the here and now. Not anymore. I'm not done with Jesus (and maybe not Christianity), but I'm done with Christian articulations of the gospel that run counter to it.
TA: Yeah, I'm done with it too. I just don't know all of the implications of that doneness, haha. I'm still trying to find out the implications for my engagement with other Christians in a variety of ways.
RD: I was about to write that I don't think Jesus coddled it either—but then I realized I can't think of too many passages that come to mind where he confronts metaphysical dualism. But he does just seem to keep doing his thing—healing the sick, talking about helping the poor, hanging out with people.
TA: Yeah, they are few and far between. But I agree: his example is most poignant on this issue. Why heal the sick if he could just promise them heaven?