This is one of the reasons I have so much respect for the work of Stephen Webb, a theologian at Wabash college who has written extensively on Christian eating practices. His book Good Eating contains a humble, winsome, and distictively Christian defense of vegetarian eating, while calling to task the many theological, philosophical, and political problems with the animal rights movement. This book went a long way in convincing me that I could, in good conscience, participate in this movement.
Now Webb has done it again, in an online piece that hits closer to home. His essay, published in The Other Journal, is a call for "gourmands" to take food less seriously. This is serious stuff from a guy who has already written two books on theology and eating. He correctly identifies the tendency for progressive Christians to assign too much theological significance to the slow preparation of food and to politically-minded purchasing habits. He takes William Cavanaugh's book Being Consumed to task for tying into the mix a poor critique of capitalism, and echos John Tiemstra's dissertation when he writes:
The attempt to return to more natural eating, whether in the form of buying local produce or immersing oneself in the arcane knowledge of how best to grill root vegetables, does not constitute a protest against the modern world and its capitalist masters any more than being able to discuss the much contested aromatic effects of arugula is a sign of advanced spiritual awareness and heightened cultural sensitivity.Here's the problem. I like Cavanaugh's book, even though he and I disagree on some of the main points. Somewhere in his line of argument, Webb goes from correctly identifying much of the foodie movement as justified gluttony to critiquing my sacred cow - politically motivated consumption:
There is something to be said, then, for the argument that locally grown produce and humanely raised animal products capture and extend the moral message of communion. In Christianity, however, these dietary decisions flow naturally from acts of worshipping God, not efforts to change the world. Moreover, Christianity reminds us that only when we bring the fruits of our labor to God can we hope to resist the temptation of making those fruits look better than they really are. When we try to make meals a means of moralistic debate, we demean the gifted character of nature’s provisions. When we try to inject morality into our meals, we inevitably take too much pleasure from our actions and mistake physical satisfaction for a sense of social accomplishment.How dare he.
He goes a little too far, however, both in the quote above, and in his critique of Cavanaugh. He quotes this passage from Cavanaugh's book:
“The key question in every transaction is whether or not the transaction contributes to the flourishing of each person involved, and this question can only be judged, from a theological point of view, according to the end of life, which is participation in the life of God” (viii).And then responds:
Cavanaugh seems to think that unless an ultimate theological end is the direct aim of every economic act, then those acts have no morally serious meaning. Every purchase we make must be theologically correct.His first sentence is incorrect, his second is correct. The problem is that he assumes that, for Cavanaugh, the "ultimate theological end" is quite narrow, when in fact, it is not. There is no problem with the statement that "every purchase we make must be theologically correct," if in fact God's will for humanity encompasses all parts of life. The key is to discern what part of our "ultimate theological end" is appropriately reflected in our consumption habits. Cavanaugh is right to point to the social nature of exchange as something that must be preserved in it's best form. Exploitation, fraud, and other results of greed must always be rejected in favor of service, justice, and other fruits of properly ordered self-interest and desire. If we can preserve shalom by watching what we buy, even if our sphere of influence is small, then there is no problem with trying to "change the world," one veggie burger at a time.
But there I go over-thinking food again.