Reavis Lecturer Norman Wirzba: A Theology of Eating

Norman Wirzba, the author of Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, was the featured speaker at the Campbell University Divinity School’s Reavis Lecture Series held Thursday in Butler Chapel. In his two one-hour talks, he challenged the audience—and Christians—to eat in a way that honors God and to be food for the world. In today’s “fast-food nation” that prioritizes cheap and convenient food, Wirzba said that “as food consumers, we have tremendous power about what kind of agriculture we are going to have. We can make a huge difference as consumers and I think certainly as Christians we ought to.”

Below are excerpts from both of his talks—which he titled “Living into Sabbath Delight”—that address the role that the Sabbath and reconciliation play in food and eating—and why what we eat, how we eat, and whom we eat with matter.

On why he wrote Food and Faith: A Theology of Food

What are you living for? What’s it all about? Why does any of it matter? We’re all very busy. Our to do-list is getting longer and longer. One of the reasons why I wrote the book was to figure out somehow to get my own life in order. Because it’s so easy to simply do do do and not ask the question why? What for? So the Sabbath becomes a way to talk about this most fundament reality and that is that the world and all that is in it exists for a reason—and that reason is the Sabbath.

On what is the Sabbath

God does not rest because God is tired; God does not rest because God wants to have an escape from the world or God wants to veg out or shut out that world. No, go back to the six days. After each of these days, we find the refrain repeatedly stated “And it was good. And it was good. And it was very good.” You could also translate it to “And it was beautiful. And it was beautiful. And it was very beautiful.” Now what is God seeing on this very first Sabbath sunrise? Well, God looks out into this new fresh creation and what God sees is God’s own love made physical. That’s why it’s all beautiful. That’s why it’s all good. God looking out on day seven sees God’s own love reflected back. So the last thing God would ever want to do is check out, veg out, or shut that creation out. What God is most about doing at this particular point, in God’s own rest, is fully delighting in the beauty and the love that is there to see… . [T]here’s a deep immersion into the world, because it’s in your immersion into the world that … God’s love is made physical—made material—and can become real for you.

On how to think about the Sabbath

Rather than thinking of rest as something like stoppage [or] checking out, think about rest as the opposite of restlessness. Rest does not mean doing nothing. Rest means putting a means to restlessness… .  Restlessness sets in the moment you think you are not good enough, the moment when you think what you have is not good enough, the moment when you think that people with whom you are with are not good enough. And this happens so easily. Our whole culture is premised on the idea that what you have isn’t good enough, so we’re constantly being told we need to have new, we need to have better, we need to have more… . And the question: why can’t we receive the people we are with, the places we are in, the things we have, as good enough? Could we understand that the place we are in is already a reflection of God’s love and if we were to devote ourselves to places we are in that we would discover that God’s revealed us in powerful new ways? Restlessness predisposes that the grass is always greener somewhere else. You know why it is? Because they are watering it and you’re not watering yours. So Sabbath becomes a way then to invite people to live into the world and experience it as the place where God loves is made visible and where God loves is made smell-able, audible, delectable… . That is what we ought to be trying to live toward. If Sabbath completes the creation, then our whole point in living in the creation is to experience delight together.

On the relationship between the Sabbath and reconciliation

The Sabbath is one of the key indicators as to whether or not we are pursuing our ministry of reconciliation… . The ministry of reconciliation is so important because when we are reconciled with each other, we can stand before each other without shame… .  [W]hen we’re not reconciled, … we can’t live in fullness with delight with others together. So we need, as Paul says, we need this ministry of reconciliation that is made possible by Jesus so that we can bear witness to what the love that the kingdom of God itself is.  Think about that. How can we make our lives so that we are a source of nurture and joy to others? So that when people see us they will say, “Here comes good news,” rather than “Here comes bad news”—because as Christians we are supposed to be witnesses of the gospel, which is supposed to be the good news of love and reconciliation… . Reconciliation plays directly into the Sabbath potential, because if Sabbath is about delight, reconciliation—the ministry of reconciliation—becomes one of our vital paths toward this experience that we are all called to.

On how food and eating can move us into Sabbath and reconciliation

Food has always been about fellowship… . A companion is literally someone you share bread with you, because we understand that when you share bread with somebody, some amazing things can happen. Think about how throughout history, the meal … has always been a marker of inclusion and exclusion… .Eating is a way to invite people in, but it’s also a way to move deeper in the world. It’s a holy mystery. Every time you eat, you bite into mysteries that far exceed your comprehension. Think about the fact that in order for you to eat, others must die.  … Eating always implicates in processes of life and death. And the question is how do we make ourselves worthy of another?

On how to be worthy of another and be a more grateful eater

Return to the garden. I think we need to find ways to bring it back to our imaginations, because so much happens in a garden. We should be shocked that God is described as a gardener. We should also be shocked that the world is described as a garden—not a dump, not a warehouse—but a garden. And thirdly, we should be astounded it was created by God out of the ground and then he told to go into the garden and to till and keep it. This is the original vocational invitation that human beings had. Before we are told to do anything else, we are told to take care of the garden. And the question would be why does that matter? … .  It is the original vocation because by gardening, we learn to participate in God’s own life. God’s relationship to the world is as a gardeners’ relationship to a garden. That means that God’s relationship to the world is one of constant vigilance, constant patience, constant nurture, constant delight in the beautiful things that can grow out of it. To be a gardener is really hard work; it requires a lot of intelligence, but the garden is also a place where we learn so much about the character of the world and the vulnerability of the gifts we need every day.

On the state of the “garden” today

When we go into a grocery today, we think the food will always be there, and when you’re in the garden, you realize that isn’t necessarily so. You realize food is a precious, delectable gift, and it’s always a fragile, vulnerable gift. We don’t know if it will always be there. We can do everything we think that is right to do [and still] there will be rodents, there will be drought, there will be hail. You just don’t know, and going into the garden and working there becomes a profound experience because it brings you face to face with your own impotence and your own ignored. You can’t make food grow. You can’t make food go to harvest. All you can do is attempt to because whatever food comes your way is the grace of God. We have the most naïve way of thinking about eating today in our urbanized, globalized culture… .

If you start to explore where your food comes from, you’ll find that there so much abuse going on. Think about soil. This part of the world, in the last 100 years, we’ve lost nine inches of top soil—all the way from Virginia to Georgia, the Piedmont. It’s all gone. Our water is being degraded everywhere…  . We want our food to be cheap, and our desire to eat food means the system of agriculture that gives us this cheap food is a system that is premised upon degradation. It has to be that way. How else are you going to have food so cheaply? Colossians speaks of the good news that has been proclaimed ot every creature. Mark’s gospel ends with the mandate to proclaim the good news to every creature. With our eating, we have made ourselves bad news in the world. That’s the reality of today’s industrial system. We are all bad news… .One of the best places we can learn about what real good Christian eating looks like is to go to the Lord’s Supper. 

On what to learn about eating from the Lord’s Supper

Look at the John gospel. John 6 is a very important passage. [It says] Jesus is the bread of life… . Eating serves as a witness for God’s presence in the world.Most of the bread we eat, it comes in, it gets digested, it’s absorbed into us; but Jesus as the eternal bread is different, because Jesus as the eternal bread does not get digested. Instead, it transforms us because it’s present within us. And in transforming us from inside what’s possible is what Paul describes, “It’s no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”  We go to the Lord’s table, not because it’s a historical curiosity, but so that we can eat Jesus, so he enters into us, and so he can transform us from within—and in that transformation release us to continue his loving and empowering presence in the world. John 6 is telling us that Jesus is our nurture, and we eat Jesus so we can be God’s nurture to the world. Jesus is our food so that we can be food for the world.

On how to be food for the world

Wirzba offered the following practical suggestions on how to eat well and on how to be food for the world:

  • Become more educated about how the food system works. “Today’s eaters are the most ignorant the world has ever known; we don’t have to be ignorant. There is a lot of good information out there for us to understand how the food system we have came to be and what its practical effects are.”
  •  Make choices about eating better. “We can decide that we are going to find the farmers who are growing the food in a way that honors the land and the animals and the workers, and we can start to support them rather than the places that don’t honor the life of these other creatures. We should become more educated about the agricultural efforts in this area that are trying to honor the life forms God has given us.”
  • Become more involved in the growing of your own food. “I’m not nearly smart enough to grow all my own food to eat, but it’s important for me to have a garden to remind myself constantly about my own impotence and ignorance, so we can become more humble, more grateful eaters.
  • Eat together more. “The reason why eating together matters so much is because it becomes the place where you the church’s ministry happens. That’s where you learn this person is ill and needs help. This is where you learn this person’s tractor is broken; can someone help him fix it? Need and help come together around the table.”

About Norman Wirzba: He is a research professor of theology, ecology and rural life at the Duke Divinity School and a research professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. His research interests focus on the stewardship of God’s creation, agrarian studies, and the relationship among place, land, community, church and human thriving. Wirzba’s most recent book is Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating. His other works include The Paradise of God: Renewing Religion in an Ecological Age and Living the Sabbath: Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight.

About the Reavis Lecture Series: L.B. and Mabel Reavis established the L.B. and Mabel Reavis Professorship and Scholarship program at Campbell in 1991 to promote the ministries of evangelism and church growth. Funding from the program supports the Reavis Lecture Series, which brings distinguished scholars and Christian leaders to campus each year to speak on topics related to evangelism and church growth.

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