"Cooking is a declaration of love ... food is God’s love made delicious." Theologian Norman Wirzba reflects on the threats of our faulty logic of food and our disordered and disconnected relationship to eating and nourishment, and imagines a theology of food grounded in membership, gift, and hospitality. Interview with Matt Croasmun.
About Norman Wirzba
Norman Wirzba is the Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Theology at Duke University. His teaching, research, and writing happens at the intersections of theology and philosophy, and agrarian and environmental studies. He is the author of several books, including Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating (2nd Edition), From Nature to Creation, and The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age, and his most recent book, This Sacred Life: The Place of Humanity in a Wounded World, will be published in 2021. In his spare time he likes to bake, play guitar, and make things with wood. For more information visit his website at normanwirzba.com.
- Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating—a picture of what eating can be, connecting us to the world, to each other, to God.
- When it comes to eating in America these days, how are we doing?
- Anonymity and ignorance. We are disconnected from food, we’re not encouraged to know where food comes from or how it came to be.
- "Eat food, not too much, mostly vegetables."
- Good eating is not solely a matter of personal virtue or vice. It’s part of a complicated system, agricultural strategy, and political process we’re involved in.
- Food is central to human flourishing, but if it’s only a market commodity, we end up with a faulty logic that drives a sinister food industry.
- You can only sell so much: therefore, preservatives
- If food is primarily to be digested, we have foods that are, in principle, indigestible. It tastes good, and never makes you full. It’s the perfect food commodity. The food system is developed to take advantage of you as a unit of consumption.
- What is eating for?
- Membership as a eucharistic mode for changing the way we conceive of food and the good.
- Eating is a daily reminder of our need.
- Fruits of the spirit that ought to animate our relation to membership.
- Mutual belonging (Willie Jennings, The Christian Imagination)
- How disconnection from the land leads to alienation and loneliness.
- Attention to geography and sources of life; how do we cultivate awareness and proper attention?
- Robin Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass—the White American presence has always been “this is not home.” Therefore, “The land we live on and are blessed by does not love us.” Think about what kind of compensation must follow to this kind of alienation.
- Racial components of agriculture and food. "You cannot tell the story of agriculture apart from the story of slavery.” Agricultural labor and the objection to embodiment.
- Embodiment and food.
- Essential work, abstraction from bodies, and disembodied labor.
- "We don’t want to know, because to have to know these things implicates us in how we shop for food."
- God creates a world in which creatures eat.
- What’s communicated through a meal prepared for you? You matter.
- God invites us into hospitality, and food and eating can teach us that nurturing welcoming presence.
- Food as gift. Submitting oneself to "the grace of the world.”
- "Food is God’s love made delicious."
- "Life has always proceeded by hospitality."
- “Eating and cooking … cause us to stop and say, ‘It’s not all vicious. Maybe our living together can also be a celebration.’"
- "All eating involves death.” How do you square the gift of food with the death it entails?
- The first virtue of humility—because I don’t know, and because I understand vulnerability, I must live in a more humble, patient way.
- What does policy look like when it comes through the lens of humility, dependence, gift, and vulnerability?
- The story of a meal—its cultivating, growing, cooking, gathering, eating, enjoying, and nourishing.
- You can’t homogenize people’s experience of food.
- Sabbath, time, place: Slowing down to notice the goodness of the world God has given us. Thoughtfulness, intention, attention, presence, honoring each other
- Who is invited to the table? Communal living, kinship, and community in a welcoming world. Abraham Heschel’s “an opening for eternity in time."
- How can we honor the life that feeds us? Start simple. Soup and bread to celebrate the goodness of the world.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
Norman Wirzba: Cooking is a declaration of love, and that means that you want to be able to say when that person comes through the door and sits at your table—you want to be able to say, "I love you; I value your life and I want you to be nurtured; I want you to be celebrated; and I want you to be happy." So you're going to make food that is good for them. You're going to make food that is delicious. And we'll acknowledge it doesn't mean fancy. And this is also important. It's not fancy food we're talking about, but good food lovingly prepared can be very simple. But what that does then is it creates a context in which people understand that the world is a welcoming place, that life has always proceeded along the lines of hospitality. And I know that this is difficult for us when we live in a cultural context where the imaginaries we have are so shaped by nature red in tooth and claw, and so it's a vicious realm. It's all about survival. I think what eating and cooking do is they actually cause us to stop and say, "You know, maybe it's not all vicious, maybe our living together can also be a celebration."
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. I'm Evan Rosa with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. I like food. Food is good, but it's also such a necessity that we often eat mindlessly for mere survival, for base pleasure, to taste endlessly without the thread of filling up or nourishing ourselves. Or else, we think we need to starve ourselves, dieting endlessly, all to live up to an image of health that's been curated by corporations or celebrities. Of course there are the virtues and vices of eating, which deeply affect our health and character.
But we can't lose sight of food injustice either. There exist wide and barren food deserts across the world, and even in the United States. More than 20 million people don't live within a reasonable distance of fresh food markets. 14 million families in America are food insecure. They don't have enough at home to ensure that every member of their family has a meal today, not to mention that our disconnection from food production allows us the bliss of ignoring the horrifying treatment of animals and the mismanagement, even destruction, of land.
The collective picture of how the human species eats through each day does feel threatening. But this episode is not about heaping on all that guilt. I like food. Food is good. No, this episode is about envisioning, imagining for ourselves and our communities a better way to eat and a better way to think about food. Our guest today is Norman Wirzba, the Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Theology at Duke University. He works at the intersection of theology, philosophy, and agrarian and environmental studies. He's the author of several books, which you can find in the show notes. But in this interview, Matt Croasmun asks about one of Norman's most well-known works, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. They discuss our faulty logic of food, a theology of membership, gifts, and hospitality, and how we can slow down, reconnect to our food and love each other through the process. There's so much food for thought in this episode. So bon appetit.
Matt Croasmun: Norman, thanks so much for joining us today.
Norman Wirzba: It's great to be with you, Matt.
Matt Croasmun: As I was sharing with you, we've been teaching Food and Faith in the "Christ and Being Human" course back from the very beginning. And we've just found it really valuable. So I'm so glad that you could be here with us today.
Norman Wirzba: Great to be with you
Matt Croasmun: In that book, you paint this extraordinary picture of what eating can be about, how it can connect us to the world, to one another, to God. And yet, I have a strong sense—and I think you do too if I read you right—that this is not what a lot of our eating does. So before we dive into all that eating can and should be, and we'll get there, I just want to begin by asking you: when it comes to eating in America these days, how are we doing?
Norman Wirzba: Yeah, I think one thing that's really important for people to understand is that we're in such a new situation in the history of humanity, where many people don't know the context of their eating. And what I mean by that is we think about eating primarily as the ingestion of a commodity or a product that we purchased at a store. And this is such a new experience in the history of humanity because people for so very long have either hunted or gathered or grown their own food. And so their understanding of what food is is much deeper, much richer and much more textured.
And so when you're reduced to being primarily a shopper—and then if you add to that changing economic contexts in which people don't have a whole lot of self-determination or even communal determination about what they're going to eat—they feel themselves to be pretty isolated from the eating action understood in this much broader sense. And so they don't really know what it is that they're doing. It's about ingesting the fuel that we need to keep us going on our paces. And as a result, so much of the eating is not very mindful, if you want to use that term. And we're not encouraged to think that much about our food: where it comes from, what it's doing to our communities, and what it's doing to the habitats that grow them.
Matt Croasmun: Yeah. Sometimes I feel like I want not to think about, where this food came from because I think maybe a lot of us have a sort of like looming sense of guilt, maybe even about like where our food comes from.
Norman Wirzba: Yeah. And our food industry often doesn't want us to know where the food's coming from. So when I taught a class on food, I would often have students do a little reporting where they figure out a snack food that they love to eat—do the history of how it came to be. And so many reported how hard it was to get that story. So there's a lot of anonymity and also a lot of ignorance in the eating that we do.
Matt Croasmun: Yeah. I think Mark Bittman had a recent piece in the New York Times, "Why Your New Year's Diet is Doomed" in which a lot of what he's arguing is, "Look, the whole industry is stacked against you; the industry is built to maximize the most profitable foods, not the foods that are going to—even in terms of just fueling your body, not the foods that are even going to feed you." Maybe that's a question we can wrestle with a bit: I feel like sometimes even this sort of like better angels that I hear promoted to me a lot are eat better fuel, like fuel that's Whole Foods. I think about things like, the advice, right? Eat food, not too much, mostly vegetables, or mostly plants. Now there, there can be richness of significance behind that, And Michael Pollan is going to give us some of that which I believe is where those rules come from. But even there, I feel like often that advice at least comes to me as, "Hey, you should just be more thoughtful and more strategic about eating more effective fuel for your body." So even the better angels sometimes feel like they're still flattened pictures of what eating can and should be.
Norman Wirzba: Yeah. And what's a little bit troubling about that is it makes it sound like good eating is a feature of personal virtue or vice. And I want to say that's not the best framework. There is obviously an element of personal virtue and vice involved here, but we have to understand that whatever we decide to do as individuals or as families, they're happening within larger systems, which are going to make it very difficult or morally even problematic.
So I don't tell people that the solution is to go shop at Whole Foods or go shop at farmer's markets, as much as I think farmer's markets are really great things. I start telling people "let's talk about the farm bill; let's talk about land management practices" because we're facing a situation where healthy food is so expensive. And the question is why or why is it that so many of the people who are financially struggling because they're just, making a minimum wage or they're working three or four jobs—to tell them that they should spend more money on food—it's just wrong to suggest that. So we have to start thinking about systems, political policies that drive the way we have food produced, the way we have food priced, what's made available and why. These are much larger questions than simply whether it's personally virtuous or vicious for us to be eating this or that food.
Matt Croasmun: Yeah, it strikes me that food is just one of—a central one, but just one of many examples in our world where virtue has become the latest sort of luxury good. If you have a lot of money, like you can purchase like virtuous living that's just not accessible to those economic situations.
Norman Wirzba: Exactly. And it's a reflection too about how food has become something very different, right? We think that food is supposed to be the means of life, which is a huge thing to say, right? If you don't eat, you don't live. So that makes food absolutely central to human flourishing. But if you make food a commodity that is not subject to the biological ecological social dictates of life, and instead make it serve balance sheets, you've put food in an entirely different register, operating according to different kinds of logics. And it's the logics that I think are so important for us to be clear about. I can give examples about how when people understand what the end game of this logic is, they would see how sinister the food system really has become.
Matt Croasmun: So, if I'm following you right, then this is a mess that we probably can't eat our way out of. Is that right to say?
Norman Wirzba: I would say we can certainly make eating of focus as a way to help us understand what needs to happen to get out of this. So just to give an example about what I just said of how the logic of a market commodity system for food can be so sinister. From a straight up financial point of view, one of the problems with food is that people can only eat so much and then they're full. And that means that if you're a provider or producer, you can only sell so much because a person can only eat that much.
One of the things that they've done to try to help themselves is preservatives, so you can buy a lot and it can sit in the pantry for months, even years. This is a new thing, folks. People could not do this before, but now they can. So that's one way that market approaches have helped us understand food as a commodity. But what's become much more recent is the idea of producing so-called foods that are designed to taste good in your mouth, but cannot be digested. They pass through your body. Now, what that means is you can sell an unlimited product here because it never brings you to satiation. You're never full, so you can keep on buying it. And that shows you how a food is no longer a food.
If you think that food is primarily to be digested in the maintenance of a human life or some other creaturely life, now we've got a food that is in principle in digestible. That's what this logic is about. And so you begin to understand that when food in other contexts might be the cook or the grower’s declaration to you, "I love you; I want to nurture you with this," now we've got a food that signals not "I love you," but "I want to make as much money from you as I can."
And when people begin to realize how a system is being developed to really take advantage of you as a unit of consumption, then people might say, "Oh, wait a minute, this logic when thoroughly or rigorously applied takes us to some pretty scary places.
Matt Croasmun: We started with the problem which is sometimes dangerous. So I want to move us quickly. I often tell my students, not the good is not the good; the opposite of what is wrong is not necessarily a solution. So in your work, you're really careful about this, right? Trying to build a holistic sort of picture of what eating is for, its role in a holistic account of a flourishing life. And one of the ways that you do this is you think really carefully about Eucharist, thinking about that particularly as a Christian site. So what can we learn from the Eucharist that actually might shape all of our eating?
Norman Wirzba: Yeah. And here, I think I want to just register a little bit of caution because the temptation is to think that the Eucharist in some way will solve our problems, and then we think we know what we mean by the Eucharist and I'm not so sure that we often do. One of the things that was motivating me in this book, Food and Faith, was to have a way of approaching food with a larger framework and view, and that framework for me was membership. How does eating implicate us in a membership, but also how does it position us within a membership in which we understand how all of our living depends upon the receiving and giving up the gifts of life and death? And that's the fundamental thing that was driving that project.
And when you. Frame it that way, the Eucharist now takes on a different register because now the Eucharist is fundamentally about how do you learn to receive. That is not a simple thing because most of us don't want to acknowledge, first of all, that we're very needy, that we're not independent, that we can't be autarchic even, but eating is the daily reminder that we need, that we are supremely vulnerable beings. And so coming to terms with that is not easy. And then when you think about eating in the much larger frame, which includes the growing or the harvesting, the cooking, the distribution of food and all of that, then you discover it's even more fraught because you're constantly running into your own ignorance, your own impotence about whether or not the food will grow, whether it will get to where it needs to get and so forth.
So membership is not a cozy place to be. The membership can be really frustrating because you're dealing with animals that are not compliant. You're dealing with weather systems that are not cooperative and the people who come to your table, they may be the most aggravating people you can imagine. So how do you learn to live into that membership? And this is where I think the Eucharist—what it tries to do, I would hope ideally, is it reframes and reorients people's imaginations in a way so that Christ in his ways of being with others—how did he deal with people who were contrary? How did he deal with people who were needy? How did he deal with people who are violent? He becomes an inspiration at the most visceral level when we consume Jesus as the bread of life so that we can position and orient ourselves. Vis-a-vis the membership in a different sort of way, a more hospitable way, a more forgiving way, merciful way or something of that sort.
And here Paul's description in Galatians of the fruit of the Spirit, about love, patience, gentleness, right? These become the fruit that ought to be animating the way we relate to the membership, but that's so hard to do because if you're a gardener, there are plenty of times you do not want to be patient. You do not want to be gentle and you do not want to exercise self-control, just to pick some of those fruits that Paul mentioned.
Matt Croasmun: This membership that you talk about, it reminds me of Willie Jennings' language of mutual belonging in these big networks. And he talks about even a sort of fabric of belonging that exists prior to any individual relationship on which we build these relationships. And as you do take the doctrine of creation really as primary here that those net network of memberships—and as a Paul scholar, I love that language because we are members of one another. This is very familiar and I think really powerful language. One of the things that you draw my mind to is the thought that I am a member. I'm connected to geographies that are hidden from me when I eat. In the world that I eat in, I'm connected to geographies that I know not of, and as you say, it could even be hard for me to find out what geographies I'm connected to, what people I'm connected to. How do we navigate that as we begin to open our eyes, like, "Oh this eating of this food implicates all of these geographies that are flung, all of these people that are—and maybe even actively—hidden from me"? How do we think about those sorts of memberships?
Norman Wirzba: That's a great question, Matt. And it's a difficult one. And I think if we start with Willie's point about mutual belonging, which I think is spot on—belonging is a language that is fundamentally different than simply inclusion. So belonging requires us to understand something about not just our obligations to each other, but our forms of receptivity to each other. And that requires forms of attention that you need to be habituated into, that you need to be educated into. And one of the things that we don't do very good work in is how do we prepare people to be attentive to the places in which they live. How do we help people be attentive to the sources of their own livelihoods?
So you talk about finding our geographies to be alien. I think that's absolutely the right characterization for many people. You can be in a neighborhood or in a town or in a region and have lived there for a couple of decades and not really even know where you are, not even know your watershed, not even knowing what is the sort of soil quality where you are so that if you decide you want to grow something, what does it take, or are there, weather zones that you need to pay attention to because there are frost cycles that will happen; and you know that this vegetable or this fruit won't grow here. And what that does to us is it—and this is really fundamental I think—is it creates in us a kind of loneliness. We don't feel that we belong because we don't understand how we can be a blessing to where we are or how where we are is a blessing to us.
Robin Kimmer has this wonderful description in her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, where she talks about how the white presence in America has always been one in which this is not home. It's a place where we're coming to privatize, accumulate the wealth or extract the wealth, and then go on to the next place to do the same thing. And she says, "What that has done is it has created in us the sense that the land that we live on and are blessed by does not love us." And she asked, "What does that do to people when they know that the land doesn't love them?" We know what happens usually, not always consciously, but we know what it's like to grow up in a social context where we don't feel loved. Think about the number of young people who never felt loved by their parents, and then all the compensatory schemes they have to develop to try to feel that they matter. Think about what this means now if you take it to the register of our ecological context, not just the social context. To know that we live in a world—a physical, material and bodied world—and not sense the love that's happening there is to find ourselves alienated at a deeply fundamental level. And it's not always conscious, but it still works itself out in subterranean ways.
And there's a theological register that goes with this too. Because from a Christian—not just Christian but also Jewish and Muslim position—fundamental to the way we talk about our world is that it's made and loved by God. So what we're depriving ourselves when we don't understand the love of the land is we also deprive ourselves of the love of God that is always animating through the land to us.
Matt Croasmun: Robin Kimmer's work—just to shout out for our podcast listeners, if you don't know her, that book, you should all go check it out. I'm so glad that you brought it up. But invoking her work, invoking Willie's work brings up the question to what extent race is central to this sort of alienation from land and our disordered relationship to food. And it was something that came up for me in reading some of your reflections in your last chapter about imagining eating in heaven. You take up some of these concerns that—as you point out, NT Wright and others have raised these concerns about denigration of the body in sort of contemporary America, especially American but it's the Atlantic Christian thought. And it does seem very connected here. You might fuel a body that you're going to use for a little bit and then ditch when your soul goes to heaven or whatever. You might have these sorts of thought that alienation from the body is not really a problem if you think of the body in these sorts of denigrated ways. To what extend do you think that denigrated posture towards the body, especially in the American context—is there a racial component to that alienation from the body? I wonder if you'd say a little bit about that.
Norman Wirzba: Yeah, absolutely. You're spot on it. And here it's so important to register that from the earliest stages in agricultural production, there has been the coercion of other bodies to make productivity happen. So you can't tell the story of agriculture apart from the story of slavery. The slavery has taken many different forms, obviously, but there's no question that when you do agricultural labor, you're using your body in a way to extract the livelihood, or the sources of livelihood that make that body function.
And this is difficult, painful, frustrating work. And so the kind of—revulsion is maybe too strong of a word, but certainly the kind of objection that many people feel to embodiment has roots in physical labor. Physical labor is hard. It's really hard because you're trying to figure out "do I have the skillset to do what I need to do." When you engage in physical labor with land, with other creatures, whether it's plants or animals, you're constantly coming up against frustration because the world is not always amenable to what you want to do with it. And so physical labor becomes sometimes a conflict with the land or with other bodies. And in the face of that kind of conflict, that kind of frustration, that sense of even one's impotence in the face of other bodies, we take flight away. And so we coerce other bodies to do the physical work that we don't want to do.
And this is so important to understand because in the American context in particular, if you read about the development of the Eastern Seaboard, for instance, it was entirely dependent upon forced labor, absolutely dependent on forced labor, because what was needing to happen is forest needed to be cleared, swamps needed to be drained, land needed to be brought into cultivation. And it's under the threat of violence how that happened, and the racial dimension toward this, of course, there's so much to be said about how bodies then come to be characterized as suitable for particular forms of labor. The fact that we even call it white collar labor—that's the stuff that means you never use your hands to do anything. And this ought to be deeply troubling from a theological point of view because the first description of the human vocation is to take care of the world, is to take care of the garden. And that means you got to bring your body into engagement with the other bodies that are going to nurture you.
Matt Croasmun: This is so helpful, and it reminds me of so many things that I've been thinking about as we've been in this COVID pandemic—this categorization of different bodies and how they're used. I think of the category of the essential worker that essentially what we're describing here is you always have to ask what's not being said with the essential worker, those of us who are inessential or something. But it's saying something about those of us—and I say this as someone recording this podcast from my home office—have abstracted our bodies from the world to the extent to which we can continue and do all of our labor—just about all of it—disengaged bodily from the world.
But of course, that's just always going to be a fiction because we can imagine ourselves and live these sorts of lives only because we also cultivate at the same time these dependencies on these other bodies, who now in this moment we recognize—or maybe name—in a really revealing way as, "Oh, these are the essential workers; these are the ones who maintain my bodily connection to the world." Forget all the bodies I've already ignored when I buy my winter produce here in New England. I figure most of the fruit I eat these days comes from Chile and there's all sorts of labor I never see. Now there's an essential worker whom I can pay to go gather it from the grocery store and bring it here.
I think to me, it's another sort of realization of—oh, how we've thought about labor and the ways that we are making these negotiations continue to live out a fantasy of disengagement and disembodiment in the world, and the ways that actually is just transferring our embodiment into this our fantasy of independence, which is actually a different mode of interdependence and of oppressive dependence.
Norman Wirzba: Yeah, that's exactly right. And I think the fact that we now understand in the theoretical mode, at least, that there are essential workers is already an admission about how we are so disconnected from our own bodies because our own bodies obviously are going to be the ways through which we do the very basic thing, whether it's hunting, whether it's gathering, whether it's foraging, whether it's gardening, whether it's farming, whether it's even cooking. Those become embodied actions that because we've separated ourselves from, we live in a world but we don't really know where we are. We don't really know what are the requirements for us to be able to do the things that we most need to do for very long.
And what's gotten so many people frightened is they've realized early on, say last spring, what about all these meat processing facilities where we've got workers? What if they can't work? And people started to say, "But I won't get my hamburgers then." And they start to panic because everybody wants to eat. Most people want to eat. I know some people have very conflicted relationship with food. But for the most part we want to eat, but then we realize we really don't know what's required for us to have hamburgers, apple pie, whatever. And we don't want to know because to have to know these things now implicates us in the ways that we shop for what we eat, and maybe who we share the food with, and things of that sort. Eating is, again I think, a wonderful way for people to realize how deeply through their bodies, through forms of labor, they are stitched into a world that is very complex, that is always vulnerable, but is also susceptible to something that we call delectable food, or a fabulous delicious meal. That's one of the things that I think is important for us to understand, and this comes back to something we were talking about earlier. We could have imagined God creating a world in which no creature has to eat because eating is messy. Eating can be frustrating. But God creates a world in which creatures eat in part because you can enjoy a fabulous meal.
When you talk to people and you say "what are some of the best memories of your own life," it's striking for how many of them food is deeply connected to it. And I think the reason is that when you're in a home or with some people, and you're eating a meal that someone has prepared for you, what's being communicated to you is that you matter, and that there's something hospitable about the action of preparing food, inviting someone to enjoy it with you, and then to celebrate the life that you share together.
And I think, again, if we want to put this in a theological way, one of the best ways to describe what God is doing in creating a world at all is exhibiting what this divine hospitality has looked like from the beginning, which is to say that God makes room for a world to be, invites the creatures of that world into the divine hospitality, so as to nurture them to live into the fullness of their lives. So this is a non-coercive, this is a welcoming, and it's a nurturing place that God creates. and that is, I think, a guiding image that would be helpful for us to retain because in so far as we eat in a way that witnesses to God's own hospitality, we might become a more nurturing, welcoming, liberating presence for others at the same time.
Matt Croasmun: It brings us to one of the core framings of the problem as it were that I've really appreciated about your work that you begin by saying the world is given to us; it's just given; it pushes back on us; it's real. But a truthful description of the world significance isn't given alongside it. I love that as a sort of framing of this is a predicament of being a human. We're in this world. It's given to us, but a truthful description of its significance is not given alongside it. Is that part of what theology is for, trying to discern, figure out that sort of truthful description of the significance of the world?
Norman Wirzba: I think so. And there are many voices that can be brought to bear on how do we understand significance. And this is no small thing because you're absolutely right to say when you're in a world, you don't know what it means. You don't know what it's for. Why is it even here? And if you start with the language of gift, it sounds really wonderful to say that food is a sacred gift or it is God's gift given to us. I use that kind of language. God says to us that food is God's love made delicious, I say sometimes. That sounds really wonderful except we all have the experience of being given a gift and we don't want the gift, or we have the experience of receiving a gift and we don't know what to do with it. But the giver clearly thought this was worth giving to us and so we're then stuck trying to figure out, "okay, a gift has been given now what do we do with it?"
And what I would say is we need to have people in conversation with each other, helping us figure out significance. And one of the ways significance isn't simply arbitrarily assigned to things—and this is where the question of labor, I think, is really important. As we join our bodies, our skill, our attention, our imaginations to what eating involves us in—so that means growing, harvesting, cooking, distributing, sharing all the rest of that—you begin to see the world with some greater depth. And what I worry about is that so often when we are simply reduced to being the shoppers of food, or we're eating in ways where we go through a drive-through and it's really mindless eating, what we're depriving ourselves is the kind of action, the kind of embodied activity that draws us into the world so that we might come to appreciate something of the world's gratuity and grace.
To talk about the significance of life or the significance of food, you give up on comprehension. We don't comprehend much of anything because first of all, if it's truly a gift, it comes from beyond our knowing and from beyond our control. And so when you're in this space that's a kind of unknowing space, you learn that you have to submit yourself to what we might call the grace of the world. And that ought to cause in us a kind of humble character. It ought to help us see that what we're receiving deserves our attention and respect, but also is worth cherishing because even if we don't understand the gift of food and all that it entails, we at least know that by eating it, we can continue to live, and we know that by sharing it, we can contribute to the wellbeing of others.
We don't often know what we're doing. I can't know the full significance even of a loaf of bread because what's going on in a loaf of bread involves the histories of ecological processes and agricultural practices and farm policy and, the insights of bakers. And you got to love bakers when you have a good piece of bread because you know that there's such artistry here, but so much of the artistry again happens in this realm where we don't have full comprehension. And so significance is absolutely important, but we don't ever have comprehension as we're trying to understand the significance of what we do.
Matt Croasmun: One of the directors of the Yale farm, which is a maybe grandiose named for an acre of land—one of the things he once said to my students in my presence was that you have to understand that all eating involves death. As we think about food as gift, how do we square this gift that always in some sense entails death?
Norman Wirzba: Yeah, that's a spot-on question and, there are lots of ways to talk about this. But if we start just on the social level, maybe you've had the experience of witnessing the birth of your child, and this child comes home and you're overwhelmed with this prospect of a new life in your family, and you don't know what to do because it's mysterious, it's unnerving, it's beautiful, it's such a mixed bag of what you're feeling. And then one day you realize this child could die and you realize, okay, this gift which is the most amazing thing that has happened in our family is also supremely vulnerable. And the vulnerability doesn't count against it. The vulnerability in a way helps us see how all the more important it is for us to learn to cherish and to learn the very important skills of care so that when we do live together, we know that we need to relish the gift. Or putting it in an eating way, we need to savor the gift because we know it could just as well not be.
And this draws us to drive deeply into the heart of how eating is one of the best ways to describe what I call humanity's creaturely condition. And the fact that we've done so much in our culture to hide death, to hide vulnerability—these are things we don't talk about; they're certainly not things that we celebrate. Who wants to celebrate their vulnerability? But unless we're able to talk about the good of our need, the good of our vulnerability, we're not going to be able to help each other very much figure out the skills and the practices and the institutional forms and even the public policies that will better situate people to take care of life's vulnerabilities and the vulnerabilities of places.
I think one of the things that we can say about where we are in this Anthropocene moment is we've just assumed an earth that is indestructible. We can do anything we want and it will just be fine. Everything will just keep ongoing as it is. And what we're discovering is how incredibly arrogant that position has been, but also how incredibly ignorant that assumption has been because one of the things that you learn from peasant communities historically across the world is that the first virtue of a human being is humility, which is to say that you don't know enough about what will make a crop mature, or what will make it possible for us to assure that there will be meat because we could hunt or that there will be fruit because we could forage. None of these things should be taken for granted.
And so it positions people with a posture that says, "Because I don't know the context of my own livelihood well enough, and because I understand how vulnerable these contexts are, I have to live in these contexts now in a more charitable, a more humble, a more attentive and patient way. And if we're going to do anything, I think, to address this larger cultural moment that we're in now, where so many people are sensing kind of eco-apocalypse, we need to start talking about not just the personal virtues of humility, but what would policy look like that acknowledged the vulnerability of the world, the vulnerability of communities, and took full account of the histories of violence that we have put upon world and community to try to shield ourselves from that vulnerability.
Matt Croasmun: I wonder if you'd be willing to walk us through a bit of—maybe you could do like an imaginative exercise here—if you could walk us through a sort of faithful flourishing approach to food, maybe the story of a meal. Could you walk us through the story of a good meal in its cultivating, its growing, its cooking, the gathering involved, the eating, the enjoying the nourishing.
Norman Wirzba: How much time we got here? We can go for a long time here. I don't want to say that there's a one way to do this because the contexts of people are so vastly different, right? Just like you, I've got this very cushy, comfortable job where I can be at home and do all I need to do. And so somebody who's a migrant, agricultural worker, their experience is going to be vastly different. And so I don't want to homogenize people's experience here. But I think one of the things that I would say we want to bring as a framing mechanism for all of this is something else that I think we haven't really touched on, but is so important. And this is this idea of Sabbath.
Sabbath is all about time and it's also all about place. And what we learned from the Sabbath as the culmination of creation is to realize that the whole point of it all is to be able to rest in the goodness and love of the world that God shows in creating it. And that requires us, first of all and always, to slow down. So if we're trying to imagine a lovely meal in which the life and the death of what's consumed is fully honored, and in which we can say an authentic amen to God because we know that the food has been raised in a way that honors its life, I think what we're talking about is a kind of thoughtfulness and a kind of intention.
If we think about a particular meal, we're going to ask serious questions about how is it sourced. Who grew the food? Who hunted the food? Who foraged the food—whatever is the place that you are living in. And then you start to think very carefully about who do you want to have at the table.
Matt Croasmun: That's the crucial question so often in the gospels for Jesus: who's here? Who got invited?
Norman Wirzba: Yeah, exactly. And then the question is if I'm inviting these people to the table, how do I honor their lives? Because cooking is a declaration of love, and that means that you want to be able to say—when that person comes through the door and sits at your table, you want to be able to say, "I love you; I value your life and I want you to be nurtured; I want you to be celebrated and I want you to be happy." So you're gonna make food that is good for them. You're gonna make food that is delicious.
And we'll acknowledge it doesn't mean fancy. And this is also important. It's not fancy food we're talking about, but good food lovingly prepared can be very simple, but what that does then is it creates a context in which people understand that the world is a welcoming place, that life has always proceeded along the lines of hospitality. And I know that this is difficult for us when we live in a cultural context where the imaginaries we have are so shaped by nature red in tooth and claw, and so it's a vicious realm. It's all about survival.
And I think what eating and cooking do is they actually cause us to stop and say, maybe it's not all vicious. Maybe our living together can also be a celebration. And this is not naive because Darwin looks at the world and—I'm not knocking Darwin here because he gave us so many valuable insights—but what we understand too from indigenous cultures is that when they look at a world, they don't see a scene of unrelenting competition and struggle. They also see kinship. They see community. And I think we need to understand that both of these exist together and that in the eating that we do, there's going to be competition, frustration, all that kind of stuff.
But there's also an opportunity for us to create what Heschel describes beautifully as an opening for the eternal in time, where we begin to see that this world as made by God and as continually loved by God is for us also to celebrate and to experience in the mode of rest and delight. But for us to get to some sort of Sabbath sensibility, we really need to have a kind of interruption in the sort of frantic modes of cultural production, where it's all about doing more, having more. And we need to actually say, no, we're going to stop. We're going to come and put a pause here, and ask again, how can we honor the life. How can we celebrate the life that feeds us? The places that feed us? The workers that feed us? The farmers that feed us? The fisher people and the hunters that feed us? How are we going to celebrate all of that in the meal that we're going to prepare for this group of people that we also want to celebrate? That's a pretty involved affair and that's why, I recommend that people that they start simple, just make a very simple meal soup and bread or something like that, because it'll make it a lot easier for you to figure out the sources of that maybe. But then invite some people over and just come into it with this aim of wanting to celebrate the goodness of the world and then see what that does and see what it invites you to do following.
Matt Croasmun: Norman, thank you so much. I think that's a beautiful picture of the world as God's gift to us, of the world that remains mysterious to us, a world in which we can be members of one another. So thank you so much.
Norman Wirzba: Thank you, Matt. This was a great conversation to have.
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologian, Norman Wirzba with Biblical scholar, Matt Croasmun. I'm Evan Rosa, and I edited and produced the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu. We produce new episode every Saturday and you can subscribe through any podcast app. We're grateful that you're listening to this podcast.
We're passionate about making this work consistently accessible to people who are genuinely concerned about the viability of faith in a world, racked with division, contested views about what it means to be human and what it means to live life. If you're in a position to support our show financially, please consider partnering with us. We rely on the generosity of individuals like you to make our work possible. And if you're not, please continue listening and engaging the content. Let us know what you're interested in. We're grateful that you're listening. But if you can give, if you're truly passionate about supporting podcasting that's all about pursuing really living lives that are worthy of our humanity, then consider a gift to the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. Visit faith.yale.edu/give. It's our joy to bring these shows to you. We'd invite you to bring that same joy in supporting this work. As always, thanks for listening, and we'll be back with more next week.