July 07, 2013

Guilt? and Food

I begin this post with an actual quote from a real live person on my facebook wall. I've blacked out the names and photos, to hide their secret identities. Their identities aren't the interesting part: the interesting part is the comment, which remains un-blacked.

The person posting this is talking about something that is very common these days: feeling guilt because of what we eat. This is so common, in fact, that I probably don't need to describe an example scenario... But I want to make up a scenario, so here one is, anyway:

[Internal Monologue]"Oh, man, that chocolate looks so tasty. You know, I can just imagine the taste... But no, it's got a lot of fat and sugar, I really shouldn't. But it looks so tasty. Just look at the colors, the texture seems amazing. Ok, just a little... Ok, the whole thing. Oh, wow, I ate the whole thing. Man, I shouldn't have done that..."

That sound familiar? There's a couple things to notice in this monologue that are probably typical, and show why we feel guilty when we eat stuff like chocolate. The first is the feeling of guilt, the nagging idea that I shouldn't, starts before we begin to eat. That makes it seem to me like it's a function of conscience: we feel it against our conscience to eat sugary things. The second thing to notice is the reasons why we shouldn't eat it: it has fat and sugar, two things that we've been told are bad for us. Thus, the nutritional content of the foods we eat has made it on to our moral compass: we, as a culture, consider our nutrition as a moral activity. This is pretty clear, looking at the action from this perspective: we attach moral valuation, a "good" or "bad," to the eating of certain foods depending on their apparent nutritional value. We think about our food morally. Is that a good or bad thing?

First, let's look at the ways that it could be good. My initial reaction is to recall the general Christian idea that every choice is a moral choice. According to the theology of St. Paul, every step, every breath, and every action, no matter how small, must be done explicitly for the sake of Christ. "For you have been bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God with your body." [1 Cor 6:20] Because Jesus died for us, and now lives in us, we are required to witness to Him in every action we make, even our bodily functions like choosing what to eat. The Christian, then, chooses his diet according to the needs of his evangelizing mission. He needs to be strengthened by food to accomplish his tasks, but also needs to remain detached from gluttony in order to stay focused on his mission. Further, the good Christian needs to eat or drink the right things in order not to offend people. Some examples are being able to appreciate finer dining in order to converse with upper-class people who need evangelizing, or also to be able to abstain from pork in order to reach Jews and Muslims, or also to put up with low-quality fare while serving the poor. Thus, what foods we eat, and our ability to use food to reach people, are all moral things, which need to be taken into account when we are looking at menus and when we grocery shop.

How our food is made also should register on a moral level. If animals should be raised kindly before they are eaten, it is our responsibility as the eater to make sure the eaten animal is thus treated. If workers should be paid enough to live on, it is our responsibility as customers to support restaurants who ethically pay their servers and chefs. In these, and many other ways, the production of our food, whether we do it ourselves or pay someone else to do it, matters. We cannot support immorality as we go about eating.

Food, for Christians, also holds a deeper significance. Meals in particular serve as a sign of the shared communion we have as brothers and sisters in Christ through His Church. By eating together at any time, we signify by our actions the heavenly banquet. This is made possible in, through, and by the Eucharist. The Eucharist, of course, is the ultimate banquet at which we, Christ's body, are made one. Because of this shared Communion, all of our meals are sacred as sacramentals pointing to the Sacrament by which we are saved. Thus, how and when we eat are important. Eating together, with a prayer of consecration, has more symbolic and communal value than eating quickly and alone in a rush to get somewhere.

This communal aspect of food can be further realized in the context of the Church's feasts and fasts. By abstaining from food on a Friday in Lent, we join with the Church by our action of not eating as much. When we rejoice with our families on Easter with food, we join in the Church's joy and feasting, foreshadowing the eternal, happy banquet of Heaven. Certain foods, moreover, lend themselves symbolically to this participation in the Church year: pies make for good celebration, while bread and water make for good fasting. Fasting and feasting in this way further adds to the signifying power of food.

This lengthy look at the morality of food and eating is a bit more in-depth than what normally goes through our heads when we eat that "Killer Brownie." In fact, the valuations we often make are incomplete when compared to the fuller description I just made. We typically don't judge our food in the eschatological and sacramental sense. We don't think of the ultimate meaning of food, instead we think of it nutritionally and in terms of how it will affect our appearance. These two are differently problematic, and I'll treat them separately. Finally, the way we market food as "sinful" or "killer" is also detrimental, and as a result I'll close this article by talking about what kind of damage that can do.

First, considering our food as ethical only in the context of nutrition restricts our ethical judgement to the material realm. It takes an action which is communal, spiritual, and sacramental in nature and views it through the narrow lens of proteins, fats, and sugars. Thus, judging food according to nutrition is important: we need to be healthy, both to honor our bodies as good, created things and as temples of the Holy Spirit. However, we need to think about food more deeply. We need to think of how our eating habits affect our practice of the virtue temperance; how our habits of purchasing food affects the global economy and the practice of the virtue justice; and how our habits of how and when we eat accords with the Church's communal practice of solidarity and community. Thus, thinking about food only as nutrition fails to see the bigger picture.

Second, reducing the ethical discussion of food to how it affects our appearance insidiously contributes to the lie in American culture that human value comes from physical appearance. Not only is counting calories to earn that smaller dress size or that buff physique a materialistic and shallow reduction, but it also encourages the psychological evil of eating disorders, which plague our country. That feeling of guilt can become so strong that, in order to preserve our vanity, we sacrifice our health. These conditions are terrible, and deserve the attention, care, and treatment necessary to cure them. They also demand that we, as a culture, need to stop thinking about food in such a way that it becomes a means to further our vanity.

Finally, I feel the need to speak to a tendency in the dessert industry to advertise things as "sinful." Although perhaps not intentionally so, this advertising tactic is detrimental, vicious, and ultimately signifies a skewed view of moral reality. Advertising a brownie as "Sinful," or advertising a candy as "Temptation," recognizes that such views are commonly seen as against our conscience, and then prompts us to ignore our conscience and indulge anyway. The "Sinful Chocolate," in not so many words, entices us to disregard our moral judgements, the honest decisions of our conscience, and do what we feel is wrong because it is pleasurable. Insidiously, underhandedly, and greedily, these advertisers are making the idea of sin sound attractive.

Further, this method of advertisement encourages the idea that moral rules are just something we make ourselves do to deny ourselves happiness. Instead of thinking, with the Church, that the moral good is the thing which makes us happy, we are drawn by the idea of a "sinful chocolate" to think that the moral law is just in our way, keeping us from happiness. When we break our conscience, at the call of the advertiser of "sinful chocolate," we reinforce in our heads the deceit of the culture that God does not want us to be happy.

Food, thus, is much more significant than we would initially think. It rightly commands a place on our moral compass, not in a shallow way, and not in order to earn money for food companies, but as the builder of community among families and the Church, and as a symbol of the ultimate unity brought about by the Eucharist. Food deserves a place of honor among our activities during the day, and as a result we should examine our eating habits in order to give our food the symbolic and sacramental place it deserves. In a completely just and Christian society, our eating would be the outward material sign (sacrament!) of our internal unity, in every respect. At the very least, we are now able to reflect a little more deeply when we see a "Killer Brownie" at the grocery store.



Blogger Doug said...

I believe there is another dimension to food as well, that if festival. When we celebrate for the right reasons (praise and thanksgiving to God), at significant FEAST days or at every Sunday dinner, that thing which was called a killer brownie becomes the celebratory cake, part of the wholesome and right-focused giving of Glory to God.

July 07, 2013 8:42 PM  

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