Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Over-Thinking Food

I am a conflicted member of the Christian "ethical food" movement. At its best, it is comprised of people who are trying to be responsible stewards by eating in a way that minimizes environmental harm and/or treats animals with appropriate respect. At its worst, it is comprised of people who add a Christian veneer to a progressive political agenda or new-age pseudo-theology. The real problem, of course, is that in practice those of us in the movement can fall into both camps, depending on the day.

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.


Stephen H. Webb said...

Excellent response to my article, but I am disappointed that I did not persuade you of some of the dangers of Cavanaugh's book. The problem as I see it is a two quick step from action to explanation/justification. In other words, Cavanaugh does not have a good theory (implicit; he never develops explicitly a theory of human action) of how our acts reflect and reinforce our ideals, as well as how our acts are (and are not) symbolic. (wait, I think I have to make up a google account to post this! I'm so computer stupid)

Stephen H. Webb said...

As I was saying...human action is not the same as human speech. What we do is not a direct statement of what we believe...and that is true for so many reasons. Our actions are mediated in a way that our speech is not. We act in social situations that determine the symbolic value of our action; we create long narratives with our actions. You can't just turn an action into a proposition. And Cavanaugh wants our actions to be propositions. Actions can be proposition-like, but that is usually the stuff of performance art or ritualized movements. When people like Cavanaugh start talking about being a consumer for Christ, they have the right idea but they are on the wrong track. They go from the proposition, something like, help the poor, to the action, something like, don't buy luxury products or buy locally. The problem is that out actions are so situational, so embedded, that actions simply do not stand up to such expectations and analysis. In other words, we need to bracket the theological goal a bit and mediate it with some social analysis of how spending and poverty or eating and animal health connect, and that can be hard work, and lead to ambiguous results. And trying to turn actions into slogans can turn people off because people, yes, even ordinary people, understand that the real problem with hypocrisy is not failing to live up to your words, which is part of the human condition, but using your actions as a sign of your superior beliefs. Buying locally does not mean that capitalism is bad, and it certainly does not mean that the person who buys locally is more sincere in his beliefs about the badness of capitalism than the person who worries about capitalism but does not buy locally. Well, I've gone on too long, thanks for your blog, it was great.

Steven McMullen said...


I actually agree with your comment. The weakest part of Cavanaugh's book is when he actually tries to do economics, at which point me makes grand leaps that, in my view, were not convincing. I, like you, am skeptical of the "local food" movement because I can not come up with a convincing motivation for it that is both theologically and economically sound.

Moreover, I would much prefer that Cavanaugh write about different types of capitalism, and emphasized that some actions shape a capitalist system is more faithful than other actions. This kind of argument would seem to be more consistent with the parts of his theology that I appreciate.

wj said...

I agree with the general consensus on the strengths and weaknesses of Being Consumed discussed here, but I wonder at Webb's criticism of Cavanaugh as articulated in this comblog, to wit:

"human action is not the same as human speech" and, therefore, that "What we do is not a direct statement of what we believe"

I'm not sure (1) that one can maintain the simple distinction between "action" and "speech" that is proffered here; but, more seriously, I think it is simply wrong to claim (2): "what we do is not a direct statement of what we believe."

Christian liturgy developed according to the opposite premise, that lex orandi revealed or disclosed the lex credendi. So, in the case of the Eucharistic liturgy, at least, it would seem that what we do in that liturgy does in fact communicate what we believe, so much so that Aquinas can appeal to liturgical practice to settle theololgical disputes.

Steven McMullen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven McMullen said...

WJ -

I think Webb's point about Cavanaugh not articulating the anthropological and political results of his theology is a valid one. There are many more versions of faithful living that are consistent with his theology than he admits. He jumps too quickly from the theology to the economics.

Moreover, the (largely negative) theological underpinnings that he ascribes to the market - or capitalism - is a bit narrow, and he could do a lot more to back that part up.

So what do I like about Cavanaugh? I agree with you that he does an interesting job explaining one way of connecting economic action to theology/liturgy. Moreover, his discussion of freedom and attachment are helpful correctives to those who do too little to consider the relationship between capitalist practice and culture. What we can't do is read Cavanaugh alone. I think of him as an important conversation partner with those on the economic right who have a different set of strengths and weaknesses.