Glimpsing God’s Infinite Goodness
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter asks how, in a good world created by a good God, humans should understand the inherent tragedy that all flourishing comes at a price: others’ demise. Food and eating seem to pose the ultimate question of Christian theodicy: must our very sustenance require the destruction of other lives? Critiquing parallels others make between life-giving predation and the redemptive value of Christ’s crucifixion, the chapter argues that there is ultimately something unanswerable about the suffering and death that attend eating in creation. Nevertheless, the chapter maintains that God’s goodness can still be witnessed and experienced in the elements of eating that image divine grace, transcendence, creativity, care, generosity, and compassion. Furthermore, it holds that certain eating practices can cultivate people’s attentiveness and capacity to minimize and mitigate the destruction entailed in eating.
“There’s something about this healing space we’ve created,” she says of her field. This is what the farm life is all about. “Life is valued . . . and made to thrive—humans and plants and insects.”
“Well, except for the bugs that eat the vegetables.”1
From a Christian perspective, existence is good because God formed and declared it as such. This created goodness is manifest utmost in the flourishing of life, teeming across the land, sea, and sky, and in the intricate number of ways that living beings mutually benefit one another. Yet, despite the vibrant mutuality among many creatures, life on earth also depends inextricably and intimately upon death. In order to thrive, plants need the fertilizing remains of dead organisms, and animate creatures need the nourishing flesh of other living beings, be they similarly animate or vegetative. Furthermore, although creatures gain life through ingesting the nutrients of other beings—and not through the death or pain of the devoured—being hunted, eaten, pinned in, bereaved, and wounded entails untold suffering that pervades ecologies across the globe. Life being necessarily rooted in death, with its attendant suffering, seems a rampant scandal for a “good” creation.
Christians have dealt with this raw wound of existence in a variety of ways. Some have claimed the horrors of sentient eater-and-eaten reflect the fallen state of creation at present, and so are not part of the (p.48) goodness of creation. Alternatively, some have maintained that humans, particularly our souls, are the sole beings worthy of concern because they alone bear God’s image. Others have simply embraced predation as part of a cruciform, sacrificial structure that God gave to creation. These respective views all harbor significant shortcomings. For instance, given the deep scientific consensus that life on earth enormously predates humanity, it is unclear how human sin could have caused predation. And given the scriptural affirmations that God made the world “very good” and is in the business of bodily resurrection, it is unclear what warrant there is for caring only about people’s souls apart from both their bodies and the rest of creation. Finally, if one considers being eaten alive a horrifying prospect (something to be avoided for oneself and loved ones, at least), it is also not clear how predation could be considered unequivocally good or justified by the cross. From our vantage point in this life, there is ultimately something unanswerable about the suffering and death that attend eating. That suffering is unsettling, and as will be discussed, that fact can and should train us to be ethically attuned to the lives on which we feed and depend in order to flourish.
This chapter seeks to provide a way of perceiving goodness in eating while appreciating the death it entails. It builds upon the work of philosophical theologian Robert Adams and his understanding of goodness. Adams draws creatively upon Platonic and Christian views that good things in creation resemble and image God’s infinite goodness. From this perspective, finite good things offer glimpses of infinite goodness, and this chapter explores the glimpses of God that eating affords us. It ultimately argues that the nourishment that eating entails images God’s grace and transcendence, while the human activities cultivating, preparing, sharing, and tasting food image divine creativity, care, generosity, and compassion.
The chapter’s argument unfolds as follows. The first section examines how flourishing life is rooted in death. The second lays out the idea that finite goods provide glimpses of God’s infinite goodness. The third argues that a world in which life comes through eating richly images God’s grace and transcendence. The final section uplifts cultural activities around eating that image God and how we can develop them to be attentive to minimizing and mitigating the deaths on which our lives depend.
“Flourishing” is a commonly referenced aim in contemporary religious and environmental ethics, and it is the central bridge concept for this collection of essays. It is important to highlight, however, that discussion of human and nonhuman (p.49) flourishing enlists “flourishing” as a metaphor, rooted in the imagery of a flowering plant. This visual conveys a sense not only of beauty, vitality, and fruitfulness, but also of preciousness, rarity, and fragility. Flourishing is something that is at once internally powerful, with beings growing strongly into their full potential, and yet highly conditional, with beings depending utterly upon a huge number of ecological prerequisites. Focusing on flourishing also entails an implicit valuing of living beings and that which makes life possible over and above that which either is inanimate or undermines life. A key accompanying question also arises regarding which particular beings or species one values and wants to see flourish.
The reality that there is inclusion and exclusion in flourishing can be easily overlooked, because flourishing, like any metaphor, obscures even as it illuminates. While “flourishing” brings to mind life, growth, beauty, and fruitfulness, it tends to hide from view the death attending and nourishing such thriving. While it is common to think of death as a necessary part of something like predation, death is needed for life in general as we know it. Carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores alike eat living things that do not survive ingestion. Death undergirds plants’ thriving as well, with their roots absorbing nutrients from soil fertilized by compost (deceased plant life devoured and broken down into essential absorbable minerals by microbes, fungi, and worms in the soil) and manure (predominately the unabsorbed and deposited remains of organisms that have been eaten).
The flowering plant imagery of flourishing also tends to obscure the foraging, hunting, and killing that occur for many animate organisms to thrive. Although we might consider a cheetah to be flourishing when it is gliding impressively and majestically across the plain to tackle a gazelle, we do not tend to adorn the ensuing bloody kill or disemboweled dinner with language of flourishing, and yet absent that feast, there is no cheetah to offer finite reflections of infinite goodness in its stride.
Whether via digestive tracts or sprawling roots, flourishing lives depend upon nourishingly bringing remains of the dead into themselves as themselves, and this absorption is not simply instrumental to flourishing but intimately constitutive of it. In other words, although we often colloquially talk of “fueling” our bodies, there is a significant difference between a person eating and a machine being fueled. While a car consumes gasoline, it is essentially left unaltered by its fuel. Yet, when an organism takes in nutrients, those nutrients quite directly become part of that organism’s cellular structure. Along this line, while a car would simply not function absent gas, a person would wither and perish absent regular and formative absorption of food. Furthermore, unlike a vehicle, people have (p.50) habits—dispositions of desire, perception, and action—that are formed directly by what and how that person regularly eats.2
Eating, the intake and absorption of nutrients, is neither incidental nor instrumental but rather an integral part of life. In his text Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating Norman Wirzba examines this reality with his overarching question, “Why did God create a world in which every living creature must eat?”3 Wirzba points out, “Life as we know it depends on death, needs death, which means that death is not simply the cessation of life but its precondition.”4 This reality is embedded as the heartbeat of creation, pumping life forward day after day, generation after generation, and while it includes some beings that simply take in the already deceased—for instance, scavengers or plants—it also consists of creatures that kill, directly seizing the life of another, in order to be nourished.5
Predation, one sentient being feasting upon another, either after killing it to that end or digging in while the other is still alive, is what can seem particularly like the handiwork of an at best indifferent, at worst sadistic deity. It seems as if the God proclaimed in the Old and New Testaments, who created life abundant, was harboring a twisted secret, because everything that grows, breathes, and has its being in the Living God is on the menu for some fellow creature of God. Wirzba captures this existential setup poignantly as follows: “Every time we eat, we are called to recognize the profound mystery that God created a world that, from the beginning (even in something like a pre-fallen state), lives through the eating of its members.”6 This particular orchestration of life might be of limited (p.51) effect on microbial and vegetative beings, lacking what we commonly take to be the capacity to suffer via a nervous system,7 but animate beings suffer to varying physical and psychological degrees in being eaten, whether it happens swiftly or stretched parasitically over time.
The seeming incompatibility between a good God and this reality, with its attendant suffering, is mitigated substantially if one interprets Genesis 1–3 as historical record, because notably all animate creatures were vegans in the Garden of Eden, eating “every green plant for food” while Adam and Eve tended the garden, eating of its abundant fruit. If this narrative encapsulates our historical origin, then the devouring of sentient beings does not appear to be what God laid out in the beginning but rather is a sharp declension from it. While eating still stands as an integral aspect of creation in this picture, not an incidental but intentional and constitutive element of what it is to be alive as a finite creature of God, there is no predation. Interpreting Genesis 1–3 in this manner often comes with an accompanying attribution of predation to human sin, as a sad collateral consequence thereof. On this view, when Adam and Eve sinned, somehow they severely upended the created order—only later after the flood did God permit humans to eat meat absent its life blood. From this perspective, predation is presumably something to lament, something from which we can only wait to be delivered by God.8
Yet, when these passages from Genesis are paired with scientific perspectives, such as those of chemistry, astronomy, paleontology, and biology, they take on more of a poetic cast,9 and life on earth appears to have had a far lengthier, more winding past, intimately interwoven with forms of predation that vastly predate (p.52) humanity and a creation-upending sin.10 Furthermore, when evolution is included in this picture, the eating of sentient beings seems to have not only been present pre-humans, but also critical to the development of complex forms of life that exist today, including humans. In this vein, some argue that the vast array of incredibly elaborate capacities across life forms today might not have even arisen absent the particular pressures that predation placed upon creatures, culling the offspring of predator and prey alike in ways that increasingly heightened abilities to eat and avoid being eaten, to capture and evade, to attack and defend. These capacities were undoubtedly also formed by and enlisted for more welcoming activities such as play and care, but philosophers and environmental ethicists like Holmes Rolston III contend they were shaped indelibly and crucially by assault and evasion. Rolston maintains, “The cougar’s fangs have carved the limbs of the fleet-footed deer, and vice versa.”11 From this perspective, the eating of animate creatures appears to be far more constitutive to the formation of life on earth than a reading of Genesis 1–3, as historical record might suggest.
If predation is not the result of a sin but a part of God’s creation, though, one might wonder whether it remains something that we should lament or even that demands our repentance. The appropriate human response to predation could still simply be a sorrowful cry of “how long, O Lord?” Or it could entail asking forgiveness for killing other sentient creatures for food and refraining from such killing and eating to whatever extent possible. Ultimately, even if killing to live is built into creation from the start, the question remains, in what respects could this world of eat and be eaten be good?
Before sketching ways we can glimpse goodness in this world of eat and be eaten, it is key to lay out what is meant by “good” here. Although great debate rages (p.53) about whether “goodness” has any existence beyond human desires or evaluation, this chapter draws upon Robert Adams’s description of goodness in Finite and Infinite Goods.12 While good and goodness can mean a variety of things colloquially, Adams seeks to mark out territory for intrinsic goodness (the Good) as an objective reality that exists beyond human desires and values. According to Adams, although our longings and values of course connect with it, goodness is not reducible to them and it would exist even if we did not. This objectively real good is also intrinsically valuable, meaning its worth does not stem from something else, such as its instrumental usefulness in attaining some other goal, but it is innately valuable and worthy of admiration in itself—regardless of whether, for instance, even we humans are around to do the admiring.
Adams also maintains that goodness has an infinite divine form, the living God who came incarnate as Christ,13 and that encountering goodness with enough perception and awareness (it is possible to overlook, whether via lack of attention or training) elicits feeling of awe, admiration, and joy. For Adams, those encounters come foremost through finite goods, which he believes resemble God to varying degrees and in different respects. Adams writes that finite goods provide “fragmentary glimpses . . . of a transcendently wonderful object,” and when we experience them, “we are dimly aware of something too wonderful to be contained or carried either by our experience or by the physical or conceptual objects we are perceiving.”14
This inarticulate sense of transcendence also conveys another point about goodness: it is ultimately something we cannot define with sharp precision. Although we can tie it to objective reality, intrinsic value, and God, and we can associate finite objects and activities with it, goodness is ultimately something mysterious that lies beyond our capacity to understand and define adequately. In this view of goodness, Adams is drawing upon Platonic traditions, and he notes that “[m]uch of the intuitive appeal of broadly Platonic theories of value lies in the thought that experienced beauty or excellence points beyond itself to an ideal or transcendent Good of which it is only an imperfect suggestion or imitation.” Adams muses with a sentiment borne in this chapter as well, “We may also be (p.54) tempted to dismiss this feeling as a romantic illusion; but I am inviting the reader to make, in good Platonic company, the experiment of regarding it as veridical.”15
According to Adams, goodness is a nature that is genuinely being tracked both by our evaluative language and by our experiences of love and wonder. Consequently, goodness is a lodestar for Adams. When we pursue it, we “reach out toward an objective standard that is actually glimpsed . . . [even if] never fully or infallibly,” and as we perceive and describe good things, we engage in a process, however faltering, of recognizing this objective reality.16 Adams contends, “I think we cannot always or even usually be totally mistaken about goodness. . . . [I]f we do not place some trust in our own recognition of the good, we will lose our grip on the concept of the good, and our cognitive contact with the Good itself.”17
Stating that he lacks a better word for it, Adams labels this kind of intrinsic goodness “excellence” and distinguishes it from both instrumental goodness, geared to some other end, and well-being goodness, oriented toward what is “good for” a given creature or group. According to Adams, although enjoyment of “excellence” is critical to any creature’s well-being, excellence extends infinitely beyond the well-being of any and all creatures. Similarly, although we commonly associate the word “excellence” with highly developed skills or dispositions, Adams has in mind a wider range of finite goods, one that includes not only such heightened capacities, but also a lot from everyday life, like healthily functioning bodies, catching up with a close friend, dawn’s rosy fingers, or the taste of a sun-warmed tomato ripe off the vine.18
These finite intrinsic goods arise in fields as diverse as aesthetics, simple pleasures, academics, athletics, music, morality, and friendship, among others. Adams does not try to provide a comprehensive list of excellences, because he thinks that excellences, in imaging infinite goodness, will always outstrip human understanding or attempts at categorization. Some have criticized Adams for vagueness on this point, with philosopher Susan Wolf arguing that this conception of goodness offers “little epistemological help in discovering what is good.” (p.55) Wolf critiques, “[T]he idea that what is good is good because it resembles or images God is totally baffling if we are to understand the idea of resemblance or imaging literally. In what sense can a good meal, a good basketball game, a good performance of the Brandenburg Concerti, a field of wildflowers, the Critique of Pure Reason and my next door neighbor all resemble or image the same thing? How, in any event, can a good meal be said to image God?”19
Adams readily agrees it is often difficult to see the kinship between various forms of excellence, but also highlights that if their kinship is ultimately rooted in “an excellence so transcendent that it largely escapes our understanding, we should perhaps not be surprised if it is hard to understand that more momentous resemblance.”20 Overall, Adams is not claiming to have pinned down the criteria for discerning and delineating excellent things. He is simply positing their objective and transcendent existence, based in large part on the sense we often have that there is something amazing going on here, even if we do not know what it is—something that reaches far beyond simply us, our feeling of wonder, and whatever finite thing has elicited that wonder.21
We regularly associate many forms of excellence that Adams roots in God with the idea of human flourishing. In A Theory of Virtue, Adams writes that recent ethical and academic interest in “flourishing,” often as a translation for eudaimonia from Aristotle’s works, bears with it a hope that perhaps there is a way of living and thriving that is as innate and natural to humans as flowering is to a healthy plant. Adams points out, though, that eudaimonia, which is notoriously difficult to translate, is at root a term more directly religious than botanical in origin and valence, given that it means literally “good spirit.”22 Although flourishing does convey the largely Aristotelian idea that every being has an innate biological telos, no one has yet been able to pin down a compellingly comprehensive articulation of this telos for humans that is rooted foremost in our physical and psychological makeup. The analogy of thriving people to blossoming plants is enticing, but it does not seem to take into account the heightened complexity of people compared to plants.23
(p.56) We could envision “flourishing” as being more closely tied to experiencing and enjoying glimpses of God, both now and evermore fully in the resurrection to come, than with reaching an innate biological potential that is circumscribed simply within this finite world. Given the Platonic overtones in this conception of goodness, it is critical at this juncture to note that it is not being suggested that these glimpses provide a foretaste, if we mix metaphors, of leaving the body or creaturely existence behind. Glimpsing God does not entail here an effort, aspiration, or expectation of escaping the material world. Rather, recognizing finite resemblances of God’s infinite goodness consists of appreciating the finite and infinite interwoven intimately together.
From this perspective, the finite is not a disposable ladder to the infinite as it is in many Platonic lines of thought. For instance, in considering the glimpse of God one might catch in something as simple as sunlight on leaves, Adams notes, “It is our love, our liking, our admiration and enjoyment of the light on the leaves that suggest to us the greater good [of God]. If we did not care for the light on the leaves, for its own sake, the divine glory will not be visible to us in this experience. So if this is an experience of loving God in the mode of admiring (or adoring) and enjoying God, it would seem to be a case in which love for a finite good is an integral part of love for God.”24 According to Adams, the intrinsic love for a finite good and the more reflective appreciation of it as a glimpse of infinite goodness are not in competition with each other but tightly interconnected, and this chapter argues that eating—the nourishment of life through death along with the way humans creatively and culturally play upon this need—harbors many of these twofold experiences of loving a finite good in concert with God.
Glimpsing God in the Nourishment of Life
What glimpses of infinite goodness could this world of eat and be eaten offer? To begin, the nourishment that eating affords images divine grace and transcendence. In Christian circles, the word “grace” usually refers to salvation and being considered righteous by God even though one is unrighteous, but at a more basic level, grace is simply a gift. Offering grace is giving something unmerited, something that the recipient either does not deserve or could not attain on his or her own. In reverse, experiencing grace is getting what one has not earned (and in some cases, could never earn) through exercising one’s abilities.
(p.57) In this vein and in regard to eating, anything living creatures eat is ultimately an unmerited gift from God. Even though creatures put forth intense effort seeking food—and people in particular mix in their distinct forms of labor in cultivating, processing, cooking, and sharing food—the existence of food is not something that lies within any creature or creatures’ self-sufficient capacity to generate.25 Created beings have important but extremely circumscribed influence over their sustenance, and so much lies beyond creaturely control that it is unclear how human claims to have earned or deserve our food are warranted. Although we commonly deem ourselves worthy of a given yield based on things like hard work, skills, or property ownership, the basic conditions that make any such bounty even conceivably possible lie completely beyond our capacity to secure.26 Diligently tending, nurturing, and preparing animals or vegetation for food would not only be ineffectual, but also simply impossible absent aspects of creation like the sun, the atmosphere, gravity, photosynthesis, fresh water, and nutrient-rich soil, among others. From a theological perspective, the fact that those conditions are laid out morning by morning, that creation does not simply dissolve into nothingness, offers a daily glimpse of divine grace, God’s intentional ongoing action to create life.27
Yet, while the sheer possibility of having food to eat expresses divine grace, the ways nourishment takes place, particularly via predation, still appear to throw the goodness of food off kilter. There is something chilling in the slaughter of sentient beings for sustenance, not to mention predators digging in while the prey is still kicking. Even though the suffering of prey peaks in the chase and the kill, as most sentient creatures seem to lack a foreboding sense of mortality, this kind of “integration” of life has a ring of horror about it, as one can easily imagine the lamb preferring just as well not to be integrated into the wolf. That horror becomes particularly poignant when one hears stories about humans being eaten. For instance, in the summer of 2016, headlines in the United States flashed about a two-year-old boy who was attacked by an alligator in Disneyland. The child was simply making sandcastles at dusk with other children by a lakeside and had waded into the lake to fill a bucket with water. As he bent over, an alligator splashed up and (p.58) snatched the boy with a crushing blow upon his neck and head. Frantic attempts from the boy’s father to save his son from the alligator’s jaws failed, as the ancient predator dragged the child away. Although alligators very rarely hunt humans, experts concluded that in this particular incidence the alligator had acted in ways that indicate it perceived the little boy to be prey.28 This story and others like it, and nearly every monster tale we have, reinforce a certain sympathy we have with prey and fear of being the one integrated into another being.
Some Christian thinkers have sought to address the issue of predation by framing it in terms of Christ’s sacrifice. They see resonance between the life-giving sacrificial death of Christ and the life-giving death of the devoured. Holmes Rolston III has pressed this theological point most directly, arguing that creation is “cruciform” in that life forms of lower capacities are nourishingly “transformed” into creatures of more complex abilities, both in an immediate sense of sustaining the predator and in a broader sense of driving the evolutionary generation of diverse creatures and capacities. Rolston speaks of this devouring as redemptive, holding that “destruction of the old, lower life is not really destruction but renovation, the creation of newer, higher levels of life.”29 The suffering and demise of the eaten is not utter annihilation but rather transformation, and Rolston further argues that this sacrificial transformation echoes the life of Christ. He contends that being eaten exhibits the “abundant life that Jesus exemplifies and offers to his disciples [which] is that of a sacrificial suffering.” Rolston maintains, “There is something divine about the power to suffer through to something higher. . . . The cruciform creation is, in the end, deiform, godly, just because of this element of struggle, not in spite of it.”30
Wirzba similarly discusses a “sacrificial logic of life through death to new life” that stretches back to the “foundation of the world,”31 and Wendell Berry poignantly invokes this kind of perspective in the closing lines of his classic essay, “The Gift of Good Land”:
[I do not] suggest that we can live harmlessly, or strictly at our own expense; we depend upon other creatures and survive by their deaths. To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.32
Framing eating, and predation in particular, in terms of sacrifice and redemption does correctly highlight that creaturely existence inescapably costs the lives of fellow beings. As such, life is precious (costly) not only in terms of its innate value, but also in terms of the lethal payments we must make to keep living. Furthermore, in the sense of “life coming through death,” eat and be eaten resonates powerfully and evocatively with the saving death of Christ. The sheer fact that we could look down at the dinner table and appreciatively recognize that everything on it was once alive but now is dead so that we might live does provide a compelling metaphor for salvation in Christ.33
Even so, it is a step too far to claim that this good creation bears a cruciform or sacrificial logic, because Christ’s crucifixion differs from predation and eating in critical ways. To begin, the purpose of Roman crucifixion was to subjugate conquered peoples with one of the most calculatingly vicious forms of torture that people have been perverse enough to invent and inflict upon one another. By contrast, the drive of predators killing to eat is nourishment, not the suffering of either the eaten or any who might grieve the eaten. The murderous cross also does not give or nourish life in itself. It is something from which life has to be redeemed and raised in Christ. By contrast, predatory eating does give life in itself, regenerating the very flesh of the one eating. Finally, Christ gave himself over to death and crucifixion willingly, but prey do not generally appear willing to submit to being eaten, given their routine flight from it.34
Reconsideration of Berry’s quotation above also brings into sharp relief the difference between Christ’s crucifixion and killing to eat. As Berry describes, killing to eat can be done with knowing reverence of the cost of the life taken and (p.60) a loving skill that nurtures the to-be-eaten during life and minimizes any pain in death. Yet, we would not similarly claim a crucifixion, if simply done knowingly, reverently, lovingly, and skillfully, could be a sacrament. There are glimpses of God on the cross in the compassion, forgiveness, generosity, and self-control that drove Christ to proclaim reconciling justice and peace even to the point of death on the imperial cross, and there are glimpses of eternal life in Christ being raised from the dead, but there is no good to be glimpsed in the intentions and implementation of the cross itself.
One could appeal at this point to a Job-esque mystery, and maintain that we simply do not know why God would make creation cruciform. The book of Job does not answer why God allows the righteous to suffer, and one could argue that, similarly, we do not know why God made it so that life comes through eating, with the suffering and death that attend it. Like Job before the whirlwind, perhaps all we can do is stand in awe at the fact that we are part of a leviathan-like “eat and be eaten” world.35 It is important to note, however, that a cruciform explanation of creation actually ends up explaining away the mystery of suffering to which Job attests. For instance, Rolston ultimately gives two direct explanations for why God made a world in which life comes through death and predation: the regeneration of the eater, and the evolutionary spur to ever more complex and creative beings, hunter and hunted.
By contrast, the book of Job leaves the suffering of the righteous—and by extension, the suffering of the eaten—far more open ended. According to Job, no clear explanation is given for that suffering. Instead, the point is simply made that life in creation transcends far beyond the well-being (and the suffering) of any given creature. When we consider eating and the nourishment through death it entails, we can similarly appreciate the glimpse of divine transcendence it affords us. As part of creation, we are part of something far larger than any of us can comprehend, something that is rooted and centered ultimately on God. Furthermore, emphasizing that eating images God’s transcendence rather than Christ’s crucifixion is important because it protects against the danger of instrumentalizing, and thereby underappreciating, the countless lives lost to digestive tracts.
Eating gives us glimpses of both the transcendence of life (divine, as well as created) beyond any individual creature and the grace of sheer existence. When we are attentive to these aspects of eating, we can cultivate due humility, respect, and gratitude for the innumerable lives we consume. We cannot repay or merit the lives we eat, or simply claim that their deaths lead to something greater, such as ourselves. We cannot understand why God made the world this way. We can, (p.61) though, live in reverence by killing and eating in ways that are responsible rather than careless, wasteful, and exhaustingly destructive of life on earth. As we turn in the final section to consider the goodness of food and eating in the realms of human culture, the terrain will feel much less lethally fraught, but it is critical to remember again (and again) that the nourishing things on our plates were once alive but now are dead so that we might live.
Glimpsing God in Human Cultures of Eating
With regard to human culture and eating, the glimpses of God’s goodness arise in four primary activities: cultivating, preparing, sharing, and tasting food. Each of these areas harbors incredible moments in which God can be glimpsed, even amidst the long hours and often repetitious work some of them require. Such moments are the stuff of human flourishing. Sharing a meal with family and friends in which one becomes mutually immersed in the delight of conversation and shared appreciation for delicious food is perhaps the most regular experience of excellence around eating. Celebrations and holidays revolve, often quite piously, around such companionship over food, with participants accumulating traditions and richly savored memories around these moments and specific foods prepared and enjoyed with one another. Gathering around shared meals is not simply an incidental occasion for relationship, but constitutes the care and abiding connection people have with one another and images divine care for and connection to creation.
Adams notes that he is not precisely sure which aspect of God’s goodness is glimpsed in the taste of something deliciously prepared but rests assured of the resemblance, given the widely experienced relish of a first bite, and the psalmist’s view that enough of a resemblance exists to declare, “O taste and see that the Lord is Good!”36 While taste is deeply shaped and variated according to cultural upbringing, it taps into something transcendently wonderful, as does the preparation of food itself. Glimpses of infinite creativity are daily displayed in the dishes envisioned and crafted by chefs and amateurs alike.37 This creativity and accompanying attentiveness arises not only in the food itself, but also in the details of table settings, flower arrangements, garnishes, plating, and other such aesthetics.
Sharing food with those who lack it additionally bears images of divine generosity and compassion. This kind of goodness is often what people think of first (p.62) when they consider food in light of theological ethics, but it is important to recognize that a single-minded focus on the moral call to meet physical needs overlooks other aspects of eating that image God’s goodness. It can feel as though nothing else mattered in the face of malnutrition, but the flourishing of any person, hungry or otherwise, extends far beyond nutrition alone.38 If nutritious calorie count becomes the sole criterion of goodness in food and eating, things like fellowship, taste, and culinary craft noted are easily missed. In the words of the psalmist, God causes plants to grow so that humans can not only make bread for food, but also craft wine to gladden the human heart and oil to make the face shine.39
Appreciating that food is about more than merely staying alive can be seen in a homelessness shelter program in Richmond, Virginia, called CARITAS, in which congregations around the metropolitan area offer places to stay as well as meals on a rotating weekly basis. If nourishment were the sole focus with regard to providing food as part of this ministry, the participants could simply be handed packets of enriched peanut butter or nutrient-dense meal-replacement beverages. Yet, concerns for compassion and care drive congregations to consider more than nutrition alone, such as serving meals that actually taste delicious and coming out from behind the kitchen counter to join in fellowship around the meal, showing the kind of personal respect and welcome one would to guests in one’s own home. Nutritious food is necessary but not sufficient to sharing the goodness of eating with others.
The cultivation of food itself is another area of cultural excellence in relation to eating, one that images divine creativity and care. Yet farming can easily become romanticized, particularly when viewed from a distance, as a place of pure harmony, of deathless flourishing where vegetative and animate species thrive seamlessly side by side.40 It is crucial to recognize our tendency to romanticize death away from our food, especially those of us in urban areas, where global populations are becoming increasingly concentrated at a far distance from the agricultural origins of our food. This disposition to romanticism may be particularly prevalent among city dwellers because it offers such a verdant contrast to horizons of pavement and parking lots.
(p.63) Romanticizing farming undermines not only appreciation of the costly processes that bear food but also awareness of the way current agricultural practices exact a heavier toll of suffering and death than is needed for humans to thrive. Detachment from food’s roots comes via the decentralized maze of market exchanges that currently take food from field to fork. As Wendell Berry notes, it can seem at the grocery-store checkout counter as if getting food were an economic act rather than an “agricultural act,” that food comes from money and trade rather than sun, seed, soil, and rain.41 A key problem with that misperception is that markets, while having many merits, also tend to hide the death in which we must deal in order to live, and if we do not realize the death inherent to our lives, we are vastly more prone to slip into excess, killing or harming objectively good beings more than is necessary and in ways that undermine the long-term ecological capacities of soil and species to replenish.
Participation in growing food-bearing plants offers one avenue for people’s desires, viewpoints, and actions to be more fully trained toward gratitude, wonder, and responsibility regarding the roots of our sustenance and the costs therein. As Wirzba writes about gardens, “[E]very garden by necessity presupposes a massive amount of plant and animal death. . . . The sight and aroma of death are simply unavoidable. . . . Soil, we could say, is the ever-open receptacle for death. Deep in the bowels of the earth countless bacteria, microorganisms, fungi, and insects are engaged in a feeding frenzy that absorbs life into death and death back into the conditions for life.”42
This kind of education occurs regularly at Shalom Farms, a nonprofit located on a ten-acre farm in Midlothian, Virginia, that is focused on (1) growing healthy organic produce for underserved communities in Metro Richmond, (2) providing learning experiences to all ages on growing food as well as cooking and eating nutritionally, and (3) helping foster individual and community self-sufficiency. Established in 2009, the farm now generates over 100,000 pounds of produce annually, grown with the diligent help of about 4,400 volunteers, many of whom drive thirty to forty minutes from the city to the farm to be of assistance and get their hands in the soil. The food is produced organically without synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides, and made available at reduced or no financial cost to local communities that do not have easy access to nutritious food because of a lack of nearby grocery stores.
(p.64) Shalom Farms’ mission is to generate food that is “good for our bodies, good for our environment, and good for our communities.” While the term “good” here is used in a way focused on physical and relational well-being, Shalom’s ministry extends into each of the areas of excellence discussed above, cultivating, preparing, tasting, and sharing. Executive director Dominic Barrett unpacks Shalom’s mission as seeking affirmatives not only to questions like “can we all afford it? can we all access it?” but also “is it food that we like? can we share that food?”43 Growing lots of affordable fresh produce is a key component of Shalom’s call, but that aim flows with efforts to generate educated relationships around healthy eating, sustainable agriculture, and awareness of food’s origin in the soil.
When considering this work, head farmer Steve Miles explains, “To me it’s an art form. It’s a way of expressing myself creatively, and it’s a way to not only do something I love, which is working outside with my hands, but also benefit a lot of people at the same time. And people love coming out here. It’s a great environment. I feel like it’s always sort of a learning lab. For me I’m always learning patience and frugality. I’m learning humility.”44 Participating in the farm provides ground from which people can engage not only the death-enriched roots of food, but also the culinary arts, table fellowship, and hospitality, as those receiving or purchasing the food also have opportunities to get recipes and instruction in cooking the produce so that they can not only enjoy its tastes themselves but also share it around a table with family and friends.
The four primary activities around food that reflect God’s goodness (cultivating, preparing, sharing, and tasting food) are accessible via the work of Shalom Farms. Shalom Farms offers glimpses into the goodness of life’s nourishment as well. With a flock of about thirty chickens, the farm engages in some animal husbandry. These chickens lay eggs and work diligently each day, fertilizing, weeding, and mowing the soil on a rotating basis around the farm. They also provide opportunities for teaching and talking about predation with volunteers and student groups, given that the chickens peck up insects, spiders, and worms while residing unquestionably in the sights and at times grip of neighboring opossums, foxes, and coyotes. More so than even the crops, these creatures offer ambulatory instruction that life preciously depends on death. Farms like Shalom provide people with spaces and times to appreciate the images of divine grace and transcendence present in our food system.
This chapter highlights the need to take seriously the fact that eating inextricably entails death. It costs lives. Though we cannot answer here and now why God made the world in such a way that life depends on death, particularly when it entails predation, this chapter argues that we can still see glimpses of divine goodness in eating. In the nourishment that eating entails we can see images of God’s grace and transcendence, and in the human practices of cultivating, preparing, tasting, and sharing food we can see divine creativity, care, generosity, and compassion. Appreciating such glimpses of God are key components of human flourishing, especially to the extent that they train us to care for one another, delight in God’s creation, and deal carefully with the deaths in which our lives are rooted. In recognizing the goodness revealed in eating, we can live into Wendell Berry’s core charge to take life only as needed, and to do so “knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently,” minimizing suffering and death.
(1.) Gail Taylor, head of Three Part Harmony Farm in Washington, DC, quoted in Lavanya Ramanathan, “That Empty Patch of Grass? That Could Be the District’s Next Farm,” Washington Post, September 4, 2015.
(2.) See Leon Cass, Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature (New York: Maxwell Macmillan, 1994).
(3.) Norman Wirzba, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011),1.
(5.) Broader theological questions about mortality lie outside the parameters of this chapter, which focuses on the related but under-investigated area of life’s dependence upon eating and the death that accompanies it.
(6.) Wirzba, Food and Faith, 134. Some eating is more destructive than others. Harvesting certain fruits and seeds does not necessarily destroy the plant from which they came, though does of course destroy the fruit that was a living part of the plant. Seeds often make it unharmed and ready for generating new life when deposited out the other end of the digestive tract. Milk also on its face is less destructive, though the milk was only generated by the mother devouring other living things, whether plant or animal. Honey is perhaps the least destructive both in its production and consumption within bee species. Careful beekeepers also minimize harm to life when sustainably harvesting honeycomb. The fact that not all foods are equally destructive also seems to be an insight appreciated in the Bible, given that the idealized land of promise in Exodus is one flowing with milk and honey. See Laura Hartman, e-mail message to author, October 15, 2015.
(7.) These life forms, though, do generally stretch toward life and away from irritants and death to whatever extent possible. Certain plants also appear capable of sending and responding to biochemical distress signals. See Michael Marder, “If Peas Can Talk, Should We Eat Them?” New York Times, April 28, 2012.
(8.) Certain scripture passages seem to indicate meat eating is an aberration from God’s intent for creation. For instance, Isaiah’s prophetic vision of a time when the lion will eat straw like the ox and the leopard will lie down with the goat (See Isaiah 11:1–9; 65:25) recalls descriptions of Eden, where plants supply the nourishment needed by all moving creatures so that no bloodletting is necessary for sustenance (See Genesis 1:29–31; 2:4–17). These images lie in tension, though, with passages like Psalm 104, which celebrates “lions [that] roar for their prey, seeking their food from God” (see also Job 38:39–41; 39:26–30).
(9.) Reading those chapters more poetically entails seeing them not as a record of something that happened in a single historical moment, but rather as stories highlighting aspects of existence that happen again and again throughout time, such as creation flowing perennially from God or humans’ disastrously prevalent dispositions to give into wayward impulses, hide behind self-justifying excuses, and avoid taking responsibility for their actions.
(10.) To explore arguments regarding theodicy, cosmodicy, and predation, see Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008); Ronald Osborn, Death before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014); Trent Dougherty, The Problem of Animal Pain: A Theodicy for All Creatures Great and Small (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); Nicola Hoggard Creegan, Animal Suffering and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Michael Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw: Theism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); and Elizabeth Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love (London: Bloomsbury, 2015).
(11.) Holmes Rolston III, Science and Religion: A Critical Survey (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), 134. See Ned Hettinger, “Bambi Lovers versus Tree Huggers,” Environmental Ethics 16, no. 1 (1994): 3–20.
(12.) Robert Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods: A Framework for Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
(13.) Although Adams’s project is not an explicit, confessional work of Christian theology but rather of broader philosophical theology, it is influenced and rooted deeply in a Christian conception of God as a personal and gracious lover of the Good and the array of finite goods in creation.
(16.) Ibid., 50, 81–82. “God is the standard of goodness, to which other good things must in some measure conform, but never perfectly conform.” Ibid., 29. For instance, in the field of excellence that is morality, Adams contends that although people often disagree vociferously, “[T]here is enough overlap among the different received evaluative beliefs and practices for us to be talking about the same thing.” Adams holds that despite our incapacity to fully perceive or comprehend God, “[w]e must have been able, very often, to recognize the good and the right.” Ibid., 364.
(19.) Susan Wolf, “A World of Goods,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 64, no. 2 (March 2002): 472. Also see David Decosimo, “Intrinsic Goodness and Contingency, Resemblance and Particularity: Two Criticisms of Robert Adam’s Finite and Infinite Goods,” Studies in Christian Ethics 25, no. 4 (November 2012): 418–441.
(20.) Robert Adams, “Responses,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 64, no. 2 (March 2002): 476.
(24.) Adams, Finite and Infinite Goods, 194. Also see p. 152, in which Adams calls the conclusion that particular goods serve only as ladders to infinite good an “outrageous” “misunderstanding and undervaluing” of finite goods, persons in particular.
(25.) Wirzba makes a distinction between earning food and being able to make a claim upon food on the basis of the efforts one has put into tending and cultivating its growth. The point being made here is simply that even if at some degree one can lay claim to a yield, there is a vastly more fundamental gift at play. See Wirzba, Food and Faith, 121.
(26.) Talk of self-sufficiency is predominately an issue of human interactions, as even the most rugged individual would not last long in the middle of a desert, an ocean, or, more pointedly, the cold emptiness of outer space.
(27.) See Wirzba, Food and Faith, 121, 134, 184.
(28.) Steve Visser, “Florida Disney Alligator Saw Boy as Prey, Report Says,” CNN, August 23, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/22/us/orlando-disney-gator-attack.
(29.) Holmes Rolston III, “Does Nature Need to Be Redeemed?” Zygon 29, no. 2 (June 1994): 211. Holding that predation in particular has been necessary to provide the kind of environmental pressure that cultivated and created beings with the kind of enhanced capacities we see on earth today, Rolston also writes, “[A]n Earth with only herbivores and no omnivores or carnivores would be impoverished—the animal skills demanded would be only a fraction of those that have resulted in actual zoology—no horns, no fleet-footed predators or prey, no fine-tuned eyesight or hearing, no quick neural capacity, no advanced brains.” Ibid., 213.
(31.) Wirzba, Food and Faith, 125, 135.
(32.) Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land,” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2002), 304.
(33.) Eating and drinking, of course, are also the prime ritual celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection.
(34.) While resistance to death is comparable between predation and crucifixion in its general form, the comparison Rolston makes is between predation and Christ’s saving death in particular.
(35.) See Rolston, “Does Nature Need to Be Redeemed?”: 210–211; Job 38–42.
(36.) Psalm 34:8.
(39.) See Psalm 104.
(40.) In the epigraph of this chapter, the head of Three Part Harmony, an urban farm in Washington, DC, slips into this rosy picture of all life being made to thrive before catching herself to note that insects that eat the vegetables are not harmoniously welcome to flourish, on the farm at least.
(41.) Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating,” in What Are People For? Essays (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1990), 145–146.
(42.) Wirzba, Food and Faith, 53.
(44.) Steven Miles, “Shalom Farms.”